reverse engineer content strategyIf one thing is certain in life it’s that very few ideas are genuinely groundbreaking, never-seen-before moments of genius. The reality is that almost everything that we do now is either a reinvention of the wheel or a plain-and-simple rehashing of something that has come before.

Some might say these ideas are lame concepts created for and by people too lazy to come up with something of their own. If you believe that, then you’re missing out on a lifetime of learning. Put simply, ideas are very rarely about the concepts themselves but more about the execution. It’s in the execution that brilliance lies.

I use reverse engineering a lot, and when it comes to content strategy, there are few better ways of using this little trick than by “borrowing” content flow and content strategy from the guys and girls who know it best.

Magazine planning has been perfected over decades of iteration, and the very best print-based titles leave a footprint that offers the ultimate blueprint from which you can create your perfect content strategy online.

How the magazine planning process works

To begin to understand how this is useful to you and your business, we must first understand how the process for print works.

Every title will have its own planning process, but all will roughly follow a process of templating regular articles and features so it becomes much easier at the sharp end when it comes to idea creation and tactical magazine creation.

When a magazine redesign is carried out, the editor and creative team will think about how to lay the magazine out to ensure that it speaks to all the key personas that make up the audience, that it is structured to promote good content flow, and that it can be created with the resources available.

This means creating a schematic wireframe, or flat plan, for the title so that those who are creating content have a structure to follow.

That flat plan holds the key to their content strategy, and it is this that we want to tap into as digital platform owners.

How to reverse engineer a magazine

The process to extract a content strategy from a magazine is actually quite a simple one. The key is finding a quality publication in the first place.

Like every product, there are good and bad examples of print publications, and for me the best examples can be found in the consumer section of your magazine stand. Look for titles in particular that cover enthusiast areas, as the writers and editors have to produce world-class content every single issue or lose their audience (and credibility) for good.

With pressure like that, it forces editorial teams to really spend time and effort understanding their reader, profiling personas, and ensuring that they can deliver consistently expert content to satisfy those diverse audiences.

Editorial pillars

One way you can see this in action is by examining a cover.

“Men’s Health” is a great example of a well thought out and put together editorial product, and its cover clearly exemplifies this understanding and connection with audience.

Below you will see an illustrated image of a regular cover pointing out what I call its editorial pillars.

content strategy, Men's Health Magazine

These are key cover lines that they will deliver on a theme each month to ensure that they sell content to all three personas within their readership:

  1. The Body Builder: This is the guy that wants to be the next Arnold
  2. The Entrepreneur: The guy who wants to be the next Steve Jobs
  3. The Lothario: The guy who wants to be the next Russell Brand

Each of these personas has very different requirements and focal points when it comes to content, and so the team establishes these editorial pillars to ensure that it brainstorms and creates content for each of them every month, selling it hard on the cover.

The flat plan

This brings us to the magazine internals — the bit that matters most in terms of delivering retention — and it’s this we want to steal for use as a content strategy.

Once you have purchased your sample magazine, the next stage in the process is to source (or create), a simple flat plan sheet, so you can schematically capture how the publication is put together, page by page.

These are very easy to hand draw yourself, as all they consist of is a series of double page spreads (or rectangles, to you and I) drawn on white paper.

If you want to source something digitally, there are also a few sites that offer such templates, such as Intelligent Flat Plan, the template found here, and Flatplan. You can even make use of the one below.

flat plan template, for formulating content strategy

With a template in place, the next stage is to then begin transplanting the ideas from the magazine to this flat plan, as shown below.

flat plan template with content strategy ideas

The key is not to look at what they are writing about, but rather the idea itself. That means ignoring what an interview is about, and just focusing on the fact that it is an interview.

mapping the content flow

This vanilla approach enables you to extract the utmost strategic value without confusing the picture with content ideas. Most of the time those ideas will have absolutely no relevance for the audience you aim to attract.

Once you have worked through the entire product, you will quickly realize that you have the makings of what can easily be translated into a strategy for your business. By simply replacing their ideas with yours, you can build a well thought out content plan that can then be translated into a content or editorial calendar that you can repeat, with new ideas, for several months.

The hard work is done for you, as not only will you have a diverse and wide-ranging list of content types you can create and market, but also a content flow made by experts.

Content flow

For those who are not aware of flow and its importance, I have written previous posts around content flow here. What many miss when creating their content strategy is how the pieces of content connect and interact across the various channels on which you operate.

The concept is that you should intersperse well-delivered “regular” content with a few ”big bang” pieces each year. This gives your content variety in impact and speed of delivery — much like great music has its peaks and troughs.


There is a multitude of ways to develop content strategies. I am, however, a firm believer in not attempting to reinvent the wheel unless absolutely necessary, as great ideas are not always about the idea themselves but, rather, in the execution of those ideas.

The tactic above is just one way you can leverage others’ expertise to help your business develop a critically important content strategy without having to invest vast amounts of time creating something bespoke.

If you want to see another magazine in action, subscribe to Chief Content Officer, CMI’s print publication about content marketing.

Read more: