“I think as we’re struggling to connect in this world of digital, the tendency is to flail and do a lot of one-offs and I’ve found it’s very successful to create frameworks where we can explore an ongoing relationship.”
You might think that the above quote emanated from a prominent newsletter publisher, but it came from Anya Grundmann, director and executive producer of NPR (National Public Radio) Music. She was speaking from the Next Radio Conference in London—as reported on the excellent Journalism.co.uk site.
Specifically, Grundmann was talking about the ultra-successful Tiny Desk Concerts that NPR has aired since 2008. The cd-filled shelves and desk area of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen provide the intimate setting. The musicians who perform are incredibly diverse in every way, from Adele (more than 2 million views), John Legend and Nickel Creek to Suzanne Vega, Rodney Crowell and Afro Blue.
The concerts are under 20 minutes, feature a smattering of applause from NPR staff, and usually inspire you to hear more. They also add up to quite an archive. “The idea was to create ‘something spontaneous, that they won’t hear anywhere else, that feels really special’ explained Grundmann.”
Those are three pretty good goals for a digital publisher. I asked Lindsay Konzak—former vice president of content for Gale Media, frequent and popular speaker at SIPA conferences and now the founder and president of 3 Aspens Media—how she worked to achieve those goals at Modern Distribution Management, which is published by Gale.
“It would have been very easy to give in and publish the same content our competitors published day after day online,” Konzak wrote me in an email. “…but if our publication followed suit, we would become a commodity. No longer would we be able say we were worth the price of a subscription.
“That philosophy drove our editorial decisions. So while newspapers and other publications struggled to put up a paywall, we never tore ours down. We continued to up our game so that when we said we were offering content our subscribers couldn’t get anywhere else, we meant it. We started promoting our publication as ‘original, in-depth, research-based content.’
“That content included annual research on various topics, including e-commerce and the industry outlook,” Konzak continued. “Readers started to look forward to those annual updates. As a result, we were able to build relationships and trust with our readers that they didn’t have with other publications. Though we never referred to them as such, they’d often call me and say they were a ‘member’ when asking for help on something. That just goes to show how MDM has been able to make their subscribers feel as if they were in the inner circle, so to speak.”
MDM uses a number of tools to keep readers engaged and feeling special:
- Thank you cards signed by editors for subscriptions and renewals; also included is the editor’s phone extension which subscribers use;
- Renewal letters signed by the editors;
- Content enhancement. Readers would call with questions on content and be directed to one of the editors. This is a core value for MDM.
- Frequent online surveys of readers and ongoing references to that data in blog posts; they also send those survey results from an editor to all respondents.
- Editorial Advisory Board, a group of readers that participates in quarterly calls about key topics in the industry, as well as provides feedback on products;
- Extra content for premium subscribers on a monthly basis.
Those fit squarely in making your audience feel special and giving them unique content. But what about spontaneity? I’ve suggested making webinars feel more like live events rather than rehearsed readings with short Q&As. The tendency might be to become complacent because your webinars are doing well. But from what I’ve read, audiences like to know they are in a “live” setting. So stopping for a question or two early or going “off-script” would help convey that feeling.
Having one of your writers/bloggers host an online chat to follow up an article could also work. NPR tries to engage their local communities with things like an Austin Music Map. SIIA has our INFO locals. Most B2B publishers are less locally oriented although the word “community” remains something everyone strives for.
“One opportunity for spontaneity for publishers is in using social media more effectively on both the editorial and marketing fronts,” Konzak wrote. “There’s still a lot of untapped potential to use LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to make surprise announcements (promos to thank your loyal followers?), push out analyses of a big news story or engage followers in a conversation. Perhaps this is more like planned spontaneity, but using these platforms as a vehicle to engage readers in a less formal way can have a big impact when done effectively.”
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering diversity, Newspaper in Education, marketing and leadership before joining SIPA in 2009 , and then SIIA in 2013.