Between June and August, we increased web traffic to our eight local home design sites by 23% without spending an extra cent on Search Engine Marketing, changing our web marketing strategy, altering our print approach or targeting specific traffic gains.
We accomplished the increase simply by adopting a content-sharing model and increasing our competencies with social media tools.
Over the past six weeks, I conducted four web training sessions with the content teams at our Home Design titles designed to give them access to and practice with simple tools and strategies for building a content-sharing process. (I gave a high-level summary of this process here in July.)
The context for this shift in approach is the recognition that as traditional publishers our strategies for developing and distributing content are lacking the attributes of engagement and interaction that are such fundamental strengths of the web. To illustrate this weakness, we discussed the cycle of consumer engagement with content (represented in the illustration to the right). As publishers, we have traditionally measured our success in engagement by factors that maintain distance from the consumer. If a reader acts on our content, or shares it with another person, or saves it, or uses it in some way, we consider that a success. Our content models create only limited opportunities for our readers to participate, contribute, comment or suggest.
What about reader feedback, polls and surveys, you might ask? These are tools of engagement that are designed to maintain a distance between the editorial process and the content consumer. Conversations don’t happen in the open, aren’t iterative and don’t develop. They are stated and considered, the conclusions ultimately private and withdrawn.
To illustrate this barrier, I talked about the knee-jerk reaction we have when a reader comes up to us at some event and begins to push one point or view or another. For most of us, the initial reaction is to bolt. Putting together a traditional media product is a complicated and private thing: One reader’s point of view can obscure or misdirect. The editor owns the point of view that matters in the traditional paradigm.
In a world where the barriers to creating content and building an audience have been removed, the traditional advantages of the media brand have been diminished. Ultimately, we have two key assets: Our knowledge and our activity. Only by sharing those two assets widely and freely will we retain our relevance and our economic viability.
This conclusion leads to an organizing premise about our content strategy, presented to the right. Channels of engagement will enhance our importance to the market.
The focus on broadened engagement across multiple platforms should change the way that we think about our audience, and ultimately, shift the way that we deliver marketing solutions to our customers. The traditional definition of audience begins with the magazine brand at the center. In the content-sharing model, the audience becomes an overlapping series of networks, with two primary content hubs: the printed magazine and the brand blog. The printed magazine is the base repository for “created” content; the blog is the base repository for “shared” content.
A living example of this shift in audience focus is presented below. The graphic presents the current market reach of our magazine At Home in Arkansas. The At Home team has been an enthusiastic and coordinated practice group of content-sharing. The result is that they have experienced dramatic growth in their market coverage.
At Home currently has a total market reach of 47,900, with 37% of the audience coming from their digital distribution of content. In June, the digital reach was a fraction of what it is today: over the two-month period, web traffic has grown by more than 50% and the Facebook fan base has more than doubled.
The techniques that the At Home team has used are simple: they are sharing content across their social networks. The content not only comes from the magazine, but from the day-to-day experiences of the At Home team.
The At Home team has demonstrated the power of the three focuses of content-sharing using social media tools:
- Content-sharing drives wide and deep usage of your web site;
- Network building and connecting prompts frequent and serendipitous visits to your web site;
- Link building drives incremental traffic to your web site.
The table below presents a basic analysis of the traffic driven by content-sharing activities to our eight Home Design brand web sites over a 7-day period.
Referrals to the site accounted for 36% of unique visits to the sites over the course of the week. Facebook and Twitter were meaningful contributors to the traffic. Blog platforms, which refer to visits from the Blogger.com and WordPress.com domains, are a useful proxy for unique visits from other blogs in the category.
You can also see the benefit of having a broad base of referring sources. The teams at Seattle Homes & Lifestyles and Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles have done an excellent job of building relationships with other blogs and web sites in their market; as a result, they get a significant amount of their traffic from these sources, which link to and re-post content.
The biggest impact comes from executing a content-sharing strategy consistently over time. This requires a change in how traditional content teams think about how their time and their roles. In effect, a content-sharing approach opens up team and each person into contact with the marketplace individually. In many cases the identity of the team and the identity of the brand will become tightly integrated.
The value and power of this work suggests that it should be taken as seriously as the process of creating the magazine itself.
Serious work requires planning, measures and organization. We finished our initial training sessions by outlining a planning and measurement approach that a team could use to make content sharing a fundamental part of their work flow.
Putting together the plan has four basic parts. First, the team has to set a goal for their web traffic: What number of unique visits do they want to reach and over what period of time. Second, they have to decide what approach they want to take to content-sharing and what the individual roles of the team members will be. The team should then decide what activity targets they want to set for each element of their content-sharing strategy. And, they have to commit to tracking and measuring the impact of their activity.
This approach is unfamiliar to most traditional publishing teams, which rely on specialists to build audience and to track activity. This approach, which connects content production and content consumption, is much more common to web publishing operations. The tools are incredibly simple to use however — the mechanics of tracking of content sharing can be accomplished with a Google Analytics account and any open source blogging platform.
The two tables below outline a sample weekly work flow for content-sharing activities at a special-interest publishing brand and a framework for weekly and monthly tracking. This was presented as a structural starting point for the group. The expectation is that as a team experiments with sharing different content elements and tracking the results of the consumer engagement, they will define the best process for their brand.
Not every team enters into the process of content sharing comfortably. However, every team that has stayed committed to the activity has been energized by the interaction with their market and excited by the visible increases in their web traffic.
Note: My colleague Adam Japko, author of the estimable blog Winezag, writes about applying the lessons of our content-sharing model to his own personal media brand. His post accomplishes two things: it shows the power of content sharing while demonstrating the impact of an informed and literate blogger on a market.