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Behind the Scenes With Sam Martin, Texas Monthly‘s Director of Digital Strategy

So, what I’d intended to be “four questions with Sam Martin of Texas Monthly magazine,” turned into something like 7.5 questions with Sam Martin. There was just too much to learn.

He knows the journalism business well as it relates to the digital realm (are they even separate entities?), but we all start somewhere. Martin began his writing career with the Austin Chronicle penning museum and gallery reviews, eventually making a move to New York in 1999, where he helped build Mother Earth News’ very first website.

Martin told MediaBistro via email, “The idea back then was that magazines simply needed a presence on the Web. We were going to sell subscriptions, not publish content. Salon and Slate were doing that and everyone thought they were crazy.” (My, how times have changed).

After a stint as a senior editor at This Old House, Martin moved back to Austin and freelanced, wrote books (you might have heard of Manspace: A Primal Guide for Marking Your Territory), gave a TED talk inspired by that particular book, ghostwrote and practiced web design. Finally, before settling into his digs at Texas Monthly’s downtown Austin 17th-floor space, he honed his content strategy, technology and design skills with the design and innovation firm, frog design.

Here’s what he has to say about wearing several different hats, how barbecue fits into a National Magazine Award-winning publication, sponsored content and the best/worst things digital pubs can do online:

AW: A day in the life of Sam Martin, Texas Monthly‘s Director of Digital Strategy: Describe it for us.

SM: One really important part of my morning is reading up and staying up to date on media trends and new technologies. The great thing about the digital media space is that it’s still very much in flux. I try to apply some of the new thinking and technological advances to what we’re doing or want to do at Texas Monthly, and I always take notes during this time.

I also always check Google Analytics or Chartbeat to see how traffic is doing, and I can sometimes lose an hour digging into the analytics trying to understand who our readers are and how they’re using our site (and by extension, what we can do better in terms of content strategy or site architecture).

Much of my days are spent project managing a new product release on TexasMonthly.com or TMBBQ.com. Since the launch of the site on February 1, we’ve rolled out quite a few new features. Last week we just rolled out responsive design on the site, which means we’re now much more mobile friendly. I’ll be spending more time on Google Analytics! If you can’t tell, I have quite a hybrid role, and I have my nose in pretty much everything going on around here.

AW: TM is the ONLY publication in the world with a website dedicated to BBQ. Isn’t that a lot of pressure?
SM: Not when you have a Barbecue editor whose job it is to eat barbecue and write about it. And there’s no better person for the job than Daniel Vaughn. TMBBQ.com is essentially a blog. It’s built on WordPress to make it very simple for one person to keep the site updated. Also, the site is built in tandem with a very robust event strategy, at the center of which is our annual Barbecue Festival. We have a great team of people, led by our VP of Marketing Jennifer Garcia, who know how to create and execute kick ass events. In all seriousness, we wouldn’t have launched a website dedicated to such a narrow vertical if we didn’t have several key things in place: a personality (Daniel), a keynote event, and a brand identity. Before redesigning the site, we worked with a local branding agency to help us create the TMBBQ franchise, and it has a lot of legs.

AW: TM’s online presence consists of multiple blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram accounts, apps and TMBBQ.com. How do you keep it all straight? Is it a challenge to maintain a consist voice and unified brand identity across so many platforms?

SM: A brand can only go as far as the people it has working for it, and we have an amazing team of people at Texas Monthly, starting with our deputy web editor Andrea Valdez and our director of editorial operations Stacy Hollister. Andrea and Stacy touch every element of the editorial side of things and we’re lucky to have them. They keep it all straight.

We also have individuals running our social media. Jason Cohen is largely responsible for our Twitter account and Nicki Longoria does our Tumblr and Instagram. To some extent those properties take on the personality of the person curating them, and I think that’s a good thing. We want these platforms to have a voice and we set up guide rails, but Jason and Nicki are given a lot of latitude to discover, exchange, and have fun. Also, technology helps. The TMBBQ app is actually updated with some of the restaurant reviews we add to our online dining guide combined with the reviews Daniel does for TMBBQ.com. One of the things I like about responsive design, as opposed to, say, a dedicated mobile website, is that we can have a mobile presence without having a separate website. That’s key for a small- to medium-sized media company like Texas Monthly.

AW: What’s the single best and worst thing publications can do with their digital product?

SM: The best thing a publication can do with their digital product is provide timely and consistent content to its readers. The worst thing it can do is to let content get stale or let channels lie fallow. Content is the tip of the spear behind which everything will follow (bigger audience, more advertising). With the right content strategy and with enough volume of content, much can be accomplished. But without an organized content strategy and without the funds to publish on a daily basis, the challenges are much more pronounced.

AW: I know you can’t give away your secrets, but what is your vision for the magazine and the way it’s rendered online? What do you see in TM’s online future?

SM: I will say that I can see us ramping up our content creation online so that we’re publishing more web-only stories on a daily basis. Since the re-launch of TM.com and the recent launch of TMBBQ.com, both of which are responsive to mobile devices, we have become much more of a multi-platform enterprise and the plan is to continue to build the brand on these various platforms. Texas Monthly is known as a great glossy magazine with award-winning journalism. We also want to be known as a great website.

AW: Sponsored content: to many, they’re dirty words. How does TM embrace advertorial on the site? How do you strike a balance?

SM: There were and still are quite a few skeptics of sponsor content at Texas Monthly, but I’ve championed the idea from the outset because I believe that there are brands with very interesting stories to tell, be they local or national. We’re very clear up front with the brands we work with: We will not publish press releases or marketing collateral. What we’re after is thought leadership; something that will educate or entertain our readers.

I think it’s important to understand that the media business isn’t the only industry that’s in upheaval. Advertising is as well. Brands are looking for a new way to reach customers beyond just the banner ad, and sponsor content is one way of doing that. But again, if you truly want to reach people in a different way, they you have to innovate the message. I like to say to our advertising partners who are intrigued by sponsor content that people aren’t interested in what you have to sell; they’re interested in what you have to say.

This interview was edited for length.

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