November 30, 2017 Last Updated 9:19 am

Guest column: 5 ways publishers can borrow from dotcoms to convert more customers

Kelly Abbott, founder and CEO of Great Jones Street, says that because content is a commodity, publishers should build their audiences based on personalities and value instead

With increased competition, and the growth in internet content and niche media, publications are rethinking their formats, revenue streams and tech tools for engaging readers. While social media has, and will continue to be, an important part of the marketing mix, it has limitations. Social media is great for online conversations, awareness building and even developing a bit of community, but at the end of the day, publishers don’t own their connection with the reader there; the social networks do. What does a direct relationship with a reader look like?  We can look at the dot-com world for insights.

1: Stake Your Territory. Develop a Beachhead In An Addressable Market

While “beachhead” is a term initially used in the military to define a temporary line to defend an area until help could move in, it can also be a good strategy publishers can borrow. The point here is that you have to start with a manageable target before going for the whole market. Start with a single niche (such as millennial females) and then once you have a clear ownership of that market, expand to the nearest adjacent portion (perhaps millennials in general).

It helps to think of an incumbent you can unseat first. For Uber, that was initially luxury car driver services. Once it dominated luxury car driver services it took on taxis. Once it dominated taxis in first tier markets like San Francisco and New York, it took on incumbents elsewhere. Now Uber is the incumbent and it’s battling me-toos. But that’s a whole other problem.

Publishers would do well to find their niches quickly. They can do this too by really getting to know their audiences and understanding their needs. What can you give your specific niche that is valuable that they don’t already have access to? How can you touch the hearts and minds of readers in new ways to stand out and enable a richer, more engaging experience? For instance, we chose to invest heavily into short fiction. Today, consumers are buying more fiction than when the Kindle came out seven years ago. The Atlantic, Esquire, Playboy, Redbook, all featured short fiction prominently back in the day (and readers loved it). But when their revenues dwindled, those opportunities for readers went missing too. Who better to pick up the slack than a scrappy publisher hell bent on building a passionate audience and establishing a beachhead?

2: Activate Your Audience

For media, it’s crucially important to understand that an audience has much less value if it’s eyeballs only. Eyeballs, circulation, reach — whatever you call it — are poor attention metrics. So few eyeballs result in revenue-generating opportunities.  Instead, you need to activate your audience to do high-value tasks. An active audience often translates into a paying audience.

How do you do this? That how doesn’t matter so much as the what here. Be it a newsletter or a giveaway, just make sure you offer something of value to get their contact info.

Once you activate users and know who they are, you can drop in regularly to offer more. Give your active readers more content based on what you learn about them. Inactive users offer little opportunity to remarket to or keep your content going. What do you ask of someone who hasn’t yet decided you’re worth investing into?

3: Obsess About the Funnel

For dotcoms, the user acquisition funnel is a religion. We obsess over every little detail that tells us how a customer becomes a customer. Measuring attention barely scratches the surface. We don’t simply want page views — instead we want conversions. Between awareness and conversion, we want to know exactly which steps lead to success. Ideally conversion means money. But a successful conversion can also be an email address or phone number. The value of a conversion varies based on the size and velocity of your funnel. In B2B we want to create a conversation with the user and hold their hand through awareness, education and eventually purchase. In B2C, we have to keep our costs low and our velocity high, so the funnel is fine-tuned for simple, high-probability asks. You can get stuck in a rabbit hole with funnel though. Why? It’s a numbers game that leads to wildly diverse paths. You will have many iterations of ads, emails, and landing pages that convert differently. You’ll want to test all of your assumptions rapidly and on new cohorts all the time. It can get complicated but analytics are your friend. Get religious about your data.

4: Build a Snow Machine

If each user you touch is different, how do you customize your content to best fit their needs? Build a snow machine. That is, because each of your users is a unique “snowflake” you’re going to need to build a content machine to feed each of their specific interests. Look at technologies that help draw correlations between which nuggets of information matter most to each individual. For us at Great Jones Street, it’s helping readers to build their experience of the app customized to their specific wishes versus giving everyone the same experience. It’s not enough to have a massive audience to mass market to; hire technologists who can mass-customize your catalog effectively for each person through machine learning and real-time content analytics.

5: Your content is a commodity. Your brand is not

I know this is verboten. Publishers pride themselves on their copyrights. But that kind of thinking is not going to win you an audience. Build a brand on personalities and value instead. Readers want to support people and ideas more than they want to be simply entertained. Which is to say, you have to publish an entertaining and enlightening product, but if you want to have a reliable, cult-like, bankable following you need to lead with your reason for being.

For us, our reason is our authors. We realize writers are underserved as much as readers. We feature Guggenheim fellows, and national magazine award winners. Our writers have been in small upstart pubs like Lightspeed and Gamut as well as the established locations like The New Yorker. We’ve featured winners of Flannery O’Connor, Bram Stoker, Hugo, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, and numerous other awards. And we love to promote writers as a result. They are the real influencers and draw, and as such, readers are encouraged to talk directly with them. Authors are invited to do live video, Q&As, book clubs, readings of their stories and even take over our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages. No pretense, no filter, no attitude.

One of our most popular tweets had nothing to do with writing, when one of our writers used our account to rant about the superiority of barbecue chicken pizza. We are happy to provide a platform for our writers because they are the feature presentation, not us.

Kelly Abbott is Founder & CEO of Great Jones Street, a short fiction app for the mobile lifestyle and the largest annual purchaser of short fiction, collaborating with publishers to offer their readers a more engaging experience. Formerly he was with Livefyre (a real-time content marketing system, acquired by Adobe). He is at the forefront of social and technological innovation for publishers and brands and can be reached at

Home page photo: Reading by Fabio, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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