How publishers squeeze new traffic out of their old content

A couple years ago, publishers decided they had to start wringing more money out of their old content. Today, some of them are practically selling the photos that hang on their office walls, but the fruits of these labors are sprouting: The Atlantic, which uses archival material on both the print and digital sides of its business, now generates more than a quarter of its traffic every month from older content. At publications like Business Insider, the figure is even higher, and for lifestyle-focused publications like Refinery29 it’s higher still: 35 percent, and growing, the company said.

“We’re not looking to build our business on single pieces of celebrity news,” said Neha Gandhi, Refinery29’s svp of content strategy and innovation. “Betting exclusively on the news cycle is far too volatile a game to play, if you’re looking to drive sustained growth and loyalty.”

Older, evergreen content has always been a source of traffic for publishers; for some, it’s core to their business models. But recently, publishers big and small have embraced a wide array of tactics to get more value out of their stories: republishing the same stories with different headlines; targeting likely subscribers with promoted posts on Facebook; syndicating old content with advertisers hungry for high-quality stories; and many more.

Focusing heavily on updating older content has driven big gains. “If we have a list of the Best Burgers in San Francisco, for instance, if we’re not updating that at least yearly and probably more often, we’re doing a terrible job,” said Ben Robinson, Thrillist’s chief creative director. “It’s an area we’ve attacked really aggressively.”

That aggressiveness has paid off. Two years ago, Thrillist got just 10 percent of its traffic from search. By the end of 2016, that number was closer to 40 percent.

But updating content isn’t the only move publishers are making. The New York Times, for example, which started thinking about archives in earnest after its much-discussed 2014 Innovation Report, used archival material to test out the viability of a new site section. Over the summer, the grey lady launched a column called Smarter Living, with raw material coming mostly from archived posts that were years old. In mid-December, Smarter Living was given a standalone editor, and it now sources original material from numerous desks across the Times. Plans for a newsletter and original multimedia content are in the pipes as well.

“When we started, it was almost exclusively archives,” said Smarter Living editor Tim Herrera. “The balance between archival and news has shifted a bit to the point where now desks are pitching us.”

Figuring out what to focus on isn’t hard. Herrera’s able to draw on everything from internal site searches to reader emails to past content performance. Where necessary, stories are retagged, and in some cases updated with the help of the reporter.

That same intel will be used to create more resource-intensive content, like video and live chats, a strategy not dissimilar from the one BuzzFeed used to adapt successful content from one medium to another. “It just seems like such an obvious thing to do.”

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