Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

How to create and execute a niche content strategy

After the first step in building a niche vertical of identifying the topic, which involves assessing your audience, your brand, your capacity and the potential business for the topic, the second involves making the right steps to execute a superb product.

Here, according to those steeped in the process of niche verticals, there are three elements:

  • Developing a content strategy tailored for your audience
  • Identifying what staffing resources you need to execute that product
  • Distributing the content, especially via mobile

Your content strategy will include determining what content your staff will produce, where it will come from, how much of it will be original content versus repurposed or curated from other sources — all of which will flow from your staffing decisions.

In launching a single-subject product called CityLab, for instance, The Atlantic benefited from the growing set of digital skills gained from running TheAtlantic.com.

“We were gaining confidence in how to write for the web, how to hire for the web, how to build traffic, how to sell ads — everything we learned in scaling TheAtlantic.com was very important in our confidence to launch CityLab,” said The Atlantic’s Bob Cohn.

At the Idaho State Journal, a relatively small newsroom, developing a concept for the product was inevitably linked to identifying how to structure resources to put into it. “Success for us meant a couple of things: having the right champion in charge of it and having good content that pushes the needle in terms of traffic,” said Idaho State Journal’s Ian Fennell.

Create content tailored for your audience

At TCPalm.com and the Treasure Coast newspapers, after the publications selected their three franchise topics, the newsroom teams had to figure out within each franchise topic area what audience groups they wanted to target, and “everybody” was the wrong answer. To help them stay focused, they developed two personas for each topic.

The idea of “personas” here is borrowed from marketing and user experience design. In both fields, personas represent fictitious customers of your brand or users of your product. They are usually derived from blending in-depth interviews or research of many customers into representative types of persons.

Often quite detailed in their personal characteristics, personas help people understand the goals, desires, and motivations of those potential users and to help guide decisions about how they may interact and use your product. They put a human face on otherwise abstract data about readers.

At TCPalm, each of the three franchise topics had two personas, a primary and secondary. The personas were exhaustive. They captured standard demographic information, but also behavior patterns, hobbies, attitudes, interests, as well as preferred devices and platforms.

The personas continuously help both editors and writers in assigning coverage and and even writing stories or developing graphics and data journalism. In covering “Our Indian River Lagoon,” an editor may refer to a persona of an older gentleman whose kids and grandkids visit him and go kayaking or fishing. Instead of just assigning a story about the health of the lagoon, the persona may lead the writer to highlight kid clinics on the lagoon or clean-up events for the family. The coverage becomes much more targeted.

“The goal of the franchise topics is to give very clear, precise direction, with more focus from the personas and what they’re after,” said Canan. “The personas are not meant to be exclusionary. If we see three things on an agenda, we’ll focus on what takes precedence in importance to our readers.”

Having personas can also help in deciding when to cover or not cover a topic or event as well. For example, for a big music festival in the community — before the personas were developed, a lot of resources were invested in coverage. However, the audience was not in their newly defined persona targets. The audience wasn’t as active or involved, were older, and didn’t fall within the 24-54 age range.

The personas are not meant to be exclusionary.

“It took a lot of work to form personas — several meetings, good discussions,” said Canan. They used data from the research firm they hired, data from circulation, data from their digital subscription and process, and general data from social media. Then, they sat down and debated it, taking the bigger picture of the franchises and honed it down to very specific profiles.

“When reporters and editors are reporting and assigning, they know this person. We know Gwen. She’s one of our friends’ soccer moms,” said Canan. “We created flyers with a picture, name, and info. We’ve emailed them out. Then we rolled it out.”

For some franchises, such as the outdoors at the Idaho State Journal, the personas were as simple as imagining the different outdoor sports. “We knew we needed a gun guy,” Fennell tells me about Idaho State Journal’s XTreme Idaho.

But imagining “outdoors” as a series of discrete activities, fishing or hunting very different than mountain biking or cross country skiing, made the concept far different than the traditional notion of the vague “outdoors” section of the newspaper. One of the main goals for XTreme Idaho was to garner the respect of the passionate community interested in outdoors and the various activities that existed within that realm.

“It’s tough with outdoors — a lot of people are interested, but they’re not the greatest writers. So, we had to find a good combination of someone who was knowledgeable, respected when talking about it, and can be articulate and write a decent column.”

Determining the content strategy was ‘the biggest decision point that we made.’

Nothing like the standalone site existed before, said Fennell.

“If I wanted to go hunting in Idaho, where would I have gone?”

Not all of this has to be decided at the onset either.

“When we first thought of Mint Asia, we just thought of using Mint content without repurposing and we had no idea of producing original content,” Mint Asia’s Ranganathan said. “But as we met with more people, we thought that the product configuration had to change.”

At Mint Asia, 70 percent of the content is repurposed content from Mint, with about 30 percent original content for the Singapore audience — with all marginal costs. In India, Mint is about 150 people and a lot contribute to Mint Asia, Ranganathan said. There is no dedicated editorial staff except sales staff. Mint Asia serves as its own brand to increase the brand franchise of Mint.

Determining the content strategy was “the biggest decision point that we made,” Ranganathan said.

Use existing staff and resources to lower your initial investment

After you’ve identified an audience and made sure your vertical’s goal aligns with your overall publication’s mission, you need to determine the threshold for the appropriate investment. You have to identify your initial investment by determining who will write, edit, build, and sell your product.

Having a primary team that’s either pulled from your existing team or hired to work with your existing team will allow you to apply the existing knowledge and skills of your organization. This allows you to start with small, less resource-intensive experiments to test the market of the topic and minimize risk.

“It’s not just about money, but what type of people,” Scott Havens, now senior vice president of digital at Time Inc., explained about the creation of Quartz when he was president of The Atlantic.

“Will there be a dedicated editorial team and a shared sales and tech team? Will you get the same innovation and dedication from a shared team? Can you afford not to do it that way? How hard and fast do you go at the opportunity? Ambitions outstrip resources.”

There are different ways to staff a new vertical, publishers told me:

  • You can set up a new dedicated team
  • Use existing staff
  • Do a mix of both and have a core team with a bit of overlap from your existing staff.

From my conversations with the various publications, having a small, dedicated team that overlaps with your staff allows a publication to have a core group focused on growing the project, take advantage of marginal costs by not hiring a completely new team, and test and experiment with new ideas with a smaller investment at a lower cost.

Start with small, less resource-intensive experiments to test the market of the topic and minimize risk.

“Niche product creation that builds on existing company infrastructure, knowledge and marketplace learnings is the cost-effective way to go,” Ken Doctor has written at Nieman Lab. “[Each company] adapted what they learned to these new launches. This is a new power of incumbency. It’s not the ownership of a printing press, as it was for newspaper publishers in the old days.”

Assembling a closely integrated and very collaborative staff is beneficial in multiple ways, but most importantly, it can foster innovation within your newsroom.

USA Today’s For The Win was set up as a “very distinctive experience from USA Today Sports, so there’s autonomy and a lot of rein for creativity,” said Jamie Mottram, director of content development.

For The Win has a staff up to eight or nine editors and writers and has recently begun producing video content as well, though that’s a shared staff. The staff is closely integrated with the USA Today Sports team with a lot of crossover and the FTW editor reports to the USA Today Sports editor. The two teams share a newsroom and while the smaller FTW staff focuses on FTW, they contribute to both sections and there’s a lot of collaboration.

“We want it to be very closely integrated even if the end product is different,” said Mottram. Having a staff that focuses on the viral moments also allows the reporters to chase another story.

The Cannabist at the Denver Post operates in a similar fashion. There are two full-time employees dedicated to content and production, while others on staff contribute.

Assembling a closely integrated and very collaborative staff … can foster innovation within your newsroom.

Metro has a reporter who spends more than half his time on marijuana enterprise; reporters on crime, health, justice, politics all write stories on the topic — either breaking or enterprise. The business staff has a banking specialist who follows that issue as well people who cover tourism and industry as they cross over into marijuana coverage. And features has reporters who have touched on entertainment and cultural issues, news director Dale said. The rest of the digital team also helps out and run the social accounts.

There’s a similar structure at New York Magazine’s verticals: Daily Intelligencer, Vulture, The Cut, Grub Street, and newly launched Science of Us.

There were two full-time staffers when New York launched the site. The staff now numbers eight. People occasionally write in other sites but they run as separate entities, said Ben Williams, editorial director at New York Magazine. Vulture and the Cut each have their own editorial director, while Daily Intel and Grub Street do not and the staff for each vertical are about half the size. The staff on ad sales have dedicated verticals.

On the day to day level, there’s a lot of autonomy at each of New York’s verticals. Bigger picture editorial projects generally involve management, but the staffing and editing structure falls under one of the blogs.

At Atlantic Media, investment across products varies widely. The level of investment ranged from Atlantic’s Cities vertical, whose staff includes about 7 to 8 full-time staff and a pool of money for freelance — to Quartz, which was set up as a standalone and mapped as a multimillion investment with 40 or so employees.

There’s no one model for how they build out verticals, Atlantic publisher Cohn said. “Many times we take on new subject matter areas by adding a channel to TheAtlantic.com. We’ve done that a half dozen times over the last five years, adding Entertainment, Education, Tech, Sexes, Health, National to our initial core of Politics, Business, Global. In one case, we added a channel, China, let it run for about a year, and then decided to roll it into Global.”

The Atlantic has also launched verticals “outside the mothership,” Cohn said, particularly when the topic does not build naturally off the legacy brand. “That’s CityLab. We believed it had its own core audience and a separate mission, sensibility, and advertising base, so it went out on its own. Likewise Quartz, which is outside The Atlantic family but part of Atlantic Media. So there are different models, and the decision for how to act is driven by circumstances, business opportunities, editorial fit, etc.”

Every vertical requires “a champion,” someone who is responsible for and takes personal ownership for each site.

Deseret News similarly employs a dedicated enterprise team for its national edition. “We don’t want them [the enterprise team] caught up in the local newsroom buzz, which has its own focus,” Edwards said.

Stories on the national edition can appear on the local front page the next day, but the local editor has access to all of the national stories and makes the decision. Since the content lives on the same CMS, most stories written by the enterprise team are pushed to both the local and national sites.

Regardless of how teams are set up, those involved agreed that every vertical requires “a champion,” someone who is responsible for and takes personal ownership for each site.

“Our best sites have the best champion who update them, care of them,” said Fennell of the Idaho State Journal. “Papers have a bad habit of doing something new and giving it to someone who’s maxed out — the champion needs the ability and time to focus on it.”

The overarching importance of mobile in your delivery strategy

Across almost all the publications studied, having a product that was accessible on tablets and smartphones was a main priority.

The Denver Post’s The Cannabist and its sister site, Reverb, which focuses on music, both use WordPress.

“WordPress meant we could have a mobile-first product and we could build it as a fully responsive site — we wanted to break outside of our normal template,” Dale said.

While it operates on a different CMS than the rest of the Post, the site is not separate in any other way. There’s a different copy workflow, but everything else is the same. “There’s a differentiated brand and voice and we could have done it with our native [CMS] but it would be much harder,” Dale said.

I heard the same thing from Jamie Mottram at For The Win. “Half of our traffic is happening on phones — not mobile, which is about three-quarters [and includes tablets],” Mottram said. “Every day is over 40 percent on phone; on the weekend, it’s over 60 percent.”

Like Cannabist and Reverb in Denver, USA Today’s FTW went with a responsive site rather than having a native app in addition to a mobile-friendly website.

“We just wanted one consistent site and one experience that worked no matter what you were using — it was an obvious decision to make, but not necessarily what everyone does,” Mottram said. The FTW team built the site, focusing on the mobile experience first, then moved out to work on the desktop experience instead of the other way around.

It’s unusual, as Mottram said, and may seem a luxury to start with mobile. That choice was possible because USA Today decided to make FTW a separate site. But in digital phase in which the majority of traffic and time will be mobile, it may make increasing sense.

We just wanted one consistent site and one experience that worked no matter what you were using

“Mobile consumption within our first 100 days surprised us, so I asked everyone involved to use the site every day on their phones and provide at least three ways to make it better every day,” Mottram said. He stole the idea, he said, from Mark Zuckerberg.

“The other big obstacle that you run into is — and hopefully you’re on top of — is the changing of consumption patterns. Generally speaking they don’t come in overnight. Social media as a driver of traffic was not around in 2009 and definitely was not significant. Everyone was talking about SEO and third-party links. All of a sudden Facebook and Twitter are top referrers. LinkedIn now too,” says Havens. “These shifts you always see coming but how you get there is always a change.”

TCPalm also used its personas to identify not just what content its readers wanted but how and when they wanted it. In other words, the personas affected both the content type and the publishing and delivery time. Personas made it easier to imagine their audience’s mobile behavior.

For example, editors found that their TCPalm “social crowd” loved lists, so they created more lists out of their existing content. The personas also taught them not to just post things in the morning. Engagement was highest between 6 and 8 p.m., so they’ve changed their newsroom structure to have people dedicated to those evening hours. Now, they’re purposefully placing stories stories at that time — not just in the morning when the stories were ready, as they previously did.

Once these first steps are done — the content, the audience, the product and the distribution — the work is not. Next comes the critical element of growth.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.