The Atlantic magazine has a rich and storied history, having been founded by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; it was first published as The Atlantic Monthly, back in 1857.

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Flash-forward 150 years or so, and we find The Atlantic making a highly successful transition to the digital world, posting its "first year of profitability as far as anyone can remember" in 2010 and seeing its digital ad sales eclipse print ad sales, for the first time, in 2011 (and still continuing to outpace print).

To understand what has led to the magazine's digital success, and uncover what content marketers might learn from its example, I invited Bob Cohn, the magazine's digital editor, to Marketing Smarts

In Bob's view, the magazine succeeds at digital in part because "we kind of surrendered to the chaos of the internet."

You Have to Let Go

I asked Bob what he meant by "surrendering to the chaos," and he said, "You have to let go of the expectation that every single word is going to have multiple editors, that you as the editor-in-chief are going to read every piece of content."

By contrast, he explained, "When I was at Wired [where he served as executive editor for eight years], I read every story five times. I touched every cover line and every photo caption, every photo credit."

When you are publishing 60 posts a day, that kind of scrutiny just isn't possible, of course. Fortunately, he added, "The internet is more forgiving. If you make a mistake (we try not to!), you can fix it."

If there is a lesson here for companies, it is this: Don't fret about the things you publish on your blog and push out through social media. Instead, let go and follow the advice that Bob gives his writers, "If you have an idea: Write it!'

Highly Experimental

"One reason we've been somewhat successful in the digital strategy in recent years," Bob also told me, "is we've been highly experimental and not wedded to any one course, but somewhat nimble and even reactive to what other people are doing that seems to be working."

In part this experimentation has manifested itself in the types and quantity of content The Atlantic publishes online. The main reason to experiment with the content itself, Bob explains, is that you can never be sure what's going to be a hit and what's going to be a miss.

"Every story lives by itself," he explained. "It's its own atomic unit, free floating in the internet-sphere with its own URL. And you never know which one is going to go viral, which one's going to get picked up, and which one's going to be a dud."

The experimentation has also involved the business model. Back in 2007, The Atlantic dropped its paywall. Given the uncertain economics of digital publishing, that was a risky move. But, as it turned out, the risk paid off and the publication was able to increase its unique monthly visitors from 2 million to 13 million.

Finally, The Atlantic was also able to drive growth via aggressive participation in today's "sharing economy." In 2011, site traffic resulted primarily from people typing in URLs or inbound links from referring sites. Social was the fourth source of traffic. Today, social (consisting primarily of Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Digg, StumbleUpon, and LinkedIn) is the leading driver.

The lesson here: Experiment with the types of content you publish, the modes of content distribution, and the levels of gating.

Good Content

To succeed at content marketing, then, you have to give up a modicum of control and you have to be open to continuous experimentation.

Still, giving away content for free and encouraging sharing won't matter if your content doesn't measure up. Therefore—and this is the main lesson—to succeed in content marketing (just as in the publishing world proper), your content has to be good.

"Good content is what drives traffic," Bob emphasized, "If people want to share your stuff, and if sharing is the key to success, that's a fantastic virtuous cycle, because it means that great content brings in a big audience."

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Bob Cohn, you may listen above or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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