Transforming Your Magazine Into a Powerhouse Online Presence

Way back in November, I attended a conference in BC for magazine publishers. I attended for free as a student of Simon Fraser University, and went to get information for a magazine I volunteer with. I went to a few panels, took a lot of notes, and figured I’d share the tips from one of them here. Keep in mind that the notes that follow are for meant for magazine publishers, but can be repurposed for publishers and authors, as well. Scale the scope of this advice up or down appropriately. Also, keep in mind that I wrote these notes by hand, and I might not have caught everything the speaker explained. They’re also in a fairly casual format (I figured the post would get way too long if I took it out of bullet points!) If you’ve got questions, I’m sure I can elaborate on them in the comments.

Conference: MagsWest 2016

Panel: Transforming Your Magazine Into a Powerhouse Online Presence

Speaker: Hal Niezdviecki, Editor, Broken Pencil (

About Broken Pencil

“Broken Pencil is the entertaining, indispensable guide to zines.”
– the Toronto Star

About Broken Pencil: the magazine of zine culture and the independent arts

Welcome to Broken Pencil! Since 1995, we have been a mega-zine dedicated exclusively to exploring independent creative action. Published four times a year, each issue of Broken Pencil features reviews of hundreds of zines and small press books, plus comics, excerpts from the best of the underground press, interviews, original fiction and commentary on all aspects of the indie arts. From the hilarious to the perverse, Broken Pencil challenges conformity and demands attention.

Extending your brand to digital & mobile:

  • Online content > think tablets and smartphones
    • Is your website and social media mobile-friendly?
  • 90% of consumers prefer print over digital editions
    • 67% consider electronic edition a complement to the print version (of current subscribers, 75% feel that way)

What does this say? It says that the print version of a magazine is still the most important aspect of any publishing enterprise. Print editions mean more value (in the reader’s eye) and a physical product to sell (which will sell better than a digital-only magazine).

You are a BRAND whether you like it or not.

Your brand has many hubs. They may include:

  • a newsletter (monthly, bi-monthly, weekly)
  • social media (FB, Twitter, Instagram)
  • blog (stream of content) – weekly
  • digital edition of magazine
  • print magazine

Magazines should not think of themselves as a magazine. They should think of themselves  as a company that pushes out a certain type of content all branded in a particular way.

So, where are YOU publishing?

  • Facebook?
  • Twitter?
  • E-newsletter?
  • Blog?
  • Digital edition?

And WHY are you publishing there?

  • for fun?
  • for distribution?
  • for engagement?

No! For…. SALES! Duh. 😛

Sales, ultimately, are the real purpose for a magazine to expand beyond their print editions. Never lose sight of this.

Develop a cohesive strategy.

What’s the primary goal? If it’s to make money, then how do you do that?

  • subscription sales
  • single issue sales
  • advertising (online/print)
  • driving audience to events
  • receive/increase grants

You can’t do everything — prioritize!

Test things out. Create targeted newsletter lists to see what works and what doesn’t.

Make your workflow more efficient by not spending too much time on what doesn’t work for you.

Do tests in your newsletters: for example, does “Subscribe” or “Buy This Issue” work better? Do your readers like one article, three, or an entire issue’s worth of stuff to look at?

What’s the secondary goal of your magazine?

  • to ADVANCE the cause, or SPREAD the word:
    • get people out to an event
    • increase awareness of the cause
    • brand recognition
    • get people to take action to advance the cause
    • grow email lists
    • grow social network follows


Where is your data coming from, and how are you tracking it?

  • WEB
    • native
    • Google search
    • referral link
    • Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Instagram

What are you actually achieving with all of this digital “nonsense?” Is it going somewhere, or nowhere? Use analytics to learn these things.

Keep your analytics simple.

Use a weekly chart (an Excel or Google Spreadsheet is just fine) that combines the most important metrics of Google Analytics and newsletter analytics available to you (keeping in mind your newsletter should be weekly or bi-weekly).

Social media is about building content for those platforms… you need to be collecting emails.

Track the following analytics for your website:

  • week # (or date range)
  • # of visitors
  • time spent on page
  • total page views
  • where visitors came from
  • the most clicked article (include % of list, and even 2nd most clicked article)
    • data cell should look like: /example.html #(clicks) #%(of visitors)

Tracking these things can help you see which social media feeds your site best, allowing you to prioritize the social networks that are actually giving you a return.

The most important thing is to track what is relevant to you, but keep it consistent, so you know where to put your energy.

Put as much as you can online, to keep Google Search and your readers happy. Don’t forget to optimize your images with Alt tags and descriptions, as well as titles, to give your site every chance at gaining native referrals via Google Search.

Newsletter Analytics to Track:

  • date sent
  • total sent
  • open rate
  • unsubs
  • total unique clicks
  • top clicks

Also, keep in mind that you can reuse archival content in your newsletter—just label the section something attractive, like “So-and-so’s Pick.”

Note: Don’t worry about your unsub rate! As long as your content is quality, that’s all that matters. Once a month is too little for a publication.

Build the Pyramid, Climb the Ladder: A Case Study in Increasing Subscriptions

This is your ladder:

  • Donate
    • Subscribe (or) Buy
      • Attend Events/Interact With Brand
        • Get E-newsletter
          • Read Website/Blog
            • Read Social Media

Your GOAL is to make the reader move up the rungs of the ladder; to get them OFF social media ASAP and ON your website. Getting emails is the priority. Give them “bait” to subscribe to your newsletter, slowly working toward the “Ask” (or the prompt to buy your book or a subscription to your magazine).

Your website’s goal should always be to sell more subscriptions. Even if you don’t have a print magazine to sell, you need to have something to sell!

Get More People TO the Ladder

  • Expand your pool of contacts: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; update your website constantly to increase native advertisement.
  • Push sign-ups for the e-newsletter on all platforms—there should be options to sign up for the newsletter no matter where they go.
  • Emphasize the sale of subscriptions/e-newsletter at all points of content/events rather than single issues/books.
  • Content is king/queen! Represent your product. Drive traffic to your website. Make them want more! The things you share on your social media can be “trash,” but once they are on your website, it needs to be gold.
  • On social media, share things from other people that can be even remotely connected to your brand.
  • On Twitter, use pictures and point to your community. Don’t look like you are wasting a bunch of time on there.

Your Website

The most important page on your website is your About page. Where are you? What are you about? What’s your history? Of all the pages on your website, this page is the one people will visit the most. WOW them! Think about adding your mandate, or a Q&A… and, predictably, give them a call-to-action—How can they get involved? (Subscriptions and newsletters!)

Also, make sure the most current, relevant stuff is at the top of the page. Say what you are doing now before saying what you might have used to do.

Your main page matters, too, obviously.

  •  Is there something there that people want to click?
  • Are your menus static and boring?
  • Is the content on your landing page exciting?

Make sure the content on your main page is good, relevant, and includes a call-to-action.

Convert Readers to Subscribers

Offer readers a special offer in the form of discounts, 24-hour sales, or a free issue.

When providing a free issue, there are a couple of ways to go about it:

  • Provide a free issue as they move up the ladder, but only after receiving their contact information via the e-newsletter
  • Provide a trial subscription, with no money upfront, but pay after the trial ends.

Make sure that you follow up with these new readers. Ask them how they liked the free issue. Ask for feedback and politely encourage them to subscribe before they forget. Treat this new account like a renewal. You can decide if you want to collect payment info ahead of time (like Amazon Prime) or prompt them to fill in payment info after. Whatever works for your brand.

The Leaky Paywall is Your Friend

Install a paywall that provides limited access to your website (The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, etc.)… however, as we all know, no one likes paywalls! So, what is the solution?


In the end, this is just a semantics issue, but one is much more pleasing than the other. Make your leaky paywall appropriate for your brand. If you post a lot of content (as you should be), limit free reads to five articles a month. A good example of a way to introduce a leaky paywall is through this WordPress plugin. It’s quite simple!

Final Thoughts

Another really good practice is to email or contact people in your social media personally from time to time. Don’t leave this to an automated service. Pick a good, doable number for your brand, and then stick with it. Reach out to people by tagging them on Twitter, or responding to their comments or posts on Facebook. Email people that subscribe to your list. Keeping it human will keep your readers loyal. Most of all, don’t sound like a salesman. In fact, don’t sell anything when doing this! Just check in and have a conversation.