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Sparksheet is an award-winning blog published by Spafax Content Marketing. With insight about content, marketing and PR, Sparksheet offers fresh thinking and thought leadership from Spafax and from around the world.



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Subscribe to Sparksheet and receive our free e-newsletter on or near the first Tuesday of every month.

Sparksheet Monthly

Subscribe to Sparksheet Monthly and receive our free e-newsletter on or near the first Tuesday of every month.

All in the Conversation


A glorified version of jumping off the web publishing conveyor belt, photo by wade_c via Flickr

I’ve been with Sparksheet since 2011. Back then, Snapchat didn’t exist, “digital first” was a radical idea touted by rogue publishers, and programmatic was just a word for the way burned out employees approached their jobs.

As the media space has changed, so too has Sparksheet. We launched a podcast. We experimented with GIFS. We resisted listicles (almost). We became introspective the state of content marketing. We made the conscious decision to jump off the web publishing conveyor belt and double down on editorial quality.

Amidst this change, we’ve kept our sights on the ongoing transformations in the media and marketing ecosystem. We witnessed the unexpected rise of private messaging apps, the adoption by nearly every major web publisher of responsive web design and kept our eyes on the slow, painful demise of print news media. We even resigned ourselves to the permanence of the word “platisher” (almost).

Today, publishers are preoccupied with attention minutes, and brands are earning praise and ridicule as they go “native” – aggressively injecting themselves in news feeds with the aim of establishing authentic and “personalized” relationships with their target audiences.

Behind the scenes, we’ve taken to describing Sparksheet as a conversation – a think tank and experimental playground for the writers, designers and developers sailing the ship.

The incoming editor will keep pushing Sparksheet into new and experimental territory. But at bottom, Sparksheet will stay committed to the essentials of its mission: To unearth and explore the ongoing changes at the intersection of content, media and marketing. Platforms come and go, design standards change, but the conversation never stops.sparkbeat-logo

Thanks to the contributors, readers, advocates and everyone in the between for your support. Here’s to good ideas!

Sparksheet @ Big Data & Analytics Summit Canada

sparkbeat-logoBig data can be useful, intimidating, controversial, scary or revolutionary, but no matter how you look at it, it’s here to stay — in a big way.

According to LinkedIn’s blog, statistical analysis and data mining were the top skills that got job seekers hired in 2014.

Universities like Arizona State and NYU are responding to the increasing demand for data scientists by offering new programs focused on big data and business analytics.

We’ll be in Toronto this week for the Big Data & Analytics Summit Canada to find out what trends, tools and ideas will be shaping the world of big data in 2015.

Industry leaders from Mozilla, Samsung, IBM and Oracle, among others, will discuss topics ranging from customer service, product development and social media to data visualization, predictive analytics and privacy.

Follow us on Twitter as we live-tweet the event, or else stay tuned for our roundup of lessons and takeaways from speakers.

Last but not least, if you’re thinking of heading to the event, register using the promo code SPARK20 for a 20 percent discount.

Could You Be Sparksheet’s Next Intern?

sparkbeat-logo[Editor’s Note: The deadline has passed and applications are now closed.] 

We’re on the hunt for a marketing and community manager intern to work at our Montreal office for three months beginning in February, with the possibility of long-term involvement.

If you’re passionate about understanding the intersection of content, media and marketing and want to learn how to communicate compelling stories on the web, then we want to hear from you.

You’ll be working with a small and talented team to help manage Sparksheet’s online presence in the social sphere.

You’ll have the opportunity to make a direct impact, develop a vision and execute a strategy for organically cultivating Sparksheet’s audience of influencers and thought leaders.

We’re looking for someone who is as comfortable analyzing audience behaviour as they are pitching content ideas or posting on WordPress. If you’re interested in experimenting with ways of sharing stories and content while building a thriving community on the web, we recommend you apply!

Check out the official posting for details and instructions on how to apply. The application deadline is 6 February.

Good luck!

Happy Holidays from Sparksheet


It’s been another busy year at Sparksheet, filled with events, interviews, conversation and award-winning design. We even launched a podcast miniseries!

And while there’s plenty more to say about the year that was, we think most of it’s covered in our end-of-year infographic.

We’re taking a break for the holidays and will back in January with plenty more good ideas about content, media and marketing.

A huge thank you to the Sparksheet community for reading, contributing and supporting us. We can’t wait to launch into our next projects in 2015 and we look forward to keeping you informed and inspired.

Until then, have a happy and healthy holiday and we’ll see you in the new year!

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Sparksheet Wins Three Gold at Canadian Online Publishing Awards

sparkbeat-logoSparksheet stories may be international in scope, but it’s great to be recognized as a standout magazine in our home and native land. We’re proud to announce that for the third consecutive year, Sparksheet won multiple awards at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

This year we walked away with three golds in the business-to-business division:

Sparksheet was also nominated for Best Use of Social Media and Best Email newsletter design and engagement.

Other big winners include Toronto Star, CBC and Maclean’s. Congratulations to all of the nominees and winners and thank you to the judges and the organizers for putting on a great show!

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Sparksheet @ 2014 APEX Expo

APEX 2014 Expo is being held at Anaheim, California. Image by Fred Hultqvist.

APEX 2014 Expo is being held at Anaheim, California. Image by Fred Hultqvist.

[Update: We’ve finished our run of episodes. You can listen to all four of them on our podcast page at apex.sparksheet.com. We hope you enjoy!]

Sparksheet’s roots are in the inflight entertainment space.

In the early days we celebrated (and knocked) airline brands on Youtube, we tracked how airlines handled the Icelandic ash cloud on Twitter and we explored transumer life.

It’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic given how much has changed, which helps explain why we’re so excited to be in Anaheim for the APEX 2014 Expo from 15-18 September.

We’ve even created a digital micro-magazine for the event. It’s chock full of original and curated Q&A’s and think pieces covering how airlines and aviation brands are using content to tell their stories in human, platform agnostic ways.

And in true multiplatform… form, we’re launching an on-site special edition podcast! Each day, we’ll be talking to industry thought leaders and finding out how they’re making connections between the inflight world and the content, media and marketing universe.

If you’re attending the show, drop by our recording studio and say hi (213A at the ACC), or else tune into the podcast and follow us on Twitter.

Oh, and if you’re curious about just how far we’ve come since 2009 – check out the video below.

Inside The New York Times’ Innovation Report

paper-boyOn 15 May, BuzzFeed leaked The New York Times innovation report – an internal document that asks tough questions about the publication’s place among its peers as it transitions from “a newspaper that also produces a rich and impressive digital report to a digital publication that also produces a rich and impressive newspaper.”

It’s a rare thing for a report of this kind to reach the public. So far it’s been hailed as “one of the key documents of this media age” and derided as a “terribly ironic” reflection of The Time’s struggle to adopt a digital-first mindset.

For us, it’s a 96-page snapshot of the old guard contemplating its own tale. That’s not a derisive statement. One of the central questions to come out of the report – how do you commit to quality journalism when content itself is the promotional medium? And the direction it advocates – dissolve the Chinese wall – bring into focus just how much has changed in the content, media and marketing world over the past few years.

It’s astonishing that the authors (led by its publisher’s son, A.G. Sulzberger) are having to inform the newspaper’s leaders why they should consider “using technology to ensure that the right stories are finding the right readers in the right places at the right times.” And a skeptic could put The Times at fault for taking so long to accept that distribution is as much an editorial problem as it is a business problem.

The report’s focus lies squarely on The New York Times and its place in the industry, but there are relevant lessons to be gleaned for anyone interested in content and in audience retention.

Even though the bulk of readers access The Times via the web, most of the publications revenues come from its print subscription.

Even though the bulk of readers access The Times via the web, most of the publication’s revenue comes from print.

The death of the homepage

BuzzFeed was born into a world of social sharing and hyperlinks, but The New York Times still sees these as new tricks. Right out of the gates, the authors hone in on The New York Times biggest problem – distribution. This challenge, it turns out, is as conceptual as it is practical.

That’s because legacy media like The Times are used to thinking about publications as discrete entities – physical packages meant to be read sequentially from A1 all the way to the classifieds. But that’s not how it works online, and as obvious as that may sound, it’s proven to be a tough pill to swallow for the storied publication.

In one passage, the authors explain how The Times transitioned from one of the most “sophisticated consumer outreach operations in history,” (i.e. home delivery of its print newspapers) to a “much more passive approach” online.

It’s a classic print-to-web problem. The paper expected that people would obediently seek out and start with the homepage, just as they had in print for more than one hundred years.

A graph from the report shows the decline in traffic to The Times' homepage.

A graph from the report shows the decline in traffic to The Times‘ homepage.

If that ever was the case online, it isn’t now. Instead, The Times has watched traffic to Page One dwindle year after year since 2011.

People expected the news to arrive at their doorsteps, explains the report, and now they expect it to arrive in their inboxes and social feeds. The expectation hasn’t changed, but distribution has.

So what does this mean for content creators? The New York Times’ homepage is a canary in the coalmine. Or maybe it’s the sickly coal miner warning all the canaries. Either way, the message is clear: if you want people to read your content, you have to serve it to them.

Growing the numbers

Figuring out the proper channels to distribute content is one thing, but getting people to consume that content is another.

Each month The Times receives 30 million web and 20 million mobile visitors from the US. But those numbers pale in comparison to what digital-first giants like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed receive. Even USA Today has overtaken The Times in terms of readership.

Digital native publications like The Huffington Post have overtaken The Times in terms of traffic.

Digital native publications like The Huffington Post have overtaken The Times in terms of traffic.

While the authors outline a number of technological fixes, including improving organic search rankings by adopting best practices in SEO and metadata management, it focuses just as much attention on the editorial side: “The newsroom needs to claim its seat at the table because packaging, promoting and sharing our journalism requires editorial oversight.”

The authors warn that quality journalism will make The Times the eternal spring from which the Gawkers of the world can curate content, but it leaves The Times thirsty for viewers.

In one example, Gawker repackaged a 161-year-old article – which it discovered through a New York Times tweet – and turned it into “one of their best-read items of the year.”

In the newsroom and in any publication, content is only valuable if it reaches readers. Repackaging bespoke content and distributing it to the right people at the right time, is one of way to do that.

Collaboration 101

For a report analyzing the tech and logistical tools needed to turn the print-first publication into one optimized for the web and mobile, it focused a lot on work culture. Most of that discussion revolved around breaking down silos, especially the dissolution of the barriers between business and editorial departments.

“The wall dividing the newsroom and business side has served The Times well for decades, allowing one side to focus on readers and the other to focus on advertisers,” write the authors, “But the growth in our subscription revenue and the steady decline in advertising – as well as the changing nature of our digital operation – now require us to work together.”

Much of it comes down to reader experience. The business side and content creators should be equally focused on improving reader experience to increase traffic, which will lead to more subscriptions, more advertising and more revenue.

“At The Times, discovery, promotion and engagement have been pushed to the margins, typically left to our business-side colleagues or handed to small teams in the newsroom,” write the authors.

A digital-first operation requires a completely reorganized workflow. It means integrating digital teams with editors, allowing data and analytics to inform content decisions, and thinking about how content will look and read on mobile as much as desktop and in print.

Taking a look at its competitors, the authors note that it’s this focus on “the dry stuff – tools, workflow and process” that has resulted in BuzzFeed’s explosive growth. Rather than relying on quality journalism to market itself, getting content to lots of people requires baking business interests into the product from the get-go.

These are not groundbreaking revelations. But The Times defines itself by its editorial integrity. For any publication concerned about reader experience and high editorial standards, the real issue at play here is simple – it’s about finding the balance between ‘sharability’ and quality.

Upworthy is winning because of its annoying headlines and Buzzfeed is winning because of its relentless devotion to formulaic quizzes. Half of the digital-first equation is algorithms, but does the other part have to be listicles?

The report suggests that the newsroom and business side collaborate on shared goals.

The report suggests that the newsroom and business side collaborate on shared goals.

Building an experimental legacy

So what does innovation mean to a print-first publication in the 21st century? The hard truth (at least for The Times) is that it means embracing risk and rewarding experimentation – it’s about forging ahead with new practices, not propping up old ones.

The authors turn to Bob Pittman, CEO of Clear Channel, for his insight into what successful experimentation looks like:

If I try 10 new things and let’s say two are clear winners and two are clear losers. That means I’ve got six in between. What do I do with those? Most organizations let everything live except the clear losers. … Pretty soon my whole organization is basically mediocrity and gunk. So if you can bring yourself to say, I’m only gong to let clear winners live. I’m going to take the resources I put for the other eight things and try again,’ you can keep a crisp organization.

Marketers who have made their careers tracking the evolution of online ad units, the explosion of platforms and the inexorable proliferation of digital content might find it alarming that a decade after blogs have gone mainstream, The Times is finally codifying its need to embrace risk and develop a digital-first strategy.

So it’s worth keeping in mind that The New York Times has proven time and again it has the ambition and talent to tell brilliant stories that can only be told in the browser. Except replication is a problem. Departmental organization is a problem. Fear of failure is a big problem.

The reason content creators of all stripes should care about this report is because it’s not just The Times that’s dealing with this present reality. When Pittman says, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, you’ll make a lot of them,” he may be talking about The Times, but it’s timely advice for us all.

For more analysis, check out The Nieman Journalism Lab’s coverage.

Read the full report here [PDF]

Sparksheet @ SXSW Interactive 2014

sparkbeat-logoFrom 7-12 March, the tech, media and startup worlds will collide in downtown Austin for South by Southwest Interactive.

To its organizers, SXSW Interactive is meant to be a “tool for creative people and the companies they work with to develop their careers, bring together people from a wide area to meet and share ideas.”

To most people, it’s the event that launched Twitter into the mainstream.

SXSW Interactive is getting bigger every year – More than 30,000 people are expected to attend in 2014 – and while it’s not the hidden gem it once was, it remains the definitive tech, media and entrepreneurial event from which trends emerge, products get launched and big ideas spread.

We’ll be in attendance this year covering the sessions, panels and keynotes relevant to the content, media and marketing space (so we’ll be pretty busy!). Follow us on Twitter at @Sparksheet as we live-tweet the event.

Behind The Cover: Making Coke Pop

thumb_v1This month’s feature article presented a tricky problem for Sparksheet’s design team: How do you riff on Coca-Cola’s iconic brand image without crossing into cliché territory?

Because title images (“hero graphics” for you designers) dominate the page above the fold, they also have to summarize the article for the reader, which in this case, dealt with the brand’s content marketing experiment, Coca-Cola Journey.

Here’s how Laura Service, Sparksheet’s designer, solved the puzzle:

We wanted to convey coke bottles in a graph formation to mimic the “long tail” of content. It suits the article because Journey is producing a lot of posts with only a few hitting big numbers. A grid paper in the background helped reinforce this concept.

For the banner we went with the classic Coca-Cola contour bottle design because it’s iconic, and we coupled this with Publico, a typeface that has a slightly retro feel matching the stylized bottles.

We were close, but there was one major setback. Initially, we made the bottles red and it wasn’t working. The colour made the image feel too “on brand.” We didn’t want to make an ad. Someone pointed out the bottles might even be mistaken for ketchup. In the end, we ditched the red and replaced it with the rich brown of the drink itself and our Coca-Cola journey was complete.

Our first title image iteration.

Our first title image iteration.

The final version of the title image.

The final version of the title image.

Could You Be Sparksheet’s Next Editorial Intern?

sparkbeat-logoAre you a recent journalism or communications graduate? Are you a web-savvy writer who’s passionate about the intersection of digital media, journalism and business? Then we want to hear from you!

We’re looking for an editorial intern to work at our Montreal office for three months beginning early February, with the possibility of long-term involvement.

Sparksheet’s team is a small one, so you’ll have plenty of chances to make an impact and gain hands-on experience. As the editorial intern, you’ll work with our design and editorial teams to manage and create content across our platforms.

We’re looking for someone who is as comfortable pitching and writing stories as they are cultivating our online community and managing the day-to-day operations of an online magazine (CMS, photo research, etc.). While marketing and design chops aren’t necessary, they are always welcome.

Check out the official posting for details and instructions on how to apply. The application deadline is 31 January.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

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Original Sparksheet content is licensed under a Creative Commons License permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution. Please include a link to the original article. © 2019 Spafax, a tenthavenue company

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