Taking the Next Step with Web Design
As the industry moves deeper into so-called "Web 2.0," the role of the Web site is changing. By now we all know it's a cardinal sin to just regurgitate magazine content on the Web site, or look to the Web simply as a source for print fulfillment. Web sites have not only become standalone content vehicles but in many cases, the first stop for readers. Web sites today look nothing like the bland text-only pages of yesteryear, and rapid advances in other e-channels could make today's cutting edge Web sites looking equally outdated in the near future. "A few years from now we'll all be looking at Web sites the way we look at print," says Paul Gerbino, publisher of the Product News Network at Thomas Publishing.
Defining the Mission
The first step to Web design is to serve the mission;whether that's editorial, advertising sales, marketing or circulation. "The biggest change in our Web sites over last year was to stop looking at them as brochureware for the magazines," says Jason Brightman, Web director at enthusiast publisher Harris Publishing. "Now we look at magazines as their own brand extensions with their own audience."
The Web site for Harris' hip hop magazine XXL, XXLmag.com, went from being updated once a month with magazine content to being updated three or four times per day with original content. Still, Brightman advises publishers not to take flash (or Flash) over function. "We've gotten the most compliments from our commenting system," says Brightman. "It's not rocket science or fancy but it's very easy and immediate for users. They comment on a story, then come back to see what people said about their comments. We'll get 500 to 600 comments per post. What would be one page view for a viewer is now 10 to 15 because they keep coming back."
The Nation, meanwhile, expanded its site's ability to fulfill its original mission. "Although our main business focus on the site has always been, and remains, driving print subscriptions, advertising has become an increasingly important source, and has grown significantly, especially in the past year," says Scott Klein, vice president of Web site and technology. "We're also using our blogging software in ways we never foresaw when we wrote it;as a platform to cover breaking news, which is something that would have been out of the question for a magazine like ours just a few years ago."
CNNMoney.com underwent a redesign last January and expanded the site with integration of exclusive content from Fortune, Money, Business 2.0 and Fortune Small Business. With a dedicated team of 35 journalists, the site publishes nearly 100 stories per day, more than triple the number it was posting a year ago. "Online readers have massively different expectations than magazine readers and sometimes publishers don't see that," says vice president and executive editor Chris Peacock. "On the Web, readers want new and fresh and that means delivering a lot of content quickly. The formula is volume and velocity. This is obviously a challenge for small publishers but not insurmountable." Business 2.0 has a small staff (relative to, say, Fortune) but coped by having every journalist on its staff write a blog, according to Peacock. "Everyone, including editor Josh Quittner, posts at least two items a day," he adds.
The Web site design should be another extension of the editorial voice. XXLmag.com features video and audio clips that are consistent with the editorial voice, such as the latest Jay Z song and the sixties' tune he sampled from. "Instead of just throwing up songs because we've got songs, we try to put it up and editorially contextualize it," says Brightman. "We still have the editorial voice of the magazine and the XXL brand but we're doing it in a way that makes sense for the tools you have online that you don't have in print."
Many publishers are attempting updates on old architecture created three to five years ago (and sometimes even longer). It's a struggle, especially if a publisher is contending with now archaic technology. "Smithsonian Publishing has been working with a content management system that I inherited," says Emily Allen, director of the online publishing group, which oversees all Smithsonian Web sites. "We've had our issues with the CMS, which wasn't selected for frequent updates and does not allow for template changes, so the enhancements we've made thus far have not been as impactful as we would like them to be."
Last fall, Smithsonian's online publishing group began an aggressive plan to completely redesign the existing Web sites;Smithsonian.com and AirSpacemag.com, as well as launch a completely new Web site, goSmithsonian.com. Allen plans to use a framework that is scalable for all three sites. "We had to build a new CMS for goSmithsonian.com, which afforded us the opportunity to customize a system that would eventually support all three sites. And, since we weren't restricted by the existing CMS parameters during the development of the new site, we were able to think outside of the box in terms of features."
Unlike most other areas, the expense of Web design is actually in the publisher's favor. Tools and applications that cost thousands of dollars just a few years ago now cost a fraction of that (and in many cases, are available today as free open-source software).
Blogging software WordPress has been the most useful tool for Harris Publishing, according to Brightman. "We use it as a content management system;it manages everything you see," he says. "A blog is just a stripped down content management system. Every section, every post scales beautifully. There is a huge development community with tons of plug-ins. A lot of the features for a modern site like ours were built into the program, including things like Flash video, send to a friend, a million plug-ins, all the stuff you need out of the box. And it's free, which I'm sure publishers would like."
Since driving print subscriptions is the main focus for The Nation, the site continues to rely on its proprietary subscription monitoring software SuMo, which offers some unique capabilities. "External promotions like TV and radio are things we didn't imagine we'd do when we first designed SuMo but it does a great job tracking those offline campaigns, through our use of tracking URLs," says Klein. "We're still pretty basic when it comes to tools. We hand-code template pages using BBEdit on Macs, or even vim. We tend to re-code pages that come to us from outside designers, which tend to be fairly messy and inefficient."
Last fall, women's career magazine Pink won Folio:'s Ozzie Award for Best Consumer Web Site Design. Today, traffic to pinkmagazine.com is growing 15 percent per month, according to owner and founding publisher Genevieve Bos, and the site has added a job search component, and struck a video-on-demand deal.
Pink tapped Atlanta-based Melia Design Group for its Web site, which covers the external design of the site, while Melia Technologies and its Nimbus platform provide the back-end architecture. "We can digitize and serve videos that go through the Nimbus infrastructure and then our design by Melia sits on top," says Bos. "We're about to introduce podcasting, along with video-on-demand. Users have a choice, they can put it on their iPod or watch it live right on the screen."
Being served both on the front-end and back-end of the Web site by a single provider ensures Pink only has to buy features it will use. "This allows us to grow in an affordable way;all we have to do is turn it on," says Bos. "We've had so many publishers call us after we won the Ozzie award to ask us what we're using. They started out with something that was not extendable or scalable. Often you have to pay someone a small fortune to update anything. We have interns update our Web site."
Think constant, gradual change, advises Melia Design president Mike Melia. "We're a believer in evolution, not revolution. It's tough to say every two or three years you need to redesign your site. You may end up in that same spot three years later but it shouldn't be a huge jump."
But publishers need to keep their expectations realistic as well. Changing something online often isn't as easy as a keystroke in Quark or InDesign. "It might take a designer five minutes to paste a search box onto a comp but it might take us a week to fulfill the requirement," says Jason Brewster, president of Melia Technologies. "Sometimes there's not enough thinking through of the repercussions for design decisions."
The Struggle for Metrics
Web site measurement remains a challenge for everyone, due to the lack of standards. "Analytics is a complete nightmare, every program will tell you something different while looking at the same information," says Brightman, who adds that on the scripting side, his sites are using Google Analytics. "It's free, it's pretty robust, and it's just a little bit of coding on the bottom of the page," he adds.
On the server side, Harris uses NetTracker. "Whatever metrics you look at will be different," Brightman says. "They all have different algorithms as far as determining a unique visitor or a page view. Having several different systems in place gives us a picture of the range."
CNNMoney.com has homegrown tools that tell them what users are doing on the site in real-time. "All our editors keep a close eye on this data," says Peacock. "They give us a lot of ideas on how to improve. That said, we use that information as a guide, not a rule. As editors, these tools can only take us so far. We strive to give readers stories they didn't know they wanted to read and the analytics can't give you that. But they do allow editors an instant gut-check on headlines, stories and packages."
Stay Separate From Print
Since its redesign last year, XXLmag.com has gone from 3 million page views per month to over 20 million, with a growth rate of about 30 percent month to month, according to Brightman, who says that Harris' best move online has been a combination of selecting good technology that's been great for growth, like WordPress, and making smart content decisions. "I'm not a big believer in flash and sparkle. For all of the audio and video stuff we do, we strongly believe the Web is still a text medium and people want to read and click, and then go to their other 10 sites," Brightman says. "Here's the information you want with one click, and then you can be gone to do your business."
But don't treat the Web and print as a continuous content stream, he adds. "The mistake I see all the time is integrating the magazine with the Web site, particularly putting Web jumps in the magazine," Brightman says. "I usually read my magazines on the subway. When a jump comes up that says 'For more, look to www.,' it's not only useless but it makes me angry. I don't know in the real world how many people are sitting in front of a computer while reading the magazine, but my guess is not many. It hurts both magazines and Web sites, particularly the magazines. The more separate the content is, the more reasons you're giving people to get both."
Open-Source Software Suggestions
The online options can be dizzying for publishers who are just beginning to take their sites to the next level. Media and nonprofit specialist Amanda Hickman offers her advice on open-source software.
- "I love Drupal and WordPress but probably only because I know them better than some of their peers. I know folks who work with Joomla and Plone and are just as content. WordPress is (or can be if you let it) dead simple, lightweight, blogging software. Joomla, Plone and Drupal are much more comprehensive content management systems."
- "http://cmsmatrix.org is a great resource for evaluating content management systems, proprietary and GPL alike."
- "http//opensourcecms.com only rates free and open source content management software. They will let you test-drive a handful of PHP/MySQL-driven content management systems but you'll miss some really solid open source options if you use them as your only source, including Bricolage and Plone."
- "Bricolage (http://bricolage.cc) is great for periodicals, as are some of the tools from the Center for Advanced Media, Prague (http://www.campware.org/)."
Choosing a Web Design Firm
Internet design firms abound but choosing the wrong one will cost you thousands of dollars and months, if not years, of setbacks with your Web strategy. Genevieve Bos, owner and founding publisher of Pink, shares her tips on how to make the right choice. A winner of the 2006 Folio: Ozzie Award for Best Consumer Web Site Design, pinkmagazine.com uses Atlanta-based Melia Design Group. "When we did a national RFP, I had no idea we'd use an Atlanta firm," says Bos. "I was sure we'd end up in San Francisco."
- Make sure you know who will be doing the work. "You can go to a lot of Web design firms and it turns out they just lost their senior artist and they have no talent left," says Bos. "It's important to get a commitment in the contract on who will do the work."
- Make sure the design firm has the resources to dedicate toward your project. "I like firms that have at least three to four designers," says Bos. "If someone is sick, you want someone else to pick it right up."
- Test the design firm's creativity. If you're starting from scratch, ask prospective design firms to give three or four ideas for the home page. "One of the things I did when looking for a partner was I explained our market, gave them some of our layouts and some of our first board imagery, then watched to see what they'd do with it," says Bos.
- Be clear about your budget. "We wanted to be practical from a cost standpoint," says Bos. "I wanted it at a turnkey, get-it-done, price."
- Be clear about the contract. "Everything was very transparent in the agreement, and when it wasn't clear, I told them to rewrite it," says Bos. "Don't be too embarrassed about not knowing something that you don't ask. A lot of publishers just say, 'I guess we should have known that.'"
- Look for design firms with publishing experience. Not having to train them will save you a lot of time and money. "You want a low fuss back-end feature set with a company that already has publishing clients so they can be a coach for you," says Bos.