Last week in Denver, we held a product design meeting with a group of publishers, editors and designers from our regional Home Design magazines.

The team brought an experienced perspective into the meeting about the kind of impact integrating interactive and social media tools into their business process can have. Over the past 9 months, this group of regional magazines have increased their web distribution by more than 100%, have grown interactive revenues from less than 5% to about 20% of overall advertising revenue and have developed interactive footprints that are close to the size of their print distribution base by growing Fan Pages, building Twitter followings and working their blogs. (I’ve written about some of the success we’ve experienced in posts about the content-sharing paradigm.)

The focus of the meeting was to review some basic wireframes and page designs for our new interactive publishing platform. We’ve made the decision to leverage open source software — Drupal and WordPress — to create highly flexible and content-driven presences for the brands.

The conversation was really exciting. I could see the leaders of each brand thinking in concrete and practical terms about what they needed in the new tools and how they were going to deploy them in order to continue to grow their interaction with consumers and the value they delivered to advertisers.

As we described how implementing better developed tagging systems would allow us to present associated content that would be interesting to the consumer, and to serve up advertising that would be tightly related to the content, a number of questions arose.

The first question was about editorial independence. Will we have to tag articles to benefit certain advertisers? Will we have to write about the advertisers? Does this functionality blur the line between editorial and advertising?

An easy way to explain this functionality was to point to Google’s natural search and paid search results. The online consumer is trained to recognized one set as paid and one set as unpaid. The same goes for this kind of relationship. The advertising units will be clearly identified as advertising, and will be in a different format than the text; the ad queue will simply serve up ads in relation to the editorial tagging.

Another clarifying realization for the team was that less than 20% of the visits to their sites came through the home. The most important page design was the “landing page,” and more than 90% of the time that landing page was a specific blog post or article or professional directory page. A second clarifying realization was that each landing page needed to be simple and direct, and that we needed to reduce the number of options that we gave the consumer, so that we could help them find the the facets of our content library that would be most valuable to them.

If you want to build traffic, we concluded, you need to distribute pieces of content frequently and continuously. A piece of content could be marketed through your social graph a number of times over a month, and in several different ways.

A good example we developed was using the web distribution to promote a specific feature in the next issue of the magazine. Over the period of four weeks, you could share as many as 10 pieces of content from the feature. How? Share different photographs from the photo shoot. Share some tidbits you discover while researching the topic. Share some interesting quotes from an interview that you do. Share the direction that you are taking while you’re writing the draft. Share some of the comments you get from your editor. Then, when the issue goes to press, share what you really like about the finished piece.

This kind of content sharing model could generate 500 to 1000 visits to the web site, in advance of the production of the article itself. When the article is published you have group of readers who are waiting for it, and who will probably consume it online and in print.

Mid-way through the session, we stopped and asked everyone to write the question that was at the top of their minds on a piece of paper.

Here is a sampling of some of the questions:

  • Who will have time to create all of this great content?
  • How will we get it all done?
  • What is the single most important thing we can do on a daily basis to head in this new direction?
  • Are editors to redirect their thinking for magazine content so the content will provide rich links and tags?
  • How will the magazine team work together to accomplish this in a manner that is organized and cohesive?

I explained a basic tenet: We don’t have anymore time in the month. So, if we want to do something different, we have to eliminate something that we are doing now.

How does that translate to the new content workflow?

Calculate how many hours it is going to take to execute the content-sharing plan that you develop for your team. Then, calculate how many hours it takes to produce an editorial page from scratch. In order to find the time for content-sharing, we will have to figure out how to take work that is produced from our social graph and use it to create interesting content in the print magazine.

Won’t that cannibalize the print product?

To answer that question, we were able to point to the tracking each team had of how many people access a specific article or post on the web: rarely did that number exceed 100, even when the overall traffic to the site was over 15,000 unique users.

The editor of At Home in Arkansas, who has had the benefit of several discussions around this approach, outlined to the staff how her team had replaced two pages in the magazine with content that was created as part of their content-sharing process.

I was  impressed. This group of ‘traditional’ editors and publisher had taken the leap into the world of social media and were experiencing the energy and engagement that the new world provided. Those incremental experiences gave them the context to imagine entirely new workflows that created different kinds of value for the market. They were making the shift from thinking about content in a linear process to thinking about knowledge as an asset that could be distributed in multiple forms and through multiple channels. They didn’t feel daunted and they didn’t feel like they need to reinvent the world. They knew they needed to learn some new things, and that it was going to come in fits and starts, but as I listened to them, I could see an entirely new approach to their market developing. It was exciting.