The transformation and growth of the most influential journal on religion in the public square.

First Things

First Things is a non-profit publication that explores and addresses issues at the intersection of faith and culture. Beck & Stone worked with First Things for three years on various initiatives such as the design of their website and digital brand, the initiating and growing of their social media and newsletter, and the conceptualizing and organizing of their intellectual retreats and reading groups. This active relationship was instrumental in dramatically broadening the magazine’s audience, powered by an editorial team fully bought into making First Things the most influential publication on religion and public life.

The audience had grown in demographics and usage habits that were very different from the print readers of the past twenty years.

With this rising readership, First Things struggled with an operational model better suited for a traditional small publication and a brand suddenly had demands for digital mediums that were not previously considered. Their leadership knew they lacked digital marketing expertise within the organization, but didn’t have the ability to train or hire in-house. They were working with multiple vendors for various services and deliverables, or doing without them completely. The staff was strained from operating outside their expertise and opportunities to exploit their growth were slipping through the cracks.

Management envisioned a more efficient future, one where consolidated services and intelligent content strategy would enable them to save time and money while reaching new audiences. They retained Beck & Stone to help make this happen.

Beck & Stone tackled challenges together with staff from within the organization, not as an outside force.

Our partners connected with First Thing's core leadership, collaborating with Editorial, Finance, Sales, and IT to help plan a roadmap for moving forward. We started with a comprehensive audit of the organization's short and long term goals, to re-frame their success metrics for digital marketing.

A Beck & Stone team would function as a "micro-agency" embedded within the client, working side-by-side with their staff. A consultant would act as a liaison between vendors: managing timelines, budgets, and workflows in a wide array of areas from social media, events, and fundraising. Designers and marketers running ongoing subscription marketing campaigns would also closely support the First Things' staff with visual assets as needed.

Beck & Stone was tasked with mentoring the in-house team on publishing best practices, creating design guidelines and campaign toolkits for social media, and developing an engagement strategy and content calendars to increase followers and organic reach.

Social Media

With zero paid media, we helped grow the niche upmarket audience of their brand channels. Working with a collaborative staff, we set regularly scheduled posts for essays and events while creating spontaneous visual content based upon happenings relevant to the brand.

In early 2013, First Things' branded engagement and impressions had flatlined due to a disjointed posting regimen and uninspired voice. By the same time in 2014, our fine-tuned strategy and community management initiatives had earned First Thing’s Twitter content 1.5M impressions in the first three months, and grew the follower base organically to 35,000 followers. The Facebook brand page went from under 13,000 Followers to over 50,000 Followers in the same period.

Email

Beck & Stone turned around First Things' email channel; taking it from stagnation to their most engaged audience.

In the midst of the online audience's upward trajectory, visits from the email list remained stagnant. A dismal open rate and even lower click-through rate kept traffic to firstthings.com on its historical trend of dropping off on weekends, which made selling ad space much harder.

Two newsletter projects were conceptualized: a bi-weekly recap of the top current content for weekday readers, and the ‘Sunday Spotlight’, a curated weekend digest of popular archived content to capture readers who typically did not visit the site when away from their desktop computers… and to ensure that First Thingsem>' 30-plus years of articles would not be forgotten.

This required a move away from an antiquated email marketing platform and a set of new responsive design templates. Tasteful interstitials were deployed on firstthings.com's popular articles to capture incoming readers from social media.

Email List Performance

17,583

Organic growth

12.9%

Click rate

48.2%

Open rate

45.8%

Traffic increase

A next-stage growth strategy was arrived upon through data, intuition, and conversation.

Even as these key metrics were up across the board: page views, unique visits, mentions, reach… for a traditional publication, subscriptions are the goal. 2016 was the year to expand First Things’ base of paying subscribers; advertising to a new and mostly untapped segment of digital-first users.

2016 was the year to expand First Things’ base of paying subscribers; advertising to a new and mostly untapped segment of digital-first users.

A well-informed long-term strategy and an actionable short-term plan are necessities for successful customer acquisition campaigns. As their embedded consultant, Austin Stone worked in close liaison with First Things to ensure that data was meticulously gathered during the audience building of the various online channels.

Analyzing this data, it was apparent that First Things was spending some money on marketing with low returns, barely enough to stay above the high churn rate of subscribers. Some promotional efforts had been conducted through direct mail that heavily discounted the reader's first year subscription, but why didn't they stick around? Clearly there was some demand for First Things content as the audience metrics showed, and the core subscriber base in the Northeast United States was loyal, paying full price for years on end. Why weren't more new readers subscribing and why were the few new subscribers not renewing?

The strategy began to take shape: a marketing funnel needed to be created that brought in more readers, encouraged those readers to subscribe, and finally, converted those subscribers into loyal renewals who supported the magazine perennially.

The top of funnel strategy was tactical. With First Things’ rising online presence, this same campaign would prove even more effective if distributed through digital channels like FirstThings.com, email, and through social media.

The middle of the funnel would require some optimization of existing efforts, platforms, processes, and services to raise the conversion rates and maximize ROI on the increased advertising.

The bottom of the funnel, however, required more of a brand adjustment. We could not see subscribers purely as customers, for they did not see themselves as such. By surveys and focus groups, it was learned that a subscriber to First Things viewed themselves as members of what they felt was more than a magazine they read, but a forum for and a connection to a community they participated in. First Things and all who worked on the brand then, it was decided, should think of the magazine, and thus its marketing and communications, as “more than a magazine.”

Another trend was discovered, however: subscriber growth correlated with the rise of the magazine's profile, with noted permanent growth (i.e. subscribers joining at full price with no marketing) occurring in correlation with unordinary happenings, such as an essay being referenced by another more prominent publication, or when an editor appeared on a podcast to debate another influencer. A critical hypothesis was thus born to guide the overall strategy. As the brand raised its profile through reaching adjacent niche audiences through efforts outside of the magazine's pages, the more successful the marketing of the magazine would become.

Effective marketing was made possible through the holistic partnership with Beck & Stone.

Strategic planning is important, yet the ability to quickly optimize the tactics—reacting to minimize losses or take advantage of real-time events is often overlooked. This valuable flexibility was made possible by Beck & Stone’s close working relationship with First Things. Analytics informed decision makers who would direct the team on adjusting the creative or targeting.

Branded social content, display and email campaigns, and baked-in website prompts were used to pique the curiosity of online followers. Driving this now qualified traffic to redesigned landing pages which were rigorously A/B tested and regularly updated for the best results, persuaded users to take the “next step” with First Things.

Printed deliverables such as flyers at events and full-page ads in relevant publications targeted the immediate network of likely subscribers.

Though the strategy remained consistent, Beck & Stone’s model allowed for flexibility in optimizing even an ongoing integrated campaign at key moments.

The Beck & Stone team took the initiative from the very beginning of the project, helping us better define our goals in the digital environment. The results have been outstanding. Their work has moved us forward, improving our brand and expanding our readership.

First Things R.R. Reno R.R. Reno, Editor First Things

Using events to raise the brand and gather the community.

Shaping the core audiences's perspective of First Things as “more than a magazine” rested on being more active outside of the pages of the magazine. Events were a natural solution.

The major event First Things’ event is the annual Erasmus Lecture, which was raised over the course of the years to be a sort of “State of the Union” for religious intellectuals. In 2016, however, with Dr. Russell D. Moore as the speaker and a lightning rod topic of “Can the Religious Right be Saved?” First Things wanted to extend awareness of the presentation to an audience beyond those attending in New York City.

Beck & Stone saw this as an opportunity for earning new subscribers as well. The plan then was to livestream the lecture from the First Things Facebook page and firstthings.com, publicizing it in advance via social media and email RSVPs.

Using quotes by Dr. Moore and photos from the event itself, Beck & Stone pushed branded content to social media in real time, linking the livestream to a promotional offer to subscribe to First Things. The speaker’s following was largely outside of First Things’ sphere, so we had a two-hour stretch of time to tap into his audience—and we capitalized on it. Over 1,000 viewers of the livestream combined with thousands of social interactions yielded close to 800 new followers and almost 100 new subscriptions to First Things in the course of those two hours.

But beyond the marketing success, the heightened reach of the lecture through the (at the time) novelty of the livestream placed heightened importance upon what was spoken, with responses in other publications, podcasts, social media, and comments on firstthings.com pouring in over the next couple of weeks.

Smaller events talks, lectures, book signings followed similar tactics: marketing of them with invites to the broader audience were followed by compelling content created during the event. Photos, video, audio, pull quotes, and more were posted to social media and added to the email newsletter. Over time, the number of attendees at events increased—and a younger, more diverse audience joined the fold.

The popular Intellectual Retreats were planned and established and conducted for this first time at First Things with Beck & Stone. These multi-day events brought together academics, scholars, clergy, and serious laypersons to discuss a determined set of readings in a more private setting. Meals, keynote, and roundtable discussions provided a lively, refreshing time where the most committed

Perhaps most Readers of First Things, the magazine's localized reading groups, were spun up to connect subscribers with each other to discuss what was being published in First Things. These were very popular, with group members or "ROFTers" now numbering in the thousands worldwide.

Marketing online heavily depends on taste, tact, and timing. A team integrated on the client side and a prolific production team enables us to react intelligently to complications or opportunities in a way that builds towards the ultimate strategic goals.

Beck & Stone's Austin Austin Stone, Partner Beck & Stone

Historic success in numbers and influence.

Beck & Stone began marketing First Things specifically to online audiences in February of 2016. In May 2017, First Things reported almost 2,400 new subscribers linked directly to online marketing efforts..

During Beck & Stone's partnership with First Things from 2015 to 2017, the publication gained over 8,000 new paid subscribers from all marketing channels including digital and direct mail: the most growth it had experienced in the decades before or the years since.

But perhaps more importantly, First Things was raised from being a mere magazine of importance to a community of influence.

Thanks to Beck & Stone’s proactive approach to client relationships and the company’s talented multidisciplinary staff, First Things proves that traditional publications cannot only just survive, but thrive in the digital age. &

Speak to the present.
Listen to the past.
Build for the future.
Let’s do it together.

Contact Us

A brand consultancy driven by design.

  • LinkedIn Twitter

Copyright 2023 © Beck & Stone, Inc. All rights reserved. All opinions expressed in the articles are of the author. Case studies are advertisements and not guarantees of results.