Case Studies

13 Steps to Learn to Think Like a Digital Media Publisher

From Startups, to think tanks, academic institutions, to corporations and non-profits, making content relevant and accessible is the key to engagement today. This all begins with thinking like a digital media publisher.

The avalanche of content we are faced with today at any institution whether it is a startup, a nonprofit, an academic institution, or even an older corporation looks to most people like a pile of random junk. To a digital media publisher, the picture looks more like a puzzle that can be solved step by step in creating more holistic brands that drive your users to your core products. Unfortunately, so many companies are focused on social media metrics that don’t deeply impact your brand if you are not sharing your own content.

In the age of print that preceded our age of digital media, it was common place for most institutions to think like print publishers to reach their audiences. However most institutions never made the transition from print to digital in an impactful way, and while social media can seem like it has greater reach, it is reach that is less focused then what existed with print publications previously. Most times the transition to digital for many of these publications means to print fewer copies of their magazine, publish it as a PDF online, and imagine that people might download it. A simple rule of the internet today is that most people will never download anything and search engines have a harder time finding your content if it’s hidden in a PDF.

The NAACP is a great example of institutional publishing with their magazine The Crisis, founded by the great American intellectual, W.E.B. DuBois in 1910. Within 8 years of its founding, the publication had grown to a circulation of 100,000, and they are still publishing today. The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) is a good example of an NGO that transitioned over the last five years from a print publication mailed to donors with their World Wildlife Magazine, to a high-quality digital publication led by a team of journalists, editors, and technologists.

WWF’s World Wildlife Magazine digital publication

WWF’s World Wildlife Magazine digital publication

Building & Growing Your Publication

Of course growing any type of publication is hard work but within the world of media, the four primary types of media (owned, rented, paid, earned) are broken into clear groups for a reason. First is owned media, this is content you create yourself and have the most control over, this is your website, your email lists, any video elements you create, and anything else like podcasts that you might produce in house. Most distribution today relies primarily on “rented media,” an important technical distinction for social media platforms because you in no way own how these platforms will distribute your content.

Anyone who has controlled social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other platform over the last decade has seen what changes in algorithms can do to distribution. These platforms change algorithms at will to serve their own goals as tech companies with piles of venture capital debts. Today it is clear that for institutional social media channels, aka Facebook Pages, to reach your platform based audience, in most cases you are expected to pay to reach them. That is unless you can create high-quality content that has a sharp viral lift.

While organizations have shifted to paying social media professionals to manage their online reach, it is my argument here that institutions would be better served developing their own content marketing and digital distribution strategies to more consistently reach their core audiences. In what follows I will outline the key things you need to think about in beginning to grow your own audience through digital media content. I will look at the following core concepts:

  1. Flipping the organizational switch — from “blogging” to digital publication development

  2. Hiring digital publishing and product management consultants

  3. Developing your core brand standards

  4. Getting clear on the story you are telling, your audience and core metrics

  5. Choosing what type of content to focus on and your content verticals

  6. Understanding who your key influencers are

  7. Creating high quality content with viral lift

  8. Choosing a publishing platform and creating beautiful, sharable article pages

  9. Creating an editorial workflow

  10. On fonts, spacing, and skimming readers

  11. Social media for digital media publishers — understanding good content, good lead photos, and changing platforms

  12. SEO & digital media advertising budgets

  13. Creating a good call to action

1. Flipping the Organizational Switch — From “Blogging” to Digital Publication Development

The easiest way to see how institutions are thinking about their content today is to look at almost any website. Most websites are designed as what amounts to a landing page with core information about the company, these are essentially glorified about pages. Meanwhile, original content is developed off the website and given a small piece of web real estate known as the blog. Original content is where most companies find the deepest engagement but yet it is given such little space on most websites. Engagement is the key metric we all are seeking so institutions need to figure out how to get more of your original content in the prime positions on your site. With a content-focused site, people are more likely to engage with more than one piece of content which will allow them to more deeply understand what your company is about.

The most important thing to understand here is that no one will ever tell your story the way you will — and this is especially important as you’re launching new products, events or initiatives. This is an organizational switch that needs to be turned on to be implemented in a deep way with the key points below to guide you in this process.

Thinking like a digital media publisher is more complex than just developing a focused website to feature your content. At its baseline, this has to become an organizational practice where you begin to understand what it means to produce content broadly, and where you understand how to work with digital media content producers. This can range from writers to digital media editors, to filmmakers, photographers, and designers.

This also means that you should not put people in roles that somehow police creatives. I’ve seen this many times where full-time staff at organizations who have zero production experience call the shots on projects and make final decisions, often times against the best interest of the creative project and therefore against the best interest of the institution at large. Digital media production is a team sport with many different moving parts but to put someone in charge of a project just because of their institutional seniority can waste time and money, and can often time burn relationships with key creative partners. Creative consultants often times are not paid their true value and relationships with them are often times more valuable then the transactional relationship institutions have with them on a project to project basis.

2. Hiring Digital Publishing and Product Management Consultants

Most organizations don’t have the expertise to enter into the world of digital publishing on their own and they imagine that the costs are too high. This can be true if you attempt to work with a group of consultants that are disconnected from one another where costs can continue increasing. However, if you work with a studio like what we have built at Beyond Borders Studios focused on digital and editorial strategy we can create a smooth workflow for you to make the transition in becoming a digital media publisher.

There are two primary roles organizations need to make this shift. The first is the role of a digital media product manager, this person has an understanding of each aspect of building a product and working with the technologists, designers, and digital media strategists who are each necessary in building a content focused website. The second need is for an editorial strategist who can help you think through the process of creating high-quality content and how that can be turned into a digital media publication that creates a content marketing loop for your business.

Case Study — The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC-Berkeley: Beyond Borders Studios recently worked with the Haas Institute on their Blueprint for Belonging project as product managers and editorial strategists. We worked with the B4B project at Haas Institute to create an editorial workflow to transform 15 articles from PDF’s too beautiful full-length digital media articles. We conceptualized more visually compelling website pages within the framework of their existing web infrastructure, led art direction on the entire site, came up with article titles, co-produced and conceptualized the film Transforming California from Red to Blue, designed training slide decks with our designers, we edited, and wrote sections of the new site as a ghostwriter.

To see more on the Haas Institute Building for Belonging Program click here:

To see more on the Haas Institute Building for Belonging Program click here:

3. Developing Your Core Brand Elements

From the University of California Los Angeles  brand overview page

From the University of California Los Angeles brand overview page

Developing any type of digital media publication today starts with understanding the high standards that audiences hold brands too. In the hyper-visual world of digital publishing you need to have these core elements in place to have consistency in the visual feel of your publication:

  • Primary logo and potentially secondary logo elements

  • Copy tone, language, and voice of your brand

  • The feeling of your brand. Ask yourself this key question, what emotions do you want people to have when they think about your brand?

  • Core brand colors

  • Primary and secondary fonts

  • Photo style / art direction

You can find talented brand strategists at most organizational budgets, but it is important that you look at portfolios, and talk with designers about their work process with realistic project timelines.

4. Getting Clear on The Story you are Telling, Your Audience, and Core Metrics

Story — In starting this journey one of the first things you should think about is what is the big story you are trying to tell. One of my favorite organizations I’ve trained within this is the Center for Story Based Strategy. They have a concept called the “Battle of the Story,” that is especially useful for social impact rooted institutions. In thinking about the elements involved in storytelling you can begin to think through the layers of stories that exist within your institution and that are related to your work more broadly.

Intro to Story-Based Strategy
Story-based strategy is a participatory approach that links movement building with an analysis of narrative power and…

They are clear with their audience development that you have to get as specific as possible when thinking about who it is you are trying to reach. Get specific as possible, this is a good brainstorming exercise to do as a team.

Metrics — I’ve worked with a number of organizations both small and big, who do not have any way that they measure their metrics month over month. This means that organizationally you have no clear way to engage your digital presence and you don’t know if the money you are spending on digital media is delivering. This is what is called KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators). These should be measured month over month and they can range from: Website visits, email list growth, top articles of the month, social media engagement indicators, advertising money spent. Find the core metrics you want to measure and keep track of them to have a better understanding of your growth.

Case Study: Invest in People Not Prisons — A few years back we were honored to work with The Safe Return Project, a group of formerly incarcerated community organizers in Richmond, California. We used the battle of the story framework with Safe Return to talk about the stories told about mass incarceration and how we could build a story based strategy to organize against jail expansion in Northern California. Together we conceptualized the Invest in People Not Prisons campaign and through strategic storytelling and community organizing we were able to defeat money going into more jail beds and instead putting the money into community development for people coming home from prison. This work was featured in publications around the world including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

A history of this project is told in this research report by the Haas Institute here:

5. Choosing What Type of Content to Focus on and your Content Verticals

The best place to start when choosing different types of content is to test different content forms. Many organizations make these decisions based on budgets, but you can run low-cost tests of articles, photos, videos, if you’re interested in podcasting, test one or two episodes before you make a major commitment to any one medium. The easiest place for many organizations to start is with written articles but even there you can test the type of articles you are writing the subjects you are writing on and see what works.

The data feedback from your web analytics and social media audience engagement can go a long way in helping you to get clear on your verticals moving forward. For many institutions, your general verticals can be found within your mission statement and related categories. If you have a broad mission statement it is good to start with a few vertical categories and test what is working and what your audience is responding to.

Another place to start here once you have an idea of your verticals is you can begin researching other companies and competitors who focus on similar content. Look at their web traffic, check their social media pages and look at what is working for them based on what has the most user engagement. Make a list of these competitors and jot down their web traffic and social media engagement month over month if you want to really know who is performing at the highest level. There are many websites like Similarweb where you can look at competitors web traffic. Other sites you can turn to research this data are: Alexa.comFollow.netMatterMarkBuzzSumo and Spike by NewsWhip. — Digital World Market Intelligence Platform
Grow your market share and website traffic with SimilarWeb’s digital market intelligence platform. Compare any website…

6. Understanding Who Your Key Influencers Are

Once you are clear on the verticals you are covering then you can begin researching who are the key influencers on social media related to your organization and second who are the largest influencers in this space? It is good to start with a spreadsheet and list down all the influencers you can think of and then start looking at their different social media channels and websites. One way influencers work together on YouTube is to create cross promotions on videos. Is there something you are doing that influencers might be interested in where you can create some type of collaboration? Another good way to engage influencers with your brand is to create events where they are featured or invited guests. There are also a number of emerging influencer marketing platforms that you can check out here:

8 Influencer Marketing Platforms to Amplify your Campaigns
As we’ve said, the influencer approach to marketing is a slow-and-steady one. Unlike traditional marketing, businesses…

7. Creating High Quality Content

My favorite business book is Creativity, Inc. about the founding and inter-workings of Pixar. One of the things that has set Pixar apart is its unyielding focus on creating consistently excellent content. They coined a clear organizational mantra

“Quality is the best business plan.”

The author of the book and co-founder of Pixar, Ed Catmull writes that what they meant by this idea “was that quality is not a consequence of following some set of behaviors. Rather, it is a prerequisite and a mindset you must have before you decide what you are setting out to do.”

Creating high quality content has to do with having a certain level of expertise within media production and having good creative vision, so choose wisely who you work with. Budgets can also be restrictive for many organizations but it has been my experience that with the right talent leading production projects you can create quality media with almost any budget. Just remember a cornerstone of media production known as the production triangle: Good, Fast, and Cheap, you can only get 2 out of 3 of these. So if you want quality production you will either have to pay the going rate for it or give the creatives space and time to finish the product. You should never expect to pay little for production and expect any type of quality in a short period of time.

8. Choosing a Publishing Platform and Creating Beautiful, Sharable Article Pages

A lot of people get stuck on starting a publication because they may not have the technical skills necessary to launch a digital publication, today most institutions are choosing from 4 different platforms. In order of ease of build and use, these are:


  • Squarespace

  • WordPress templates

  • Custom built sites

Medium — Medium has in many ways set the standard for ease of use for a publishing platform that also allows you to build beautiful articles with your own custom url. Despite its ease of use it ultimately gives you little ability to customize your site and almost all Medium publications look the same. The customizability is so low on Medium, that it could be considered rented media, especially as Medium continues to tweak the site as it looks for a sustainable business model.

Squarespace — Squarespace makes it super easy to build beautiful websites quickly with almost zero technical skill. Squarespace is great as a launch site as your building a company, but when it comes to daily publishing it gives you few options, although you can create beautiful blogging pages on a number of the templates. The biggest problem with Squarespace in this regard however is that you may find a beautiful website template, but often times the blogging pages look very plain without a lot of customization work that has to be done with each blog.

WordPress — With endless WordPress templates designed for digital media sites you can find any number of templates that will fit your needs and allow for you to create a beautiful website. Of course the problem with WordPress is that it is not that easy to go from purchasing a template to getting the site live and looking anywhere near how the template examples look. This is why if you are going to go with a WordPress site we recommend you work with a WordPress expert who can help you build your site, set up your SEO, make sure the website looks great on desktop and mobile, that it has all the social sharing functions you will need, and that the website load speeds are good. This is all easier said than done. The key with working with a WordPress focused developer is getting a recommendation, don’t just look at site examples. Outsourcing work globally can lead to deep cultural communication issues that can lead to starting over. Better to get things right from the beginning and make sure you hire the right developers. You can find good WordPress developers to build a site for you between $2000-$5000 dollars.

Custom CMS/Website — We see a lot of small to medium size organizations getting convinced by web developers today to build custom sites. In my experience you should never build a custom site unless you have a very specific need or if you have a developer you trust and are working with consistently. In most organizations that is never the case and so people end up building websites that are expensive landing pages, that most employees don’t understand how to use, and in most cases you have to pay a developer to maintain or in really bad cases to even update the site at all. Only build a custom site if you are at a place organizationally where you can either maintain a full time developer or you have a consultant you trust who you are working with consistently.

Article Pages — Key in designing a new website focused on publishing is imagining what you want your articles to look like, how that will interact with advertising, and what design elements you need to build in. Since the launch of full page photos and beautifully designed articles pages have become the norm within digital media publications across the web. It is also key that you check layout on mobile as well as desktop as traffic in the US today is split between the two and globally it leans much more towards mobile interfaces.

9. Creating an Editorial Workflow

When we work with organizations we always start by asking what internal communication tools and project management tools they are using today. It is best to work with teams using processes that they are used to. The easiest tools for teams to adopt generally seem to be Google Docs for group editing, and Trello for project management especially when it involves building a website with many moving parts and lots of new content. Trello is really one of my favorite tools, it’s intuitive, and easy to use, but it can take time for teams to adapt to it.

Organize anything, together. Trello is a collaboration tool that organizes your projects into boards. In one glance…

10. On Design, Photos, Fonts, Spacing, and Skimming Readers

Many organizations think they can get by without making a major investment in design, this is just not true today for most readers. Design, photography, site layout, fonts, the spacing of articles, the way so many people skim articles today are all parts of modern reading and you should design your site reflective of this rather than designing your site the way people used to read. Buzzfeed and UpWorthy have done so well in the digital media landscape because they are publications designed by growth hackers, with a growth mentality. Look at the layout of any Buzzfeed or UpWorthy article and you will see the clear ways they use strong photos, strong titles that lead towards social sharing. You will also see how they use fonts, different font sizes, lists, and article spacing to make the articles skimmable for audiences with short attention spans.

11. Social Media for Digital Media Publishers — Understanding “Viral” Content, Great Titles, Beautiful Lead Photos, and Click Through Rates

Social media platforms and user engagement with these platforms is constantly changing. Rather than try to take on all of these changing platforms it is best to start with one or two of them that you believe your core audience is using. Anyone will tell you that there is no template for viral content and often times the content that does best as a digital media publication can be surprising. However, there is a general check list that you can put in place to have a chance at creating a good viral lift with your content. These are:

Article titles — Article titles are so important that at UpWorthy it is a practice for their writing staff to create up to 25 headlines for every article they publish. They will then use A/B testing on articles to decide which title they use when they share on social media and email lists.

Backed by Science: the 25-Headline Upworthy Challenge

Cover photos — A cover photo can help many people decide whether or not they click on an article. While google photos is a good place to start a search for photos we find many of our favorite photos for publishing for free on Unsplash.

Beautiful Free Images & Pictures | Unsplash
Beautiful, free images and photos that you can download and use for any project. Better than any royalty free or stock…

Platform specific copy to increase virality — It is important that you follow the general guidelines for good copy on each of the primary platforms used for social media today: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Do not just cut and paste text or pull quotes for each post.

Share buttons on your website — When building your content focused website don’t forget to include clear social media share buttons at the top or bottom of articles to make it easy for people to share your content. Never make it difficult for people to spread your message for you.

Facebook Instant and Apple News — Today there are many distributed publishing platforms being created, most of which aren’t serving publishers in any major way. If all you want is for your articles to be looked at then use them, but if you want people to engage with your content, give you your email address or buy anything then you should stay away from Facebook Instant articles and Apple News. The majority of publishers who tested Facebook Instant have already pulled out of the platform and a recent study by Slate shows that traffic is growing quickly on Apple News but it is bringing very little in terms of ad dollars to publishers.

Apple News Is Giving the Media Everything It Wants-Except Money
In the years leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook became the world’s de facto morning newspaper-and everyone…

AMP Pages — Google’s recent open source project Amplified Mobile Pages is solving in important problem for publishers around page load times. If your page loads slowly many people will not wait for it to load. Google is also making AMP pages lead their search results today so building AMP into your site with SEO is very important today.

12. SEO & Digital Media Advertising Budgets

You should think about and test search engine optimization before you build a website for competitors and after you build the site. This can be based on article titles, keywords in articles, and on your site generally.

101 Quick & Actionable SEO Tips That Are HUGE | SEJ
What do you want? For your content to rank well on Google. When do you want it? Now! Here’s the thing. Many SEO tactics…

Once you have figured out which social media platforms you want to focus on you can start testing small ad spends on those platforms, but generally speaking I recommend that ad spend comes on key pieces of content you are trying to get wide distribution on. You have to be very careful with Facebook advertising today as post 2016 election the platform and its algorithms are in constant flux with ads and brand pages performing at all time low levels.

13. Creating a Good Call to Action

It is key that you build in multiple clear calls to action (CTA) on your website to grow your email list. While many have focused on social media in this new era of digital media, the Silicon Valley headquartered publication OZY has instead focused on email list building. While posting on Facebook can have a delivery rate as low as 3%, email has guaranteed delivery, whether or not people open your email is based on your email quality, and email subject lines

I also generally recommend that people build advertising into their website that can change on times, based on key marketing campaigns, call to action for email sign ups, or events. This can be within blank spaces on your website and built into article pages.

This is a good example of a CTA on the website

This is a good example of a CTA on the website

Good Examples of Digital Publishing and Institutions Getting the Content Puzzle Right

We see institutions turning to digital publishing strategies all over the place. One recent example is Apple who made a major commitment to publishing with their Apple News app, as well as with their App store where a publication covering apps and games is at the center of the redesigned app store. The redesign focused on editorial content has played a major role in expanded app discovery on the platform.

Apple’s App Store redesign improved app discovery, report finds
When Apple introduced its completely redesigned App Store last fall, one of its goals was to improve app discovery by…

Ted recently began to expand beyond their ted talk video offerings with their Ted Idea blog. Very good example of an established organization moving into new content verticals to increase audience reach.
Daily coverage of the world of ideas from the people who bring you TED

B-Corp is the non-profit behind the movement known as Benefit Corporations, companies focused on social impact and environmental stewardship. Over the last few years they have been experimenting with publishing, after publishing a print publication for 2 years they decided to go all digital and built their beautiful B the Change website entirely on Medium.

B the Change
To inform and inspire people who have a passion for using business as a force for good in the

OZY is one of the most beautiful publications on the internet where I take consistent design inspiration from.

OZY — Welcome to the New News
Welcome to the new news. OZY’s mission is to help the curious see the world more broadly and boldly by vaulting them…

One of my favorite publications is Monocle, although they mostly focus on print publishing. I always find new ideas when I look at Monocle publications and their 24 hour radio station has designed a unique way for people to engage with podcasts.

Monocle is a global briefing covering international affairs, business, culture and

Blavity Inc. is an incredible company that started with a news site focused on Black millennials and has now grown to include 5 different brands focused on verticals ranging from tech, to travel, to film.

Where Culture & Innovation Thrive.
Blavity, Inc. is home to the largest network of platforms and lifestyle brands serving the multifaceted lives of black…

Are you interested in partnering with Beyond Borders Studios to explore the world of content production and digital media publication development? You can reach us at or on our website:

Beyond Borders Studios is a global creative studio focused on content development, design, and film production for social impact clients.