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LION Publishers Q&A

A Q&A with David Walsh – LION17

What drew you to work specifically with media sites such as LION Publishers and what inspires you about your work?

We were originally a traditional development and marketing company that worked with businesses in different sectors but I often found myself bored with how static traditional websites are. I love how media sites are high traffic and constantly changing. Every day there are new ideas on how to attract and retain users, get a competitive edge for digital advertising or build new revenue channels.

I’m also a serial entrepreneur and love the idea of publishers venturing out to build a sustainable business. The independence of a hyperlocal news site is a unique combination of the American dream and freedom of the press that I wholeheartedly support.

What are some of the most common requests you get from publishers?

Troubleshooting website problems make up 50 percent of the issues we deal with. The most common issue we troubleshoot is plugin conflicts when upgrades are done to the core. With so many plugins available for WordPress it’s very easy for a user to always default to installing a plugin for a specific function that an experienced developer could build without the plugin. While plugins aren’t a bad thing, the overuse of plugins often leads to conflicts or malware injections on a website.

The other half is consulting with publishers on how to create additional monetization opportunities, better ad placements, making the ad experience more efficient, strategizing and launching new initiatives as well as a constant focus on improving the user experience.

How would you rate the average local online news site on user experience, and what basic advice would you give to publishers about their readers’ interaction with their sites?

With mobile dominating the way users are accessing news sites it’s important for publishers to evaluate their site through a data driven lens. There are a ton of tools that we use to evaluate what users are doing on a website, what they’re using to access the site, their demographics, date of access, etc. A site owner may have their own tastes and opinions that they want implemented on the site based on who they think is using the site but the data may tell an entirely different story.

What should the baseline best practice be for publishers when it comes to mobile responsiveness or mobile optimization of a news site, from both a design and revenue perspective?

It’s no longer an option to have a website that’s not mobile responsive. A typical site is seeing more than half of its traffic coming from mobile devices. One important thing that should not be overlooked is that the advertisers are viewing the site on mobile also and they don’t want to see their ads buried at the bottom of the page. It’s important to find a healthy balance that delivers content and ads to satisfy both readers and advertisers.

What’s been most challenging working with small publishers? What’s been rewarding?

One of the most challenging things about the independent space is budget restraints. There are so many great ideas that are difficult to implement because a bootstrapped independent site doesn’t have the budget of a corporate conglomerate. It’s one of the great draws of an organization like LION and their 2017 LION Summit because it gives publishers and sponsors the ability to openly discuss this and share ideas to help each other as a community.

The most rewarding part of what I do is that I become a part of the publisher’s team. I love receiving emails from the publishers I’m working with telling me about how traffic is up, revenue is up and processes are more efficient. Web Publisher PRO is a company that I’ve bootstrapped in the same way a publisher builds their business and our growth directly correlates with the growth of the publishers we work with.

You’ll be speaking at the 2017 LION Summit about monetization of email newsletters. Are you mainly talking about advertising served via email, and what’s the difference between that and a typical website ad for the advertiser, reader and publisher?

At the 2017 LION Summit I’ll primarily be talking about advertising served via email through a platform like Mailchimp integrated with Broadstreet Ads. The email newsletter ads are even more targeted than the same ad on the website. The newsletter mailing list is a group of readers that have gone a step further and requested to receive proactive emails about new content. It’s a great up-sell opportunity for a publisher to charge an additional fee for an advertiser to be in the daily newsletter. It’s also a low maintenance additional revenue channel that can be built and automated through RSS. As an extra layer of value by using tools like Google Analytics we can determine the best times to send the newsletters to increase traffic on the primary website.

How responsive are you when a publisher needs something completed?

We have very fast turnaround times. Our publishers have access to us via phone, email and text message. We respond to inquiries same day and turn around the majority of troubleshooting in a maximum of 24 hours. For larger initiatives and projects we work with the publisher to determine a realistic timeline. For site outages, ad outages, hacks or major problems we have rapid response and put all hands on deck for an immediate solution.

Have you ever found it challenging to communicate with or stay ‘on the same page’ with clients who have different levels of tech-savvy?

There can at times be difficulty in explaining how things will work without providing a visual. When discussing technical functionalities as a theoretical exercise a lot can be missed. A practice we’ve implemented this year is doing screenshare conferences or building staging sites to demo functionalities. Through focusing on working with media sites we also often have references of other client sites that we can use to demo.

What are the most important criteria publishers should evaluate when hiring a developer?

Reliability – It’s important to hire a developer that is reliable. An advertiser doesn’t want to hear that you can’t get in touch with your developer when your site is facing a major outage or problem. Unfortunately our industry is loaded with part-time developers that have jobs or other priorities which put you at the bottom of the list.

Industry Experience – It’s also important to ensure that the developer you’re working with is familiar with robust high traffic online publications. It’s easy to find someone that “knows WordPress” but it’s another thing to find a developer that has worked with a site that gets 500,000 visits, has 50,000 posts and hundreds of thousands of media files. In addition to knowing how to efficiently work with ad servers and other revenue tools.

Reputation – Look into your developers other clients. Are they successful and happy? Go through their portfolio and contact some of their current and past clients and ask them how they like working with the developer. Do your homework.

Communication – One of the most important qualities is to make sure you communicate well with the developer. This is a two way street and it’s difficult to work with someone that you don’t enjoy talking with.

Best CMS Platforms

Choosing the Best CMS: Open-Source vs. Closed Source

Open-source vs. closed. For independent publishers looking to build or revamp their websites, there might be no greater question.

Choosing the right content management system (CMS) is one of the first decisions a publisher makes, and within the broad category of CMS platforms are both open-source and closed solutions.

A content management system is the backbone of a website, supporting the publishing and editing of all digital content. For publishers, choosing the best CMS is extremely important because nearly every member of the organization will interact with the software on a daily basis. Behind every blog and digital newspaper, there’s a CMS doing the heavy lifting. But some CMS platforms do more of the heavy lifting than others.

The first step to finding the best CMS is to look at whether the platform is open-source or closed. While WordPress is the most well-known and popular of the open-source solutions, there are a number of lesser-known platforms, such as Drupal and Joomla, that are also used by online newspapers, magazines, and blogs to publish content on the web. With a large community of users, open-source CMS platforms like WordPress are often considered to be the easiest and most straightforward option for independent publishers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are closed CMS platforms. Solutions such as Rivista, Haven Nexus, and Metro Publisher all fall into this category. Closed CMS platforms are like prefab homes, in that they’re designed to be used by organizations in a specific industry with little to do in the way of customization. While the initial costs with a closed CMS are sometimes lower, many proprietary systems come with expensive monthly or yearly premiums, and exporting data can be tricky.

Here are four additional questions to consider when choosing the best CMS for your publication:

What is the interface like?

Reporters, editors, and other members of your publication’s team will be interacting with the CMS on a daily basis, so it’s important to choose a solution with an interface that’s easy to use. Content needs and brand guidelines play a major role in determining how well a particular CMS will work for a publication. Although there is something to be said for personal preference, open-source solutions like WordPress usually win out when it comes to the interface and usability.

Can I customize the system?

Publishers who want a unique look or custom features on their websites will often be better off with an open-source CMS platform, since closed systems can limit the options available. Using plugins and extensions, publishers can customize their WordPress websites for a fraction of the price that they could expect to pay with a closed system.

Even publishers who feel comfortable with an out-of-the-box template website with a closed CMS should consider any changes or upgrades they may want to make as their publications grow in the future. Publishers who choose open-source platforms can make modifications at any time, with or without the help of a developer, depending on their level of expertise. While customizations on an open-source platform may cost extra, this is usually a one-time cost—versus an ongoing expense. Still, publishers should take pricing into consideration when selecting the best CMS.

How frequently is the system updated?

A closed CMS may not be updated as frequently as an open-source system. Publishers who opt for an open-source solution like WordPress benefit from the community, with a team that’s dedicated to enhancing features based on the latest advancements in technology and web security.

While there are some CMS vendors that do an adequate job of rolling out software updates at regular intervals, the vast majority of these providers have systems that are largely considered outdated. If you are thinking of going with a closed CMS, request a change log from the vendor to see how frequently upgrades are being made before making a final decision.

Will I be handcuffed to a system?

What happens when it’s time to migrate from one CMS to another? Exporting data from a closed system to an open-system or even one closed system to another can be challenging and very expensive. Open-source solutions, such as WordPress make it easier to be “platform independent,” meaning that you can expect a smoother transition moving data from one platform to another if you decide to make a change in the future.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to finding the best CMS platform, most independent publishers with local news websites will find that open-source platforms, such as WordPress, offer the most flexibility with better pricing than what’s available through closed solutions.

Social Media Strategy for Publishers

Building a Social Media Strategy – A Step-by-Step Guide for Publishers

Two-thirds of adults in the U.S. now get their news from social media, and younger adults are even more likely to name social media as a main source of information. While major media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have the budgets to hire social media strategists and take full advantage of the opportunities within platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, local publishers are often left to figure out how to build a social media strategy on their own.

More than just a channel for self-promotion or one-way communication, social media has the potential to become a tool for collaborative reporting and curating content, as well as an endless source of story ideas for local reporters looking for the next great scoop. For publishers who have figured out how to monetize social media, platforms like Facebook and Twitter can also become new sources of revenue.

What is a social media strategy?

The best social media strategies involve some combination of a comprehensive overview and a day-to-day action plan. For publishers, a comprehensive overview should be a written plan that includes the organization’s goals for social media—for example, increasing reader contributions, bringing in new subscribers, or creating a new source of revenue—along with a specific plan of action for achieving those goals.

Developing a social media strategy isn’t always as simple as it seems. Depending on the size of the publication, multiple departments may need to be involved. Marketing, sales, and editorial teams should work collaboratively to come up with a synergistic plan that improves efficiencies when it comes to the type of content being posted across whichever social channels the publication decides to utilize.

When should the sales department get involved?

Developing a social media strategy that’s solely focused on optimizing traffic to the publisher’s website is shortsighted. Independent publishers who are focused on the bottom line will want to get their sales and marketing departments involved in the process, as well.

Independent news websites can easily include sets of sponsored social media posts as part of the ad packages they sell, just as long as the advertisement is clearly labeled. Selling these types of packages will become easier as the publisher’s editorial and marketing departments execute their parts of the social media strategy and build up a large organic following across multiple social channels.

How can social media be integrated into the workflow?

A well thought-out social media strategy shouldn’t be a burden to reporters or members of the publication’s marketing team. One of the biggest mistakes publishers make is coming up with a strategy that reporters are expected to execute without providing those reporters with any tools or plans for streamlining those new tasks.

Integrating a social media strategy into the workflow for editorial, marketing, and sales teams usually means introducing one or more new technology platforms. From simple solutions like Hootsuite, which reporters can use to schedule posts on social media, to platforms like Sprout Social, which publishers can use to visualize publishing calendars, manage digital assets, and determine the optimal time to post on each social network, there are hundreds—if not thousands—of solutions to choose from.

Outlets that publish on WordPress have the additional benefit of being able to use plugins to streamline the social media workflow. For example, publishers can use the Instant Articles for WP plugin to efficiently distribute content on Facebook. SumoMe is another vendor with a WordPress plugin that makes it easy for web visitors to share a publisher’s content on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.

What are realistic goals?

While it’s true that social media can drive traffic to local news websites, publishers have to be realistic. Expectations should take timeframe and budget into consideration. An independent publisher who isn’t willing to invest significantly in social media isn’t going to see the same type of immediate results as a major news outlet with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on sponsored posts across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

With a strong social media strategy in place, however, local online publishers can expect to see an uptick in brand awareness, website traffic, and positive sentiment among readers. These are all metrics that should lead to a positive return on investment, and they’re much more indicative of a successful social media strategy than the number of ‘likes’ or followers that an organization accumulates. Publishers who are getting their sales departments involved should also start tracking the number of sales inquires and leads coming in each month, as these figures should start increasing, as well.

mobile first design for publishers

Mobile Optimization Strategies for Local Publishers

More people access the Internet from mobile devices than desktop, and that’s not just counting millennials or members of Generation Z. More than four-in-ten seniors now use smartphones, as well, and yet the user experience on websites accessed from mobile devices is still lacking in many cases. Mobile optimization hasn’t been fully integrated into the publishing ecosystem, largely because many publishers don’t understand the benefits of creating fully mobile-focused websites.

For years, mobile has been considered the missing piece for independent online publishers. That’s despite the fact that 46% of people now access news on their smartphones. Without mobile optimization, publishers are missing out on conversions and hurting their search engine rankings. According to Google, people are 5x more likely to leave a website that isn’t mobile-friendly. For publishers who should be looking to impress advertisers, especially, it can be downright disastrous for paid ads to get buried at the bottom of a page.

As with nearly everything in life, a healthy balance is key. The right optimization strategy delivers content and ads in a way that satisfies readers and advertisers on both desktop and mobile devices.

Here are five mobile optimization strategies that independent online publishers should take into consideration.

1. Test for mobile usability

See for yourself what the user experience on your website is like on a mobile device. Keep in mind that your website may not look the same to users on every device, and just because one page looks OK doesn’t mean every page does.

Google has thorough tool that publishers can use to evaluate the mobile-friendliness of their websites and test how people can use their websites on smartphones and tablets.

Potential technical issues that could be impacting the mobile optimization of your website include flash usage, a viewport that’s not configured, content that’s not sized to viewport, and interstitial usage, which is a full-screen popup that can negatively impacts the user experience on mobile devices.

2. Optimize site load speeds for mobile

Visitors on mobile devices are less apt to wait around for pages to load and more apt to click away from sites with slow load times. Even when a webpage loads quickly on a WiFi network, that doesn’t mean users with 4G devices won’t still have problems.

Test for site load times using page speed tools and then work to eliminate elements that might be slowing things down, like images that aren’t compressed and JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content. Also consider leveraging browser caching as a way to optimize site load speeds for mobile users.

3. Go fully responsive

When publishers make their sites fully responsive, they don’t have to worry about creating separate designs for each device. Fully responsive websites should eliminate the need for plugins. Responsive websites are also more efficient for bot crawling, indexing, and organizing website content — all important elements in search engine optimization.

Instead of dividing the page rank between two sites, with a traditional website and a mobile version, fully responsive websites consolidate everything into one URL and are generally easier for publishers to manage. In addition to the SEO benefits, having a condensed, responsive site makes it easier for readers to share articles and links across social media.

4. Setup mobile responsive ads

Not all adservers are the same. Some make it much easier to set up mobile responsive ads than others. Platforms that are popular with independent publishers, like Broadstreet, allow users to create responsive ad zones. Responsive ads make it simpler for publishers to offer cross-device campaigns on their sites, with ad units that can adapt to different devices.

In addition to increased efficiencies, responsive ads help publishers monetize traffic by allowing them to easily sell cross-platform ad packages.

5. Get rid of interstitial ads

Google’s mobile interstitial penalty, which was rolled out in January 2017, penalizes sites with ads that prevent mobile users from viewing content by lowering their mobile rankings. These penalties impact publishers with pop-ups, welcome ads, and roadblock ads on their sites.

Possible solutions include turning off interstitial ads for visitors using mobile devices, placing interstitials further down on pages, or adding floating “smart bars” instead of interstitial ads, since “smart bars” are not being penalized by Google at this point.

For publishers who are more focused on producing great journalism than upgrading their websites for mobile compatibility, programs like Web Publisher PRO can do most of the behind-the-scenes work for mobile optimization. These ensures that publishers have the latest website upgrades, so that their sites won’t be penalized by search engines.