(Guest post by By Jeffrey A. Tucker, Director of Content for FEE)
Introduction: a bold experiment in reaching mainstream culture
Two years ago, FEE embarked on an experiment born of frustration. FEE’s website was not a product of its own but rather a kind of information board for advertising the institution. It had low performance. Brand recognition of the institution was not increasing.
And yet there was clearly opportunity. When you look at the venues considered to be mainstream distributors of ideas, they all trend toward the progressive and social democratic, i.e., statist. They fill up the smartphone feeds of millennials. They speak to them on all their social media platforms. Their websites enjoy millions of hits a week. They are profoundly affecting culture – not through political activism, policy study, or academic work, but rather through public commentary on the passing scene. They define what is fashionable.
What is preventing the ideas of liberty from entering this space? Truly nothing but talent, cleverness, and dedication. FEE aspired to apply these traits to our work. We pursued dramatic technological, distribution, and content changes designed to enter into the realm of public culture in a way that directly competes with mainstream venues. We deployed a series of objective measurements to assess our progress. We also set out to be adaptive in all these areas so we could continue to achieve this goal as the tools grew and adapted themselves.
The remainder of this post addresses the content aspect of the strategy.
Fixes and Changes
We first set out to perform a number of technical fixes: in-sourcing the website code for full control and fast development, tagging thousands of articles according to topic, cleaning up legacy cruft, adding missing metadata to articles, and so on. It was a huge job.
We set out to stop the traffic leakage we were experiencing (people hitting the site and leaving) with a series of strategies to capture email addresses. We then built up our daily sending list, from 3,000 two years ago to 45,000 today. As time went on, we added browser notifications for new articles, a new web design to enhance site credibility, and infinite scroll on content display.
We then turned to new content itself. As we looked back at FEE material over the decades, we found a contrast with the way it appeared in the 1950s and 1960s. Back then, the material was directed toward a general audience. It did not use in-group language. It didn’t presume that people were already on board with the libertarian vision. But as time marched forward, there was a subtle change. The language became ever more insular and in-group focused, aimed at movement edification rather than culture-wide influence. The editors presumed, probably rightly, that they were speaking to a marginal group about a narrow topic.
It was renewed interesting in growth among new audiences that motivated a move toward achieving a broader reach. Today, the purpose of FEE’s content is to describe and explain current events, history, policy, and social and economic theory in light of the ideas of liberty, as articulated by the liberal tradition and exemplified by FEE’s 70-year history.
The purpose is to expand the network of users and broaden the base of people who are exposed to a liberty perspective. The metric for us is summed up in one word: traffic, which is a fair proxy for audience. Without this essential component, not much else matters. You can have the perfect product, the perfect prose, the best analysis, the most wonderful presentation, the most correct doctrine. But if no one sees it, there is a problem. The element of traffic also intensifies the commitment to quality work. As Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.” You have some accountability. You can begin to craft your product in line with consumer preferences, and thereby replicate the essential dynamic and driving force of the market itself. After that, we look at demographics, granulated data about types of content, what they do, and how sticky their traffic is.
For traffic metrics, we depend on Google Analytics for granulated data and Alexa for ordinal ranking of our site relative to others. In two years, we’ve moved from the 130,000th most popular site on the web up to a stable 22,000. Our institutional goal is always up, with the hope that we will eventually stabilize in the range of 1,000. We have no estimate for when or even if this will happen.
Growth depends on content sharing – not just a first-round of readership but a second, third, and fourth. The content has to spread, not hit the wall of in-group consumption. Why do people share? There are many reasons. Sometimes a hard-edged ideological piece can work for what we call in-reach. But too much ideological vernacular can also discourage sharing, simply because what appears on people’s social timelines becomes a reflection of how they want to present themselves to a wide range of people within their friend networks.
Because social media is a main source of news today, FEE set out to present content that didn’t so much preach the doctrine but illustrate it in a mainstream and credible voice, and provide excitement about how liberal ideas can provide a better and more fulfilling understanding of the world around us. This content should not only feed our fans, but reach outside our existing audience.
Inreach vs. Outreach
For moment-by-moment analytics (and the team truly does follow traffic patterns all day and through the evening), we use Parse.ly, a platform specifically developed for editorial use. It logs on an ongoing basis what percentage of users are new or returning, a metric we use to determine whether a piece has in-reach power or out-reach power.
These two examples come from the day I’m writing this post. A piece on Google’s new translation algorithm posts these results from today.
This is successful outreach. For each new user, we try our best to harvest email, obtain approval for browser notifications, and keep people on the site by pushing more material along the same lines, dropping cookies that are capable of machine learning according to a user’s browsing habits.
On the other hand, here is a much more complex piece on libertarian strategy and the role of ideas – a piece we had intentionally decided for in-reach in order to deepen reader’s relationship with the liberal idea. And sure enough, the reader results are very different.
To be sure, every piece we publish starts out with nearly 100% returning visitors. It is not possible to bypass this group but for paid and targeted advertising. Given that people mostly reach our content via social media, it would be expected that the people who see it first are the fan base on FEE (and this fan base has grown by a factor of 10 in two years). We depend on them to share further outside our network and into theirs. But the path the content takes following that initial release depends heavily on the topic and approach we take with the content itself.
FEE, then, faces a dual obligation: reach new people and feed an existing fan base to further inspire them toward a deeper commitment. Each is important. But given the desire to grow our audience, FEE takes seriously the obligation to seek and explain to all willing listeners of goodwill. We adhere to principle but don’t necessarily wear our ideology on our sleeve or throw labels around, any more than The Atlantic explicitly advocates social democratic ideology in its articles. We show more than tell, in a way that reflects confidence. To put it another way, our philosophy is our musical scale but our literary output is our song.
We’ve discerned that the path to success must be discovered day-to-day through trial-and-error by a creative and venturesome team. It’s a matter of balance: energy with dignity, boldness with class, accessibility with substance, always striving for impact, excellence, improvement, and growth, while modeling the spirit of freedom.
Below are rules of the road we’ve established that reflect the mission and spirit of FEE.
Illustrate the social, moral, and practical merit of liberty as a principle of human association, and present this radical idea in a mainstream voice;
Achieve a balance of news, think pieces, long form and short form, inreach and outreach, classics, reprints from partner organizations, history, law, economics, cultural criticism, personal advice, biography, and so on;
Transcend the left-right paradigm, with roots in “mainline” intellectual traditions;
Strive to be engaging and interesting, with a harmony of graphics, title, and content with a premium on good writing and not just on taking the right position;
Contain no profanity and avoid tacky and vulgar expressions and images;
Eschew overly technical jargon or esoteric topics;
Avoid overly inflammatory rhetoric that panders to ideological biases or otherwise deploys capricious anger, ridicule, name-calling, and invective;
Avoid in-group, insular language and buzz phrases that can only be understood by our most learned fans while making new readers feel unwelcome;
Avoid appearing to push vendettas against individuals or groups or to attack the person, as opposed to the person’s ideas;
Avoid anything that smacks of partisan politicking.
Social media provides the most referrals to FEE.org. Among the platforms, Facebook is the referral engine for 60% of traffic. The next highest known source is Twitter with 5%, then follows Reddit, StumbleUpon, HackerNews, LinkedIn, Youtube, and Blogger. Instagram refers no traffic. It might provide some brand recognition value, but the ROI is unknown. The low level of traffic from Twitter is a bit misleading because these are high-level influencers who then post to their own pages and to Facebook itself. So Twitter works more as a spark than a flame.
For Facebook, we use the Instant Articles application, which speeds up viewing on digital devices. We do almost no paid boosting of articles because we’ve found that if an article is going to do well, it does so without boosting, and if it is going to fail, it will fail regardless of boosting. We do pay for targeted impressions of particular content on individuals’ news feeds, based on carefully selected demographics. Using emails drawn from Salesforce data, we are in the position to place content on donor pages and others based on web-viewing habits.
Intriguingly, 30% of our social referrals qualify as dark social, that is via private messages, private groups, private forums, SMS, and so on. This is a powerful source of traffic but it is neither traceable nor influenceable. As for Reddit, we’ve discovered what others have found: there is no viable way to focus on feeding this source, for the platform is extremely averse to perceived gaming. All we can really do is provide a Reddit link at the top of articles and invite readers to use it.
We automate as much of our social as we can. Every new article (we publish eight per weekday and three to five on both Saturday and Sunday) is automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter using the service Zapier. This massively reduces the chance of error. We post every 45 minutes during the day and every two hours following close of business. Other postings are done by hand by a specialist who follows trending topics and posts relevant legacy content. We have not typically reposted material from other places on the web, but have opted for the publishing strategy described below. In addition, we use Facebook to post institutional news and media.
We use two additional publication venues: Medium.com and Flipboard.com. Using both hand and automated tools, we attempt to keep a solid lineup of articles published at those distribution channels. While Flipboard provides direct traffic to FEE.org, Medium does not – that is, articles “live” on Medium. However, it does account for some referrals, and it also increases brand awareness and realizes certain mission goals with very low cost.
Email as a Product
As implausible as it might sound, email remains one of the most valuable digital products, and, hence a solid infrastructure of email contacts is essential. Because we are producing daily content, we put a high premium on the number of people who received daily emails. Two years ago, we sent to 300 but today send to 45,000, in part by defaulting our email signups to become a daily subscription. We’ve used third-party popups via AddThis but our signups increased 5-10 times by creating our own internal version. Of course popups tend to annoy people and, for this reason, nonprofits might try to avoid them. This is a mistake, in our view, for one reason: they work. We need this infrastructure for our operations.
Of course this also places an extra burden on FEE to turn its daily email into a valuable commodity, something not just for promotion but that also provides delight on its own. Subject lines are chosen carefully to be engaging, and they are different each day. Each send – and we send every day at the noon hour – includes a charming and witty moving gif that is related to the article. The idea here is to create a sense of drama for each day: what gif will I get to see today? As a result, though our numbers of gone up dramatically, our open rates remain very steady. It is a product that people consume on a daily basis, thus increasing brand awareness and gratitude that translates to donor support.
Republishing and Author Payments
FEE has attempted to foster a culture of content sharing within the movement generally. We first put all our content in the Creative Commons, choosing the license Attribution 4.0, which allows for any kind of republishing on any basis provided the source is credited. We negotiated a number of agreements with partner organizations to re-publish their material. We estimate the ratio of “original” to “republished” to be around 40-60%. In terms of traffic, we can discern no trends to predict the reach of either type. Much depends on title, image, trending topic, and compelling content.
Our RSS feeds are set to retrieve the full article content so it can be republished on any site in full. In addition, there is a separate feed automatically created for every author on the site (more than 2,000).
We ended author payments – a break with a 70-year practice, so far as we can tell – because we saw no relationship between the quality of submission and financial compensation. As a result of ending all author payments, we lost perhaps 3 of our stable of 75 or so contributors of original content. In contrast, we have added cash prizes to incentivize authors as a way of broadcasting that we do value writing talent. What authors do value is speed of response, carefulness of editing, and a quick turnaround time.
Most outside contributors receive a personalized response within an hour of submission during the work day, and accepted articles appear on the site within 24 hours. This speed and responsiveness is the best way that FEE can show its appreciation to those who choose our venue as their preferred outlet. And here is another case for keeping traffic as high as we can: FEE can get the word out.
The Team and the Division of Labor
The content team is made up of five people currently: editor, managing editor, associate editor, and two content interns. The skill set required: high-level literacy, proofing skills, basic html, speed, low-level image manipulation, facility with the content management system (Umbraco, which is an open-source management system designed for Dot Net), creativity with titles, and a willingness to work all hours including nights, weekends, and holidays since digital media has no hours of operation. We try to maintain a content mix of original and republished material on a full range of topics. We consult with each other throughout the day and otherwise, in person and on Slack, which is FEE’s internal communication system.
Our work flow attempts to stay one day ahead of the publication schedule. All progress is logged on Trello, a collaboration board that allows for attachments and conversations as material moves through the production structure.
We use Feedly for aggregating content for possible republication. This permits us to navigate content quickly, so that we are not wasting time with random web browsing. Everything we publish is flexible within minutes of going live. Once the publication lineup is ready for the next day, all staff are encouraged to work on writing original content.
FEE is committed to retaining its existing user base and growing it in every way possible, as quickly as possible. We want to contribute to making the ideas of freedom familiar and credible for the rising generation, thus fulfilling FEE’s historic mission and serving as a beacon of excellence in digital publishing. We are confident that we can achieve this with a continued outward focus on customer needs, adherence to the metrics as a main indicator of success and/or failure, and an unrelenting willingness to adapt to changing conditions in the world’s fast-moving market for information.
Slack: internal office communications; replaces email
Feedly: news aggregator for editorial use
Parse.ly: real-time metrics reporting and content analysis
Umbraco: open-source CMS for ASP.net
Zapier: automation of social media
Trello: management tool for editorial tasks
Flipboard.com: magazine portal for mobile devices
Medium.com: popular publishing platform
Creative Commons licensing: alternative to restrictive copyright
Facebook Instant Articles: dramatic speed increases over old FB browser
Zendesk: collaboration tool for external communication
Grammerly: handy grammar checker
Hubspot: information portal for customer relationships
Mailchimp: email sending