How the Content Team at This Colorado Company Leaned Into the Pandemic
When Laura Amann first learned that Toastmasters International would halt the print publication of their monthly magazine for the first time in company history, her first concern was for their 350,000 subscribers all over the world.
This was in late March 2020. The uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 had pushed the nearly 100-year-old company into pandemic mode, and that meant the popular magazine stories would now appear online-only.
For Amann, the magazine’s supervisor and editor, that posed a challenge.
Toastmasters’ readership depended on the non-profit’s print publication to teach them speaking and leadership skills. Sure, all of those evergreen stories also appeared on Toastmasters’ website, but most of their readers hadn’t been conditioned to seek those stories online yet.
“And even more tricky, the evergreen stories that were ready for publication, like tips on graduation speeches and how to visit the Toastmasters clubs around the world, were topics that suddenly felt inappropriate during a pandemic,” Amann said.
So the magazine’s editor rushed home. Even though Toastmasters had rarely published online-only stories that touched on current events, she knew she needed to do something to help inform their readership of what the coming months could look like. She Googled, “What is an online meeting?” and started writing a story late into the night as if she were a breaking news reporter on deadline.
She highlighted the different video platforms, from Zoom to Google Hangouts to Microsoft Teams. She added tips like “Mute your microphone unless you’re speaking” and “Look directly into the camera when you’re talking, NOT at the screen” and “Remember you’re on camera even if you aren’t speaking.” The story was published within 24 hours on Toastmasters’ website.
And it was a hit.
“We’re almost up to about 20,000 page views on that article,” Shannon Dewey, Toastmasters’ digital content editor, said. “It's the best-performing article of last year.”
Stories like this have changed the way that Toastmasters views their content. Throughout the pandemic, the company has found better ways to engage with readers, tell creative and relevant stories and build a better community.
Built In Colorado spoke with Amann and Dewey to learn more about how the content team evolved during 2020, and the lessons they’ll use moving forward.
What was Toastmasters’ print and digital content scope like pre-pandemic?
Amann: The print edition has been around since 1933. Prior to the pandemic, our print schedule was three months in advance since our magazine circulates to 350,000 subscribers in 145 countries. The May 2020 issue was the first one that was solely digital. We’re also now doing a PDF version, which is laid out as if it were a magazine, and a lot of members do prefer to read it that way.
Dewey: Prior to the pandemic, I would say Toastmasters was kind of on top of digital. We’ve been publishing a web-based issue since October 2016. The online edition has the same content that people were seeing in the print version, but then I’d add videos, audio tips and photo galleries to the articles. At the start of 2020, we were actually having discussions about improving the digital website, incorporating a blog and adding extra articles throughout the month. And then March and April 2020 hit, and it just kind of lit that fire under us. We needed to make those changes and needed to make them now. The pandemic really forced us to take a step back and see how we could give our members a more well-rounded experience.
What were the challenges of this abrupt transition?
Amann: The entire organization’s business model changed at the start of the pandemic. We’ve always strived to create a sense of community for our members, and much of that community was in-person meetings at our clubs around the world. For the magazine, print was our main way of communicating, and so we had to get a lot more creative about how people would find our stories and information. We started working more within the website and more interdepartmentally. The magazine provides great content, but we had to be more innovative about getting it to our members.
The entire organization’s business model changed at the start of the pandemic.’’
Dewey: We had to really think about our content. I think in early 2020, we had planned to publish a great article about how to give a eulogy in our June or July edition. But with what was happening in the world, we weren’t sure that was appropriate. We all sat down and discussed, “Is this going to be tone-deaf?” We had stories about wedding toasts and graduation speeches that we decided to hold off publishing, too. We even stressed over the artwork and images that accompanied our stories. Photos of people touching hands, photos of someone not wearing a mask. Our readers notice these things. We had to sit down as a team and think, “How is this going to come off to our worldwide membership right now?” So it’s been challenging, but also good for us to really think about our content even more.
AT THE READY
How did Toastmasters’ content change in 2020?
Dewey: We’ve been putting out more timely, relevant articles throughout the month. So instead of our readers just seeing what was in the PDF version of the magazine, they’re now getting three or four extra articles a month that are relevant to what’s going on right now in the world. Some examples of articles that came out early last year were “How to appear your best online” and “How to stay connected with each other.” We produced “quarantainment” ideas, and how to virtually visit other clubs. We added all kinds of stories in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Amann: Prior to the pandemic, we were doing very few articles that were online-only. But by the end of 2020, we did about 30. We’re a small team, but we still wrote and edited a lot of them ourselves.
How have these changes boosted engagement among readers?
Dewey: Our team is trying to listen to our readers’ pain points and see what they’re really needing help with, because they don’t always directly come to us. So we’ve been scouring our social media pages to see what our members are talking about. That’s led to a lot of content creation that we didn’t have before, such as “What to do when there’s a disruptive member in your Zoom conference?” We saw that our readers were discussing that, and then we wrote an article and had it up in a couple of weeks.
I think one thing about our readership is that the clubs can be a community and a support group as well.’’
Amann: Our stories pre-pandemic were more member-focused. Now, our content has shifted to be focused not only on the actual skills you need, but also about self-improvement or general skills that a lot of people can utilize during this difficult time, like incorporating humor into your speeches and life.
I think one thing about our readership is that the clubs can be a community and a support group as well. And now, we all have this unique ability to visit clubs all over the world because everyone’s online. You don’t have to go on vacation to France to visit the Toastmasters club in Paris. You can pop in on a Thursday morning and visit France or Nigeria or Australia, wherever you’re interested in going. So it’s making the Toastmasters community feel a lot tighter and smaller than it used to.
What lessons have you learned in 2020 that you’ll bring with you in 2021 and beyond?
Dewey: The pandemic really pushed our creativity to the max. And we just want to keep doing more and more. We’ve actually been working with our IT department since last year on a redesign of the online magazine. That was something that was really important to me. And now going into our fifth year of this web-based edition, I’m looking at best practices in the industry and what other magazines are doing.
Also, we’ve set a precedent now with our readers. Even when the print publication returns, we’re going to continue having these extra online articles that are produced throughout the month.
The pandemic really pushed our creativity to the max. And we just want to keep doing more and more.’’
Amann: Having your business model shook up makes you evaluate what works and what doesn’t work, and really forces you to be creative and innovative. I think we have learned better ways to communicate with our members, not only by listening to what they’re saying on social media, but responding to them on social media. We’re trying to do more hashtags and continue a back and forth conversation, which was really hard to do in print. Digital makes it a lot easier to have that immediacy.
Last year taught us to challenge everything. We’re looking at our business in a much more creative, innovative way, and I hope we carry that forward. There’s a lot of opportunity out there that we’re just starting to uncover.