How to Start an Online Magazine

The definitive guide to plan and launch your online magazine

This is your ultimate resource to start an online magazine.

Blogs are great. But there’s a big difference between starting a blog and publishing an online magazine. Blogs are often personal, one-author publications where writers express their opinions on any number of subjects. They serve as a great creative outlet for the blogger to connect, commiserate, or share positive experiences with people who have similar worldviews and interests.

Online magazines are a different creature. They’re typically multi-author online publications where you establish yourself as an expert in an industry as you inform, educate, or entertain. They also serve as a tremendous hub to gather readers from a specific industry, even giving other thought leaders an outlet to share their expertise.

This is your comprehensive guide to planning your online magazine. Let’s dig right into all of the steps you need to take to build your own publication.

How to master the 10 essential features of modern online magazines

  1. A niche topic
  2. An audience
  3. A unique name and brand
  4. A presence beyond your website
  5. An attractive, clean layout and design
  6. Compelling, consistent content for readers
  7. Optimized content for search engines
  8. Multiple authors/contributors
  9. A network of advocates
  10. Digital revenue

1. A niche topic

It may seem obvious that your online magazine will need a topic or theme. But “cats” is not a topic. “Dancing” isn’t a theme. “Baseball” isn’t going to cut it.

You’ve got to go deeper—more niche—to start an online magazine. Avoid the temptation to be broad in order to capture a larger audience. Be focused in order to attract a specific audience.

If you search any broad term on Google, you’ll quickly see that the bigger, heavily funded media companies often appear in early search results. You can’t compete with them overnight. But since you need traffic from search engines, you’ve got to niche down if you’re going to appear in search results on the first or second pages.

Smaller, but high-quality sites can dominate the more specific, “long tail” keywords.

Here’s How You Do It

First, consider the industry you’re writing for. While most bloggers stop there, we’re going to dig deeper, but you need to be crystal clear about this point first. For NextRestaurants, obviously I focused on the restaurant industry—but I tried to narrow it down to independent restaurants, not the chains. Get focused on the industry.

Next, zero in on a specific area where your talents, skills, knowledge, or experience can be on display or highlighted. What particular aspect of this industry do people struggle with that you’re able to help provide insight or expertise on? For NextRestaurants, I focused on digital marketing, not just marketing. That allowed me enough room that I could explore talking about email marketing, building websites, CRM, social media, and a variety of other topics, but is still pretty specific.

Finally, take a look at the existing resources online and how they touch on your potential topic. Is it well covered? Is there an angle missing? How can you fit right between the traditional news sources that every industry has and the existing company blogs that have emerged over the last few years?

Great Resources

Great Examples

Summary

To adapt the lyrics of Pink Floyd, get uncomfortably niche. The more focused you are with your online magazine’s niche topic, the more your readers will devour more content, subscribe, and anticipate future content from you.

2. A target audience

It’s important to be specific about whom you want your online magazine to appeal to. Who’s going to read your articles or find you when searching online? What problem are they looking to solve or itch are they looking to scratch in their lives?

Be very specific about who is going to find you and why. This will not only help you define what content you produce, but what form that content takes (for example, articles vs. audio vs. video).

Here’s How You Do It

First, give your reader a name. Give him or her an identity—an age, a detailed lifestyle, even a job title where relevant. Ultimately, your writing should focus on speaking in a one-to-one fashion with that reader, like they are sitting right in front of you.

Picture right now who that person is and why they’ll want to devour your content.

Is it a mid-level marketing coordinator at a Fortune 1000 company? Is it a single mother with children living in the United States? Is it plumbers who are excellent at their craft but not particularly adept at marketing themselves online?

Next, give your reader a series of interests, including the topic of your online magazine, but not limited to that. What other interests or worldviews is your ideal reader likely to have? The reason I encourage you to think about this is it can influence the way you forge a more personal or emotional bond with your readers.

Finally, getting this specific doesn’t mean you’ll only ever appeal to that reader. It means you’ll focus your writing on speaking to that one person, rather than an anonymous group of possible readers.

It also means your writing voice should reflect the fact that you’re speaking to that one person.

And remember, you have two groups that make up your audience: you have your readers and you’ll have your email subscribers. Your email subscribers should reflect your more engaged followers. They really enjoy reading about the topic and they like what you have to say about it.

Great Resources

Great Examples

Summary

Know whom you’re aiming to attract with your online magazine, and whom you’re not. Be clear about who’s “sitting in front of you,” anxious to digest your content.

3. A unique name and brand

You can succeed with a boring name for your online magazine. But a memorable name can be more engaging, more memorable, and honestly, just a lot more fun for you.

This is one area where I think you should care far less about search engines and more about your readers. A good name on its own can help you move beyond a blog into the more professional world of online magazine publishing. Also, additional authors are going to be more apt to write for a credible online magazine over your personal blog.

Here’s How You Do It

First, consider the keywords from your niche. What are some of the common phrases that are used in your industry? Are there catchphrases, terms, or jargon that are unique to the community? Is there a play on words that merges your online magazine and the industry?

Next, you’re going to want your online magazine’s name to be easy to remember. That means overly clever spelling or creating entirely new words is a bit dangerous. Don’t rule them out, because you might be limited when it comes to to the final step, but be careful here. Take a look at the list in the Great Examples below for inspiration.

Finally, give some thought to your writing style or personality. While you’re building a brand that has its own identity, there’s no getting around the fact that you will be the face of that publication…and the primary voice for the foreseeable future. Maybe the name should be straightforward and vanilla. Maybe it should be a bit more playful. Your magazine’s name may benefit from a little personality baked into it.

Great Resources

Great Examples

Summary

Joe’s Digital Marketing Blog is not a good name. The most successful online magazines separate the founder (especially the founder’s name) from the site’s identity. Trust that you’ll be able to fully leverage your status as founder without resorting to naming the site after you.

4. A presence beyond your website

Your online magazine’s website is obviously your home base. You own it, you control it. Everything should ultimately point people to it.

The problem with relying solely on a Facebook Page is that the rules for exposure have changed dramatically over the years, and are subject to change at any time.

Meanwhile, the problem with relying solely on Medium as the home base for your online magazine is that the rules regarding monetization, and the constraints on layout, are significant and also subject to change at any time—and they did change in 2017. 

Having an active presence beyond your website earns you all sorts of advantages. It makes it easier to find and connect with others in your niche industry. It gives you a channel through which you can promote your content, message with like-minded individuals, and drive traffic back to your site. And it gives you an outlet to share bite-sized snippets of content to engage your fans and followers.

Here’s How You Do It

First, size up your target audience. Where do they discover new sources of content? Facebook? Twitter? Instagram? Pinterest? Snapchat? Medium?

Next, what type of content are you discussing and sharing with your online magazine? Highly visual content screams to be placed on Pinterest and Instagram. Timely, topical content can find a good home on Snapchat and Twitter.

Finally, consider where you can reasonably be? You can’t have an active presence through all of these channels if your online magazine is a side project. At least not for now. You can setup systems to automate publicizing content through these channels, but we’re not talking automation alone here. We’re talking real, human-to-human engagement to generate a following and establish yourself.

Great Resources

Great Examples

Summary

It’s important to be where your readers already hang out, but you can’t be everywhere or all things to all people, especially in the early going when it’s just you. Choose wisely and engage—don’t just publish—to those channels.

5. An attractive, clean layout and design

I firmly believe that one of the reasons NextRestaurants took hold that first 12-18 months was not only the landmark content I wrote, but the compelling design. I can’t point to any metrics from my analytics to prove this, but I’m convinced of it.

The reality is, well-funded online magazines—heck, even some private blogs with dedicated writers—are upping the ante as far as what kind of look-and-feel readers expect to see when they visit a website. We’ve been conditioned to expect good, uncluttered design.

You’ll want to launch with a clean, mobile-friendly design that makes it easy for both new visitors and regular readers to navigate your site and devour your content.

Here’s How You Do It

First, I encourage you to use WordPress as your online magazine’s platform of choice. The reasons why are too many to mention here. Suffice it to say you’ll enjoy a phenomenal platform for your website for free.

Next, select a WordPress theme that has been updated frequently and can be edited. This should be a premium theme. Why? Two reasons: One, it’s only proper to support a developer/designer who’s helped make your magazine come to life. Two, you want to use a well-supported theme so you know that your site won’t break as WordPress is updated at its core.

I recommend NOT using a theme that has numerous, built-in placeholders for ads, even if you expect to monetize your magazine with advertising.

I also no longer recommend a custom design when you’re first starting your online magazine.

Finally, use complementary color schemes and ample white space to give your online magazine a modern, appealing aesthetic. My favorite resource for color schemes is Coolors.

Great Resources

Great Examples

Summary

A clean layout and design will welcome new readers to your online magazine and make it easier for regular readers to find new content.

6. Compelling, consistent content for readers

The premise behind creating your own online magazine is not to launch an online news website. Maybe you have it in you to do this, but it’s not the premise for Side Project Plan or this post.

Having said that, consistent content is important when launching your site for a few reasons:

  1. It builds your overall site content for search engines
  2. It builds your library of content for readers
  3. It makes it easier to ask readers for their email address (you’re asking for something of value only after giving something of value first)
  4. It helps you discover what content resonates with readers
  5. It teaches readers who value your content what your “pace” for new content is, so they know how often to check back in

Here’s How You Do It

First, think through your work schedule and life commitments. Don’t turn your online magazine side project into a nightmarish source of stress by overcommitting to a publishing schedule you can’t maintain.

Second, I recommend new online magazine publishers generate at least three new posts every week. Don’t worry about length, as long as you get past 500 words. The best way to stay on top of this is to create in advance a massive list of potential article categories, themes, and specific titles. Again, I turn to Google Sheets to track mine. I create a

Finally, settle into a routine. You can adjust from the three-posts-per-week schedule once you’ve got a few dozen posts published across multiple categories. Having that list of potential themes and titles will help tremendously.

Great Resources

Great Examples

Summary

You can’t call it a magazine if you don’t publish frequently! One post per week is a blog. A regular publishing schedule is essential for you to make the most of your side project, to build anticipation with readers, and for search engine optimization.

7. Optimized content for search engines

While you should always write with a specific reader in mind, there’s no getting around the fact that new readers won’t find you without search engines playing some part. Yes, a network of supporters (see #9) will help with this and social media is terrific, but you need Google, like it or not.

Here’s a quick hit list of considerations:

  • Google prefers secure websites (note the https:// here at Side Project Plan)
  • Google prefers logical URL structures with a limited number of characters
  • Google prefers websites that are mobile-friendly
  • Google prefers websites with lower bounce rates
  • All search engines depend on backlinks to your website to trust that it’s authoritative
  • All search engines prefer fast-loading websites
  • All search engines need headings that feature users’ keywords
  • All search engines need images optimized with “alt text” to include them

Google increasingly likes deeper, long-form content. It shows depth of expertise.

Here’s How You Do It

First, once again, use WordPress as your framework. Your ability to instantly create a smart structure for your URLS (“permalinks”) is unmatched. Setup your site following proven permalink structure such as https://www.yourwebsite.com/category/your-blog-post-title where “Your Blog Post Title” leverages the keywords users would search for wherever possible.

Next, use the Yoast SEO plugin or one of the alternatives in the Great Resources section. You don’t need them all. Optimize your site title, each page and post’s title, your meta description (the description that appears in search results under your page name). Plan for and publish longform content in the earliest days of your online magazine’s life. The sooner the better.

Give readers what they want. If you’ve written an article to address a need, make sure to address that need with the article!

Finally, review your Google Analytics weekly to see how visitors are finding your website. You’ll be able to learn what reels people in by reviewing your landing pages within Google Analytics, but you’ll also see whether people instantly leave after reading just one page or article (bounce rate). Develop “flagship” content that is heavily optimized for both readers and search engines, leveraging keywords and calls to action that encourage readers to devour more content on your site.

Great Resources

Summary


Ignore SEO at your own peril. Write for humans always, but keep an eye on how you structure your site and individual pages so search engines can do their thing as well.

8. Multiple authors/contributors

The pressure to publish frequently enough to see a return can be daunting. Some of the best online magazines get past this by accepting contributions from numerous authors.

I realized once I launched NextRestaurants that my goal of a couple posts each week would be challenging sometimes. Work and personal travel, my kids’ schedules, writer’s block, these all contributed to the challenge of writing routinely. So I sought out contributors.

At the time I sold the site, I had received contributions from over 30 different writers. None of them were paid contributors.

Here’s How You Do It

First, conduct your own search for the very keywords you want to be found for when readers do their Google searches. Whatever other blogs or sites come up, if the articles are solid, those writers can become your contributors. Not always, but often. This is especially true if those writers work for the marketing departments of private companies wanting to attract the same audience as you.

Depending on the niche topic of your online magazine, you may also search for writers on your topic at places like Inbound.org, Quora, even using advanced search at Twitter (hidden bonus in doing it this way, you can see what kind of following people have).

Next, reach out to potential contributors by graciously complimenting them on content they’ve previously and recently created. (Don’t go overboard with this compliment.) Consider a few specific pieces of content they could contribute by taking a look at recent articles they’ve published or videos they’ve created. Ask if they’d be open to contributing a guest post at your site that expands their thinking or revises it.

Assure whomever you reach out to that you intend to heavily promote their content just as you would their own, giving examples if possible. Know in advance what other parameters are required for guests regarding outbound links included in posts, author bios, and promoting revenue-generating content for them.

Finally, be public about your willingness to let others contribute to your online magazine. The best way to approach this is setting up a “Contribute” or “Write for Us” page that is one of your primary menu items on the home page. I received 4-5 unsolicited requests at NextRestaurants along these lines back when I ran it, and the site still receives that many each day.

Great Resources

Great Examples

 

9. A network of advocates

One of the more obvious, but less discussed, secrets to success in getting your content in front of your audience is having a loyal network of advocates. By “advocates” I mean a core group of influencers who share your content regularly, and for whom you do the same.

At NextRestaurants, I had several people who routinely shared every new post I published. I had one person in particular who set up his Twitter so that his account AUTOMATICALLY re-tweeted my new content to his 5,000+ followers. How incredible is that?

In the Great Examples section below, I share two online magazines in the Kansas City area. One has since become part of one massive sports network SB Nation. The other is a part of the Baseball Prospectus network of local sports blogs. Numerous individual writers at these online magazines have a shared passion: the Kansas City Royals. Combine that with their shared interest in writing for their publications and their high activity on Twitter, and you’ve got an advocate network.

When one writer publishes an article, the others often refer and link to it, while complimenting the author.

The most prolific online content generators do the same. There’s a reason you stumble across the same names over and over again with online publishers/marketers. They promote one another’s content.

Watch Jay Baer at work here:

On one hand, this is perfectly normal behavior that shows gratitude. Jay is sharing Sujan’s post on Forbes wherein Sujan quotes Jay. On the other, it’s marketing genius. Sujan and Jay, both popular content marketing thinkers and speakers by themselves, leverage one another’s expertise to energize a single article’s reach and exposure.

Here’s How You Do It

This takes time. Don’t expect to have a loyal network of supporters—unless you already know them and have set them up ahead of time. In fact, the how-to for this is an entire lesson with crucial details by itself that I’m only summarizing here.

First, publish great content. There’s no shortcut here and without great content, you’ll be spinning your wheels. At the same time, create a list of all those who are currently writing in your niche topic. I do this in a Google Sheet by listing each person’s name, LinkedIn URL, Twitter handle, and the URL where they typically publish their own content.

Next, reach out to each and establish a rapport. Comment on their social posts and share their content along with your own commentary. Don’t be creepy, but reach out in a low-key way. Once you’ve made some initial contact, incorporate their thoughts and ideas in some of your own posts, with clear citation and links, like Sujan has done with Jay.

Finally, specifically request your core network of supporters and fans to re-share your content. Some will do it religiously, some periodically, and some rarely. That’s ok. But make the request directly.

Great Resources

Great Examples

10. Digital revenue

If your online magazine isn’t purely a labor of love, you’re going to want revenue to cover your increasing traffic, get out of debt, and/or fund your future. Monetizing a content website can take on many forms. Most commonly:

  • Advertising
  • Affiliate commissions
  • Online courses
  • Digital books
  • Premium content
  • Physical books
  • Ghostwriting
  • Membership
  • Mastermind groups
  • Coaching
  • Webinars
  • Podcast sponsorships

The easiest approach to monetize your online magazine is with advertising and affiliate links. Readers are used to seeing ads on websites’ sidebars and headers.

The problem with them, however, is two-fold. First, as I told a person asking this on Reddit, they require sufficient traffic, plain and simple. If you only get 100 visitors per day, you’re not likely to make much money through those two avenues. Secondly, ad blockers! They’re all the rage right now, and they work. The Atlantic estimates that it lost $3.4 million in 2016 due to ad blocking.

As for affiliate marketing, consider affiliate opportunities that are directly in line with your niche topic and target audience. There’s nothing worse than ads or promotions that have nothing to do with the content you’re reading. That’s 20th-Century marketing. What products exist out there that a) are reputable, b) solve real problems for your target audience, and c) make it easy for you to educate people about? Do your research.

I’ve also sold about $1,100 worth of digital books through an online magazine and can attest that this is one of my favorite approaches to monetization for a publication. It takes time to write the book, no doubt about it, but then work is largely done as you change your focus to publicizing the book.

Here’s How You Do It

First, consider every possible problem your target audience faces. What is the best way for you to solve some or all of these problems? Are there products that already exist that you can teach people how to use or promote, without sacrificing your credibility? Are there experts you can point people to? You’ll find both advertising and affiliate opportunities when you research this—but you might also determine that there’s an online course or membership/mastermind opportunity waiting to be created by YOU.

Next, sketch out a timeline where you can reasonably introduce different monetization strategies. Maybe you start by placing ads on your site, but that’s merely to cover a few bills while you build an online course. Maybe you’ve got numerous people you already know who could benefit from you heading up a mastermind group. Maybe you’d love to write a book that people can buy at Amazon, but haven’t started that book yet and want to build a following first to promote it to.

As an online magazine publisher maybe it’s a webinar where you share your how-to expertise, publicized and sponsored by a software company targeting your audience.

I’m a big believer in always having something you can invite people to. Having a new monetization angle introduced at the site every quarter puts you on the spot to do more with your online publication than simply inform.

Finally, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Know that even writing an ebook takes time. Creating a quality online course can take longer. It took me 30 BUSY days (and those weren’t in a row) to write my 90-page ebook, Content Marketing for Restaurants.

Remember, you’re committed to creating quality content that’s freely available already.

Great Resources

Great Examples

Bonus

Alright, one last element that will help you launch your online magazine the right way: an email service provider. This is online marketing 101. You’ve got to have a list.

Additionally, you’re going to be creating flagship content and, possibly, premium content. You’re going to need to deliver that to your readers without using your personal email address, even if it’s branded for your publication.

I currently recommend two: ActiveCampaign and ConvertKit. If you want a simple and straightforward platform that’s designed for ease of use and rapid email list growth, ConvertKit is the one to explore. If you want an extraordinary featureset with advanced segmentation, CRM, and automation capabilities, check out ActiveCampaign.

Summary

I promised definitive, didn’t I? Please rate or comment on this post below, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the 10 essential elements I covered, including the additional resources and examples.

Now that you’ve tackled this how-to, I’d highly recommend you move on to How I Built NextRestaurants. It’s a detailed walkthrough of the tools I used and approach I took in launching that online magazine.

If you’re ready to start your online magazine, you might be interested in our upcoming video training course, hop on our list.

Digital Magazine Icon

Grow Your Small Business

Learn from the example of experts. Build an unstoppable personal brand no matter what industry you’re in.

No spam, ever. But you can unsubscribe any time.

Marketing with Bots: The Pros & The Cons

If you’re the least bit techie, you’ve heard of companies successfully marketing with bots. If you’re a more ‘analog’ small business owner, though, maybe not so much. But some are saying they’re the future of both lead generation through your website as well as customer service, so I want to share with you my greatest

Keep Reading...

CEOs with Personal Websites: 5 Examples to Follow

Most CEOs and small business owners don’t have personal websites. And yet, there are numerous examples of forward-thinking business leaders who have turned their own personal brands into business builders, starting with a personal website, but extending to other platforms from there. In many cases, people have used their personal website as an online resume

Keep Reading...

The Personal Brand of Joseph Ranseth, Vine Strategy

Today I take a look at the personal brand of Joseph Ranseth. I’ve done this now with Joseph, Rebekah Radice, and Phil Gerbyshak. And there are more to come. It’s a pretty fascinating thing to analyze—how a leader makes use of their personal brand to further the growth of their company. I call this building

Keep Reading...

Kill the Personal Website? No Way

Should you kill your personal website? Rachel Kaser of The Next Web answers this question with a yes, then gives the worst possible explanation as to the reasons why she answered that way, including convoluting the reasons why she issued her proclamation to kill the personal website in the first place. It makes no sense.

Keep Reading...

Finding New Revenue Streams for Your Small Business

First, a confession for anyone following. Technically I’m on day #29. I’ve missed two days recently. My Write Every Day Project now has a couple holes in it.) My schedule was impossible to put the finishing touches on a post this past weekend. Yesterday, I updated a feature on my website that threw me for

Keep Reading...

Are You the Face of Your Business?

This is a question for all the solopreneur and microbusiness owners out there. Those of you who may have a company that goes by a different name than your own, but have either no additional employees or only a few: Are you the face of your business? Your OWN business?  I’m running across countless microbusiness

Keep Reading...

Leave a Comment