On revenue-worthy shelf life of your evergreen stories | The Humane Club Made with Humane Club
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I've 15 years of experience in media product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. Prior to this, I was a Knight Fellow with ICFJ.org and have co-founded two companies. All views expressed here are my personal opinions.
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I've 15 years of experience in media product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. Prior to this, I was a Knight Fellow with ICFJ.org and have co-founded two companies. All views expressed here are my personal opinions.

On revenue-worthy shelf life of your evergreen stories

Published Jul 31, 2021
Updated Nov 28, 2021

But first, a story

Many years ago, I was running Pykih, a web development agency. The business model was simple. I would buy developer years (hire people) and sell them as developers hours, at a premium. 

When we got long-term, sophisticated work, we made good money. However, sometimes, it would take a long time to close these orders. During this lull period, the developer hours I had already bought (salaries) did not earn revenue. These developer hours were a perishable commodity, like airline tickets.

To reduce loss, we built a healthy backlog in JIRA and estimated the time it would take. Then, fourteen days before an empty roadmap, all we had to do was to close short-term orders. In theory, those developer hours had a shelf life of fourteen days. But we soon realized that the revenue-worthy shelf-life was nil.

Our customers did not have low-cost, low-complexity, short-term work. It took us months to align marketing, sales, and contracting to build a parallel pipeline for such work that we could close in 14 days. Only then we were able to reclassify that shelf life of fourteen days as revenue-worthy.

News products face a similar problem with evergreen stories.

Ask any editor if they have evergreen stories and they will say yes. And yes they are. But the revenue worthiness of such evergreen stories is next to nil. 

One reason for this could be that marketing, listing, and discovery systems and processes in news products are optimized to market and sell what’s in the news. Even SEO won’t get you traffic because Google deprioritizes articles on news websites in one to three days.

To test this for a subscription news product, measure how many visitors decide to purchase your subscription from a blocked story page. It will taper off and won’t reach the potential of the evergreen story.

You won’t find this phenomenon with other content businesses like edtech. Even though Masterclass or Brilliant might have published a piece of content years ago, they will still sell it as a fresh product.

How to increase revenue-worthy shelf life of evergreen stories

Align editorial, SEO, marketing, and product to improve the discovery of this evergreen content. Unless audiences discover this content, they are not going to read it (traffic) or buy your subscription (to read it).

Few methods come to mind:

1. Replug evergreen stories in context of new stories

Visitors are presented with evergreen stories (explainers, timeline, opinions, etc.) in the context of an in-news story.

Visitors realize that your coverage on this topic isn’t fleeting and that you’ve been following this topic for a longer period. There is an explainer on the subject, a timeline, an opinion piece by an expert, etc. For anyone sincerely interested in the topic, this is a much more persuasive pitch.

To achieve this, news Products will have to create shelf space so editors can replug older evergreen stories. Editorial will need to implement an SOP to do this every day. A good UX for this is from the 2017 website of atimes.com.

Here’s another example from The Economist that replugs articles to help audiences build a diverse perspective

2. Subreddit your site

No one wakes up in the morning and says, today, I will read World stories. Yet newsrooms are not only structured around beats, desks, and bureaus for organizational efficiency, but also their websites use these in the navigation.

A better model is what Inside.com follows. They understand that people are obsessed with topics, e.g., AR, No Code, Streaming, AI, Cryptocurrency. This information architecture allows them to organize their entire team around these obsessions, collect micro-audiences, and serve them. If a topic fails, only that topic is underperforming and can be replaced with something else.

Inside.com’s topics

Another great product that employs this method is Quartz.

QZ obsessions

So, how does this make your evergreen stories revenue-worthy? The moment you give in-depth coverage to those a small group of deeply passionate people, they will want to consume everything in that topic to build a perspective. SEO will also find it easy to build authority for this niche.

SEO and marketing will need to help editorial and product define audience obsessions. Editorial will need to restructure their operations, and product will need to measure performance per vertical.

3. Sale pages for high potential topics

But sometimes, it is not possible to redo an entire organization. So legacy, paper-of-record news organizations instead should set up topic pages.

Oh no! Not the 2014-kind of topic pages. 🥴 These were effectively a reverse-chronological listing of all articles on that topic.

Badly designed topic pages

No! This also does not mean that you invest in Artificial Intelligence. If audiences want a programmatically created topic page, they will subscribe to it on Google News. A newsroom should never (rather cannot) compete with Google News on a turf where Google has an absolute advantage – algorithms. In such a competition, Google will always have better data (more stories from more publishers) and infinitely better AI technology.

Where news organizations have a competitive advantage over Google is that they have editors. They can give the news a human touch. To do this, a legacy news organization can choose a few (a limited number) of high potential topics and create obsessions subsites around them.

They will need to hire a subeditor to run each page for each of these topics. These subeditors will need to act more like knowledge managers or curators at a library. On a typical day, they would curate coverage on that topic from across your publication, write explainers, engage and nurture a small but highly engaged audience.

If I were to explain this role from analogy — then imagine for a bit that you are running a music streaming product like Spotify. Then the role of this subeditor is to obsess over curating (and explaining the curation) playlists for one need, say music at gyms.

Here’s an example from The Economist. I know that this itself is a special report. But nothing stops a horizontal, catch-all news organization to created curated reading lists like this from their coverage.

4. Search and compare

Whenever audiences have an intent (interest or job that needs to be completed), they spend hours searching, filtering, comparing to find the right piece of information for themselves. For example, searching for the right restaurant for a date or the right hotel for a vacation, or a laptop to buy. News products have never built such interfaces and hence have never inculcated this behavior amongst their audience.

A journalism product that I adore is the People’s Archive of Rural India. They give me, a citizen who lives in urban India, a glimpse of rural India. They diligently map all their stories on a map and allow visitors to explore various parts of India.

Such interfaces facilitate the discovery of evergreen content.

One of the methods of doing this is using Structured Journalism or Spreadsheet Journaling.