Sarah Tolle started her professional life teaching English in Spain and Hungry. On the side, she started writing content for a marketplace startup in the home design industry and, eventually, for other clients.
When her teaching stint ended and the Wisconsin native settled in Canada, Sarah increased her entrepreneurial activities. She continued creating content for clients, often startups, and expanded into strategy development and social media growth hacking. She also ran a handmade jewelry business on Etsy.
All that experience prepared her well for joining the small Black & White Zebra (BWZ) media company four years ago. When she started, the company consisted of just three people: the founder, a creative director, and Sarah, who joined as a writer.
As BWZ grew, Sarah shifted into an editor role, managing writers, then took on the newly created managing editor position. Today, she is the content director, overseeing a team of about 30, focused on growing the content team and building a robust content strategy and production system around their 10 niche business media brands.
One of those publications – The Digital Project Manager – won best digital publication in the 2022 Content Marketing Awards and earned finalist nods for best multi-author blog and best topic-specific blog.
For Sarah’s work on that and the nine other publications, she was honored as a finalist for the 2022 B2B Content Marketer of the Year.
With the company’s growth – and the growth and evolution of their target industries – Sarah has had to learn to build a program that often operates like a startup – navigating many changes in real time.
“For us, it comes down to relationship-building,” she says.
Relationships with subject matter experts drive everything
BWZ operates 10 B2B publishing brands focused on quality assurance, human resources, product management, digital publishing, and other niches. The model relies on external subject matter experts who write the content. That’s why relationships are essential for BWZ’s success.
Every organization tries to work efficiently. But BWZ must stay focused on reducing friction in content creation because they work with professionals who typically have full-time jobs.
“Scale for us is how well we can build a system that facilitates real people who work in these fields to contribute content,” Sarah explains.
Identifying SMEs willing to write for their publications is the first step. Two editors on Sarah’s team handle the search for contributors. They get referrals from current contributors and look for experts in industry groups on Slack. They also post on niche job boards and conduct other outreach.
But finding the experts is only the first step – ensuring they can write is crucial. As part of the onboarding experience, BWZ does paid trial projects. “We want somebody who has clear and helpful ideas for others in their field,” Sarah says.
Contributors find their time is well spent. “They love to build a name for themselves. They love being featured, and they like the recognition they’re getting from their work in the field,” Sarah says.
BWZ pays contributors (from $50 to $1,000 per project, depending on the content project’s difficulty, format, etc.)
For content planning, quarterly rules the day
Though some brands operate on annual editorial calendars, the BWZ team takes a quarterly approach, allowing it to adapt to developing trends, news, and more.
Over three months, they log each publication’s ideas for articles, podcasts, videos, etc. Then, the individual media brand’s general manager, editor, and team members focused on SEO and monetization angles meet. Though the finer details are the editor’s decision, the group discusses the ideas to identify what best matches the target audience’s needs and the company’s business goals. Sarah facilitates and guides collaborations with each publication team.
For their longer-running brands, the teams also discuss whether they need to create new content pieces or upgrade existing content about a topic. Often, they simply update the content that drives the bulk of site traffic, and it continues to attract an audience.
For example, The Digital Project Manager might earn significant traffic from an article about project management skills. Even though the skills haven’t changed, the team adds new references and hyperlinks to keep it fresh in the mind of search engines and audiences.
Paid membership communities offer a new revenue stream
While most of its content is created to attract organic traffic, BWZ saw a need to build something for bottom-of-the-funnel audiences early on. It launched a beta version of a paid community offering for The Digital Project Manager.
At the time, the staff was still small, so Sarah wore multiple hats for the project. She helped develop the publication’s strategy and marketing. She also was responsible for many of its content marketing and production efforts – webinars, landing pages, evergreen content with lead magnets, etc.
Today, The Digital Project Manager paid membership community totals about 1,000 members paying $69 or $199 a year. All members get access to a private online forum where they can engage with each other and the brand team. They also can participate in three monthly interactive learning sessions and access on-demand sessions (30 days for the first-tier members and forever for the higher-paying members). They also may get exclusive access to resources such as templates, checklists, guides, and books in a professional development resource library. The $199 members also get peer support in a dedicated mastermind group.
That said, most of The Digital Project Manager content remains free. The team decides on a case-by-case basis what works for the free side vs. the paid side. So, for example, they might publish an explainer article available to all and offer a related checklist template to community members.
By using The Digital Project Manager as a pilot program, BWZ can use the lessons learned as it considers paid communities for its other brands.
Time constraints ensure productivity
Managing 10 distinct media brands and overseeing the best mix of content for all those publications seems daunting. Sarah says one thing that has made it all possible – a time-blocking approach to her calendar.
“When I started with the company, I didn’t plan my time,” Sarah says.
BWZ’s founder Ben Aston questioned how she could continue functioning without a calendar to manage her burgeoning responsibilities. So, she started blocking off time for each project. “I’ve not stopped since. It’s all about creating the constraints.”
Now, when somebody asks her to check the copy in a slide deck, for example, she’ll schedule time on her calendar to do it. Sarah often chooses two hours as her first gauge for a task before learning if it takes more or less time.
She also uses her calendar to determine her priorities.
“When someone comes with a project and says, ‘This is more important,’ I can look at the calendar. Then, I can say, ‘OK, I could do it, but I have to give up this other thing and do it next week.’ It helps reign in the chaos and keeps expectations realistic,” Sarah explains.
Those in-the-moment decisions require her to understand and align with the leadership’s priorities for the business and the publications. She notes the related tasks on her calendar so they remain top of mind when she considers adjusting her priorities.
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Mastering the language of content
Sarah says the time has flown since she started at BWZ four years ago. Her journey’s been quick from writer to content director, a necessity as the company grew its media brands. Sarah’s success has come because she expertly shifted her mindset and work from an entrepreneurial, all-hands-on-deck approach to a more strategic, high-level view approach for the growing content brands under the BWZ umbrella.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute