Grab a pencil and a couple of sheets of paper… this (true) story starts with a person I call the frenzied publisher.
A big content mess
Some time ago I walked into the office of this publisher who was scanning a conference room table (with about 30 pieces of paper on it) in order to re-design his website. He was trying to sort out what pages would go where and how his layouts would look. He was tackling his homepage, the sub pages, where the features would go, the ad zones and all the components of his revised publication.
He didn’t look very happy, because he kept throwing pieces of paper in the garbage. Worse, he had already picked out a new WordPress theme (design) and was trying to cram the publications content into this premade template. He had no idea where he was going with the new site.
This approach assumes that the publisher’s priorities fit into a structure that was made by a designer who has no idea what the goals of this publication are.
The lure of designing your site up front is strong, but you (and your audience) will never be satisfied with it because you don’t really know what is most important to you (the trap is that in the beginning you will tend to find everything important).
I call this the kitchen sink approach where too much content and functionality are dumped on a page without any thought to what is really crucial (this also happens over time as you “add stuff” that you need to fit in). Have you ever seen a news or magazine site that is just a jammed mess on the home page?
Design follows priorities
So what’s the problem here? The problem is that we are tempted to start at the end and want to choose a design that looks snazzy, but doesn’t support the mission of your publication. If you think about it, form follows function, or design follows priorities. The solution is to figure out what your publication needs to achieve 1st, and then the design can support those needs.
For most magazines and news sites there are two common priorities that need to be figured out:
1. What are you really selling?
- premium subscription content
- community exclusivity
- a print publication
- historical archives
2. How are you building your audience?
- Email: building an e-mail list would rank as one of the top priorities for any online publication, as an e-mail list is gold for reaching subscribers over and over again and converts paying subscribers by 10x or more (and as a bonus a larger list means more email advertising/sponsorship revenue).
- SEO: web content that will attract visitors via Google search
- Social media engagement… interacting on related Facebook groups, blogs, and social sites where you audience is
- YouTube (the world’s 2nd largest search engine)
- Podcasts (iTunes, Spotify, etc)
- Print via snail mail
These are priorities and concerns that most publishers face.
A pile of nuts and bolts
Okay let’s go a little deeper and talk about some of features that you might install on your publication. These are features that you will likely come across as needed to support the mission of your magazine or news site:
- feature articles
- current issue and past issues page layout
- ad zones
- sponsored content
- a compelling subscription funnel strategy
- free registration benefits
- e-mail subscription signup
- your social media hangouts
- free downloads
- PDFs or flipbooks
- a store
- what’s coming in the next issue
- bringing forward conversation by highlighting comments in your publication
- iOS and Android apps
- the 53 different WordPress plugins you thought would be cool for your site
- lots of other things
You will go crazy trying to lay out these elements and decide what’s needed without knowing which are most important (I have seen it more times than I would like). It’s time to create a plan of action, or a blueprint, for your publication to make everything make sense for the reader and motivate your reader to do what you want them to do (typically starts by capturing the reader’s email into the top of your engagement funnel).
I promise you once you finish blueprinting your publication, design will be a snap. You will be able to hand off your blueprint priorities and wireframes (skeleton outline of your website based on your blueprint) to a designer thrilled to have a wonderful structure that’s clear so that the design can promote your priorities. Or if you’re choosing a WordPress theme, pick the right layout to support most of your needs right out-of-the-box. Tweaking required. This is how we have developed 100’s of publication relaunches and it works every time.
How do you create your blueprint and wireframes? What are they?
Here’s a sample (and real) homepage wireframe created after the blueprinting session:
A blueprint is a writeup that states what the priorities of your publication are, outlines the details of those priorities, includes layout guidance for at least the homepage and your article pages, and what software and plugins you need to help execute your new plan. This leads to wireframes which are simply skeleton drawings of the layout of your pages on your site (see above example).
So how do you create a blueprint? Here are the steps to get your blueprint and wireframes written up. If you follow them as we have in our work, you’ll end up with a publication that will reach, engage, and generate reader income.
Blueprinting is the best $$ you will spend on your publication. Here’s how:
1. Have a conversation with a marketing geek. Now is the time to find an online marketer, a brand specialist, somebody with a good sales head on their shoulders, someone who can give you some frank feedback on your ideas. Ideally you find someone who specializes in digital marketing. Pay them to sit down with you for a morning meeting and have a conversation about your publication to find out what your goals are, how you will attract new readers, help you look at any other publications you like, and crystalize how to make money with your publication.
The key: Having a conversation about the nuts and bolts of your publication naturally and organically bubbles up what’s important to you. It’s usually when you shout something like.. “yeah we need to do that!” that you know you have stumbled across a real priority.
How to start: Whip out your blank paper and your pencil (so you can change your mind). Write Homepage on one sheet.
Start the conversation. Talk about the simple stuff first, warm up with other magazines/sites you have seen that you like, and talk about the functions you see in them that you think might work. Talk about your content, articles, photos, videos, audio, events that you might want to publish. Talk about your audience and what they need to see in your publication. Talk about how to reach new readers. Talk about how to encourage readers to subscribe to something. Talk about advertisers and who they are and what they might want to be part of. Talk about the little things.
What will happen will surprise you. As you discuss and hit upon something you really really want, write it down on your page titled Homepage. Continue to do this until your homepage is filled up with your big and little wants. This conversation should clarify exactly what’s important to you, so that at the end you will have a nice neat pile of priorities on your Homepage ready for you to rearrange.
At the top of the second sheet write Article Page. Your individual Article page is the 2nd most important page on your site (remember 70% of your readers will land on your article page 1st before they see your homepage). Look at your sheet titled Homepage. What items on your priority list need to also live on your article page? Copy them over to your Article page. When readers start landing on your article pages you will want them to continue to read and engage on your site. Perhaps it’s access to more articles or a free pdf they need to drop off their email address for. Make sure you read: Your magazine article page layout – top 7 todos.
Once you finish this conversation(s) you will find yourself in a much better space and even more fired up about your publication. This is a huge step forward in cementing exactly what your publication needs to offer right up front.
2. The next step is to go through these priorities and figure out which ones are most important for publication, and weed out the priorities (which after a day or 2 of sleeping on this list) don’t make sense. Choose to focus on as few home page items as possible. Keep in mind the fewer things you show to your reader the more impact they will have. Every element you add to your site distracts from your true priority. Consider how much content you find on google.com‘s homepage: Answer it’s 1 search box and they have 100’s of products.
3. Sketch out the home and article page wireframes Sketch out the basic building blocks of your important sections. The trick is to figure out how much real estate to assign each of your priorities. This now comes more naturally since you know what’s really important. Keep in mind as you draw (yes use that pencil) that site visitors scroll down your pages.
As long as there are clues that more content lives down below, we have gotten so good at scrolling that we actually prefer it to clicking links. It’s way faster to scroll down a page (with scroll wheels or your finger on mobile) than it is to click a link and wait for the next page to load. Take a look at the nytimes.com and see how far down they put content on their pages.
4. Design it. Finally. Now that you have your wireframes and know what is really important for your home/article pages, it’s time to design. If you go custom, your designer will hug you for giving them such blueprint and wireframe clarity. Their sole mission will now be to create a look and feel that lifts up your priorities for your readers to see and interact with.
Go find a template: you can go to the WordPress repo (news or magazine themes) or other theme makers for a design starting point. If you can find a premade design or theme that matches your wireframe you are golden. Keep it simple, it’s much easier to add in elements to a clean canvas than try to strip things out. Keep in mind you don’t have to love the theme at first, just like it. In the hands of a good WordPress developer they will help you find a theme for you since they know the good ones. When it’s all done, you and your audience will love it.
Whether you go custom design or go with a premade theme you will end up with a website that supports your priorities exactly and generates revenue you need.
I hope this blueprinting roadmap helps you to understand how to tackle rebooting your publication.