I remember sitting at my desk at Microsoft in 2012 reviewing the traffic figures for a new website we had started publishing and thinking: this is like running our own news outlet. The founders of that site eventually went on to do other things (Hey, Martin and Britt!) but we are still proud of the work. These are some of the lessons I took from that experience to my current role at Verb.
Develop your own audience
Perhaps the first question when publishing your own news is: who is reading? Not by coincidence, this is of course also one of the first items on your communications plan (or it should be).
The difference between your website and other strategies in your plan, like media relations, is that your website puts you in interactive contact with the audience, whereas other media give you temporary access to an audience they developed for you. Their audience will match your public to a certain degree, though you typically do not expect a perfect overlap. The trick is to pick the media that best match your public. When you are doing media relations you develop relationships with the reporters on those outlets, when you are doing advertising you buy ads on those outlets, and so on with the rest of your strategies.
Only when you publish on your own website you are working on developing your audience yourself. That gives you richer information about what your audience likes, what leaves them indifferent, and what they dislike. This input can be as frequent as you need, and there are no real limits to the number of tests you can run to better understand your audience. Which takes us to the second big opportunity that opens when you are publishing on your own website.
Set sharper priorities
Suppose that you are working on artificial intelligence. You will probably find many reporters, analysts, and media outlets to work with, because AI is a key priority for many companies, the government, and the military. But if you are developing your own audience, you might also have gained some insights into what aspects of AI they are more interested on.
For example, perhaps your audience is interested on machine learning, because they want to develop personalized offerings at scale. They might have less of an urgency to learn about some of the flashier aspects of AI, like natural language processing and virtual assistants. Meanwhile, virtual assistants might be all that reporters in some of your key media outlets care about.
You cannot blame media for looking for the most impactful way to explain a new technology! You might even want to take part in that kind of story if it fits your longer-term goals. But you can also publish a whole series of stories and materials to offer your audience the exact mix of information about machine learning they are looking for right now.
You would in fact be doing the same work editors at major news outlets do, which is to prioritize the information your audience is looking for, but for your own outlet. That is how you build your credibility. That, and having good sources your audience can trust. Which takes us to the third big way running your own news website makes you a better communicator.
Develop your team
A big break that your company or organization can get from publishing on their website is to put out unique information and stories from its own team members. The experts in your organization with the most valuable knowledge will not typically have the magic mix of communications skills, time, and drive to tell the story of how they helped customers, or how they developed a product or service, or the insights they gained as part of their work. When you are publishing your own website, you can help them by providing those skills, time, and drive.
One of the first things we do at Verb when starting to work with a new customer is to interview the people in their team who have all this institutional knowledge. Sometimes the resulting documents serve as background research to kick off a project, and other times they are the content to fuel a campaign, but they are always meaningful for the client to start telling their story.
When doing these interviews, we become part of the broader team that makes the company website happen in a practical way: there are the people who approve the content and the people who get it online. As Ivan Rothkegel of Verb says, “journalism is collaborative work.” The fact that you are publishing news on a company site does not it make less collaborative. It just means that you need to learn how to work together on a project that perhaps is different to other projects in your organization.
I know that approvals can be very frustrating for everyone involved. This is often the result of using for the website an approval process designed for a project with a much slower workflow, like press releases. In the case of a website, the project leader needs to have a partnership with legal for expedited approval of content that goes outside the normal pre-approved editorial plan for the website. The project leader can be responsible for everything else.
This arrangement makes you a better communicator by building the muscle to react faster. And that can be a huge advantage at times of crisis.
Prepare for a crisis
There are two ways in which publishing on your website makes you better prepared for a crisis. The first one is that you have the team, the relationships, and the practice to quickly put your position out. That gives your organization the chance to possibly get ahead of the news.
The second way your website helps you during a crisis is by giving you content already published to support your position. An initial reaction during a crisis could be to say “we can’t say anything,” because of fear of liability. But that’s not true: if you are publishing to your website as we discussed here, you can always say what was already published. All of that content can be helpful to your customers in times of crisis, and can complement your initial response.
And if your customers are visiting your site, there’s another way it can help your organization.
Connect to sales
Publishing to your site gives you a great opportunity to align your content to your organization top business goals. This doesn’t mean thar your content needs to be about selling, but if you are driving traffic and connecting to customers, you are bringing people up to your organization’s business funnel. That is very important at this time when every organization is rushing to develop their ecommerce and digital marketing to become more resilient in the pandemic.
Update your technology
When reviewing traffic figures of that old Microsoft site, I once came across a surprise: the mobile version of Facebook had suddenly become our top referrer. We had setup that Facebook page to promote the site without much conviction, but something had changed: Facebook had introduced the News Feed, which would march on to become one of the world’s top advertising vehicles thanks to its mobile reach. We had a front seat to this seismic change because we were publishing on our own site.
It’s easy to overdo the emphasis on technology, and invest too much there in detriment of other areas of your site. Better to keep the technology simple so that you can manage it with your own team, and keep it easy to change to follow your audience as their habits evolve.
Those are six ways publishing on my own website has made me a better communicator. You can count with our team at Verb to help you make your website a news source that brings some of the same benefits to your organization as well.