How to Be There for Your Readers Through These Trying Times
Janice Robinson-Celeste of Successful Black Parenting Magazine shares her advice for adapting to the online landscape and pivoting your content strategy to give your readers what they need now.
We want to help you stay connected to the content industry, even while we all have to stay apart during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, to help replace all the meetups and conferences you’ll be missing, we’re launching a series of virtual conversations between Setka’s CEO and leading content experts.
The world needs great content now more than ever, and we hope these insights inspire you to keep creating it!
Co-founder and CEO at Setka
Whether you’re a publisher or a branded blog, at least part of your goal with creating content should be to serve the needs of your readers. Even if you’re ultimately trying to turn them into paying customers, you have to meet readers where they are, provide the answers that they’re looking for, and generally be there to support their needs if you want to build the trust required to convert them. And right now, needs are changing fast. From the ways content makers are connecting with their audience to the topics they’re covering, everything has changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Janice Robinson-Celeste of Successful Black Parenting Magazine is no stranger to identifying a need and rising to the challenge of meeting it. She started the first national magazine for black parents back in 1993 after noticing that there was nothing on the market speaking to their specific experience. Oh, and she did this with zero background in editorial work—she was an early childhood specialist at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and her business partner, Marta Sanchez, PhD, a caseworker.
While the magazine was overall a success, gaining lots of traction and press attention due to its unique perspective, they ultimately struggled with the tough realities of running a print magazine and shuttered it a few years later. But in 2017, as Black Lives Matter took over the national conversation, they realized their mission was as important as ever. Plus, with digital publishing now the norm, it felt more doable than ever. So, they decided to give it another shot and relaunched as an online magazine.
Just a few years later, they’re successfully making another major adjustment—after all, the lives of parents have shifted drastically as schools have closed and they’re trying to keep their kids safe, healthy, and happy through this crisis. So, we sat down with Robinson-Celeste to get her take on how other publishers can make sure they’re serving the true needs of their readers right now, how to get your digital strategy right if you’re adjusting to this new online world, and more.
— Why did you decide to start Successful Black Parenting and what’s your goal with the publication?
In the United States, African American families have been at a disadvantage for hundreds of years and are just starting to make some strides, and yet, at the same time, some steps backwards. So, it’s our goal to help parents thrive and not just survive with advice on raising children. I raised my children mostly by myself and they are successful, so I can give my advice, especially as an early childhood educator, on how to do that.
We were the first black parenting magazine nationally, ever. And almost all the articles in our magazine have to include demographics about the black family or some research about the black family or the black family experience—otherwise it would just be another parenting magazine. So for instance, you won’t see articles in mainstream parenting magazines about how to do black hair, because it’s really specific. So that’s the type of material I’m looking for, to make sure it’s included and it’s talked about, because parents need help. No matter if you’re latino or or black or white, it doesn’t matter, we all need help.
— The kind of support parents need has obviously shifted in light of the pandemic. How have you adapted, and how can others figure out how to best be there for their audience through this time?
We’ve been doing a lot of COVID articles, covering topics like: how do we protect children, how long are we going to be homeschooling, how to homeschool, whether children will wear masks. There have been a lot of myths circulating about this virus, so we made sure to do a podcast on that. We’ve been interviewing doctors. So we are really on it and it’s important because it’s such a novel virus and no one knows what to expect and we’re trying to help them navigate these waters.
As a publisher, you have to listen, you have to be in the mix. We use our social media as a kind of measure for that, to find out what parents want, what questions they’re asking, what rumors are going around, what their worries are. Sometimes we do polls and try to figure out: what is on your mind about this particular subject? But mostly it’s from listening, and they’ll tell us, hey I’m scared about this. Well, maybe we need to write about that.
That’s mainly how we get our topics, but you have to know your audience, you have to hear them. We can make up our own topics but it might not be what they want to listen to.
We are really on it and it’s important because it’s such a novel virus and no one knows what to expect and we’re trying to help them navigate these waters.
— A lot of publishers are having to be more flexible in their content planning right now than they might normally. How have you changed your editorial process or strategy in light of all this?
We put a lot of stories on the back burner, like pieces we had in the works with our partner, the American Psychological Association (APA), about everything from general topics to racism. Right now, nothing matters except for your health. You have to be able to be alive to be concerned about other social issues, so that’s our biggest concern. COVID has taken the front row since this outbreak happened.
In my personal life I’m a bit of a prepper. Especially since the last outbreak of Ebola happened, I’m always paying a little extra attention. So when this came about and I heard you can get it asymptomatically and then spread it to others, I knew it was going to be bad. We did a podcast right away with a pediatrician, because I wanted to get confirmation that what I was realizing was actually correct, and she confirmed that, yes, this is going to be bad.
So I started preparing for articles so we could alert our parents right away, even though no one was really paying attention to it at that point. You have to be reactionary because new things keep coming up everyday with this particular virus.
— You started Successful Black Parenting as a print publication back in the 90s, and then relaunched in 2017 as an online publication. What were some of the hardest things about adapting to online publishing?
People are always saying that print is dead, everything is digital. And while I’m not sure I agree 100%—I still like to get my hands on print—you’ve got to strike a balance. We just lost one of our biggest magazines in our culture, Ebony Magazine, that’s been around since I was a little girl, and they just closed the doors. It’s very important that traditional publications evolve to this digital world, and you need to do it quickly and you need to be up on the trends on what’s going on and what people like and what’s the newest thing out. You need to be that person or hire somebody who knows what to expect next and how to best serve your audience online.
For us promoting it was difficult. We had to relearn social media and how to get people to pay attention. There’s so much noise out there—I remember when I first started, I wondered if anyone ever even read it. We’d get a couple of clicks on an article, but now we get thousands of clicks to ten thousands of clicks a month, depending on the article.
And then the challenge is figuring out: How do I keep you on my page longer? How do I keep you looking at other articles? I need to capture your attention. I need you to tell your friends about what I’m writing about, because that’s the only way I’m gonna get advertisers sooner or later.
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It’s very important that traditional publications evolve to this digital world, and you need to do it quickly
— What advice would you give to other publishers who are trying to quickly shift online or improve their digital strategy to keep their audience engaged during the pandemic?
I think first it’s just a matter of putting out as much content that is really good as possible, and having conversations about this content with your readers and followers on social media. If I see someone talking about something that we covered, I make sure I post about it, especially with people who are verified because it helps us out a lot. We have some really strong followers—from Shaun King, who does a lot of social justice articles, to Bernice King, who is Martin Luther King, Jr’s daughter—and they share our stuff because we have good content, and that’s important.
And I think a great design really helps. People don’t just want to see a paper magazine online where you can just flip the pages—we can get a paper magazine for that. They want to see interesting graphics, they want to see movement—things need to be interesting. People don’t like to read anymore, so multimedia is king. You’ve got to give different learners, different ways to absorb your content, whether it is a video or a graphic or just bullet points.
Bullet points are really big for parents, because they are busy. They don’t have time to read paragraphs. If I go to a website and it’s too wordy I might read the first sentence of each paragraph for a bit and then I’m done. But if the bullet points are done really well, it’s easy reading.
— What’s next for Successful Black Parenting once all this has calmed down?
While we will always have our digital presence as our main source of information, we’re looking to go to print specifically for practitioners, so that way they can have the magazine in their offices for families. It’s going to be free circulation, and we’re looking for investors and advertisers to help us with that. That’s our main focus for growth.
As far as online, we’re going to add more writers and more content. We’re always looking for ways to organize the writers on the backend so that they can submit their drafts and things like that.We do a lot of freelance work, so we all need to have a way to come together for writing behind the scenes. We’ve been using different plugins to help us with that.
IllustratOR: Khadia Ulumbekova