Beating to the rhythm of Modern Drummer

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How this dedicated magazine is leveraging their archive and social following to grow their business

Bringing fans “the latest and greatest” for over 40 years, the world’s most widely read drum magazine has flipped the way they sell subscriptions, and they’re better for it.

At the first edition of WordCamp for Publishers earlier this year, we met Peter Ericson, founder of WordPress agency ZEEN101. He connected us with Miguel Monroy at the US magazine Modern Drummer, who has been working with Peter on their site.

Miguel’s mission

Miguel MonroyMiguel is Business and Content Development Lead at Modern Drummer, and he tells me at least half of his job is coming up with new ways to monetize products and services outside of their traditional print magazine:

“We’ve had the old-school hard copy magazine for 40 years. But it’s 2017 now, and people want to be able to experience content in an entirely new way. That’s part of the reason we partnered with ZEEN101.”

When Miguel joined the magazine in April 2015, he quickly saw he needed to make sure revenue wasn't coming from just one source. Print advertisers were starting to pull out and he had to come up with other ways to generate revenue. Miguel's most important job is to make sure they don’t put all their eggs in one basket.

All the baskets

Currently, Modern Drummer runs ads and sponsored content on their website, through apps and on their social channels. Modern Drummer has over 430k people following their Facebook page. Their Instagram account has 149k followers and Twitter has gathered 75K followers. Miguel talks about some new advertising options they have set up through these channels:

“Our advertisers can now send us an image or a video, and I’ll promote it through our advertising account on Facebook. So rather than a brand using their own channel, they can now partner with a trusted party in the industry.”

Recently, many publishers have been investing heavily in video and some even chose to go all-in, laying off writers in the process. Miguel wouldn’t want to pivot to video entirely but does agree that video content is a big deal and people want to experience it more:

“Firstly, we see an opportunity for advertising. We now offer a new ‘mini-documentary’ option. Advertisers pay a lump sum and in return I’ll come and shoot a video on their company or brand. The video gets shared with our social media followers."

Modern Drummer's educational articles

“Video also has a great impact on our digital product - our online magazine. For example, when we have an educational article - let’s say a drum lesson - I can now have the text, the sheet music and the video of the drummer playing it, all in one article. My readers can experience it in every single way."

A true experience

Offering that experience to absolutely anyone who loves drumming and drummers has been a life changer for the magazine. Modern Drummer has introduced a metered version of a paywall last February, whereas before they had a 'full' one. Since then, they have seen their monthly organic traffic to the website grow about 20%:

“Without a doubt, the best decision we ever made was to go to a metered paywall setting. Everyone can read three articles per month for free. What this also means is that every single article can be indexed by Google. Every feature, education piece, articles on the latest gear and technology, reviews and so on. Every article can be shared with people's friends, and their friends can share it with theirs and so on... We get the social organic ripple effect."

The metered paywall, referred to by Miguel as the Leaky Paywall solution, has totally changed the way Modern Drummer sells subscriptions and it’s very much to his liking:

Modern Drummer photoshoot

“It makes me so happy that I can sell subscriptions by having people experience great content. I don’t have to tell them “I promise we’re great”, but rather point them at incredible articles. And after they check out two more articles, they discover the option to subscribe for $5 per month themselves."

For this to work, it’s important to not put anything between the reader and the content. Miguel tells me that before they switched to the paywall, Modern Drummer had an ad that would pop up and cover your entire screen. It made him furious:

“I hated it the second I started working for the Modern Drummer. So I laid down the gauntlet and said “when we launch this paywall, that has to go”.”

And it did go. Choosing the metered paywall approach changed their relationship with ads altogether:

“We found that the organic subscriptions we were getting each month, naturally by people discovering our content, out-perform our ‘subscribe now!’ ads. So we changed our strategy to focus on growing our base of social followers."

Miguel mentions that growing your fan base on social is hard, especially when you don’t want to pay money. Fortunately, Modern Drummer nowadays gets about 75% of their follower growth organically, due to people enjoying their content and sharing it with their friends. Miguel tells me a small percentage is done by paying to target people in their industry.

Another important driver to get people to interact with content is Modern Drummer’s newsletter. Currently, they have around 80k people signed up. The newsletter gets sent out once a month with ‘all you need to know articles’ about drum shells, cymbals, heads - “basically things every drummer can benefit from”.

Making it work

In order to up the chances of people coming across three articles which will persuade them to sign up, Modern Drummer invests greatly in utilising the huge archive of content created over the last four decades:

“We have a person on staff and part of what he does is going through the very old articles. He’s making sure each article from every issue is available individually and responsive on our website and apps. It’s a huge amount of work, but every time we publish an old or new article, they can be indexed by Google and become searchable.

Modern Drummer homepagesEach article remains connected to an issue, with its own unique aesthetic design, Miguel tells me as we're looking at the website:

“When you go to the site now you see these red accent colors and things like that. When you go to our archive and select another issue, the website changes. Every single issue is unique, in and of itself. Details like that make it bad-ass.”

Part of what makes working with issues, old and new, so rewarding is the evergreen nature of Modern Drummer’s content. Many pieces will be just as relevant today as it was to people many years ago. People tend to form big attachments to people they write about. This inspired Miguel to start working on so called ‘artists packs’:

“You may have heard about the band Rush. We’ve been writing articles on their drummer for almost the full 40 years. So we got nine cover stories and lots of different things. We put all of it together and you can download it to your iPad or wherever you want. So all these articles are available for anyone who’s super passionate about that drummer and band. That’s the beautiful thing about what we’re doing." 

Beautiful things take time

Working hard on both the business and content side, I ask Miguel which is the most challenging when taking the business forward:

“It's realizing that switching to a new business model doesn’t get you major results instantly. It builds slowly over time. The challenge for us is to be patient and focus on that long term goal. We want to build a subscriber base out of dedicated, loyal people. I don’t want fly-by-night people who subscribe for one month and are gone the next.

“I’m happy to say we’re getting to the point where we don’t have to rely on print advertising, online advertising or just subscribers -  it’s several different baskets that are starting to add up."

Print surprise

Miguel makes sure that before we end our conversation I take note of what has been the most surprising realization over the last couple of months - print is far from dead for Modern Drummer:

Modern Drummer print covers

“With the introduction of our digital option we were expecting our print options to die down. But it has not actually been the case. Our print subscriptions have been increasing since we started the digital option. This is because people are smart, and they can do the math. They can either pay $60 a year for the digital option or subscribe to the monthly print magazine for 30 bucks. And you can add the online archive to the print magazine for $120 a year. Print is an important part of our future and the digital offering supports it even more." 

Final thoughts

When you explore the web, you can't escape the feeling that shallow sensationalism has become the norm for much of our digital ecosystem.

Great publishers like the Modern Drummer show that content quality and overall user experience not only still matters, but could turn out to be the key in shaping a sustainable media business. There's no doubt in my mind that there'll always be a place for publishers nailing a vertical by putting their readership first. This includes doing "bad-ass things", of course.

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