Innovation storytime: How a 155 year old magazine is kicking bootie online

Want to stop worrying about SEO, have your content shared widely, and become a key source of information by your most desired audience? Here are a couple ways:

Create great content (be it written, video, audio, photos, cartoons, whatever). In particular, craft wonderful stories about timely events that your readers care deeply about.

Basically, all content is now social. What is shared is what people find worth sharing.

The act of a person sharing builds your network of readers and someone that has found your content worth sharing (and one that has found it through a friend) is likely a more committed reader than one that clicks a search link or ad.

This seems to be a lesson from recent experience at The Atlantic. Since taking down its paywall in early 2008, The Atlantic’s web audience has grown from 500,000 to 13.4 million monthly visitors.

Sector leaders are those taking advantage of intersection of great content and social interaction

The Atlantic’s growth happened in many ways but the growth parallels the rapid rise of social networks, namely Facebook and Twitter. The Atlantic invested heavily in creating high quality online content by having high profile writers create content specifically for it’s main website and also launching new online-only properties.

This investment in online content happened alongside the growing social networks becoming the primary forum for reader sharing and discovery of stories. Timely, well-written content begs to be shared in an environment where readers can and want to tell friends/networks about the stories they are reading and experiencing.

It’s no coincidence that The Atlantic’s growing online presence parallels the growth of social networks. The growth of Huffington Post, Mashable, and many other online content sources has come at the same time and they, too, have placed a premium on sharing (across the board quality is debatable).

This shift doesn’t come easy

But The Atlantic remains an anomaly because its roots are as an old guard print magazine founded in 1857…not quite 150 years before some of the leading online only news sources of today. The changes that The Atlantic did not come easy and may have even come through a bit of desperation. In fact, the 2007 “digital first” strategy announced by The Atlantic was explained in part as “…it’s easier to be ‘digital first’ when your legacy business is not strong, when you have nothing to defend…but red ink.

It’s probably fair to say that this was a big change for The Atlantic. For writers and other staff, both new and old, this was likely a seismic shift. Established journalists and columnists becoming bloggers. The injustice of it all.

We bring this up because many (if not most?) nonprofits are adapting and innovating far too slowly, if at all, to the changing world of online communications, conversation and sharing.

Like The Atlantic, nonprofits are publishers

Don’t kid yourself by saying that nonprofits aren’t publishers like magazines. Of course you’re not a magazine (though The Atlantic is no longer just a magazine). Yet one can argue that everyone with a website is a publisher.

Plus, we can think of many groups that for decades invested heavily in print magazines and newsletters (and STILL ARE… really) as a primary channel for communicating with members and the public.

All organizations with content and social want their audience to share, tweet, and generally spread the word. They want likes and comments that are seen by networks of followers. They want to be tagged. They want to be talked about because this spreads word down and through networks.

Not all organizations view it quite this way or use these terms (networks, campaigns, shares, engagement pyramids) but this is what anyone posting content to Facebook is all about: interacting with audience networks to spread the word.

An equation for consideration: Content plus Social equals Engagement

Put it all together and there has never been a better time for compelling writing, video, and images to help advance advocacy, change, and direct action. Our online networks, email, and nonstop mobile information access allow us to reach, talk with, move and engage people at all times and in countless ways.

What is holding organizations back? Great content and a people-driven social perspective. 

The changes needed are not insignificant. When it comes to content, many organizations are still staffed for and creating print-driven pieces: often good stories but rarely online-ready. Online content (blog posts, advocacy pieces, research articles) are tacked onto the responsibilities of policy people or organizers that aren’t storytellers by trade (and, lets face it, often not good writers).

Meanwhile, social media efforts are driven by numbers of likes or fans, bounce from platform to platform (let’s get on Pinterest…how about an Instagram campaign), and often don’t do the little things right (pre-built Twitter share links, anyone?).

We’re anxious to see an organization go “all in” with content and social, maybe even take on a sort of Digital First strategy. Most nonprofits have great potential: they’re not selling things but rather hope, change, and actions that result in happier, safer, and stronger communities — shared values we can all get behind.

* Photo by Erin Kohlenberg

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