Five Things I Learned Starting An Online Magazine

About nine years ago, my brother bought his first camera to capture concerts. I was writing for several music blogs in Switzerland at that time. My brother, then an apprentice in IT, asked: „Why don’t we start an online magazine?“ – So we founded Negative White.

Since then, Negative White has evolved a lot not only from a technological standpoint but also the team grew to over 20 contributing reporters, photographers, and producers. The platform is still operating on a volunteer basis, the revenue of approximately 6000 Swiss Francs is being re-invested in the infrastructure.

Negative White consumes a vast amount of time. However, it’s the perfect playground to experiment and learn. So I wrote down some lessons I learned over the past years I’d like to share with you:

Adapt constantly

Of course, Negative White changed quite a lot. We had several redesigns and are iterating our UX all the time. We’ve added content and services and killed them if they failed to meet our audience’s needs.

But the most recent adaptation had to be made after Facebook changed its newsfeed algorithm. Like many publishers, we saw a significant drop in traffic coming from the Palo Alto-based social network.

However, Google started to take off big time. Let’s have a look at the numbers:

We saw a decrease of 27 percent in traffic from social which is mainly coming from Facebook. Meanwhile, Google traffic went up by almost 60 percent.

To compensate for the lost traffic, we invested in an SEO tool and started building Facebook groups which still drive people to our content. Also, we adapted our process for our contests: If you want to participate in our ticket raffles, you have to opt-in to our newsletter. With that small change, we could increase our newsletter subscriptions from a few hundred to nearly 1500.

The main lesson here is to stay as flexible as the circumstances allow. Primarily when you work on a passion project like this, there’s always the danger to lose the ability to accept failure. Maybe your idea sucked, perhaps you didn’t yet find the right formula to sell it. Change perspectives as often as possible, use data to back up your decisions, and always be ready to iterate again.

Gain insights

At first, Negative White was developed solely based on gut feeling. We had an idea in our team and started working on it. We didn’t care what people thought. It’s a tricky situation because it makes you feel free and independent. That’s a lie.

If you only listen to yourself, you won’t be flexible at all. We started a Facebook group for some of our most active and loyal readers. We get their feedback on our ideas before we implement the prototypes in our content strategy or systems.

We learned that we need insights: data from our analytics can provide a rough understanding of the audience. But the most valuable inputs come from people directly. Whether they are readers or stakeholders like musicians, record labels, promoters, or bookers: Never miss a chance talking to your audience and understand their needs.

Aim smart

In 2017, we launched a membership program. If you want, you can support Negative White with an annual contribution. Members can define the amount themselves, starting at 1 Swiss Franc.

As an initial benefit, you can personalize the experience on the website. You can add specific sections to our front page according to your taste in music. But we wanted to provide more value to our members, planned to host free events for them.

After one year, we realized that we didn’t fulfill those promises. Mainly, because we have too few resources – especially time. On the other side, we didn’t have the understanding, why people joined the program in the first place. They didn’t do it for the perks but for the project to succeed. We hadn’t enough insights nor were we flexible enough. ​

We set ourselves too ambitious goals and were disappointed in the end. So my takeaway here is, that you don’t have to shoot for the moon. Set yourself reasonable targets, take small steps, not giant leaps.

Be patient

This is a short one: The majority of projects don’t lift off like a rocket. Of course, you can push everything with money, but this method is hardly sustainable. We see a slow but steady increase in traffic and loyal readers. It’s the compass telling us we’re going in the right direction.

Don’t rush things; you will become sloppy. Or worse: You will betray your values and lose the customer’s trust. Patience is key.

Be humble

More than once, I’ve encountered contestants or other projects bragging about how good they are. We know what such behavior evokes: It makes you seem unsympathetic, and you won’t people convince to trust you in the long run.

We had a contributor at Negative White who was very outspoken. Many stakeholders interpreted his attitude as arrogance. He started to shed a negative light on the project by denouncing the competition. Even though he was a very engaged part of the team, I had to separate from him.

Modesty is a virtue. Just a couple of weeks ago I had a meeting with a venue to pitch a collaboration. The communications manager asked me, what I do besides Negative White, assuming I work fulltime for the magazine. You don’t have to boast because stakeholders feel you compassion anyway.

This article was part of my newsletter ‘DigitalThought‘. If you‘re interested, subscribe here.

Change is an opportunity. Product Owner at Blick.ch and learning at Hyper Island.

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