October 25, 2007
How To

Social Networking: How to Build a Publication That Relies on Readers for High-Value Content

SUMMARY: Publishers don’t have to be scared of social networking sites. Instead, they can embrace the community concept by developing new magazine publishing models that reflect shared interests among readers.

See how a publisher launched a photography magazine relying entirely on user-generated content to build their issues. Includes strategies on viral marketing, blog outreach and linking with photo-sharing sites.
The surging interest in social networking sites and user-generated content has found many traditional publishers struggling to adapt their publications and Web sites to users’ online habits. Some even see this interest as a threat to their professionally-produced, subscription-based products.

By contrast, 8020 Publishing has embraced the trend to develop a new magazine publishing model. JPG Magazine, the company’s photography title, relies on a huge online community of amateur and professional photographers to submit photographs to the company’s Web site and vote on the submissions they would like to see produced in the bimonthly print publication.

The result, says JPG Editor and Publisher Paul Cloutier, is both a thriving online community and a print magazine that is more relevant to the audience.

“Relevance comes from the huge amount of information that’s already available, so we don’t have to commission pieces,” Cloutier says. “By having simple tools that cut through a lot of the bureaucracy that traditional publishers have, it creates an elegant feedback loop. At the end of the day, we’re printing something the community has produced to a great extent, so we know they’re going to be interested in it.”

8020 Publishing is applying this model to other titles as well, including an upcoming travel magazine. We spoke with Cloutier to learn how they developed an active online community that plays an integral role in creating a print publication.

Here are the six key strategies they followed:

-> Strategy #1. Select topics with a passionate audience who can contribute lots of material

To develop a robust online community and unique new publication, the team focused on topics that had a large, passionate audience. Just as important as passion was that audience’s tendency to “self-document,” in Cloutier’s term -- a group that was already generating tons of material that could be uploaded to a Web site and used as raw materials for a magazine.

Photography was their first choice because the team came from a photography background, but it also fulfilled the primary goals:
o A huge number of amateur and professional photographers.
o Vast quantities of original photographs already on their hard drives or on other photo-sharing sites that could be uploaded to the JPG Magazine community.

They also focused on short-form content that was suitable for an online community, such as user comments, “favorites” lists, and short articles. These are the types of contributions community members are likely to make -- and make repeatedly -- as opposed to traditional, long-form articles.

-> Strategy #2. Grow the community with viral tools

Cloutier says a big misconception that publishers make is the notion that they can “build” a community. “Communities are grown. You plant field and give people place to hang out. But it’s not really our community, it’s theirs.”

Still, the team developed several techniques to foster that community, focusing on viral elements that would help it grow to more than 100,000 members in one year:

- Voting on photo submissions. Not only does voting allow the community to help create the magazine, it’s incentive for members to reach out to friends and colleagues to participate. When someone uploads a photo to the JPG Magazine site, they’re likely to encourage everyone they know to vote for their photograph -- and voting requires visitors to sign up for a free membership.

- Viral marketing for the site and the publication, including:
o Links with photo-sharing sites, such as Flickr and SmugMug.
o Outreach to photography blogs, including discount print subscription coupon programs and invitations to talented photo bloggers to join the JPG Magazine community.
o Interoperability with other social media sites, such as a JPG Facebook widget.

“The fact is, nobody is as one dimensional as you might think they are. They’re not only part of one community, so be respectful of the fact that people are all over the place and get involved with those places.”

-> Strategy #3. Provide incentives and recognition to encourage activity

The team created unique features to ensure that members saw the value of being an active member of the community. These included:

- The promise of publication. The primary motivating factor appealed to community members’ selfish interests -- participating in the JPG community gives them the chance to see their work in a print magazine.

“There are more and more places to get your 15 minutes of fame on the Web, but there are fewer and fewer places to be put on a pedestal in a magazine, a newspaper or on TV. There’s simply a lot of excitement in that.”

- Inspiration for new work. The team also motivates members by choosing three themes for each issue, and they encourage members to submit existing photos or take new photos they believe fit those themes.

Themes tend to be broad, rather than specific, to encourage participation and accommodate the widest range of submissions. For example, rather than choosing “Flowers,” the team would choose “Growth,” knowing that they would still receive a large number of pictures of flowers, plants and other nature scenes.

They also choose three themes that fit the basic construct of people, places and things because some photographers prefer to shoot images of people, while others are interested in landscape photography, still lifes, architectural images and other subjects.

- Frequent recognition of individual community members. In addition to the potential for publication, Cloutier’s team highlights the most active and popular community members. Recognition tools include:
o The ability to create lists of favorite photographs, with tags on each photo that show how many times it’s been “favorited”
o Highlighting “featured” members on the site’s People section
o Calling out new featured members on the JPG blog

Thanks in part to those measures, JPG averages about 6 million page views a month from 250,000 unique visitors, and each visitor views eight to 12 pages per visit. 30% of community members submit photos for the issues, and 35% to 40% of members vote on submissions. That equals roughly 1 million votes per issue.

-> Strategy #4. Retain editorial control over the print product

Although community voting is an integral part of the publishing process, each issue is not strictly a popularity contest. The name 8020 Publishing refers to the fact that 80% of the process is dictated by the community, with 20% staying under control of the editorial team.

Retaining control of the final print product is essential for several reasons, says Cloutier:

- The magazine needs to be different from what members see on the Web site, and the editors have the big-picture view of what makes a good magazine. Starting with the user submissions, the editorial team works to find narratives and consistent threads that help them assemble the final photo spreads and to see which photos work well together.

- Editors can ensure there’s diversity in the final selection of photographs. “If this were just 100% the wisdom of crowd, you might end up with lots and lots of pictures of sunsets or whatever’s popular to the majority of the community.”

- Relying on a single factor to choose submissions sets up the possibility for gaming the system. In early editions of the magazine, the team noticed that some members were employing hordes of friends to stuff the ballot box for their photos.

To prevent ballot-box stuffing, they developed an algorithm that takes into account additional factors, such as number of votes by active members, how many times the photo has been “favorited,” and how often it has been emailed to other people.

-> Strategy #5. Keep publication process transparent

Each issue of JPG Magazine is assembled over a three-month cycle. Editors choose themes for upcoming issues and open a two-month window for photo submissions and voting. At the end of the voting process, they begin laying out up to 50 potential magazine spreads from the top submissions in each theme. Those spreads are eventually narrowed down to the three that will appear in the magazine.

Once the magazine is finalized, contributors receive an email telling them their photo has been chosen, along with a coupon for a free subscription and a $100 payment. But the team also communicates with all the members whose photos weren’t selected:

- Every member who submitted a photo for an issue gets a polite rejection letter, which encourages them to keep submitting photos for future issues.

- Once the issue is on the newsstands, the team assembles an online “editors cut” of the magazine, displaying the 30-50 possible spreads they considered before picking the final three.

“We get about 15,000 photos per issue and only run about 70 of them. That’s why we’re developing these outtakes to make it a more inclusive process and not just a short list of people who get recognized.”

-> Strategy #6. Offer free, digital version of the magazine to encourage subscriptions

Although membership in the JPG community is free, a subscription to the print magazine costs $24.99 a year. However, the team decided to make a free digital edition available online as a way to promote print subscriptions.

Rather than hurting subscription sales, the technique resulted in an almost immediate increase in subscriptions of about 10%. Cloutier credits the boost from the team’s focus on maintaining the Web site and print publication as two distinct products with different appeals for community members.

The magazine has about 7,000 subscribers, the vast majority of whom are also community members. “Speaking to the point of community, the people who helped us get this magazine created should see it, even if they’re not paying for it. It also makes sense to see the final product in print, holding it in your hands. If people think they can get the same thing by coming to our site, we should just go home.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from JPG Magazine:

JPG Magazine:

8020 Publishing:

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