3 Core Digital Publishing Best Practices That Work Almost Too Well

"That worked so well, we stopped doing it"; a story of three core digital publishing best practices that often need some polish.

publishing best practices

What seems like an eternity ago, I was sitting in a conference room on a Caribbean island with 25 publishing colleagues, mostly CEOs of independent publishing companies with revenues of less than $25 million. There are many of us, and over the years, I’ve belonged to several organizations that specialize in bringing us together to talk about digital publishing best practices and how we run our businesses.

One of my colleagues joined the conversation about a particular digital publishing best practice by saying, “Oh, that worked so well, we stopped doing it.” The room erupted into guilty laughter because we all knew we were guilty of abandoning some best practice that was tried and true over time, but somehow we had managed to stop doing. Successful digital magazine publishing requires hundreds of best practices that need to be repeated over and over, again and again. In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell stipulates that mastery requires 10,000 hours of repetition. As the phrase is used here, I would define mastery over any process as the ability to repeat it in such a way that continuous improvement occurs.

Simply put, it’s not enough just to practice a digital publishing business process for 10,000 hours, there must be success metrics attached, and new variations attempted regularly that will impact those metrics, such that the outcomes become better and better.

While still in my 20s, I called my mentor, John Klingel, one bright and sunny day from my third-floor office in Houston, Texas, to let him know the results of our most recent direct mail campaign. We had achieved a net response rate north of 6%, which was more than double anything the organization had achieved in the past.

After listening politely to my update, John said, “That’s great. When you get the other 94%, call me and let me know.”

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Three Core Digital Publishing Best Practices

With all of the above in mind, I thought I would discuss three core digital publishing best practices with enough detail to demonstrate how we have embedded them into our organization, and so that we won’t forget to do them!

As a matter of background, we are an Agile shop committed to continuous improvement, which requires testing variations of our best practices continuously and measuring the results against the key metric indicators that we use to determine success and failure.

For each of the three core digital publishing best practices, I’ll also share the key metric indicator we used to measure success and failure and the average across all the systems we currently manage.

Publishing Best Practices

Digital Publishing Best Practice #1: SEO Blockbuster Management

To begin with the end in mind, the key metric for this core digital publishing best practice is called the Google Visibility Index, or GVI, and the benchmark average for mature systems is 12.57%.

In a nutshell, the business process revolves around publishing 15 to 30 daily posts per week that are all fully optimized for search. As the organization matures and the number of daily posts on the website grows, we begin to identify blockbuster posts that are republished and updated at least twice per year.

Over a period of years, the blockbuster post list will typically grow to several hundred posts driving 80 to 90% of total search engine organic arrivals. When we achieve this 90% level, growth and search engine arrivals typically slow to something in the high single digits. Until that occurs, the year-over-year growth and search engine arrivals generally are somewhere between 30 and 50%, and typically make up more than half of all the new arrivals to any one of our websites.

Among our 35-person team, there are more than ten masters of the process who can identify a topic, select the appropriate keyword phrase, generate a well-written post on the subject, and then update and maintain it in perpetuity. These SEO Masters are bolstered by our analytics team, who produce a monthly blockbuster report that identifies the blockbusters and any changes to the list as individual blockbusters rise or fall in the Google rankings.

Thus the process has masters, analytics, and a key metric that keeps us on track month after month, so we don’t forget to perform this business process using all of the best practices that we’ve developed over the past couple of decades.

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Digital Publishing Best Practice #2: Email Capture Optimization

A second core best practice for us is email capture optimization, and the key metric we used to measure success and failure is email capture rate.

This key metric looks at the total visitors arriving at one of our websites during any given month and compares it to the number of new organic email addresses that we capture in the same month using simple division.

The current email capture rate benchmark for all of our mature websites is 1.71% percent. Every month, we target one conversion element and devise a split test to improve the capture rate for that element. We might test a new design, new creative, or the timing around deployment. For a more complete discussion of the process, check out our post, How Does Your Email Capture Rate Compare to Other Publishers?

Over 12 to 24 months, we can typically double or triple the email capture rate for a given website using the above testing and analytics methodology. Because we’ve baked the monthly testing program into our business processes and report on it at a monthly audience development review meeting, we avoid forgetting to do optimization and allowing our email capture rate to fall over time.

Because we don’t have complete control of all the systems and how they are operated by their individual publishers, I have had the unhappy opportunity to observe a given system stop testing and watch its email capture rate deteriorate slowly over time.

Perhaps, even more troubling, the system operators don’t always follow the testing process and simply start changing capture elements based on their personal tastes and beliefs. When this occurs, the email capture rate tends to deteriorate rapidly. We’ve been doing this long enough such that we have built systems and optimized them to work with a publishing partner, then watched that publishing partner depart to operate the system independently, and observe as they make changes to the system without testing, and then have them return for a second consulting engagement where we reinstitute our testing programs and begin to optimize the system for a second time. I’m thinking about one publisher in particular who had an email capture rate of around four percent when they departed, and who had driven it down to less than 1% by the time they returned for a second engagement. Over about 24 months, we were able to drive the email capture rate back up north of 3%, and we’re still working to drive it higher.

Digital Publishing Best Practice #3: Six Sigma Subscription Marketing

Most of the systems we either own or help manage are subscription-driven. A system may have anywhere from one to more than 20 premium information products sold on a subscription basis.

For each of these systems, we track a key success metric called ‘new orders per 10,000 free email subscribers’, which we abbreviate as NOPX. This key metric currently averages around 90 orders per month per 10,000 free email subscribers and ranges from as low as 10 to more than 200 for individual systems. There are a number of upstream metrics where we evaluate the success and failure of individual programs with split testing and sequential testing.

Because online subscription marketing is complex and there is a great deal of migration from source to source, and because various channels accumulate messaging in the target audience’s mind, this macro metric allows us to make sure that our performance improves at a systemwide level. As new marketing programs are tested and deployed, NOPX should drive northward on the assumption that many of the orders a new program is producing would not have been produced by all the existing programs. The reality is that every new program will generate orders that are sourced to it that would have been produced by other existing programs had the new program not been deployed.

For a more complete and thorough discussion of Six Sigma subscription marketing, check out these posts:

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If you’re the Chief Executive Officer for your organization or a member of the senior management team, I would encourage you to inventory your core digital publishing best practices and make sure you’ve integrated them into a system for continuous improvement and monthly review. If you don’t, I suspect you will find they suffer the same fate my colleague described on that Caribbean retreat: “That worked so well, we stopped doing it.”

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