Interview with TCU Magazine editors by Shane Shanks and Megan Youngblood
In a world of breaking news, fast clicks are the easy way to see if readers are responding to your stories. But following a magazine redesign with Zehno, Texas Christian University is embracing a broader strategy: look for the longtail.
What is a longtail, you ask?
A typical digital magazine story spikes when it is first posted, then tapers off drastically. But longtail stories rise again in readership, sometimes even years after the original story was published.
At CASE Editors Forum, TCU Magazine editors showed attendees how they amassed in-depth magazine analytics to uncover longtails — from a story about ordinary dorm renovation to ballet pedagogy! — and prove their digital magazine is performing.
We followed up with Editor Norma Martin, Assistant Editor Caroline Collier and Assistant Editor Trisha Spence to find out how TCU is making longtail thinking part of its story selection strategy.
Q. How did longtail stories first catch your eye?
Norma: When we started tracking our analytics in 2015, we noticed, especially on search, that certain content generated audiences on its own, really without our marketing efforts.
Delving into the data gave us an understanding of what those stories were and how audiences were finding them — whether that was through specific search terms or intentional social media sharing.
That helped us double down on what was working well and amplify those points of contact that drive the longtail through search and social.
Q. What’s your longest-running longtail story?
Caroline: There’s a story from 2011, before any of us were on the TCU Magazine team, that pops up regularly on our quarterly analytics report. It has an accidental longtail. That was before we had a specific strategy, and it’s still being read.
It is about TCU alumni who were beauty queens. You just never know!
Trisha: Longtails are like sleeper hits put out by musicians that no one really catches onto for a while. Then all of a sudden they’re just the greatest thing ever.
Q. How can you predict which stories will be a longtail?
Norma: If we only had a magic wand for that!
In theory, all stories should be longtails. These days we don’t plan a magazine thinking that something’s not going to be a longtail.
We look at the analytics to know what our audiences are reading. Then we factor in the university’s strategy. We want our stories to be relevant and interesting with those two criteria in mind.
Q. So you plan magazine content based on what your readers want and what the school needs you to say. And then you watch the results. What’s been your biggest longtail surprise?
Caroline: Our most-read story so far in 2019 — by a long shot — is a research story about a ballet professor’s unique pedagogy. She’s trying to reshape the way ballet is taught so that student reflection is at the center of the learning process.
That story’s been read in 95 countries by well over 10,000 people at this point, and for almost 5 minutes per person on average. And it’s about 1,000 words.
I was surprised that there was that much interest in ballet pedagogy.
Yeah, if you put the word pedagogy in there, you’d think most people would be repelled right away.
Caroline: And it was ballet pedagogy!
Norma: Readers were really drawn to that story about pedagogy, but it doesn’t mean we should always write about pedagogy for every issue going forward.
The longtail success shows that people are interested in research content, so we’ve bolstered that section of our magazine.
Trisha: Another surprise came when we heard about Beverley Bass, and we had to rearrange our story budget.
She was a pilot who was flying during 9/11, and her plane was detoured to Canada. A Broadway musical was made of that story, and it was nominated for a Tony. We moved some things around to cover that story.
Norma: We didn’t know a TCU alum was the feature of this Broadway musical. Somebody called and told us. So we were scrambling to get it in our magazine around the time that the Tonys were announced.
Trisha: Now that musical is on a national tour. So we’re hoping to get a little longevity coming off the media attention surrounding the tour.
Norma: When we started seeing the reaction, Caroline jumped on it with a social media promotional campaign. And Beverley Bass was doing her own promotional efforts. She was out there talking to folks, which only helped us out.
Trisha: We don’t live inside a bubble. We pay attention to anything anybody wants to pitch us. If someone says they have a great idea, it might be completely ridiculous — like about somebody’s pet turtle that we really don’t care about, but we’ll still totally listen — because sometimes our amazing stories come out of audience pitches to us.
Caroline: One article — published originally as a “latest news” article — is about the renovation of Colby Hall, the freshman residence hall. Every year when incoming students receive their dorm assignments, we see a spike in traffic for that particular story.
Interestingly, as part of our longtail strategy, when we notice a certain spike that comes from search like this Colby Hall story, Trisha will alert me, and I’ll build that story into the social media calendar.
Whenever interest is high through search, we share the story on social. I did that this year with room assignments, and we had hundreds of likes and dozens of comments about the story.
That story is four years old now, and it doesn’t have relevance to today’s “news.” But we still get a lot of search and social media attention from it.
Norma: We’re planning a story for next summer about residence life and residence hall design. The timing of that story is specifically placed to be published just before our admissions people are out in the field.
We did that with a story this past summer. It was a service learning story about TCU students going beyond campus and working in the community. We believe over time it will have a longtail. But we specifically put it in the summer issue because we knew that as our admissions officers — even gift officers — meet with prospects in the fall, this is an issue they can show as an example of what TCU does well.
Trisha: As journalists, we are keyed in to those patterns and trends. When we review our quarterly analytics report, if we see something was the top story this quarter, we don’t just forget the report thereafter.
We review all of our reports individually, and then we stack our annual reports together to look for longtails. Otherwise we wouldn’t really notice when a story like that Colby Hall renovation story pops up every year. Noticing those patterns is something that we have to be vigilant about.
Q. Thinking back to the redesign project, our teams made a lot of changes in the print and digital magazines. What’s the one change that’s had the biggest payoff?
Caroline: The new website, with its WordPress SEO-friendly headlines and responsiveness, amplified our digital outreach immediately. That had the biggest payoff of all.
Norma: Unlike many other places here on campus, we are able to pull our own analytics. Not many other people here who handle their websites have that ability, but we do because when we were redesigning the website we asked for those permissions and we got them.
Q. Why did your team decide to take on analytics and how did you learn to do it so well?
Norma: At conferences, I’ve learned that some editorial teams are frightened to do this work themselves. They want to farm it out and just receive the reports.
But I think it’s very, very important for editors to do this work themselves. Nobody knows the content better than we do. Nobody knows how stories are put together better than the editors who are planning and executing that content.
And we can move faster. When we start seeing a spike, we don’t have to wait for another team to tell us about it. We see it ourselves, we switch things around, and we move. We aren’t waiting around for another team to give us a report.
Q. Editors want to spend their time creating vivid stories, so maybe they view analytics as an awful mix of math and record-keeping! Is that why they shy away?
Norma: We’re journalists, and we figured out how to do it! And it’s not that hard.
But I think there’s an art to putting together reports. For two years, we had a trial and error in data visualization. We took data visualization classes and had Excel training. We constantly refer to a book called “The Big Book of Dashboards.”
Now we put together Word docs of quarterly and annual reports that are 40 to 50 pages deep. We build PowerPoint presentations to report analytics. We also do 18-19 dean’s reports a year that include print content analytics and digital analytics.
We’ve been able to pull analytics since the redesign, so we’re about to have longtails of our analytics, too. We’ll see how our content is performing year over year.
Maybe other editors don’t think they can devote the time to do analytics well. Beyond generating the reports, there’s deciding how to act on them.
Norma: It is not a small amount of time that we spend doing these things. But we took classes to learn how to put together these reports so that people would read them.
Trisha: Part of our success in thinking so progressively with analytics and all these data points is that we have our fundamentals down to a science. We know who our audience is. We key into those people. We know what kind of resources we have on campus. We are keenly aware of all these fundamental things that you learn in journalism school — good writing, good editing, superb photographers and designers.
We have a wonderful team, and that enables us to go to the next step.
Q. What’s on the horizon for digital magazines?
Caroline: For analytics reporting, what I’d like to start doing in the next five years is harnessing the data with AI.
IBM Watson has gotten to the point where you can upload spreadsheets and the machine will be able to find these patterns and relationships that a human might not be able to detect — like that a specific story really gets traffic on Thursdays around 4 o’clock. Or there’s a bump from India on this story because of a search for these two words. That’s what’s next.