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Improve Your Blog By Reading a Magazine – An Exercise for Bloggers

Are you looking for some fresh design, marketing and even story ideas for your blog? Today I’ve got an exercise that you might find helpful.

This is an off line activity – all pack of sticky notes, a notebook, pen, a magazine and an hour of time.


The Exercise

It’s simple really – take some time out to analyze/review the magazine with the view of learning something about how you might improve your own blog.

Which magazine do you need? Really almost any one would do – however if there’s a magazine covering the topic that your blog is on then it’s probably worth choosing it

hint – many public libraries have back copies of magazines so you can do this for free and with lots of magazines at once there

I do this process on a regular basis and find that it helps me in a number of ways:

  • Marketing ideas – the way the magazine markets and pitches itself to readers can teach a lot
  • Design ideas – some magazines do layout better than others and the web is definitely a different medium than print – but you can still learn a lot about design from reading a good magazine
  • Post Ideas – whether I choose a magazine on my blog’s topic or not – I almost always come away from this with a story for a new post
  • Learning about my Niche – if you choose a magazine on your topic it’ll keep you across the latest news and developments in it
  • Writing Tips – a good article on almost any topic can teach you a lot about effective communication
  • Monetization Lessons – mainstream media have been monetizing content for a long time – while the web is different some principles still apply

Why Analyze ‘Old Media’

I can here a few blogging evangelists asking what the point of this exercise is. Isn’t blogging ‘new’ media and why would we look to ‘old’ media like magazines to learn how to do it?

While I agree that blogging is a very different medium to magazine publishing – I don’t think that we need to throw everything that’s been learned by mainstream media out – to me that’s rather arrogant.

Sure we should be innovating and working with the strengths of the medium of blogging – but there are also some lessons to be learned by looking at what others are doing in different mediums also.

The Process that I Use

When I conduct this magazine review exercise I generally do it like this:

Set aside at least an hour and head to a place where you won’t be disturbed (I tend to go to a cafe)

Take with you the magazine (or more than one), a notebook, pen and a pack of sticky notes

Starting with the front cover – quickly skim through the magazine – put a sticky note on any page that catches your attention. Don’t pause to read anything yet – just take a quick flick through it to see what leaps out at you

Once you’ve had a quick flick through – make a note at what grabbed you on this first pass through the magazine. Was it a headline, picture, color, opening line of an article or something else? (attention grabbers are so important in creating an engaging blog)

Take a second slower read of the magazine. Again – start at the front cover and work your way through. As you read – ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • Who is the target audience of this publication?
  • What techniques are used on the front page to draw people into the magazine?
  • What makes you pause to read an article?
  • What type of headlines are they using? How effective are they?
  • How are pictures used?
  • What colors are in at the moment?
  • How are articles formatted (use of sub headings, bold, lists etc)?
  • How does the magazine sell itself (looking forward to future issues, subscription pages etc)
  • What can you learn from ad placement and design in the magazine?
  • What level is this magazine pitched at? (beginners, advanced etc)
  • What is the magazine doing well at – what are they not doing well at? How would you improve it?
  • What are the limitations of the medium of magazines that you don’t have with a blog and how could you sell your blog on these things?

As you read through the magazine also make note of story ideas, design techniques, headline structures etc that you might want to try on your blog.

I’m not saying you should copy everything you see happening in the magazine – but rather that you use it as an opportunity to learn and think about your own blog. Some of what you see will naturally lend itself to your blog – other things will not.

The value of this is in stepping away from your own blog for a little while and getting some fresh ideas and perspectives.

I’m keen to hear how you go with this exercise – feel free to share your experiences of it in comments below.

One more Tip

If you choose a magazine on a similar topic to your blog – it can sometimes be worth keeping an eye out for opportunities to directly improve your blog from it. Two come to mind particularly:

1. Guest Posters/Interviews – I wrote a few weeks back about how I’d approached a number of people that I’d come across in magazines to either write guest posts for me or to be interviewed by me on my blogs (read this post at How to Find Fresh Expert Guest Posters for Your Blog).

2. Pitch yourself – I’ve done this a number of times with mixed success – but if the magazine strongly relates to your blog – why not contact the editor to suggest that you do something together? For example you might offer to write an article or even a regular column. I’ve seen a number of bloggers do this with some success. Alternatively you might want to pitch yourself or your blog as a potential subject for an interview or article in their magazine.

About Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
  1. This is a great idea! It’s sometimes hard to connect two related things when one is online and the other is off. I’m going to try this.

  2. In this regard I read the newspaper daily first thing in the morning because this gives me fodder for my current affairs blog. I hardly get time to read magazines but I know I should, and thanks for bringing this up.

  3. Nice article, love those sticky notes…

  4. Goodidea, thank you!

    Clearly a photography magazine is going to be more visually interesting and attention-grabbing than your average business magazine. I might have to go a little off-niche when I follow this advice.

  5. Very cool, nice tips on keeping things fresh for sure.

  6. Very insiteful. Now, if I could just find a magazine about raising quadruplets, since my blog is a personal journal of raising our 4 boys!

  7. Thank you for the reminder!
    I read somewhere that People magazine is the one to buy, if one wants to learn what the average American is talking about..use it for your blogs to discuss current events.
    Joel Libava
    The Franchise King Blog

  8. I’ve always envisioned my blog as a sort of online magazine, so this exercise makes total good sense.
    Thanks, Darren. I’m off to sit on a park bench in the sunshine, drink a coffee, flip through magazines, and feel 100% guilt-free about it … because I’ll be “working on my blog”!

  9. I do this regularly. I also have a folder and I cut out articles and pages for inspiration and store them. When I have writers block I take a lucky dip from my folder and off I go again. It works a treat and it means you do not have stacks of mags gathering dust!!! I use flyer’s, posters ( I photograph them with my camera phone) I have even photographed menus because of a design idea I have seen.

  10. Nice tip Darren. I guess it would also be a good idea to skim through newspapers to pick out some attention grabbers. I notice most times things in newspapers tend to grab my attention than ones in magazines. Dunno why. Maybe choosing the right kind of magazine too matters.

  11. You are very creative and intelligent Darren. This isn’t very handy for me though since there is no library near me or do I read magazines.

    Sweeet post!

  12. Good idea Darren. However sometimes the magazines hardly have any worthwhile news on the topic you blog about. Where to look then besides blog search?

  13. kUDOS to you for this excellent idea for generating more ideas.
    My hubby Ray and I currently do this exercise. As a matter of fact some of our hottest dates are weekly sessions at Barnes and Nobles(smile) We bring pad and pencil and go through several magazines and purchase the rest.
    As an Artist he always gleans design ideas and uses them to apply to clients, students and his blog hornerartworkshop.com.
    Thanks for your continued insights.

  14. Nice Article. Thanks

  15. This sounds like a brilliant idea. thank you.

  16. This is a really great tip, gives me an opporunity to turn away from the PC for a while and see what is going on in the print world.

  17. I been doing this for sometime and its really useful. Not only you get ideas for your layout, marketing, but also some posts ideas.

    On the other hand I must say that sometimes trying to emulate a cool magazine layout on your site/blog is NOT the way to go.

  18. Great article, Darren. I was reading Blogrrrl a little bit ago and noticed that she was using the magazine headlines technique to spiffy up her blog. She said to take headlines and convert them to use for your blog headlines. Like an article where the title is “Drop the weight now!”, you can update it to suit your blog, like, “Drop the dead blog weight now!”, or use it to talk about getting rid of unnecessary clutter on your blog’s home page. :)

  19. Great idea. I would also suggest getting even more analytical and checking out the magazines with the highest circulation/readership figures – they’re the ones people are picking up.

  20. I do this as often as possible. Partly because my blog aspires to become an online magazine, and partly because magazines have highly trained, high paid ad execs and graphic designers working to make every page sell to as many people as possible. When I want to learn something, I try to look to people who were trained and have life experience, and magazines are great for that.
    Nonetheless, you still gave me some fresh ideas of what to look for. I actually hadn’t thought of skimming quickly to see what the attention grabbers were, and I think that one may translate best to blogs.
    Thanks, as always, for a helpful post!

  21. Darren,
    once again this is a great post. Everyone should get away from the screen, get some fresh air pick up a magazine and in doing so you will get some great content ideas. Even if something isn’t specific to your niche it can trigger and idea for your own niche. Great stuff….

  22. Yellow journalism is always a good source of inspiration for outstanding titles

  23. Is that your hand writing? Looks like either you misspelled “State Benefits” or your f’s seriously looks like t’s :P

    Anyways, great tips.

  24. my f’s are weird – sometimes my t’s too :-)

  25. Nice idea!
    I shall have to do that one of these days when I have time…

  26. Hi,

    Wow, this is interesting. This is actually what I’ve been doing for a while to get ideas for my blog. I usually get ideas from each day of work, but this really helps spice things up.



  27. I’m glad you brought this up. I’ve been turning to magazines frequently for ideas.

  28. Wow, this is a really great exercise. I’m going to pick up a magazine later and try this out, thanks for the tip.

  29. I’m the current editor of Necrology Magazine. I don’t blog, but I have used this very idea for the Magzine and the website.

  30. I’m a freelance writer as well as a blogger and find that stories cross media all the time. I often use the topic (if not the story) from a magazine piece to jump start a blog piece.

  31. Great tips Darren – especially the last one, as it could really benefit a blog to gain exposure in a magazine. And I would advise any bloggers who are thinking of doing this to read up on the proper way to query magazines first. The Writers Digest site would be a good place to read up on this.

  32. Hi Darren, this topic is excellent. Thank you for permanently changing the way I approach brainstorming sessions! These are great exercises for those of us who spend a lot of time browsing the web for ideas – we’ve got to remember that there is a real world out there – and it is full of untapped ideas and inspiration!

  33. This post is a brainstorming lesson…! You show us many ways to create topics, ideas…etc. I think reading a newspaper also can apply some or all of the techniques you used.
    Great post!

  34. Great Darren! I’ve also been realizing this at the beginning of blogging and have written a post like this back in june, over here: 15 Things Magazines Can Teach You About Blogging

  35. Very well done on the article, Darren!

    I use the same method to get some inspiration very often. And thought I might share this tip.

    When I’m looking through the magazine with nothing more than few glances, there are some pages that would be really carved into my mind. And even after the initial glances and after i am done with the magazine, those pages will still be in my mind.

    And at this moment, I ask from myself, what made those pages/articles stand out from the rest? Maybe their design or maybe just a catchy topic. And this might give quite a few great ideas that will make my blog significantly better. And it will relatively benefit my reader-ship since I am trying to incorporate the techniques that stood out from dozens in that magazine.

  36. I think this is a great suggestion and for some reason something I haven’t thought of (maybe because I’m new).

  37. While you’re at it, you can easily get yourself some free magazine subscriptions for future reading and magazine reviews from TradePub.com

  38. Thanks for the great tips, and info Darren. I will give this a try and let you know if it improved my blog or not! I’m guessing that it will have a great impact on my blog and writing. Keep up the great post’s for a newbie!

  39. I reckon that about half of my blog inspiration comes from magazines. This wouldn’t be very hard since I’m a magazine addict. It is also likely that the type of magazine that interests you are probably discuss topics similar to those that you blog about.

  40. Great advice. I use my library a lot and now I have another reason. Keep the tips comming please. I’m about 1 month new to all this and need all the help I can find. I’m reading all the information including archives as fast as I can.

  41. some how I missed this post and found it in my rss reader. Great tips. I was thinking about using magazines but have no concrete steps to go about it.

  42. Depending on which rag you pick up, writing in magazines is often superior to that found in blogs–partially because it’s been edited (and let’s fact it, we could all use editors). That alone is a reason to read print publications.

    (Not to say that this month’s O! is some kind of literary milestone. But it’s far more coherent than a lot of what goes up on the web.)

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