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Online Loyalty: The Last Stand for Publishers

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We're done when I say we're done. - Walter White, Breaking Bad

It’s lunch hour on a Wednesday and you find yourself accelerating downward through a content wormhole. You’ve spent the past 30 minutes dancing on tangents - the Miley Cyrus video that led you to a top ten list of award show fails, a deep dive on Britney Spears, quickly diverging to a ‘where are they now’ journey with the original cast of the Mickey Mouse Club. This goes on for the better part of an hour - Stumbling, Redditing and (Buzz)feeding your way into a content coma, inevitably winding up where all content bingers end their meal: with cats.

No, this is not some aberration fueled by midday boredom and caffeine, this is the status quo of online content consumption ... and it is alarmingly fickle.

We live in a digital world of listicles and memes where content is bite-sized and effectively unattributed. Can you name the author of the last top ten list you read? The publication that first scooped the Epic Twerk Fail? How about the site you just landed on when you clicked my cat link? Probably not, and it presents an incredible challenge for online publications: the challenge of building loyalty.

It takes a smart content strategy to keep your content fresh enough to compete with the pace and frequency of digital snacking.

Take two of our sites here at Say: xoJane and Rookie. These publications are incredibly thoughtful about their publishing cadence. xoJane delivers an hourly publishing strategy nesting key article clusters at peak traffic times to draw critical mass and maintain reader appetite. This strategy is constantly A/B tested and refined to ensure the right balance of quantity and quality. Rookie, by contrast, has three daily deliveries of stories to match their readers’ (young women in school) lifestyle. Thoughtful, creative and damn rigorous.

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But it’s not just a thoughtful publishing schedule that keeps readers loyal. It is a delicate balance of predictability and unpredictability.

Predictability means a friction-less, comfortable reader experience. The design is clean and the intuitive ‘5 second’ page navigation gets out of the way. There’s a good old-fashioned editorial calendar that drives the content. Regular features create a strong draw of return readers. Most importantly, establishing a clear point-of-view (and sticking to it) establishes a feeling of trust and authenticity.

Unpredictability means you’ll never get bored. This means experimenting with content mix and type, reserving the 20 percent to be new and risky and actively identifying loyalists to reward or bring deeper into the fabric of the site.

The last piece of the loyalty puzzle is perhaps the most obvious. One of our editors put it bluntly: “If you don’t have a conversation with your reader, you are missing the point of the Internet.” That observation zeros in on the most powerful tool of loyalty, the prospect of building real relationships between the publication and the readership. Whether it is enabling a self-sustaining community around a point-of-view, writers need to take an active role in the discussion, or bring the communities built online to connect in person. Loyalty is largely driven by emotion; the result of identifying yourself with a brand - it’s the personal connection that makes it meaningful.

The reality is, there are a handful of behemoth platforms controlling the pipes of the Web. And while they do an excellent job of discovering content, they do a lousy job of surfacing the creators and curators behind it. Media was finite once. Loyalty was driven by content, which was inextricably tied to its source. MTV was synonymous with its programming and GQ was always attributed in water cooler conversations. But content is infinitely more competitive now, no longer organized by brand and curator but ranked by algorithm and pushed through the pipes.

That’s what makes loyalty the most essential focus for digital publishers today. Readership is constantly crashing on our shores - we can either collect it or watch it recede back into the sea.

Ed Urgola is Senior Director at Say Media. Follow him on Twitter @edurgola.

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