How To Mature Your Publishing Process With Matthew Ankeny From Gear Patrol [ACM 011]
Marketers need to think like publishers, and publishers have a lot to teach marketers.
Even if you don’t publish a lot of quantity, you do want what you’re publishing to be high in quality. You probably also want to streamline your workflow so you can generate ideas and get your business where you want it.
Matthew Ankeny from Gear Patrol is our guest today. I love their content, but what I think you’ll enjoy and benefit from is the process they use to publish their content. If you’re ready to develop your workflow, be more efficient, and publish great content, you won’t want to miss today’s episode!
Some of the topics you’ll hear about today include:
- How often Gear Patrol publishes content and how big the team is that gets all of that great stuff out there, as well as the biggest challenges that come with getting so much content published.
- The workflow steps for a typical article and why simplicity is important.
- Tips on coming up with ideas for articles.
- How the content production and publishing process has evolved and continues to evolve at Gear Patrol.
- Ways to plan a production schedule and workflow processes.
Quotes by Matthew:
- “With a little bit of structure comes a lot of creative freedom.”
- “It’s good to have diversity. You don’t want to read the same voice over and over again.”
- “There’s a balance between enforcing rules and being flexible.”
Nathan: They say marketers need to think like publishers. If that’s true then we marketers should learn from publishers. Am I right? Hey, I am Nathan from CoSchedule. Today, I’m sitting down with Matt Ankeny from Gear Patrol. If you haven’t heard of Gear Patrol, their magazine or the online content that they publish, it’s about time, and while I love their content that covers new gadgets, cars, and my favorite craft beer, what I really think you’ll enjoy as a marketer is the process that they use behind the scenes to publish that awesome content, and lots of it. I mean 15 articles a day kind of lots. Even if you never publish that much, it means that Matt and his team at Gear Patrol have figured out content ideation, workflows, and simplicity that make publishing a whole lot more doable. He’s sharing how they do it on this episode of the Actionable Content Marketing Podcast. Let’s listen to him.
Hey, Matt. Thanks a lot for being on the podcast. I’m really excited to pick your brain here on how you develop these workflows and processes that help you publish lots of public content extremely efficiently.
Matt: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Nathan: We’re excited to have you. Matt, could you fill me in on Gear Patrol?
Matt: Yeah. Gear Patrol is a men’s lifestyle publishing company and we do both web and print publishing. On the web, we publish content across seven different categories, watches, style, tech, motoring, culture, food and travel. We’re kind of just aimed at men who are interested in gear and who are interested in using that gear in adventurous ways.
Nathan: I know you guys are working on lots of interesting projects. What do you do there?
Matt: I’m the deputy managing editor. I’m kind of in charge of making sure that things work smoothly and budgets are hit and we have something to share with our audience everyday and what we share with them is quality. That’s it.
Nathan: Nice. The guy working behind the scenes to make sure everything just flows smoothly.
Matt: Exactly, yeah.
Nathan: Nice. To me, it sounds like you have an extremely important role to fill to make sure you plan some of that content way ahead of time to hit your publishing deadlines. I’m just kind of wondering just for background sake, how often do you publish content?
Matt: We publish seven days a week. Monday through Friday are definitely busier than on the weekends. Monday through Friday we publish between 12 to 15 articles a day and then on the weekends, it’s usually between 2 and 4, and the weekends are kind of more of the recap of the things published during the week. During the week, it’s more original content and the bigger stuff that we’re working on along with kind of small news release stuff. And then on the weekends it’s kind of either recaps of what happened during the week or also republishing some of the longer reads so when people have a little bit more time to sit down and read something, they have something to sink their teeth into.
Nathan: I’m wondering then, how big is your team that helps you publish that much?
Matt: We have 15 people on the editorial side, and then we have about 5 people on the design team, and then we also work with a handful of freelancers as well. We’re full-blown publication. I’d say we’re a full-blown team of publication where we’re independently owned. Hopefully, our readers feel like we’re on par with Wired and Outside, and other great publications like that.
Nathan: I think where we can go with this kind of conversation for marketers and other people who are publishing that kind of content is looking at your processes behind the scenes. What’s the biggest challenge that you kind of come across with publishing that much content?
Matt: Staying organized is key and also making sure that people know what is expected of them and they’re capable of getting that done in a proper time frame. We go through a lot of steps for articles. Some are a little bit more nimble than other ones but when it’s changing hands from an editor who is coming up with an idea to a writer who’s then working on a story, writing a story and then gives it back to the editor who’s going to review it and then it goes on to the art team to add the art, and then off to the copy editor to review the copy, and then publish. Everything has to work well and keep everybody sane, it has to work in a way that it allows for people to have freedom to do the work in an amount of time that is appropriate and they can see that the work that they actually do is ready for them so that the next person can step in and do that. The rule challenges kind of communicating with people and setting up these processes so that people can see what’s coming their way and what is hardly done and when it’s their time to step in, they can step in and do it, and pass it to the next person.
Nathan: Yeah. That makes me really curious and you started hinting at this, but why would you say that process itself is important for publishing that much content? Why is process important?
Matt: I would say that in process, freedom—there’s a lot of times in creative circles, this idea of like limitations are something that restricts creativity but I think it’s kind of the opposite. It’s a dilative balance of figuring out how much time does a single person need to do their part of the process. Once you’ve fined-tuned that and if you allow for a little bit of flexibility in that, we found that when you can give people specific time frame and they know that that’s their part of their chain, it really freezes them up to be able to think about one, how much time they need for that specific task, and then also what they can do otherwise or how they can leverage the rest of their day for something else. We found that building in the structure has really allowed people to one, manage their own time better, and two, to work creatively on the projects that they have because they know they have a set amount of time to get it done so that adds a little bit of emphasis to get started because we’re all procrastinators in our own way. It also gives us freedom of, “Hey, I’ve got a week to interview this expert and draft my article,” or “I’ve got two hours to get this new product that’s out into a opinion piece to publish on the site.”
I think with a little bit of structure, there comes a lot of creative freedom and also as a part of my job, it kind of encourages people on to get going.
Nathan: Yeah. I get that because I’ve been in the same sort of role. I mean maybe not publishing that much but naturally with our blog, we try to work ahead and processes are a big part of it. You’re kind of talking about clear workflows helping you get extremely organized and I want to dive a little bit deeper into that idea from your perspective. What are the steps in your workflow for a typical article?
Matt: We have a couple different links of articles and we determine workflows based on article length and also kind of the depth that goes into an article. But if you take kind of the middle of the road, your average article, the steps that go into it, again, kind of reflect the creative process that goes into it. There’s the ideation where the writer will meet with the editor and refine the idea and then there’s a time period where the writer has depending on the needs of the article, you have five to seven days to work on it. That’s kind of their own free time and depending on what’s needed on the article, whether it’s interviewing experts or going out in the field doing hands on reviewing. They have that time to do it. And then they get the draft into the editor, and the editor views the draft, gives them notes, they see those notes, make the changes as needed, get the draft back to the editor, the editor reviews it again, and then pass it to the art team, the art team adds the art in, and then once that’s in it goes to the copy editor, and the copy editor reviews the copy and then publishes the post. Just a couple of steps.
Nathan: I was just going to say, that’s fewer steps than I would have expected for publishing that much content. Maybe a question I have on there is why is simplicity important for you publishing process?
Matt: Sure. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you see too many steps. Within each step, there are kind of multiple layers depending on what is needed. For instance, if we’re doing an article, let’s say I’m interviewing Jimmy Chin the climber, then obviously the writer is going to be with the editor, kind of talk about the angle, talk about the questions he’s going to ask him, and we’ll kind of brainstorm that and then the writers are going to go and prepare those questions, they’re going to coordinate the time, Jimmy’s going to come by at the office, he’ll talk with the art team and set up a time to get a photographer in the studio and then all that will happen and I will go back and write the draft. Iterating on each one of those steps, I’ve found that it feels a little bit pedantic. If I for one who’s like looking over the author’s shoulder and being like, “Hey, how do you schedule the shoot? Do you know what time? Has Jimmy confirmed?” We like to give people a little bit autonomy on that and then it’s just kind of a trust factor that they have enough time to do it and that they’re doing it well.
There’s always flexibility. Whatever Jimmy—his flight got cancelled and he’s not able to come to the office that day then we have to be flexible and change it around but just simplifying down—that’s one step in our process. It’s the step between discussing idea and present the first draft but we added in those eight additional tasks, you’ll be sitting there all the day kind of juggling the task that you have at hand, any writer who’s working on between four and six stories and the time to take for him six stories and multiply that by eight, and you’re looking at 32 tasks everyday. That’s overwhelming.
Keeping it simple and then allowing people to kind of autonomate to achieve those tasks within it, I think that’s the optimal balance.
Nathan: I really like that idea. It’s almost like you give someone a task and they know what the definition of done means before they check off their to do list.
Matt: Exactly. With our actual tasks, we make them action items. Everything is actually an action item that you can say, “Yes, I did this.” It’s like discuss with the editor idea or submit first draft or editor reviews first draft. That way it makes it like, once this action is complete, then you can check that task. That’s kind of the subtlety to just mentally seeing that too. When you see your tasks list, you’re like, “That’s right, I need to write its first draft.” That’s a little bit different than like draft one.”
Nathan: I want to backtrack just a little bit, and you have mentioned this idea that Jimmy the climber, I know you guys are publishing lots of content. Every author’s working on did you say six to eight different pieces at once?
Matt: It’s more of like four to six.
Matt: We plan a handful of weeks in advance when you have these bigger projects. It’s usually between four and six.
Nathan: These are a lot of content ideas. I know that people have trouble with that. How do you come up with so many awesome ideas to write articles on?
Matt: We do two different things. We divide it into our actual desk section which I think was really important because it helped, one, siphon people into areas of expertise. People who are more interested in the outdoor world where typically they were covering new bicycles, new running shoes, climbers, and people who are more interested in tech or covering cameras and TVs. But once we’ve kind of told people, “Hey, this is your area, you own this and you get to geek out as hard as you want within those area.” It really kind of blossoms. As with anything you’re passionate about, the deeper you get into it, the more and more ideas will come up because there’s plenty of information within the world of tad click. That’s changing every ten seconds.
Once people kind of were released into those areas, we saw just huge amount of ideas and like it’s really not a problem of like, “Do we have enough ideas?” it’s usually a problem of like, “Which are the best ideas and with the amount of time that we’re given, what can we execute on?” The other thing we do is we kind of do sitewide ideas. We’ll do like a winter preview, or a summer preview. We’ll say like, what do guys need to know coming into the season and what are the best jackets coming out, what are the best new boots, or can we talk a snowboarder about how he’s training to prepare for this season. That kind of helps generate ideas too and just come up with broad over-arching idea. You say, “Alright, for October, that’s our winter preview month. What ideas are we going to come up with there?”
Nathan: Something that we say around the office is love what you do, do you what you love. If you have that passion, the work that comes out is just always top notch. Splitting into that desk approach is really interesting to me.
Matt: That was definitely a hopeful thing. It’s interesting to see different desks have different writing styles, different tone, and each person perceives it in a little bit different way but when you kind of bring it together under one roof, it all kind of feels good. It’s good to have diversity. You don’t want to read the same voice over and over again every time you read an article or you don’t want to have the same perspective on everything.
Nathan: You have the idea and you know the workflow that’s going to go through. How long does it take you from that idea to complete a content?
Matt: This is a good time to kind of talk about the three different stages. In the effort for simplicity, we divide workflows based on article needs because we found that it becomes superfluous if let’s say today, Canon launched a new mirrorless camera. They just announced it, there’s a short little blur that something that we want to share with our readers but we don’t have the access to the camera, we can’t test it out, we can’t show them pictures taken with it. We’re a little bit limited in the scope of what we can do so we don’t need to go through the steps that we would if we were going to do a full review on the camera. That one, we keep a very simple process. That’s something that can be turned around in a matter of hours. That’s just like the writer will write it, we’ll have somebody review it, we’ll have the copy editor to do it, or we’ll go live. That’s kind of a matter of keeping up with the speed of the internet which is key for being relevant to people. You don’t want to talk about something that came out weeks later or a week before. But then normal articles that require planning, we’re usually looking at about a seven day workflow from when the author submitted the article. That’s worked well with us. It’s easy to think about like, “Okay. My article’s posted around next Monday. I have to have it to my editor by this Monday. And then it also gives time for the editor to give feedback and the writer to have some time with that feedback, think about it and then implement it, and then pass along the art team and the copy editor.” Seven days is pretty typical.
Nathan: I think that is really great advice because you can plan out certain things but you’re also extremely nimble with your approach. You balance both of those.
Matt: Yeah. You have to. If you are just following the nimble path, we found out that our content doesn’t have as much depth to it and we kind of missed a stronger opinion or a more rich form of coverage on something and then if you’re not nimble at all, then you’re not necessarily relevant or addictive to people. If you know that you can come to our site and find out what the coolest gear is that came out that day, you might visit every morning and just check in and see what it is. Then you also know that if you want to check out an interview with somebody who you’d be interested in, then we have that, and we have cool photos with them, and we have like good writing about it. I think having both is key.
Nathan: That’s a really great strategy and I think you just hinted on this but you guys are publishing a lot everyday consistently and I think coming back everyday by publishing consistently like that with the news and the depth articles, you guys are helping people build habits to build that audience and I think that that’s a really great approach.
Nathan: That’s what we try to do too. I like it. With all those workflow, if you’re anything like us at CoSchedule, it’s tough to nail something like that, the process, perfectly the first time around and you hinted and used the word iterative. I’m wondering, how do you improve your process at your patrol?
Matt: This is like a key thing for me as a process person. There’s a really dilative balance between like enforcing rules and always being flexible and changing them because if you’re too strong on the enforcing rules, you often can overlook at time where a simple change can improve everybody’s life drastically and if you’re too flexible, then sometimes we feel like people want to wiggle out of things when you can easily get them done. But I generally have kind of a change at any moment perspective.
We feel pretty good about where we’re at now when we started using CoSchedule earlier this year. It was definitely a learning process and we’ve come through like a couple rehashings over our workflows but for the most part, they’re pretty solid but there are always like small changes that can matter. Just about a month ago, we switched just one day on when the editor is supposed to give a final sign off to an article, previously we had that like three days out and we switched it to four days out and it wasn’t like a problem that it was three days out but it kind of backed up our art team a little bit and it backed up our copy editor and we’re like, “Let’s just try this. Let’s see how it goes. If it fails, it fails. We’ll go back to three days.” It was simple, and it was easy, and the editor had no problems getting things done four days before and then the art team and the copy edit team, their lives became much simpler because they had an extra day to kind of plan around how they’re going to cover those stories that they need to cover.
We’re always talking about, “Should we add a task for this? Can we take out that task?” I’m big on like, “Can we just take that out now.” Has that become just memory and like we don’t need to tell people, “Oh, remember to do this step. Can we just eliminate that step because they already know it and then we’ll simplify the task. “ We’re constantly doing that. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to change the workflows or create a new one if necessary. That’s been really helpful and something that we’ll continue doing. They’re definitely not [00:23:25] and they’re definitely not perfect yet but you always have to keep changing. In a while, you have to tell people, “No. Actually it’s going to stay that way. Just get it done.”
Nathan: I get that. But it sounds like even still, you guys are very much focused on the team. And I find it fascinating what you’re talking about with this workflow. Just to pick a little bit deeper into that, do you put something on your calendar on a certain date and then work backwards with your task list and say, “This needs to be done two days before we publish this, three days, four days before.” How far out do you plan stuff like that on your editorial calendar?
Matt: We have two different processes. Going back to the idea side, we don’t work with ideas in CoSchedule. CoSchedule is just our production manager. Ideas mostly live in Google Docs, shared Google Docs across the team. That’s where you can just throw anything against the wall and see what’s fixed and talk to people about it and iterate on it. I don’t know how many times a year we have let’s talk to Yuan and ask about this.
Nathan: Busy guy.
Matt: But it’s good to have those ideas and just throw them up there. If we did that—we previously used to do that on production calendar and it got really messy because there were a lot of things that were falling through as just ideas do, or people were scared to put an idea on there because they didn’t want it to fall through and seem like they were failing at their job. We keep the ideas separate but once an idea is lopped, it’s able to be produced, we’re good with it then we put it in the calendar. We usually do that about two to three weeks out and that helps us just look at what’s coming and say, “Okay, we’re in good shape,” or like, “Whoa, we need a couple more ideas like we don’t have a very strong Monday coming up or whatever.” We put in on the calendar for about two to three weeks out and we add the workflows depending on the scale of the story. Then within that, it’s all working backwards like you said. It’s seven days before writer submits and the editor views it five days before it gets some notes, or actually we’re at six now and we move that to eight and six because we’re done from three to four. And then everybody just has to get their task done. They can see what’s coming in a week.
I usually look on Friday. I’m looking through the week but I especially look on a Friday, “What does my week look like next week? When is a good day that I can schedule more meetings and I can just judge x number of stories that I have to follow up on or I’m writing a story this day, I need to make sure that I plan on that on Monday or Tuesday so I’m ready on Wednesday.”
That’s kind of key, I think, to have that two or three week out period especially with a team this big. People need to prepare, you can’t always be scrambling and scrambling is also not fun. It gets exhausting after a while. One other thing that I will touch on, because this has been super helpful for us is we also use a color coding scheme. When we has our calendar up and we had our tasks up, we found that it’s a lot easier to see when it’s like the next person’s turn if we switch the color on something. For me as an editor, when the color switches from magenta to orange, I know that my writer submitted that draft. I can just look at my tasks of like review this draft and I can see, “Okay the author has submitted this one. I can click on that one and I can start working on it.” Then once I approve it, I change it to yellow and our copy editor knows, “Okay, I can start copy editing this one.” That’s been a huge thing too just because when you have—depending on the week when you have five or ten tasks on a day, you want to be able to get through the ones that you know are ready to go. You know you don’t do like fall off to somebody. You can just go and act on those. Color coordinating really helps with that.
Nathan: I absolutely the idea of separating ideas from the actual production calendar. I think that’s a really good way of thinking about it as the calendar is the version of truth, that’s what you are actually working on versus just willy nilly ideas that you may pursue, you may not pursue. I think that’s a huge takeaway.
Matt: That just goes back to the creativity within constraint idea. Once you get into production, there’s a whole different type of creativity that goes into producing something and ideas kind of need to live in this safe space where you can just say anything. We kind of put a lot of really, really great ideas that come from a lot of really ridiculous ideas. It’s fine. It’s a judgment-free zone. That’s what it needs to be but then there also needs to be like get down to business zone. It’s good to divide those up.
Nathan: I absolutely love it. I think there’s—color coding different things so you know where they are in your process, figuring out the workflow, a seven-day workflow or figuring out when you’re going to publish and how many days before published things need to get done, keeping your steps simple, I think that’s all great advice. Matt, it looks like that’s it. Thanks for everything that you just shared on. Workflow, process, and planning ahead. I guess I learned a lot so thank you.