OLD Media Moves

Attracting personal finance readers online who aren't print subscribers

September 23, 2008

Doug Harbrecht is new media director for Kiplinger in Washington, D.C.  He joined the 85-year-old organization in 2006, after a 20-year career in the Washington bureau of BusinessWeek magazine, where he covered Congress, the White House, politics, and international ecnomics and trade before moving to online side in 1996.

Doug HarbrechtFirst as online news editor, then senior editor, and executive editor for BusinessWeek.com., he was part of a management team that helped guide the magazine’s Web site to six National Magazine Award nominations, including winning the 2000 award for general excellence in New Media. He was 1998 President of the National Press Club, and has served as chairman of the Congressional Gallery of Periodical Correspondents, which accredits journalists covering Capitol Hill.

Harbrecht, 57, who lives in Great Falls, Va., with his wife Diane, talked to Talking Biz News about Kiplinger and its online strategy. What follows is an edited transcript.

1. You covered politics for a long time at BusinessWeek. How hard was it to make the switch to personal finance?

Ah, you remember. Yes, I learned a lot covering Congress in the 1980s and the White House in the ’90s. Politics was my first love in journalism. I still blog along with others on our Politics ’08 blog. But I’ve worked in the Web world for 12 years now, first as a BW.com news editor, senior and then executive editor, and Kiplinger new media director since 2006.

At this point in my career, I think less in terms of politics versus personal finance and more in terms of what’s the most timely, compelling, smartest content we can get up there that will engage visitors, help them make sense of their world, protect their money and investments in times like these, and improve their lives. I’ve learned a few things working for two decades as a business journalist. Don’t forget that besides a personal finance magazine, Kiplinger also has a highly respected business forecasting team, journalists all who produce lots of analysis for both the Kiplinger Letter and Kiplinger.com. This is a good fit for me.

2. What are your goals for Kiplinger’s Web site?

Editorial excellence, and rapid growth. So far, so good. Traffic, measured by Omniture, is up 50 percent year over year in both monthly unique visitors (we’re averaging 1.7 million) and monthly page views (10.7 million average this year). And our online revenues have soared — up 130 percent year over year. Advertisers and our content partners, along with visitors, seem happy with what they see. Kiplinger.com got an EPpy Award honorable mention this year for best magazine-affiliated Web site, and an honorable mention for best financial services site in the Webbies.

Plus we won the EPpy for best business web site with the Business Resource Center, our forecasting microsite, in the small-site category. This is very exciting and gratifying, for editorial trust, independence, and respect have been the hallmarks of the Kiplinger organization for 85 years.
3. Is the Web site trying to boost readership of the print publication, or vice versa? Can you give an example?

Kiplinger.com logoYes, we have a Web table of contents in every issue of the magazine, guiding readers to original online content. And Kiplinger.com has an online magazine center where visitors can view all stories after the magazine is out on the newsstands. As with so many magazines, however, only three to four of every 10 visitors to our Web site are magazine subscribers. And this ratio never seems to budge. It’s a parallel universe.

Most of our online visitors have a demographic profile very similar to the magazine’s — only they aren’t subscribers. So our strategy is to grow traffic to the Web site, create an online community. And the larger that Kiplinger community becomes, the more opportunities for sales of Kiplinger products, everything from the magazine, to our Letters, to the Kiplinger Organizer, a money management software.

4. Is the Web a place where readers go to get personal finance information?

Oh heavens, yes. The key is to make the information timely, distinctive, and personally valuable to the reader. Exhibit A: Within days of President Bush signing the economic stimulus package into law last February, we had a tax rebate calculator up, which told you how much you could expect to receive by answering four questions. Easy to use, yes, but nothing easy about the expertise and knowledge behind it.

My boss, editorial director Kevin McCormally, has 30 years of experience in knowing how to present complicated tax information in terms all taxpayers can understand. It took the IRS more than a month to develop a very complicated questionnaire. With our simple calculator as a starting point, we built in related features — regular news updates on changing government timetables for sending out the checks, Q&As answering the most frequent reader questions, a reader comment area where people could discuss their rebate delays as well as ask questions.

Result: Our traffic surged during tax season, and we hit a record 13.8 million page views in May, as Americans waited for their rebates More recently, with the financial crisis, we are finding a big audience with interactive features such as our “How Safe Is Your Money?” quiz, explaining the ins and outs of Federal Deposit Insurance, and online articles such as “15 Things You Need to Know About the Panic of 2008,” which is one of the best explainers on the Web of how we got into this mess and how it likely will play out. (You don’t have to take my word for it. Consumerist.com complimented it today by pointing to it). Kiplinger-style journalism is intensely personal, it’s written as if we are talking directly to another person, and that’s a strength on Web, where people want what they want when they want it.

5. Is there anything about personal finance that they’d rather have in print?

Magazine cover stories and longer investigative stories still score higher in reader satisfaction when viewed in print than online. What we’ll do online is break up longer covers into more easily navigated sections, loaded with links to related content. This is a difference in user experience. With a magazine, you want to wade into its pages while sitting on the sofa with a cup of coffee. It’s a relaxing experience. With online, people are looking for quality information fast. That’s not to say that the two experiences are mutual excludable — Our annual “Best of Everything” cover, for example, is usually as popular online as it is in print. But the user experience is decidedly different.

6. How has the traffic changed for the site in the past couple of years?

Well, our traffic has more than doubled since 2006, thanks largely to more online-original content, and more reader engagement and interactivity. Some 60 percent to 70 percent of what we feature on the Web site now is created for online, up sharply over the past two years. Yes, we still feature most of our magazine stories over the course of a month. But more and more, along with newsy online only stories and analysis, we’re developing slideshows, quizzes, videos, and podcasts to enhance our storytelling.

For example, the annual Best Cities feature in the magazine this year was a single story, but on our online Best Cities Center, we created a Which City Is Best for You? quiz using the methodology and rankings we developed, plus video walking tour videos of all our best cities, an online contest where people could chose their best city, and a slideshow look at homes for sale in all the best cities. The package was a big traffic-driver online.

Second point: Virtually everything we put up now allows our visitors to comment and discuss. We just added a new discussion area for all our polls. We’re finding people love to ask Kiplinger writers and editors questions, and have their questions answered. It goes to personal service, another Kiplinger hallmark.Â

7. What are some of the most popular areas of the site, and why?

The Kiplinger.com audience loves tools, calculators, and quizzes. All told, they account for almost half of our traffic. I hear often from editors on other sites, who want to feature our tools for figuring out everything from whether your saving enough for retirement, to which state 529 college-saving plan is best for you. Our investing channel is the most single popular section on the site. Kiplinger.com ranks first among personal finance Web sites in users having investment portfolios of more than $100,000, and is also No. 1 among high-end investors with portfolios of more than $250,000, according to @plan. Interest is running high now, with the financial meltdown Our Basics Center has also become very popular.

Here we distill evergreen wisdom on personal finance topics, some updated articles, some excerpts from Kiplinger books, along with videos and quizzes. This advice is sought by all demograhics, from young adults to families with children to baby-boomers to retirees. One interesting thing we see every day: Baby-boomers e-mailing their young adult children Kiplinger stories and content. I do it myself, with my own kids. We’re saying to them: “Here, read this. It’s good for you.”

8. The site recently had a way for readers to compare the cost of a regular car to a hybrid version. How did that come about?

Mark Solheim, magazine senior editor who coordinates our auto coverage, came up with the idea as he researched a Drive Time column on hybrids. Turns out that, even with gasoline at nearly $4 a gallon, hybrids don’t always cost less to own than gas-powered counterparts when you factor in the higher initial price tag, depreciation, fees, and other factors over a five-year ownership period. So working with Web developer John King and creative director Lina Alattar, we built a Hybrid comparison calculator using data supplied by Vincentric, a Michigan automotive research firm and longtime partner. It’s a fun tool. The resulting side-by-side comparisons are surprising, and a useful payoff.

9. Why are such calculators so popular on the site?

Something about our audience. Kiplinger is a value proposition. With cars, for example, people don’t come to us to read about sleek Maseratis and expensive Porsches as they might go to Forbes.com. We help people find the best values, make their money work harder for them. Google “best used cars” sometime, and you’ll see our popular recommendation list at the top of the search.

Our demographic is more affluent (and a bit older) than our competitors in business/personal finance realm, but they got that way because they count their nickels and dimes. We offer best practices and advice for anyone who wants to prosper and improve their lives. Calculators and tools are useful and practical gadgets for this audience.

10. Are there features online that have since moved to the print publication?

We frequently will link to other Web sites from our site if we think it will help our visitors. The magazine editors noticed this, and initiated “Kip Tips,” shaded feature boxes tucked into articles in the magazine. Kip Tips provide urls of Web sites that magazine readers might use as an additional resource, with brief explanations of their value. Now we have plans to compile all the magazine’s 2008 Kip Tips, plus add our own tips, and to offer this as a frequently updated blog platform.

11. What’s next for Kiplinger’s online?

We’re planning a major redesign for late spring, where we hope to combine better, richer digital content with more social networking, creating a larger and more vibrant Kiplinger online community, where people can create their own profiles and discuss Kiplinger judgments and advice with each other. Our readers have long been among the most loyal in the media publishing business. We have an interesting cross section including investors of all stripes, fund managers, financial planners, accountants, economists, stay-at-home moms managing family budgets, job hunters, lots of business men and women.

Our female audience jumped from 35 percent in 2007 to 45 percent this year, according to @plan, the online tracking service, That’s an interesting trend for us. We just launched a Raising Money-Smart Kids Guide on the Web site, anchored by columnist Janet Bodnar. And we hope to launch a similar Women & Money Guide soon, to better serve our changing audience.

12. Is there anything about the Web site that you wish you could change? Why?

I guess it’s a perception we hear all the time: People ask, “What’s a personal finance site doing with all this politics and policy coverage?” Or the other side, “What’s all this personal finance stuff? My father, who owned his own business, used to get the Kiplinger Letter.” People don’t realize that Kiplinger is both personal finance and business forecasting, and has been offering both for 61 years. W. M. Kiplinger pioneered one of the very first newsletters in 1923, introducing a condensed sweep-line style that looks positively blog-like. The Letter has a proud record of correctly calling every Presidential election since 1924 — with one exception: Truman-Dewey in 1948. But the Letter predicted Kennedy over Nixon in 1960, Carter over Ford in 1976, and Bush over Gore in 2000, and will have a prediction on this extraordinary race shortly. In 1947, Willard and his son, Austin Kiplinger, launched the nation’s only magazine devoted to personal finances — a bold move after World War II, when many economists thought the country was headed back into the Great Depression again.

In the digital world, under editor-in-chief Knight Kiplinger, Austin’s son, the constant now is Kiplinger.com, a widely recognized brand that stands for integrity and independence. Our challenge is to stay pioneers.

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