‘You Want to Leave Room for Magic’; How to Plan for Serendipitous Outcomes

“You want to leave room for magic.”

That line was uttered this week by independent filmmaker Drew Stone following a showing of his latest documentary, The Jews and the Blues, at a festival called JxJ here in Washington, D.C. The question was how scripted his 9-day trip to Israel was to film six famous blues players there—including Ethiopian-born Gili Yalo. (The two are pictured here.)

The “magic” he was referring to materialized in a couple places—on a visit to the Hebrew Music Museum where a woman working there showed him these incredible, old instruments; and dancing in a famous square in Jerusalem on the last night. He said his time was tightly scripted, but as a filmmaker, you have to leave a little time for some unscheduled things to happen. It’s a tough balance.

It reminded me of things we plan—our in-person events, our webinars, even our meetings. Are we allowing time and space for our “magic” to happen?

I say this because it’s one big reason that we should attend in-person events again when we feel comfortable—like our AMPLIFY conference, June 22-23 in Washington, D.C. (We have a universal track for B2B and niche publishers plus an association track.) Events produce the unknown—all mostly good. We meet people we wouldn’t meet otherwise, hear about ideas that are new to us, and put ourselves in an atmosphere where we can experience serendipity. (The word comes from a fairy tale and thus has always been thought as a “fortunate” thing.)

Knowing that I probably did not just invent this, I googled planned serendipity and sure enough, University College London (UCL) conducted a 2012 study “to design interactive systems that harness its power. By collecting and analyzing people’s ‘serendipity stories,’ researchers…hoped to design an interactive system that makes us more prepared for recognizing serendipity when it happens and, crucially, supports us in acting on it.”

Stories told to these researchers included:

  • A student being offered an internship at a journalism lab because someone from the lab noticed her enthusiastic journalism-related tweets;
  • An experimental chef getting the idea to create a sea-salt-cured mackerel dish when watching his daughter collect stones on the beach;
  • An architecture student watching a BBC documentary on honey bees and getting the idea of using the hexagonal shape of honeycomb to create a novel building design.

A researcher said: “By looking for patterns in people’s memorable examples of serendipity, we’ve found that it is more than just a ‘happy accident.’ It also involves insight—an ‘aha’ moment of realization.” There’s even a humorous video on the UCL site of the interviewer asking students, “What is serendipty?” “Is it Latin?” someone asks. They list three elements:

  • Unexpected circumstances;
  • Insightful “aha” moment;
  • Valuable outcome.

“The people we interviewed benefited from their serendipitous experiences, not only by enhancing their knowledge, but also by saving time—serendipity propelled the interviewees forward at a faster pace than they would have travelled otherwise,” said Stephann Makri. “Everybody can benefit from serendipity if they remain receptive to it and ready to act on it when it happens.”

Of course, we have to put ourselves in places to encounter it. Working from home now may eliminate some of those chances for serendipitous happenings in our lives. (Though it’s hard to beat working from my patio on this beautiful morning.) I used to have interesting discussions with a blind man I often encountered—by chance—on Metro each week, making his way to work like the rest of us. It’s easy to see why many bosses are pushing for some kind of hybrid work experience.

Will it happen at our AMPLIFY event or at the next Editorial Council online meeting or at the INFO Local dinners that we’re hoping to bring back? Hopefully, yes, if we plan it right. My colleague Jen Smith, who is doing a great job planning AMPLIFY, is scheduling plenty of time for those interactions with roundtables, no-speaker lunches (what a concept!) and time with the exhibitors. Personally, I can’t wait.

The UCL researchers were working on a mobile app aimed at creating opportunities for people to experience serendipity, but I can’t find any updates. They might have decided that an app might not be needed for this one.


Experiences Rule. How The Atlantic Is Using Newsletters to Respond to Reader and Listener Needs

According to Litmus, 80% of customers are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that provides personalized experiences, and 83% of customers are willing to share their data to create a more personalized experience. More than 65% of marketers are creating at least two versions of an email on average. Nearly 16% are creating four or more.

Experiences are in.

In an article in NiemanLab recently, The Atlantic’s executive director of audience research Emily Goligoski wrote about the 5 “Reader and Listener Needs” they found from an expansive survey they conducted. In assessing these needs, it’s clear that The Atlantic wants its readers to have more personalized experiences. Here are some insights from that research—taking a look at each of those needs.

Introduce me to writers at the top of their craft. The Atlantic built on the success of Robinson Meyer’s climate change newsletter The Weekly Planet.  Another is called I Have Notes by memoirist Nicole Chung. “Some look to Asian American stories—which are always ‘timely,’ always worth uplifting—to manifest a worth, a dignity, that should have already been evident,” she wrote recently. DEI, sustainability and climate change are all huge issues today, particularly for young people—83% of millennials say it’s important that companies they buy from also align with their values, and 73% of 35-54 year olds and 60% of 55+ year olds agree. (Elizabeth Green, CEO of Brief Media, will be talking about her media organization’s commitment to social good at our AMPLIFY conference, June 22-23 in Washington, D.C.)

Give me deeper clarity and context. “Our audience members have wide-ranging passions, from community service to cycling to learning languages,” Goligoski wrote. “A general interest publication like The Atlantic can’t offer the depth of knowledge they find in forums and through communities dedicated solely to their topical interests.” They are now up to (at least) 14 newsletters. Others include Dear Therapist, the puzzle-centric The Good Word and How to Build a Life. “The [B2B] media space has changed, and for that matter, so have the needs of the professionals it serves,” said ALM CEO Bill Carter. “We have to provide context and insight, data and analysis, forums and events that allow our customers to excel as practitioners as well as business professionals. Through this evolution, we strive to be the most trusted information services, data and media company available to our key industries.”

Help me discover new ideas. Organizations report that they have taken initiatives to focus more on innovation. This has entailed focusing more on communication and collaboration (62%, up from 53% in 2020), providing encouragement to innovative employees (52%, up from 38% in 2020), and driving innovation from the top down (45%, up from 41% in 2020). However, only 20% of association executives report that their association has a process in place to encourage innovation and new ideas. More than half (54%) say they do not. And the pandemic probably did not improve this. “Our consumer strategy and growth team used this insight—that people who are familiar with The Atlantic appreciate the range that it offers—in planning recent marketing emails to prospective subscribers,” wrote Goligoski.

Challenge my assumptions. “Our data science team has seen that ‘lighter’ topics tend to appear earlier in a person’s path to becoming a subscriber, and that ‘weightier’ topics tend to be the reads immediately before a person makes a decision to subscribe,” wrote Goligoski. “We don’t lean toward one of these over the other; rather, it’s the overall composition of topics a reader spends time with that matters most in driving return visits and subscriptions.” The Atlantic’s top-performing marketing emails list content examples that demonstrate their topic range.

Let me take a meaningful break. “When they come to us, they’re not looking to zone out. They’re looking for novel approaches into big picture topics.” So while The Atlantic knows they’re not Saturday Night Live, they’re also not the Congressional Record. I noticed a crossword on their homepage and a Recommended Reading list. Even meaningful breaks can be experiences, maybe even more so if you consider quizzes, puzzles, This Day in Our History, anniversaries, etc.


‘We Need to Rethink What the Webinar Is’; 3 Experts Offer New Rules of Engagement 

“Audiences today come with a completely different set of expectations for when they come to a webinar with you,” said ON24’s Mark Bornstein. “They don’t expect a boring tutorial; they want to participate, interact and engage with you. They want to self-select through lots of different content, besides the presentation that you’re giving them, but they expect it to be approachable and they expect it to be human.”

The occasion was an AM&P Network Editorial Training Session on webinars. Another panelist, Haley Berling, senior manager, digital programs and events, GovExec, told us that the light went on for them during the pandemic when it came to the importance of creating riveting virtual events.

“Folks are showing up in smaller numbers in person, but they’re still showing up consistently online, so I would say, for hybrid events, we’re really taking a digital-first approach. It’s really important to still reintroduce that live component, because there is a need there, [though] in a smaller way. So we’re doing [in person] in a much more intimate and intentional way rather than casting a wide net to our whole network and just hoping 400 people show up, because that’s not necessarily the reality anymore. So as far as our hybrid events go, it’s definitely playing a part into our larger digital strategy.”

That strategy, along with the expertise of industry veterans Bornstein and Regina Harris, program director, Webvent, made for a value-packed webinar on webinars. For Bornstein, it’s a matter of changing the perception—after two-plus years of our sitting at home and getting Zoomed out.

“Webinars have evolved a lot over the last few years,” he said. “We need to rethink what the webinar is; a lot of people have a bad connotation in their head when you hear the word webinar. You think boring-talking PowerPoint where somebody is giving you endless slides and speaking in a robotic way… not an engaging experience. [But now] we’ve evolved to where webinars have really become experiences.”

Batting clean-up—if you consider moderator Matt Kinsman our first speaker—was Harris. And she does, calling the moderator “super important.”

“You would not imagine how effective it is to have a moderator who is experienced in that particular topic that we’re talking about,” Harris said. “Moderators can help connect the audience with the takeaway by preparing for a successful experience… A good moderator allows the speakers to pay attention to our presentations and do a great job and give our attendees what they need.”

Here are more takeaways from this event:

Practice makes perfect. “There are now 300 million experts, and I say that because, as a producer and as a host, I have so many people who come on as presenters and consider themselves an expert because they’ve been doing this all day, every day,” said Harris. “But it feels really, really good to do a practice session with every presenter that you have, regardless of the fact that they may say, ‘Hey I already know what I’m doing.’ Make sure that they’re familiar with the platform and where everything is. And also that they understand the flow of the presentation, who’s going to open it up, who’s going to speak when, and who is going to end it. Do you want the questions to be filtered throughout the presentation?” Practice is especially important as you get more global, she added. “When we brought in our first global client, we just figured we can do this. [But] it gets really rough when you’re over here in Central Standard Time, and you’re trying to do something for someone in China. You get really sleepy by midday the next day… We’ve just been able to be more visible with our webinars and our trainings.”

“Forget the word webinar; a webinar is an experience,” said Bornstein. “We tend to think of webinars as that thing you do every month to just get leads and that’s it, but now webinars are taking on all kinds of [roles]. They’re more like programs that you would see on TV. There are news style formats, where you’re just becoming the thought leader in your particular area. And we see movement from presentations to conversations—a lot of modern webinars have no slides at all. They’re just people talking to other people about things that matter to the people that are on the webinar.” He mentioned Thomson Reuters doing a cocktail-making class for their customers. “I recently participated in a game show webinar. My first big takeaway today is stop thinking about it through the lens of what we used to do in the past.”

Ch-ch-changes… “If there’s one thing to take away is the theme of evolution and constantly having to change,” said Berling. “We realized very quickly that translating live events to digital events is not a one-to-one translation. It is actually a completely different language you start to speak. Pre-pandemic, we had 2 webcast offerings—they were visually very sparse. So when I look back to those webcasts we used to do and compare them to what we do now, I think that was so cute. A lot of them, I would say about 50%, involved cameras and talking heads. A lot were simply slide presentations with some audio overlay and even a lot were just audio, which is kind of unheard of these days. Then we started to do our initial brainstorm. We shifted completely. We had to say, ‘What do people want? They’re lonely, they want to connect with each other, they want to access content. They want something different.”

Create a customer experience. “We created a new virtual experience,” Berling said. “We incorporated things like virtual and customer sponsor resource pages with interactive chat features In downloadable assets for our clients. We created a virtual press room and editorial resource library for our editorial staff. And then we built a simple theater digitally where users can easily consume the content within very intuitive, easy login experience and [more] chat… As a living resource hub of content of all types, and then a place where our VIP community could come and interact with us and each other, it was more of a digital experience. Over the course of the next six months we partnered with some fabulous partners and actually built and developed that event site into our own internal virtual event platform that we could easily deploy for multiple events.”

Target. “We see people creating executive-only webinars where maybe they’re inviting an analyst to come and speak for a few moments, and then bringing everybody into a breakout room—where it’s a much smaller audience or a more targeted audience, or maybe it’s by specific industry type,” Bornstein said. “We see more discussion-based webinars where you get a little bit of presentation and then maybe everybody comes on camera and does a conversation for a smaller group of people.”

Include a handout. We usually think of handouts more for in–person events, but Harris encourages giving attendees “a one-pager, a fact sheet—something to take away. Each time I review my survey results, the number one [piece of] feedback is, ‘I would have liked some type of handout so that I can write notes for each slide that you go through,’” Harris said. “So think about that as you put together [your webinar]. The handout would be in addition to a PDF of the slides. Because we are in this virtual world, they kind of walk away empty handed if you don’t give them something outside of having them go back to view the recording and do [the] fast forward [thing trying to get to the content that they’re trying to get to…”

Engage. “The goal of the webinar is all about engagement,” Bornstein said. “The webinar is basically bringing people together in a space to connect and to communicate, but also to engage—and we need to if you really want to deliver a modern webinar… The more they engage the more you learn about them and the more effectively you’ll be able to connect with them to train them, to close them, to upsell them, whatever it is. We can do Q&As at the end of a webinar, but also we can be pushing out polls, surveys. We can have CTAs integrated into the webinar experience. We can be driving them to all kinds of different content in lots of different ways.”

Be an architect. “We give people lots to do in the experience and that’s how you need to think about it,” Bornstein said. “What can I enable my audience to do, besides just watch my presentation?” GovExec thought this way as well and started focusing on how and where they can produce high-level video content. “We constantly in our production were drawing on examples of TV network and news networks saying, ‘Oh, what if we could do stuff like that,’” Berling said. “So for the past year or so we’ve been really dipping our toes into producing TV programs [and] taking those TV programs on the road following trade shows that have started to come back into the market. We’ve also been working on producing different types of video content like teaser videos, quick-hit commercials and explainer videos that are all short snack content.”



Collaborating and Being Informative (in-house) and AI (It’s Coming) Should Help Guide Your Metrics

The next leap in metrics may be AI-based automation. The Globe and Mail has built a prediction engine they call Sophi that analyzes data on article performance to key the homepage and landing pages. It also uses AI to determine which stories users will pay to access and which can deliver more ad revenue. But even with that day coming, metrics should remain a collaborative affair.

I mentioned last week that at our Editorial Council meeting at the Neal Awards, one editorial director recounted a story about a new reporter who kept telling her about his articles’ analytics, who was reading and other metrics. She literally reveled in this feedback, especially since in this remote age, it can be a big challenge to get new people on the same page.

This reminded me of the Lessons From a Leader my colleague Amanda McMaster conducted with Lucy Swedberg, executive editor and senior editorial director at Harvard Business Publishing. “One of the best practices that we’ve embedded is an analytics meeting for our editors, so that they can really see their work and how it ends up performing out in the world,” Swedberg said. “You start to hear them thinking and observing, ‘Oh, this thing did really well—let’s do more of those.’ I love when I hear they’re getting insights from the data. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what will keep us going and [allow us to] make an impact.”

In a Reuters Institute report—Overcoming Metrics Anxiety: New Guidelines for Content Data in Newsrooms—Elisabeth Gamperl, managing editor, digital storytelling unit, Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich, looked at narratives around data analytics. Ultimately, she writes, analysts should be seen as vital members of the newsroom.

That train—if not already here—is pulling into the station. Here are more ideas on metrics and analytics from the report and other sources.

Don’t overwhelm – find your key metrics.
In article recently on The Fix, David Tvrdon argues that putting too many metrics on your journalists’ plates could be risky. “With every added metric the chance of more people not getting it simply rises exponentially. I would rather use a simplified metric and tweak it in time than risking colleagues in the newsroom having different goals.” The Financial Times used RFV (recency, frequency, volume) to help hit one million digital subscribers. Later, they pledged allegiance to a more consumption-based Quality Reads.

Adjust to what machine learning can do.
“Even with some of the more effective paywalls or data walls, most of the time they’re ‘a one size fits all’ or ‘one size fits a segment’ thing. I think what we’ll see is much more automated, AI-driven single user journeys,” said Gabe Karp, EMEA director at digital agency 10up, in the PressGazette. “So if the machine can figure out that I only read one article a day from The New York Times but their subscription is valued based on me reading five articles a day, can they give me a different offer at a different price point?”

Be positive and concise.
One analytics team developed a list of questions they work through before submitting data to the newsroom. Leaders also advise to be careful in sending around individual rankings or standings. Instead, promote information on screens that is helpful to the newsroom. For example, “Did you know that most people read us between 6 and 8 am?” And be concise. “If you provide too much, it has a counterintuitive effect of making people less engaged with it because people don’t know where to focus. It becomes a little bit overwhelming and disengaging to just see reams and reams of data,” said Jörn Rose, head of strategic growth & insight, BuzzFeed.

Focus on measures that support your editorial and revenue model goals.
“If your goal is audience growth, you must start measuring new users. If your objective is to generate more subscriptions, perhaps you should consider measuring conversion journeys in more detail, from anonymous to registered readers,” writes Gamperl. “Media outlets with subscription models pay attention to engagement metrics: time on site, pages per session and bounce rate (or the percentage of readers who visit a single page and look at nothing else on your website before leaving).

Don’t look at metrics as static and immovable.
It should be an ongoing process—and include a positive feedback loop. The question should not be: What is the number? But rather: What can you do in response to this number? A poor-performing story might be repackaged in another context. “If a story should work and it doesn’t, we try to look at the presentation, change the headline, change the picture and publish it again at another time,” one editor said. Another editor added: “We have as many open conversations about when things haven’t worked as possible without everyone getting really upset. That is not easy because people work incredibly hard in the newsroom.” What lessons can be learned?

Look at opens vs. “dwell times.”
If an article has a high open rate but a low dwell time, then it might be a “one-fact” story, or the headline “missold” it. On the other hand, if opens are low but the engagement with the story is high, then maybe people aren’t finding it. Try plugging it on social media or giving it a better position on your website. “Working with metrics is all about trial and error, adjustment and retrial,” Gamperl writes. “Every failure is a step closer to success.”

You can download the report here.


Finding New Stories, Speakers and Sources Takes Work But the Value for Your Audience Can Be Huge

I was walking around an amazing exhibit recently—Sargent, Whistler, and Venetian Glass: American Artists and the Magic of Murano—at our National Portrait Gallery here in D.C. I was incredibly fortunate that the curator, Alex Mann, was giving a casual tour, and I could listen in and ask questions. It got me thinking about the stories we’re missing out on.

I asked Mann about one artist—Alice Pike Barney—who had a portrait of Whistler in the show. The description said she was a nineteenth century artist and Washington socialite, though I’d never heard of her. He said the museum had other paintings by her in “open storage,” that she built an incredible studio in Dupont Circle (that’s now the Embassy of Latvia), and she and her daughter were huge in the suffragette movement.

I researched more today and read that she also “helped build the National Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument, the nation’s first federally supported outdoor theater.” That’s a hugely popular theater today! I had never read that.

The point is she was a major player, yet she’s mostly ignored. There are so many stories to uncover and cover in all of our niches—especially of women. One of the 2022 Neal Award winners, for Best Profile, is titled A Tribute to Female Essential Workers by Rachel Engel, senior associate editor of and for Lexipol. A nurse and artist, Kate Bergen, “created an entire movement dedicated to honoring female essential workers, with a nod to the Rosie Riveters of World War II—even receiving a blessing for the project from an original Rosie.”

Though Women’s History Month and Black History Month are over, and National Hispanic Heritage Month and other important landmarks occur in the fall, the focus should be year-round. Here are some tips on finding more diverse and uncovered stories, plus new sources and speakers:

If you want to diversity your speakers and /or sources and profiles, the most effective thing you can do is diversify the group whose job is finding them. “Panels tend to mirror the teams that create them,” writes Ken Sterling, EVP and CMO at BigSpeak Speakers Bureau, in an article for Northstar Meetings Group. “When you have all white men picking a panel, the panel tends to be all white men. But when you add diverse people to the planning committee, the panel will start to represent a more global view.” Committees for story ideas can be similar.

Look at job titles. “We launched an association that exceeded our expectations in a few months,” Elizabeth Petersen, project director, Simplify Compliance, once told me, referring to the National Association of Healthcare Revenue Integrity. “We were looking at registrations for events and one of my product people noticed, ‘There’s a new title popping up, and we had never seen this title before’…” Advanced outreach and marketing followed, and a successful organization was created. Look for unique titles—there are new audience, diversity, and people and customer happiness titles that could lead you to interesting new folks.

Ask around. Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, has been awesome when we’ve needed recommendations for a webinar or session—or a new story idea. One time that led me to Hannah Glover, group managing editor there who did a great presentation. Another time we found Emily Laermer, a managing editor, who at that time was the data visualization editor who spoke about infographics, such a big topic now. Who’s the Dan in your audience and membership? Do you need a special committee to help?

Lean on your awards and future leader programs. I get so many ideas through our award winners—interesting women podcast hosts, young diverse chemists, etc. Last year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) won a Silver EXCEL Award for Rising Up, focusing on women scientists. That led me to Emily Petersen, their ultra-talented senior photo editor of Science Magazine. Look for her in a webinar in the near future. Our award winners are up for all members to see—here are the Neals—as are most organizations’. “[Our] Future Leaders program has provided us a way to connect with the next generation of leaders in the industry we cover,” George Yedinak, co-founder, executive vice president, Aging Media Network, wrote to me last year.

Think expertise. “It’s important to feature women talking about their expertise, not gender,” said Tracey Shumpert, VP of membership and programs here at FISD, a division of SIIA. She’s put together all-star panels of women “who we would normally just use for keynotes to talk about the future of our industry, and that’s been very successful.” Those talks are not specifically publicized as a women’s group event but rather “All-Star Senior Executive Panels.” Panels such as these can also unearth other hidden stories and people who might be acquaintances and colleagues.

Go through LinkedIn. I graduated from Rutgers University and belong to a couple of college groups on LinkedIn. One day, Sherri L. Smith, editor in chief of Future’s Laptop Magazine, came up in one of the conversations. The first Black woman to be editor of a business or tech magazine, she became a wonderful guest on one of our webinars, and I’ve followed her ever since—including a fun and informative discussion on video game releases last summer. LinkedIn has all sorts of groups like that.