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3 Lessons From an Editor of the Largest U.S. Publications (B2C CMY Winner)

Editor’s note: Since we shared insights from Content Marketer of the Year finalists earlier this year, we’ve named a winner in both B2C and B2B categories. Neil Wertheimer took the B2C title based on his commitment to journalistic integrity and to the AARP audience. 

Neil Wertheimer tells it like it is. Driven by a passion to create positive change for people through the journalism he oversees, he makes sure the content his team at AARP creates inspires, educates, and empowers the organization’s enormous, diverse, and savvy audience of over 38 million members.

Neil considers it his mission to use the power of words to benefit the world around him. That’s evident throughout his body of work as deputy editor of AARP The Magazine and the AARP Bulletin, which together deliver a one-two punch against stereotypes about aging. His work overseeing the day-to-day development of those two publications – the two largest-circulation magazines in the United States – led to his recognition as the 2019 B2C Content Marketer of the Year.

Why he caught our eye: Neil’s commitment to journalistic standards in service of both audience and brand ensures that the content his team produces really connects. With a team of in-house staff and freelancers, the publications take on topics that matter to the over-50 set, among them: employment, retirement, health, wealth, fraud, and dementia. Recognizing that this age group is anything but homogeneous, articles treat the readership like the disparate group it is, offering information to address the needs and concerns of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. The magazine comes in three separate editions, each targeting a different age range. AARP Bulletin takes this customization further, producing more than 20 regional versions of every issue, each with unique content based on the member’s city or state.

Neil’s work at AARP and throughout his career in both marketing and consumer publications offers several helpful lessons and reminders for all content professionals.

1. Know your audience, but trust your gut too

Adults over 50 aren’t the easiest audience to impress. They’re not a single group, their needs and preferences vary, and, well, they’re prone to seen-it-all-before ennui.

Adding to the complexity are the different missions of each publication. Those are the challenges facing Neil’s team, led by Editor-in-Chief Bob Love, 16 times a year. The magazine’s six issues balance service content, investigative features, and entertainment using celebrity-focused cover stories and enticing design to pull readers in.

AARP Bulletin, which publishes 10 times a year, focuses more on national and local issues likely to affect readers’ lives – from how personal information sold on the dark web contributes to fraud against older Americans to misconceptions about Social Security, and other quality-of-life issues.

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The AARP editorial team is doing something right. Both publications have earned recognition in the Content Marketing Awards. This year, both earned finalist nods for Best Overall Editorial – Print, and several articles, columns, and infographics were recognized in other categories. You can read the digital version of A Legal Hostage, a finalist for Best Feature Article – Print, on AARP’s website.

Within the organization, the publications are prized. AARP closely tracks the role of the magazines in the overall member experience. The numbers tell a positive story: The magazines were identified as the top communication device for the organization and among the top reasons AARP members say they renew. That’s powerful content.

How do they generate such impact?

It starts with a commitment to understanding the reader. A dedicated staffer on Neil’s team organizes and compiles reader letters, emails, and social posts to track which stories resonate the most.

The team also sends reader surveys a few weeks after each issue of the Bulletin and the magazine to measure satisfaction overall and at the individual story level. The surveys also ask about usefulness, uniqueness, and entertainment value. The results are mandatory reading for AARP editors.

All this data flows into a proprietary algorithm to create an engagement score. Neil and his team use this database to analyze, measure, and compare past content and headline approaches and to identify opportunities to create more meaningful content.

Yet audience research doesn’t drive everything. Neil often uses the phrase that research is a 60% solution. He and his team use the feedback to weed out bad ideas, reveal opportunities, and highlight surprising wins. But the other 40%, Neil says, comes from less tangible factors, like curiosity, creativity, intuition, experience, and constant observation of the world around them. He and his team are voracious readers, and the emails fly daily within the AARP publications team sharing links and ideas.

2. Learn from every job

Nearly every position Neil has held reflects and informs his intuition and intangible skills. For the first 13 years of his career, Neil was a newspaper reporter and editor, working in the Los Angeles area. From there he went to Rodale Inc, where he oversaw book programs for Men’s Health, Runner’s World, Bicycling, Prevention, and Yankee magazines, and several custom titles. That work put him in touch with the day-to-day concerns of a big subset of consumer interests.

With this grounding in service journalism, Neil went on to oversee an international book-publishing program for Reader’s Digest that focused in large part on health, cooking, money, and home, but also included puzzles, history and humor. He’s collaborated with brands like Humana and Nokia to create an engaging content flow of newsletters and toolkits to enable people to manage their health.

A stint as head of Studio Fun International, a children’s publishing business, helped expand his creative skills while working with large consumer brands including Disney, DreamWorks, Fisher-Price, Star Wars, Hasbro, Barbie, Sesame Street, and DC Comics.

Later, as senior director of content strategy for Wunderman Health, Neil applied his audience development, journalism, and storytelling experience to create content marketing strategies and road maps for 10 international consumer health brands.

Having worked in both media and content marketing, Neil understands the importance and challenges of producing legitimate journalistic content while supporting brand and marketing goals.

Another thing he’s learned: Good writing that ensures authentic, accurate, and honest content is essential to both sides of the brand-journalism balance.

But that doesn’t mean Neil’s solely a creature of print. The AARP team creates content that can be enjoyed across platforms. For example, the August-September edition of AARP the Magazine now arriving in mailboxes across America contains a 50-year anniversary tribute to Woodstock and a piece on how the Property Brothers would update a home for their parents. Online versions of these pieces include videos created in partnership with AARP Studios, plus a wide range of additional content, and support print with digital materials.

Neil also works on other digital content projects for AARP, such as developing a series of audio broadcasts and mini-book downloads for members, and serving as the editorial advisor of a weekly podcast called The Perfect Scam, featuring con-artist-turned-fraud-expert Frank Abagnale (you might know his story from the book and movie Catch Me If You Can) and host Will Johnson, a former Discovery Channel producer. The series tells personal stories of scam victims and their families. It features interviews with professional con artists and fraud-prevention experts who help shed light on ways people can avoid falling prey to the tricks of the swindler’s dark trade.

3. Build (and reward) a great team

Hard-hitting, relevant content (customized to local regions) requires the work of more than one person. Neil works with a team of 12 editors to produce the combined 16 issues and their many variations based on member age or geography.

Neil and the editing team then interact daily with a centralized design and creative team, and a small writing staff on the digital team who contribute to both the Bulletin and magazine. Most of the content for each publication comes from freelance writers. Communications with video, social media, and web teams is nonstop, as is interaction with departments throughout AARP.

The secret to attracting and retaining talented writers (including top-tier journalists)? Fair pay, commitment to quality content, and a long lead time. Investigative pieces can take up to several months to produce. The publications’ behemoth audience doesn’t hurt, either.

With great power …

Punk icon Henry Rollins offered this directive and rallying cry to all content producers at ContentTECH Summit earlier this year:

You’re the future. I hope that keeps you up at night. There are millions of people you’re never going to meet who are going to depend on you to get it right. This is not something to be dreaded. It’s just to be respected, and you should fear getting it wrong.

That same sentiment guides Neil’s work at AARP. Sure, his brand has incredible reach and a budget to secure A-level talent. But the beliefs he’s relied on in all his roles will make any content marketer’s work better.

Research matters. Skills matter. Teams matter. Words matter. People matter.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute