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‘I Run My Blog More Like a Television Network’: Inside Shopify’s Next-Level Newsroom

By Erin Nelson February 11th, 2016

Tommy Walker and his editorial team at Shopify have every intention of getting you hooked. More benign than Walter White, Walker has made content his drug of choice, cooked with the same formula as your favorite TV show.

“I run my blog more like a television network,” Walker mentioned casually, as if this concept was intuitive. “Week to week, there’s a narrative that is very much like a TV show that’s in Serial format.”

Walker is editor-in-chief of the Shopify Plus blog, an editorial extension of the e-commerce software company. He uses a squad of vetted freelance and staff writers to publish stories that focus on technology, entrepreneurship, and marketing. As part of his process, Walker ensures the subject of each piece is well-researched, created for a specific audience, connected to other posts, and integrated into a cohesive distribution plan.

“This format helps people to tune on a regular basis and want to come back over and over again,” he said. “The reason television programming is called ‘programming’ is that you are programming people to come back.”

From e-commerce to publishing

Shopify was founded in 2004 to sell snowboards online. When the founders realized there was no existing software that could sell their product the way they wanted, they decided to build it themselves. Since then, what began as a five-person operation has become a comprehensive e-commerce platform for retail brands, representing over 200,000 online stores and responsible for over $12 billion in sales.

As Shopify has grown, so has its content strategy. In August 2015, the company expanded its online publication to cover enterprise-level solutions. In the introductory post, Walker declared the blog’s mission: “Write heavily-researched yet easy to understand essays to solve enterprise-level problems.”

The purpose was to provide engaging, informative, and actionable material specific to enterprises that could benefit from the new enterprise software product, Shopify Plus. The goal, as Walker clarified, was not just to cover topics that went over what works for enterprise companies, but to use “case studies, behavioral economics, buyer psychology, and industry data” to be able to tackle why certain tactics work.

Once Shopify honed in on the blog’s mission, it had an even bigger challenge: to reach the right audience.

Making a methodology

Walker’s process for conducting market research is technical and precise. In fact, it boils down to a near-science.

On LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, Walker finds enterprise CMOs, marketing directors, and other high-level executives, and scores them. Specifically, he evaluates them in two areas—knowledge and interaction—by rating them on scales of one to 10.

When calculating a knowledge score, Walker uses himself as a baseline score of five. If people share articles that help him learn new things on a certain topic, they get higher scores; basic content gets lower scores.

The interaction figure, meanwhile, rates the level of conversation, rather than the content itself. Administering a score, Walker determines if people are spamming the group, giving basic feedback (“Hey, great post!”), or responding with instructive and compelling replies.

By compiling the knowledge and interaction scores in a spreadsheet, Walker gets a clear idea of both the topics his target audience are immersed in and where to distribute Shopify’s original content.

For example, he found LinkedIn groups that discussed the speed of technological development, and when one person commented, “I remember when all we had to worry about were Facebook ads,” Walker landed on a topic he wanted to pursue, which led to “The Acceleration of Everything,” an article Walker wrote for Shopify before sharing it with those LinkedIn groups.

In addition to social group studying, Walker also follows trending hashtags in his Tweetdeck, reads Amazon reviews about similar products, and tags industry blogs in his Feedly as part of his audience research. “I follow these outlets to find out the cadence and the tonality that people are using,” he said. “With that information, I start to develop a marketing message … and construct a narrative that starts to stand out from that.”

The high-level strategy makes for a good quotation, but, when pressed about specifics, he revealed that the levers to influence people largely actually hinge on two crucial variables: age and culture.

“Culture is the thing that it comes down to and different age categories have specific cultures related to them,” Walker said. “You talk to someone from the ’60s and the media that influenced them is going to be vastly different than the media that influenced somebody who was born in the ’80s. Instead of looking at people as demographics, you need to understand what that demographic has actually been exposed to.”

In the case of this article on how rapper 2 Chainz made $2 million on Shopify in 30 days, the publication doesn’t just reference an iconic rapper to attract young demographic clicks. The in-depth case study also weaves in the history of hip hop, which is culturally relevant to some millennial entrepreneurs.

The inspiration for this approach came from Walker’s own experience as a music and movie buff. “All you have to do to appeal to me is play off that nostalgia and understand the editing and visual style of the things that I’ve grown up with.”

Turning data into consistency

When it comes to data, Shopify’s editorial operation focuses on four goals. Content meant to be shared, drive traffic and conversation, generate leads, or help sales.

According to Walker, each piece of content should have only one intention at a time. “If you’re creating a piece of content to be shared, every word you write needs to have that as part of its intent,” he said. “Because then you start turning phrases in a way that makes people go, ‘Oh, man, I really want to share this.'”

Shopify’s team uses this approach to structure the editorial calendar, making sure there’s a balance of all four types of content. The framework also helps Walker establish themes and consistency. For example, the site publishes multiple stories on one topic over time. Last August, Shopify published an article titled, “Add to Cart: How to Get More People to Take Action on Product Pages.” A week later came “How to Reduce Shopping Cart Abandonment by Optimizing the Checkout.” Seven days later, there was a third installment: “Designing The New Customer Experience: What Happens After Checkout?” Then the site wrapped up the series with “How To Create a Memorable and Shareable Unboxing Experience for Your Brand.”

Four stories by three different writers over a four-week period.

“We’re creating this sort of universe where shares, comments, generated leads, and sales work together strategically because everything around that content calendar is designed towards very specific goals, but each piece is also bringing people toward other parts of the network.”

The result is a narrative in which each article can stand on its own but still leaves you wanting more—just like episodes from your favorite TV show.

Making a scene

Before Tommy Walker was an editor, he worked as an actor for 10 years. Being on camera and creating content for CMOs may not have much in common at first glance, but to Walker, his background has significantly influenced Shopify’s content strategy.

As Walker sees it, analyzing enterprise markets and dissecting scripts have a lot in common. While actors fill in the blanks by assessing dialogue and scene direction, marketers follow hashtags to pick up on industry and demographic trends. Ultimately, both are in the business of storytelling, relying on research to appeal to audiences.

“I firmly believe that we view the computer no differently than we did televisions or movie screens of the past. In marketing, we’re creating entertainment more than anything else,” he explained. “The idea of branding just came from building a character.”

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