How GOOD Magazine grew its online audience by 844 percent

In May of 2012, GOOD Magazine shocked the media world when it laid off most of its editorial staff. The magazine, launched in 2006 with the stated goal of becoming the “free press for the critical idealist,” had grown a small but devoted fan base, but it had decided to pivot away from expensive, original content so it could instead launch a social network that featured user-generated content. “They said they wanted to be a Reddit for social good,” a laid-off staffer told the Columbia Journalism Review at the time. Later on it ceased publication of its beloved print version.

I’m not sure what happened to the social network it built — old URLs I found for it now just redirect to the main GOOD website — but in 2014 it reversed course, announcing it would start rebuilding its editorial team. “We’ve recognized that we did lose some of the footing for our media efforts in the last couple years, and are seeing a tremendous opportunity to bring that back and fine tune it to the way we’re all consuming media these days,” GOOD co-founder Casey Caplowe told Digiday. A year later, it relaunched the print magazine, and this year it won a National Magazine Award, in the Personal Service category, for The Good Survival Guide to Donald Trump.

The magazine’s website, Good.is, has seen tremendous audience growth over the last few years. According to the media kit on its website, it claims to have experienced 844 percent year-over-year growth (though it doesn’t specify a date range) and boasts 12 million unique monthly visitors. Data provided by comScore indicates that traffic swelled from 751,000 unique visitors in September 2014 to a peak 14.2 million in November 2016 before settling down to an average 6 million monthly uniques so far this year. Data from Quantcast tells a similar story:

In January, the magazine announced a merger with Upworthy, the viral aggregator that later pivoted to producing original content after Facebook’s algorithm cracked down on some of the headline and curation practices it pioneered.

So what’s behind all this massive traffic growth? To find out, I interviewed Adam Albright-Hanna, who started consulting for GOOD in 2014 and later became its director of audience development.

One of Albright-Hanna’s earliest gigs in media was as a contributing writer for The Onion; each week, he and his colleagues were responsible for writing hundreds of headlines for the satirical newspaper (there’s a great This American Life episode in which Ira Glass sits in on one of these headline pitch meetings. At one point, the staff debates whether to include a headline written by Albright-Hanna: “Ghost Just Dropped By To Say ‘Boo.’”) In 2008, he got a job as managing editor at a magazine called Beverly Hills 213. “When that magazine folded during the recession, I became underemployed,” he told me. “I was trying to find a new editor position, but I could never get hired anywhere. So I just started doing smaller things, like writing reviews for Wired. And then one day I saw a job posting for Upworthy”

Albright-Hanna applied for the job while “not really understanding what Upworthy was.” But he quickly grew fascinated with not only writing for the site, but also the audience development strategies that underlined everything the company did. “They had a really cool environment that was open,” he said. “It was really addicting. You knew what time your story was going up on Facebook, and you had Google Analytics open and you’d see the numbers shoot up and stuff. And so I was asking a ton of questions. That’s when I got really into not only analytics and growth hacking strategies, but also social psychology, and simple things like social proof, one of those old concepts in marketing.” For instance, by displaying the share count on a post that had already received thousands of Facebook shares, Upworthy made readers more likely to hit the ‘like’ button and share it to their own feeds.

While he was continuing to contribute to Upworthy, Albright-Hanna got another editorial job for a company that was launching a website for baby boomers. As the company built the site, he was able to take the insights he’d gleaned from Upworthy and apply them into the site’s design. He soon realized that he had a lot more to offer media companies than just his writing and editing skills. “From there is when I shifted from writing and curating to doing audience development consulting.”

That’s how Albright-Hanna ended up with the initial consulting gig for GOOD. He joined a few months after it’d begun rehiring editorial staff, and he told me he wasn’t really familiar with the magazine or its content prior to his joining. “The only thing I knew about GOOD before I started is they had great infographics.” Almost immediately, he found plenty of low-hanging fruit that could boost GOOD’s online presence.

For instance, GOOD was still using the non-descriptive headline style still commonly found in print magazines. Typically, these headlines are short, non-descriptive, and might involve clever wordplay; they’ll also included a dek, or subtitle, that’s much more descriptive for what you’d actually find in the article. Albright-Hanna started by simply flipping the model so, at the very least, the dek would display as the headline when you plugged the link into Facebook. He said that GOOD was able to double its traffic in a single month after simply repackaging its already-existing content.

Next, Albright-Hanna started pushing the online version of the magazine to publish more shortform, aggregated content. “I would just start writing pieces that I knew would do well and go viral,” he said. “This was a newer concept to them … A lot of what they were doing were these wonderful 5,000-word essays. These were great and heavily reported, but to get the traffic, sometimes you need to do something a little shorter.”

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Albright-Hanna said GOOD developed a process for locating and predicting the likelihood that a particular piece of content would go viral. This testing method uses what he referred to as “proprietary” software, and he cited this as a reason for why he couldn’t explain how it works. However, last year I profiled a technology platform, called Naytev, that allows publishers to use Facebook “dark posts” to A/B test content and increase its ROI within Facebook’s ecosystem. My guess is that GOOD uses a similar approach.

Either way, this curatorial strategy worked. Though not every GOOD post went viral, there were at least a couple articles each week that took off on Facebook and then began ricocheting around the internet. For instance, after President Obama sang his amazing rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the wake of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, GOOD published an article with a short introduction and an embedded YouTube video. “All that needed was a paragraph or two of context and the video, and then that became the biggest GOOD story in [the magazine’s] history,” said Albright-Hanna.

On a day last week I spent a few hours clicking through GOOD’s homepage to get a feel for its editorial approach. It was right after Trump had announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, and given GOOD’s heavy emphasis on environmental issues, many of its posts focused on this news. Several of the posts I clicked on did, indeed, feature short, aggregated content. One article rounded up Twitter reactions and statements from President Obama and other prominent figures in the wake of the announcement (according to GOOD’s Facebook widget, this got 2,800 shares). Another embedded a video of actress Jessica Chastain speaking on sexism in the film industry (1,950 shares). There were also analysis pieces,; this one, written before Trump’s announcement, explained the various ways he could pull out of the agreement.

Though GOOD promotes its content across most major social media channels, Albright-Hanna said most of his focus is on Facebook. “I don’t have any interest in those other platforms because they have a fraction of the audience and don’t reach as many people,” he explained. “Fifteen minutes spent on any of those other platforms could be spent on Facebook, which is where everyone is.”

I wondered to him if GOOD was putting all its eggs in Facebook’s basket and whether this made him nervous about any changes to its Newsfeed algorithm. “I always try to avoid going down the road of Facebook algorithm paranoia,” he replied. “Ultimately it won’t help. I have to constantly remind myself it’s all about how good the content is. People think Facebook has these schemes to get people to stay on the platform and it doesn’t want people to [leave the platform]. Ultimately, Facebook’s goal is to keep everyone happy.” Whenever Albright-Hanna sees a drop in Facebook traffic, rather than obsessing over the algorithm, he focuses on the content and how to make it better. Sometimes, to assuage his worries about the algorithm, he’ll post an older piece of content that performed well in the past; when it performs well again, then he knows it’s the content, not the algorithm, that’s still driving engagement.

Of course GOOD, with its diversified revenue sources, isn’t as reliant on raw traffic as other publishers that depend almost solely on display advertising. In addition to its print magazine, GOOD runs a social good consultancy and was one of the first publishers to launch its own creative agency. It works directly with brands to create viral, feel-good content, like this data viz video it created for SolarCity that generated over 3 million views on Facebook.

When Albright-Hanna first joined GOOD, he said, the publishers were nervous that he’d pursue clickbait for the sake of pumping up traffic numbers, but he was easily able to strike a balance by publishing content that was both shareable and fit within the magazine’s editorial ethos. “I try to drive traffic and get people on the site, and when they’re on the site, I’d like to get them to share or like the page,” he said. “The stories have to be meaningful and worth reading. And in terms of packaging them, the content needs to live up to what the packaging promises. I’m not just trying to boost traffic for traffic’s sake, I’m trying to get a lot of people to see things that are very meaningful to them.”

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com