HowStuffWorks.com attracts nearly 30 million curious visitors each month and offers top-rated podcasts such as Stuff You Should Know. So, Editorial Director Tracy Wilson knows a thing or two about building and leading content teams that thrive. We talk with Wilson about her approach to leadership, hiring, and measuring success.
One of the most important things in a manager role is hiring the right people. I know a lot of people who are in theater, and they will talk about how directing a play is largely about casting the right people. If you cast the wrong people, then your job as a director is going to be much harder.
That same idea applies to a website, also. If your staff is not the right fit for your website, then it’s going to be much harder to manage that team. So, what I really try to do is to hire people who are exceptionally committed to what they’re doing – who are very talented and very smart and who know how to learn things and who I can trust. I have to develop that trust over time, because that’s how trust works, but starting by hiring people who you know you’re going to get to that point with is critically important.
Then, a lot of my managing becomes about clearing obstacles out of people’s way and making sure they have the tools they need so that they can do their job better. It’s not so much about micromanaging what they are doing or giving inordinate amounts of direction but making sure that they have clear direction and we have clear communication.
Curiosity is so important. When we were hiring people in the 2005 to 2008 timeframe, we were just really writing evergreen HowStuffWorks.com content that we needed to be readable, factually correct, and in-depth. We needed people who were going to be able to learn about things they didn’t necessarily know on the fly and then translate that into language readable by a layperson who will enjoy reading it.
That same set of skills is what has allowed people to pick up all these other new tasks and go from being a writer to being a writer, podcaster, video star, and social media manager, all as one role. The same traits that we were hiring people for – being curious, the ability to learn, the ability to write well – that translated into all these other things because we started with the right people. We were very lucky that what we needed to make a good HowStuffWorks.com writer was also what we needed to adapt to all of the changes that have happened on the Internet in the last 15 years.
The biggest sea change in how I worked as a manager was about how to frame feedback for people. When I first started managing people, I didn’t totally know how to go about it. I knew some things not to do. I knew not to be a jerk to people, but I didn’t necessarily know how to give feedback in a way that would be effective. Fortunately, in a training course I learned the Situation-Behavior-Impact Feedback model. Looking at what is wrong with somebody’s behavior and considering the impact that it’s having helps frame awkward conversations so that they don’t feel quite as awkward. It also helps people understand why it is you’re asking them to do something. That way, it doesn’t just feel like some out-of-the-blue request or some out-of-the-blue criticism.
One example is if somebody is late to a brainstorming meeting, I let them know that “When you are late, we’re not able to get your ideas during the brainstorm, and that means we have fewer things to work on in our editorial calendar.” It also works when you’re looking at somebody’s content. You can say, “This paragraph is a little longer than it should be, which is making it hard to understand these three points and might turn off our readers.”
There are so many ways. We look at a lot of different things in terms of the success of our website. Some of it is definitely the standard key performance indicators – page views, return visits and that kind of stuff.
But then we have a more intuitive sense of, “How is this resonating with people?” Recently, on our podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class we read an email where somebody talked about May Day celebrations and we have gotten an enormous number of emails about May Day from people who have celebrated it where they were growing up. That is its own measure of success: The relationship that you’re building between the podcaster and the people listening to it.
One of the things that has been ever-changing through my time at HowStuffWorks.com is where the benchmark is for what we think is a successful article. Page views are a fluctuating number that depend on a lot of different factors, and I think that people can get a little too caught up in an arbitrary page view number or an arbitrary return visit number. That has to connect to something–such as how much revenue are you getting based on this. It’s not just a number for number’s sake. There needs to be a reason that you’re looking for these particular numbers and a reason that you’re hoping for this return rate or to lower this bounce rate. It’s not just a thing to do in isolation. It’s because it translates to your success financially as a website and to your ability to pay people and make a profit.
To read see more words of wisdom from Tracy, check out How Editorial Process Works at HowStuffWorks.com: A Q&A.
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