The Content Hack That Will Unlock 100 Years of Journalistic Tips for Your Digital Strategy

“There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life that he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for treasure.” – Mark Twain

Mark Twain has a point. Over the past 18 months I have been that boy, attempting to draw on all my learnings from a decade-long career in print journalism and translating them into digital strategy.

It’s been a journey into the depths, remembering every sage piece of advice, every argument and discussion from some of the smartest content strategists, editors, and writers I have had the pleasure of working with. And the conclusion?

Nothing of value dies. It just changes shape.

The more I dive into that treasure chest of experience, the more I find that resonates more now than it ever has. The challenge is the translation and prioritization of that work.

I’ve written a lot previously here about aspects of content strategy, utilizing audience insight to create the right content, and more, but the challenge is in how to pull all of that together and today I want to share tips from what is perhaps the greatest mine of information of all – the magazine front cover.

50 Years of Content Science

The cover of a magazine is perhaps the best example of crafted content you will see anywhere. Those creating them are drawing on countless years of experience and audience understanding and the process of pulling them together is science.

I’ve been lucky enough to lead brilliant teams to create them, so let’s look at how that process works and what you can take from that into your own content process.

The Best Magazines

While all paid-for magazines are equal, some are certainly more equal than others. That means knowing where to look is critical.

The very best magazine craftsmen and women often end up on consumer titles, those designed to make money from shelf sales and not those driven by a subscription base. It means having to work harder to stand out.

Here’s a list of some of the best in the U.K. currently:

  • Men’s Health
  • Top Gear
  • Car Magazine
  • Today’s Golfer
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Wired

Pick up any one of those and read the “cover lines,” the carefully crafted words on the front cover, and you’ll soon find a treasure trove of content strategy tips and, critically, a brilliant template you can then use for your own digital content plan.

Dissecting a Cover

To extract that wisdom, we need to dissect a cover. Below you can see an average copy of Men’s Health. The editorial and marketing teams there know their audience inside and out and have a well-drilled plan to ensure they “service” their three key personas well with each issue.

If we look at each cover line in turn, we will soon be able to work out what those personas are.

While the title may appear to be about fitness, it’s really designed for “self improvement” and these are the key areas they cover:

1. Sexual Performance Improvement


Here we can clearly see a cover line devoted to helping the reader get better at sex! It is also a “list feature,” which we’ll come to a little later.

2. Cognitive Improvement


Next is the area of the cover that shows the reader it contains content on improving your cognitive ability, this time in dealing with stress.

3. Physical Improvement


The strongest message is always about fitness and body improvement and we can see that the two key “teasers” are related to this.

4. Career Improvement


These four areas of focus are known as “editorial pillars” and form the basis of every content ideation process for the team. They know when they get into their planning meeting they will need fantastic feature ideas around the four areas of focus.

And because their audience is predominantly men, they also know that list features “sell” and will ensure that they have at least one plugged on the cover each and every month.

How do they know it will work? The simple answer is experience, but it is also based on audience insight and a solid foundation process built around the creation of personas.

Personas, in simple terms, are fictional “people” created to reflect the needs and characteristics of groups that make up your audience and should form the basis of your content strategy decision-making.

It is this approach that shapes everything that a title like Men’s Health will create and below we can see a basic example of what their may look like given what we can reverse engineer from this initial dissection:


This kind of detail makes it much easier for the editorial team to structure idea creation and, ultimately, form each issue plan.

What Does This Prove?

Hopefully the quick run-through above gives you a new perspective on how it is possible to extract useful insight from experienced print content teams and how what may appear to be a collection of words is actually a complex process that starts and ends with audience.

It is not a guessing game.

What Can You Learn From It?

The key to all of this is, of course, is what we can take away for use in our digital strategy.

The short answer is to create a process that is “audience-centric.” If you haven’t already, design some simple personas from which your content plan can pivot from. It can also be very valuable to think not just about your new editorial pillars but also how you may play on the psychological triggers of your audience to drive purchase, or click-through in the case of digital content.

Gain insight around the motivating forces that drive our subconscious mind. For instance, men like lists, as their brains are designed to take in information presented in this way. We also all react more strongly to certain emotional triggers. This is used a lot in Web and UX design and understanding that fear of inadequacy, in the case of Men’s Health, is a key driver of behavior will help you refine your ideas to hit the right notes.

It is then a very useful process to design your own front cover. This will then ensure your brainstorms remain structured and “on brand.”

Below is an example of cover lines our agency might use for an issue of Zazzle Media” (personas exist to inform this process).

1. Content Strategy

27 Ways Journalistic Principles Can Help Shape Your Content Plan

2. Social Media

The Ultimate Guide to Paid Audience Acquisition

3. Technical Search

90% of Schema Is Valueless. Stick to These and Watch Your CTR Soar.

4. Data Insight

Extracting Key Data From Social to Inform Content Strategy

5. Digital PR

What Can Traditional PR Teach the Digital World About Relationships?

Go ahead and give it a go yourself…and involve as many team members as possible to aid the understanding of the process and who your content should be targeting.

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