Even magazine publishers can be agile

By : PPA Communications

Our first feature from our talented guest publishing blogger, Gary Atkinson

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Even magazine publishers can be agile

Ever heard of being lean? You don’t need a diet, but you may need a Kanban board, have daily stand up meetings and iterate.

If all that doesn’t make much sense, then let me elaborate – they’re all practices of agile working.

And if you didn’t hear the big news, agile is “sexy”. It’s transformed the software sector and it’s promising to do the same for other sectors and disciplines.

It’s trending among digital marketeers and it’s only a matter of time before someone writes a speculative blog about how it can revolutionise the magazine publishing industry in Scotland.

I am that someone and this is that blog, but revolutionise is perhaps a strong word. “Work quite a bit better” perhaps?

Agile working isn’t entirely new to the publishing industry. For a while, websites and apps have supported print magazines, and the world of digital developers have embraced agile as amorously as software developers. Hearst, for example, introduced agile processes into its web design team with great results.    

But it’s not just websites and apps that could benefit from agile working. It could apply, at least in part, to the entire ecosystems of platforms, and that includes print.   

What is agile?

At its most simple level, agile is about launching your incomplete but usable product as early as possible and making constant refinements in response to feedback and the changing needs of users. It changes all the time, but never actually becomes ‘complete’. Because it’s always getting better.

It’s a big change from the “waterfall” approach. One task follows the other and one phase must be complete before you move on to the next phase until you have a complete, finished solution. For software developers, this posed a problem. Planning and development would take a long long time. By the time of launch, the needs of the user or client may have completely changed.

It's the waterfall approach that print publications follow. For example, laying out the pages only begins once the content is written.

Publications don’t suffer the same problem as big IT or software projects. After all, each “project” or issue could only take a day, a week, a month or even a quarter to produce.

So, why bother with agile when the old way is working perfectly fine?

The benefits of agile for publishers

One benefit of working agile is that you are constantly forced to focus on the needs of the user or reader. Better content that more accurately meets the needs or desires of the audience leads to more engagement. More engagement leads to more subscribers, both of which makes advertisers happier and more willing to come back and pony up more cash for advertising space. Or at the very least means advertising sales teams spend less time convincing advertisers. Oh and there and many other ways to monetise a loyal following.

It's also about changing the way you work that should make the process more rewarding and engaging for teams.

And as the application of agile working for website development has shown, it can allow the people to be vastly more productive. Before Hearst’s web design team moved to agile, it would take them six months for each redesign. Now, an average redesign takes from 2-3 weeks.
They are also able to do more, faster to support writers and editors to get content online.

How you could apply agile in publishing

Before we think about how to apply agile in practice in publishing, it’s worthwhile having a look at the principles behind it and exploring new ways of working for each.

The principles in the original Agile manifesto, as you’d imagine, are specific to software development, but these have been adapted for a marketing context, which (with a few minor tweaks) can apply equally to publishing: 

• Rapid iterations, instead of just one big launch
• More time responding to change and less time planning
• Using testing and data over opinions and conventions
• Lots of small experiments rather than a few big bets
• Collaboration over silos and hierarchy

Content iterations

When agile software developers are building the first version of their product, they don't wait till all the bells and whistles that they think are needed have been added before letting users loose on it. They build it until it has just enough functionality to be useful. Then they launch it. This is what’s called a minimum viable product (MVP).

If you’re a publisher and building an accompanying website for your print publication, then that makes perfect sense. Launch with minimum functions quickly, then add more over time, whenever you can.

But what about your print publication? Once each issue is printed you’re hardly going to ask for feedback then publish the very same issue with tweaks a week later. You could arguably say that morning and afternoon newspaper editions are a form of this, but that’s about updating content (for example, breaking stories), rather than improving the “reader experience” in response to feedback.

One way of looking at iterations is not to think about the whole publication, but rather individual pieces of content.

Let's say you have an accompanying website for your print publication (it may even be an MVP). You probably already post your content from your magazine online after the magazine has been printed. But what's to say you can't publish before the magazine is even designed?

Some may say: why would anyone pick up the magazine if they get the content online in advance? Well, I'm not convinced that this would be a big problem. People read on different media in different circumstances. You are building an audience and giving the audience content, no matter the platform.

But you can avoid that problem, and unlock more benefits, by thinking of content posted online early as an MVP, and the same story printed in the magazine as another iteration.

Here’s how it could work:
• Post, say, ten shorter features online. Ideas that haven’t been fully researched, but just enough to get the idea across and spark discussion. 
• Promote the content across various social media channels
• Dig into your analytics to see which had more page views and engagement.
• Choose only those that were most successful for the print magazine. For example, it may be only five of the ten. It’s survival of the most readable.
• The added bonus is that throughout the whole process you are crowdsourcing information and perspectives. Build that the information and insights into the version for the print magazine to give the piece greater depth.
• Update the earlier piece with the new version on your website.

The benefit of the above is that the data you gather on the appetite for certain content could help convince advertisers that placing their advert next to that piece will give them a greater chance of a return on investment.

You also, importantly, can grow your audience with higher engagement.

Publication iterations

Arguably, you could say that each issue is an iteration. But how much change do you make between issues?

One of the common practices in agile working is the retrospective. Agile teams usually work in what’s called sprints. These can last from a week to a month, but are commonly over two weeks. Over that time the team will plough through a list of prioritised tasks and at the end of the sprint they will have a new iteration of their product. Also, importantly, at the end of the sprint, the team gets together for a retrospective meeting to ask what went well, what didn't go well and what they should do differently in the next sprint. This regular practice builds in the discipline of constantly looking to make things better. All you need are post-it notes, markers and the right attitude (that it's not about blame, but about constructive improvement).

If your production cycle is a month, then that's your sprint. When you’ve put a magazine issue to bed, that doesn’t mean all the pains and triumphs need to go for a dirt nap. Wake up and share the ups, downs and room for improvement.

Responding to change

Planning, even in an agile environment, is still important. But the assumption is that you do only enough planning to get your MVP off the ground. Once it’s out there, you need to have a bit of fancy footwork to respond to the feedback.

For that, you need to rely on testing and data which leads me on to the next principle...

User testing and data

For print publications, feedback and data is a much bigger problem than content in the digital sphere.

I’ve tried to overcome this in the past by introducing trackable links in print publications (using services such as bit.ly). Although any data is useful data, engagement tends to be low.

Put it this way, when was the last time to saw a link in a print magazine and took the time to pull out your phone, tablet or laptop and key in the address? No, me neither.

The alternative is to make sure you are posting as much of your content online (which you probably already do), digging into the analytics and responding to what the information is telling you for your print (and online) content.

Going one step further, why not set up scenarios where you can observe people reading your publication without them knowing you’re watching. That may sound creepy, but knowing that you’re being watched changes your natural behaviour.

Maybe be you could even convene sessions with select readers to go through an issue with highlighters to mark what they liked and what they didn't like or wouldn’t read. You could even segment sessions based on audience personas.

If it's difficult to recruit such people, then why not set up a special VIP-style membership club for honoured readers that gives them special benefits (one of which, of course, is the “unbelievably exclusive chance to make the magazine that you love even better”). Not only do you encourage reader feedback, but you encourage them to be more vocal brand champions, who’ll more readily extol the virtues of your publication to friends, family and that guy waiting at the bus top.

Small experiments

Thinking about launching a new magazine? Why not test the waters first. Tweet content and see how it spreads. Try a blog post or two on the subject of the publication and check the response. Try a digital only mini version before investing in expensive print runs and distribution. The added bonus is that the data you get may help with convincing advertisers that your product is a good bet.

Start off small, and work up to bigger and bigger experiments.


Every day, agile teams spend 10-15 minutes on what's called a stand-up meeting. It's a chance to share what you've worked on yesterday, what you’re working on today and whether there are any impediments to you getting your tasks done (which other team members can help you overcome).

It's also a very powerful practice that strengthens the culture of collaboration.

Often these teams are multidisciplinary, which is important for breaking down siloed working between departments.

One application of this in publishing could simply be a writer pairing with a designer before the writer even starts work. They could sit together and discuss the piece. The designer could perhaps sketch some low-definition “wireframes” of the page design.

That may not be the final layout but it's a chance to identify what may be needed. Maybe they both decide that a particular lead image would work great. Then the writer could reference that in his introduction and brief the photographer, perhaps in collaboration with the editor. In fact, the photographer could be at the meeting.

Maybe they both decide that two breakout boxes would work well – one an infographic timeline, another a ‘how to’. Well, the writer now knows that he needs to write that.

The writer can see what pull quote spaces there are, what captions are needed, the space for a headline and the call to action. The writer can have a stab at creating these for the final design-ready draft. That places less strain on the sub-editors and the production process moves much more quickly, leaving more time to check for mistakes or adding value in other ways.

Also, I mentioned the daily stand-up meetings above, which is very much about working collaboratively.

Some teams may work from (and reference during stand up meetings) a shared team Kanban board – a to-do list split into columns (also known as swim lanes). The simplest format for this is to have a column for backlog tasks, tasks you are doing today and tasks that have been done (but you can adapt it to work the way you need).

This is usually prioritised according to each sprint. There are Kanban-based software tools available, and to dip your toe in the water I recommend trying Trello. Not only does it have a big community and a lot of useful guidance on its site, but it’s also free for the basic version, which is often all you need. 

Give agile a try

If that all sounds a lot, it probably is. There’s no doubt you can do more and you can find out more about agile (I’ve really only scratched the surface). Not all of it might work for you, but don't let that stop you from trying. Call it an experiment and keep an open mind. Approach adopting agile practices in an agile way.

You may have the fear that letting agile into your business may be like letting an overexcited puppy into your great aunt’s pristine home. Before you know it the pup has torn up the ornamental rug and crapped all over on her prized azaleas. On the flip side, the rug may have been ugly, and who wants to laboriously water something every day that has a limit on how far it’ll grow?

Gary Atkinson is a freelance copywriter, editor and content strategist. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

This whole blog is a prototype for how agile could be applied in magazine publishing. Could any of this work in practice? Have you done any of this and has it been successful? What’s your feedback? Get in touch via LinkedIn.

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