16: Meet Sally Mac, Queen of Digital Content

John O'Neill

Sally Mac, a digital native and founder of The Mermaid Society, explains why you have to be a triathlete in online media and content in today’s digital landscape.

With a background in journalism, Sally’s career has seen her create content as the editor of Coastal Watch, and more recently she produced a captivating video series for the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro website.

She shares her insight into the best ways to grab your customer’s attention in those vital first three seconds in order to stop them from scrolling…

John: So today I’m in Pyrmont in Sydney where I’m joined by Sally Mac. Sally’s a digital native and she specialises in content, strategy and production. She also has her own business, The Mermaid Society, which promotes women in ocean sports and she’s a former digital producer with the highly trafficked surf website Coastal Watch. More than that, she did an amazing job for us executive producing content for the website that showcased the digital of Vissla Sydney Surf Pro at Manly in February 2018 and I’m excited because today she’s going to explain her approach to content, and how to produce it efficiently and cost effectively. So, Sally welcome to Customers Matter.

Sally: Thanks for having me, John.

John: So Sally when did you join Coastal Watch, how long were you there for and what exactly did you do?

Sally: Yeah so in 2013 I had my daughter and I actually lost my job so I started the Mermaid Society then which was the Women’s Ocean Sports site and it was based on news and results then because I didn’t think any womens or girls surfing or ocean sports results were ever published anywhere and they were never published fast. Obviously, the men’s results usually get priority online and in print. So, I created this platform and because of that, a lot of people, the audience grew really quickly because I was interviewing the winners and people within the contest, as soon as the contest had finished I’d get all the photos off the newsfeed so Instagram and Facebook became like my Reuters essentially. It was live and I was pulling the content, I was finding all the info before the event managers could write the event results up for their site.

So, I was grabbing all their SEO and it kind of grew from there and because I was doing that, I was interviewing so many people and just built this incredible network really fast, and a friend who was working at Coastal Watch asked me to apply for the editor’s job. So, I applied, didn’t think I was going to get it because he kept telling me that I was up against three ex-magazine editors, so I was like no chance. Just didn’t really you know put very much into it so I guess I was more myself through that whole process and got the job and then was a little bit scared about being able to take it on because I knew how big the audience was and it’s very core surf in a way so you know like a lot of people are traditionalists and, yeah as a woman I think that was a little bit confronting first of all, and also being able to intuitively switch on to what kind of content they wanted and to be able to drive subscriptions and audience growth at the same time.

John: So tell me, because it chronologically happened first the Mermaid Society, tell me what exactly is the Mermaid Society now and you mentioned you grew an audience, how big is the audience there and what are you doing in that business these days?

Sally: So when I first, in the first edition of it, before I got the job at Coastal Watch, I was receiving up to six thousand views a day on the site so that’s when it was basically news and results based, so all news results and videos. I wasn’t making very much of my own content. I was just like doing a lot of writing and I hadn’t really got a grasp of what digital products were yet. As I moved into Coastal Watch, there were a lot of products already existing but I guess the scope to be able to create them was a lot more and I had budget.

John: What sort of products are you talking about when you…

Sally: So digital product I’m talking about, anything that is digitally available for someone to view or use or become immersed in. So, for example we started board guides, wetsuit guides, video reviews, basically anything along that line that is a stand-alone product that you feel like is nearly a physical product that you can take and sell through an advertising, through advertising to a company.

John: Right, great. So, what does that mean to how you resolved your approach to the Mermaid Society? So, you had this period, how long were you at Coastal Watch for?

Sally: Nearly three years I think, yeah.

John: So you were the editor there for three years, you learned about creating if you like digital products that helped you monetise the Coastal Watch website and also how to appeal to the audience. And then you brought some of that know how back to the Mermaid Society, so what are you doing there that’s different?

Sally: Yeah so, I didn’t, when I work on something I’m pretty much four hundred per cent in, which is much to my husband’s disgust so Coastal Watch pretty much took up all of my time. The Mermaid Society then I had to decide to de-prioritise it. So, it remained live because I was getting so much SEO traffic still remaining from that until a point where I closed it down to do a full re-furb of the website.

John: So your re-refurb of the website, what did you do when you relaunched it, what’s different about the Mermaid Society now?

Sally: Yeah so everything that I learnt at Coastal Watch and all the products that we learnt to develop that actually connected and engaged with the audience on such a high level but also brought in money because the advertisers we found new budgets and we found this attractiveness to the brands that actually wanted to participate in, you know nearly physical products, things that people became dependent on, nearly as dependent as the cameras but the cameras were the core of Coastal Watch. So, they’re coming to see the surf and watch the cameras, but they’re there also because they want you know the by-product of that which is education, which is any kind of product that’s going to help to improve their surfing or the way that they look at the surf.

So, with the Mermaid Society, then going back to that, the refurb, I wanted to bring in all those things that I learnt, especially about the advertising being able to sell and talk to a brand and bring what the brand wants and connect that to an audience and create content that’s making everyone happy so.

John: What are some examples of what you’ve done on the Mermaid Society’s bringing that philosophy to bear?

Sally: Yeah so, I think with women, women and women’s sport especially, women haven’t always taken so much interest or detail into equipment as what men do. It’s kind of like the tools philosophy with men, men just love you know their man shed and their tools, but I think now we’re in an age where sport is so equalised between the genders that the education of gear and boards – pretty much anything that you can use that’s going to enhance your experience in the water or with sport, is going to be useful. So, everything from pretty much anything to do with the guide is so useful to people and it really has a real longevity online as well because until that product becomes obsolete, it’s going to remain there and people are going to remain searching for it. Those kind of products have been really proven to me through Coastal Watch and the Mermaid Society as a very successful model.

John: That’s great. Now just to change gears a bit, I want to ask you about how you set about bringing the Sydney Surf Pro website to life because people who’ve seen that site have raved about it, and I know it was the content as much as the functionality and probably more so that got it those rave reviews, and that really came from you and your head. So just tell me what you did there.

Sally: Oh thanks John. It was a really amazing opportunity to be able to work on that and have the freedom to kind of pull in all the ideas and experiences that I’ve gone through to make that content and with Ethan you know we talked about what was important as a part of the event, and what was missing from the past events as well and I think it’s really important with digital content that you understand the balance between your core or your niche and the general population or the audience expanse that is you know out there, and with the Vissla Sydney Pro it was very important to remember that because the local community brings just as much to the event as what the surfers do.

So yeah I kind of went by a lot of what I experienced through audience development at Coastal Watch and that was that people love history, they love facts, they love education and they love the nostalgia of all of that kind of culmination. So picking a significant event in that time and bringing back a lot of the icons of different eras and of the industry as well and to add the credibility to it all, that was kind of what I wanted to do, was make sure that everyone felt involved and, but there was like a little bit of fun in there, a little bit of history and…

John: So for anyone who hasn’t seen the site, can you just describe it? I’m sure everyone will be rushing to go check it out once they hear what you’ve got to say about it, but could you just describe the different navigation channels and the different content types that you created?

Sally: Yeah so, the homepage I thought it was really important to have as we discussed like through a lot of the meetings was have that video series that we created, ‘The Road to Manly’, predominate on the homepage but also ensure the reason why people are coming there and hearing about it, is because of the surfing. So, to make sure the surfing was predominant on the homepage because I think that with a lot of events you kind of take a back step on it a little bit and, and it kind of gets lost within the site. The site has to be easy for anyone to use, not just surfers and also taking into account that the Vissla Sydney Surf Pro had such an incredibly huge international audience, a lot of who are from South America and may not have had English as their first language. So just making it very visual, a very visual pathway and journey for people to undertake.

John: And what about content types? So obviously it’s not all text and you mentioned before that you brought some history to life, what did you actually do? How did you create content for it and what forms of content did you create?

Sally: So I thought it was really important at the start to talk to a lot of people, as many people as I could about Manly and that just became this crazy bubble that was infinite. So I talked to way too many people I think and now I feel like I need to be commissioned to write the history of Manly, but by speaking to those people I really did find that I understood a lot more about the history and could summarise it for everyone that didn’t know about it, and pick out a couple of really significant events to that core group that I was interviewing and highlight those, one of which was the 1978 Surfabout which had ten foot barrels, perfect barrels off North Steyne and it was by far the most significant surf event that anyone spoke about. So, I thought to be able to bring that back to life and reignite everyone’s excitement about that day. I mean that day changed people’s lives forever. Doug Lees who used to be my boss, the General Manager of Coastal Watch, watched that final between Larry Blair and Wayne Lynch and he said, he was doing his HSC, and he said that day was the fork in the road. I was either going to go down and do like finance and accounting and I chose to just dedicate my life to the surf industry, and without Doug Lees now the surf industry would be, you know, half of what it is so yeah it was little stories like that that made a really big impact and I thought well if they made that big an impact on one person’s life, imagine how the whole community feels and so that was kind of the path that I went down was to be able to highlight that history.

John: And you didn’t just do it in text, so can you tell me about your approach to different content types?

Sally: Yeah so, I think it’s really important to be able to create content that crosses all boundaries. Transcription is really important, not only for SEO purposes because all the words are scanned by Google and that helps generate your traffic, but also just because a lot of people out there still want to read. And watching the video might not be their thing. They might watch ten seconds of it and then be over it and they’ll scroll down a little bit and they’ll read the transcription or the summary. So, I was able to transcribe a little bit of that and then create this timeline which was amazing as well, to be able to see it on you know like a visual but also a contextual timeline and that all supported the video series and the video series, the videos were no longer than two and a half minutes so I made each one of those quite consumable for an average person.

John: So that was all the great content that was on the site before the event…

Sally: Yes.

John: … but you continued to do really interesting things during the event. Tell me what content you made during the event and why did you make that content?

Sally: So during an event I think you need to remember that a lot of the people that are visiting the site aren’t there to kind of ingest everything in big amounts. They just want to be there, they want to see updates, they want to see scores, they want to see results and little snippets from the day and most importantly, the main reason why social media took off in such the way that it did is because it created a behind the scenes for VIPs and you know people of note in this world. And that continues to this day. Like we have this intrigue as humans to want to know everything behind what everyone else is doing so that’s why the tour notes videos worked so well for the WSL. So, we wanted to take that kind of model of behind the scenes and create our own version of that with Surfing NSW and so we did, every two days we did a behind the scenes clip which was really fun and we also did athlete profile videos so that was kind of just Q&A videos with some of the qualifying series athletes that aren’t as well-known from New South Wales and internationally and just asking them about, you know what they’re doing and what direction they’re heading in. We got some really fun and interesting answers out of them.

John: And you mentioned social media, what was the relationship between the website and social media and how does that relationship, that ecosystem work best in this day and age?

Sally: Yeah so, it’s really interesting because Facebook has kind of this hold on everyone at the moment and whenever they change an algorithm it just totally sends your digital strategy on a warp. But, I think you just need to not focus on that so much and get back to the basics in understanding what it is that people want to read and watch and keep it really genuine and I guess in a way the buzz word at the moment is “mindful”, having really mindful conversations with people and that’s really what it is, is being able to have a conversation with people because people they just skim. You know everything is so fast on a news feed, you’re just skimming. It’s just like scroll, scroll, scroll, scroll – even in Instagram stories you just click, click, click forward on, now like it’s just such a fast turnover. You’ve got three seconds. Pretty much three seconds to get someone’s attention so a meaningful conversation that is started with really engaging content is the only thing that’s going to stop someone from scrolling or tapping.

John: And so does the website perform a sort of a hub function and you feed your social media as content forward or what’s the relationship between the website and the social channels that work best in your view?

Sally: Well I think with an event it’s different to a normal permanent website. So with an event, having as much live and genuine content that is specific to the social media is what you want, because you just want people to see the branding of the event, you want them to like be as updated as they possibly can which is why the World Surf League is obviously made this massive partnership with Facebook, is to be able to broadcast live their stream because it’s so hard to get someone to click through to the World Surf League website and then press play, there’s like four clicks involved in that. But when it comes up you get a notification now on Facebook saying it’s live, the broadcast is there. So being able to do those things that are making your content immerse in the platform, don’t just deny them like you just have to be really smart and work out what works best for your audience and the type that you’re doing.

So, with the Sydney Surf Pro website, we knew lots of people were going to be going there anyway, so keep sharing the article pages to social media but also putting a lot of video immersing that straight into the social media feeds as well. So, putting the videos straight up as well. To be able to do that smarter you can just make small little trailers and then obviously have the see more, so they’re just getting a little taste but then you know the conversion’s still going to be a lot lower than somebody watching the whole video. So, you’ve just got to work out what your priorities are and where you want the most results. If you want the most views on a video, it doesn’t matter where it is like video on Facebook, video on Instagram, video on stories broken up, video on the website, cover all bases and nothing’s left.

John: And you mentioned before there’s a difference between say an event website and just an organisational website, but an organisational website still has to be kind of some value and I guess this relationship with social and organisational website, this digital eco system as we describe it, is important as well. So, in a non-event context, how do you think about making that digital eco system work?

Sally: Yeah so with a, I guess it’s an evergreen website, a site that’s just remaining all year round, the strategy’s a lot different because you’ve got people coming there all the time anyway so your SEO build up is a lot better. Like we were really strained with the Sydney Surf Pro website because it was really finished two weeks before the actual event started so that’s not enough time for Google to index it. So we really depended on our partners to help push all the traffic through and when we did a search, a Google search, of anything to do with the key words that would lead to that site we were two or three pages back. So luckily we had you know really big partners like Destination NSW, Manly Council, Coastal Watch, Surfing World – those guys which all help increase it but push the traffic straight through for you. With a normal site, you have the time to build that relationship with Google. Get the SEO, make sure the indexing is all correct and build that audience which is going to come uniquely to you.

So social media and that connection then is different because you set up your article pages and your products a little bit differently so it’s not as on demand live and but like the time frame and strategy can be set up a little bit more consistently I guess and worked in more for when people are going to be interacting with you on line.

John: And the relationship of, do you see an organisational evergreen website as kind of a hub for content that gets used and deployed across all channels or how do you see, I realise it will vary from organisation to organisational, but what do you think of the big principles that people should be thinking about if they’ve got a business and they’re creating a web platform for it?

Sally: Yeah, I think it all comes back to that balance which is your core market and your potential growth. So, understanding what your core needs and what they want to keep them happy, but also the content that you need to actually expand and get that growth from online, be able to reach the new markets and the new little pockets through social media. Because I mean all it takes is one amazing product or one piece of content to go viral I guess and then you’re off, you know. So just experimenting with things but understanding the core and the balance between that and your potential new audience.

John: Fantastic. Sally finally for any organisation thinking about their content, what are the top three tips you’d give them?

Sally: Top three tips would definitely be, first of all have a dedicated social media manager, or co-ordinator, or junior. Just someone that is at the very edge of what’s currently happening, is really switched on with updates, can see a really big scope of content online. So not someone that’s just watching, you know, what they like and their habits but has a really big broad scope on the international social media network, and being able to not just follow trends, but like slightly diverge off them to help you create the content and then also amplify it.

Second of all I would say that amplification of social media and your content should pretty much come at the forefront when you’re developing what that content is because if you can’t amplify it, and you don’t have the money to put in to the amplification of it, then it’s going to go nowhere. It’s going to sit on your site and no one’s going to see it so really it’s kind of like a reverse engineering of how we’ve been brought up to think, because usually in the past it was pay for print advertising, pay for radio advertising, television advertising and it’s done because they’ve got the market but these days it’s trying to break through that distraction online and millions and millions of businesses so yeah, reverse engineering the whole social strategy and the amplification strategy and bringing that to the forefront when you’re actually creating the content, how you’re going to do that.

Thirdly, I would say talk to people. Emails are pretty much doing us in I think and there’s nothing more valuable than actually being on the ground and talking to people, doing interviews with them just to pick their brain and find that little key moment. Talking to people that you wouldn’t usually talk to, so people that aren’t your core and just sitting down and having really in-depth conversations with them even just about what they like or where they’re thinking because you never know as a creative or a manager what is going to come out of that and whether that like one tiny little point could change the whole direction for your marketing or social strategy for the next year.

John: And is this actual interview content you’re talking about or is this really just putting a strategy together that you’re talking about when you say talk to a lot of people?

Sally: Well it can be both. I mean you can set up pho interviews that actually become content and that’s really what the Sydney Surf Pro video series started as, I wanted to video interview them but I didn’t know exactly where those videos were going to go, because I didn’t know what kind of content I was going to get from each of the interviewees. And as we went along, I was just like I could have talked to a hundred people but I would never have had enough overlay footage so yeah knowing the resources that you’ve got but to be able to use that. But yeah definitely interviewing people as if you’re going to publish it of course because you’ve got them, you’ve got it on record and you can go back and revisit the energy of those people, but just talking.

John: Well Sally, I think it’s been an amazing discussion, people will be blown away I think to think about content in the way you’ve described it and yeah really grateful for you spending some time with us.

Sally: Thanks very much John and I look forward to all your future interviewees.

John: Thanks, thanks Sally.