Custom Content

A recent client project involved taking a magazine with national distribution and creating custom content for specific geographical areas. We created 5 issues for major metropolitan areas, plus a “general” issue that mailed to everyone else.

Custom content is an efficient way to hone a message for an audience segment. While this client chose to customize based on geography, you can customize content based on any attribute in your database, such as age or gender segments.

The Process

Customizing content begins with a strategy, not logistics. While there are many logistics involved, the overall strategy has to drive the editorial and design decisions. As we began the planning process, we met to affirm the purpose of the magazine and to consider how the magazine strategy would be strengthened by custom content.

Once the strategy was in place, then logistics were the focus. We generated several potential scenarios, getting bids from the printer and mail house. Eventually we settled on creating custom content for the first two and last two pages in the magazine. This gave each issue a custom cover and inside story, along with custom content on the inside back cover and back cover promotional space.

Another project I worked on had custom content for an insert, with the regular magazine going to the membership audience and the magazine with the insert going to the leadership audience.


ATL coverWhile the magazine team is aware of all the different custom components, the reader of the magazine only sees one version. So the editorial and design flow between the custom content and the core content has to make sense to the reader. The team dealt with content in chunks by custom issue; but we also had to consider the editorial and design flow between the custom pages and the core pages.

After our first issue with custom content, we decided that we had to draw more attention to the custom content on the inside back cover, so the reader would realize that along with a feature story on page 2, there was additional geographical content at the end of the magazine. In addition, some issues included a custom promotional space on the back cover, and others have featured a consistent back cover between all versions.

Measuring Results

The client can measure engagement by geographical area, based on responses they get from readers. For other custom content projects, reader surveys or online engagement can measure response.

Variety of Applications

There are many ways to make custom content work to accomplish strategic objectives. Custom content can take the form of a single custom page, such as a cover, back cover or advertisement. Another project might feature a custom insert or center section. Custom content has long been a tool of large organizations, but it can easily be applied to accomplish the goals of any communicator.

Bifocal Editorial Planning

Which issue is most important for an editor to focus on, the current issue or the next 3 issues?

The answer is both! Part of the art of being an effective magazine editor is to have bifocal vision. A great editor has to pay close attention to the details of the current issue of the magazine or newsletter, so that she can step through each stage of a quality editorial process. At the same time, she needs to keep some level of attention focused on the next few future issues in order to maintain consistently high quality in the magazine.

It is easy for an editor to get stuck in the present issue, because there is always some article that needs polishing, some layout that needs review, and some author who needs more attention. But an editor who can keep an eye on the future, while taking care of the present issue, will serve her readers with great output.

Here are some reasons that editors should keep some level of attention on future issues:

  • Some features take more time to develop than the usual editorial cycle. By thinking ahead to the next 2-3 issues of a magazine, the editor can assign research and pay attention to other voices on a topic. This will result in deeper and more thoughtful content.
  • Some articles will fit better in a future issue than the current issue. As an editor is looking through submissions, he can be evaluating whether a particular article is best for the current issue or if it would make a stronger contribution to a future theme. It is always tempting to push a great article into a current gap, but a patient, bifocal editor will consider the overall direction of content in both current and future issues.
  • Strategic editors take their readers on an intentional path over time. By planning out multiple future issues, the editor can offer a progression of topics to cause growth in readers.

It isn’t easy to keep enough focus on future issues during the pressing schedule of producing the current issue of a magazine. But an excellent editor knows how to allocate her time and brain power to cover both aspects of the job.

View a webinar that I taught for Magazine Training International on “Structuring the Editorial Process” that includes more information on bifocal editorial planning.

Filling Unexpected Space

In the editorial planning process, all the space in a magazine or e-newsletter is usually allocated to content, advertisements or in-house promotions. However, sometimes during the process, allocations may change. Perhaps an article that was planned for the issue is rejected during the initial review cycle. The article either wasn’t up to the quality level expected, or when all the content was reviewed together, it was repetitive or didn’t fit with the theme. Now, all of a sudden, there is an extra space in an issue and little time to fill the space.

Here are several options for unexpected space:

  • Keep a file of backup articles that are ready to go.
  • Have go-to writers who can quickly provide content.
  • Create a “resting space” with a quotation and an image.
  • Have a stock of in-house promotions already prepared.
  • Spread out design for an existing article.

Having a contingency plan for how to use extra space in a magazine or e-newsletter can result in higher quality outcomes, since alternatives are thought through in advance, rather than in a last-minute scramble.

Editorial Strategy: Flexibility vs. Planning

Editorial decision-makers are continually faced with the issue of how strictly to stick to an editorial plan and how often to veer from the plan to incorporate relevant content that connects with events in the world. With print publications, editorial planning ensures that the organization holds its voice in a consistent way. However, with social media and the need to be connecting daily with constituents via Facebook and Twitter, an artful combination of flexibility and planning is essential.

The planned aspect of content is a way to cover a variety of topics that all relate to the core brand, without neglecting some important aspect of the organization. The flexible side of content management means that there needs to be space within the plan to respond to occurrences in the greater community that impact constituents. An organization that doesn’t have any flexibility in content can be seen as irrelevant. At the same time, an organization without any content planning discipline can experience voice creep and lack of clarity on key messages.

For instance, when a news event occurs that impacts an audience segment, people expect an organization to comment on the event. If everyone is “talking” about an event in social media, and it relates to your constituency, but you aren’t talking about it, then you are not being relevant to the conversation. At the some time, some regular portion of organizational content online should not just follow news but to create news and content that people will start talking about. Planned editorial content spread across time is the way that your organization can shape and drive the conversation, putting forth content consistent with the values and goals of the organization.

The art of editorial content management is in the careful balance of flexibility and planning. One without the other is either irrelevant or undisciplined. Wise editors balance flexibility and planning, and are continually evaluating past messages for what they contribute to the overall organizational content strategy.

Take a Break

March is a high volume editorial month in my world. In addition to the regular quarterly issue of MomSense magazine that went to print yesterday, our annual special edition went to print earlier this month. And many other departments have projects that need my editorial eyes at the same time. So some days my editorial brain is definitely taxed.

Here are some practices I have found to be useful in keeping up quality standards in a high-volume editorial cycle:

  • Taking physical breaks – getting out of my chair, walking to the kitchen for a glass of water, sticking my head outside to get some sun – sometimes even 10 minutes can refresh my brain and help keep me sharp.
  • Switching editorial style – going from the computer screen to paper-based editing is often enough to give me a fresh perspective.
  • Planning my day – I am definitely sharper in the morning than the afternoon, so I try to queue up projects in a way that uses my best time for the most intense brain work.
  • Watching my attitude – I know I need to take a break when I find myself accepting mediocre word choices or inconsistent grammar just because it would be simpler to have fewer changes in a rush project.
  • Pausing when I am tempted to push too fast to get another page done – sometimes I am tempted to start on one more page in the few minutes I might have before a meeting rather than saving the file and coming back later.
  • Saying no – this is the hardest but often the most important step to keep high quality. Rather than an outright “no,” I might suggest an alternate time: “I want to do a quality job on this extra project. I can’t have it done by 10 am today, but I can finish it by 1 pm.”

In addition to the practical tips that I often implement, the most important way to keep myself sharp is to build margin into my schedule. This is true for editorial project planning and also overall life planning. Something will go wrong during a project, and while I can’t plan for exactly what will go wrong, if I have left some space in the schedule for breathing, then I can more easily accommodate issues that come up. And after a very busy month of editing, a day off to enjoy fresh air is the best way to rejuvenate myself for the next project.

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