What can brands learn from the best digital publishers?

Aug. 06, 2010 | by Tamsin Hemingray

The phrase “brand as publisher” seems to be as commonly used in digital marketing circles as “what’s the ROI of social?” at the moment (which is great news if you’re an online content specialist like me!) Even hardened SEO-focused, direct marketing types are eyeing up the “softer” side of online content and wondering whether they shouldn’t be getting a piece of the publisher action – if only as a means of creating “link bait” and pleasing Google’s algorithm. It means that Content Strategy becomes even more relevant and essential for our clients. We can take a close look at what is working for other publishers, and take a long hard look at their own content, assessing what is going to work for them. And what isn’t.

If your brand is serious about becoming a publisher – whether on your own site or elsewhere on the web, you can learn a huge amount from the people who are creating and delivering the best content and services on the web.

I’ve asked the members of the Content team here at iCrossing to describe their favourite websites – and explain why it works for them on a personal level. It’s a good way to share our ideas on how to match content delivery to user need and business objectives, which is what content strategy boils down to. So here, then, is the iCrossing Content Team’s Top Websites List. If you’re thinking of getting going with a content strategy in the second half of this year or planning for 2011, it’s a good place to start if you want to understand best practice.

BBC News
Tamsin Hemingray – Content Director
My favourite website is the BBC News site, which has just been redesigned. If your content strategy is going to involve producing a high volume of very topical content, then the design and layout here is worth looking at. It’s impressively clean given the number of individual news stories it delivers from the homepage (30+ stories above the fold from my small laptop screen). I look at it pretty much every day, rarely feeling the need to delve deeper than the homepage because that single page has given me such a wealth of serious, topical and whimsical news.

The editors achieve this efficiency by using careful prioritisation of stories. In the first instance, prioritisation is based on recency, then it’s based on the relative importance of a story – so the “biggest” stories get the most space and the biggest pictures. Further down the page, the information is prioritised on a third level – with regional stories based on my specific location being given prominence. I find all of this makes it really easy for me to get to the information I want almost without a conscious process of selection happening in my own head.

Although the site will be generating huge amounts of attention overall, each given story will enjoy just a short period in the sun, with large numbers of people reading it in a short period of time. Once it falls off the front page, its traffic stats will similarly decline spectacularly in relative terms. Of course they will still get some traffic – as the BBC is an authority site in the eyes of Google, and so ranks well for most topical search queries. For example its story from 15 July is ranking on P1 for a search on “Raoul Moat”. However long term traffic plateaus are not the priority here, so it’s not surprising that the design and build is so clearly built around a “here today, gone tomorrow” delivery of content.

Bird Guides
Charlie Peverett, Content Strategist

I’m a birdwatcher. When I first went twitchy, back in the 1980s, if you wanted to know what rare birds were around, you had to a) be lucky enough to be on the ‘grapevine’ of information (passed from birder to birder – woe betide you fall out with a key node) or b) ring a premium rate phone line, and listen to a lot of information about places and birds that may or may not be of interest to you as your wallet progressively lightened.

Roll on 25 years and I and most other birders in the UK use Birdguides. It’s the UK’s most comprehensive hub for bird sightings info, and does an amazing job of innovating fast enough to stave off the threat of self-organised, crowd-sourced information while operating a paid-for business model.

My bookmark is to the map page. Here you can instantly see whether a Siberian Rubythroat or something less snazzy has turned up and where. This and other top-level content is free to view, as long as you’re logged in. If you want to drill deeper down – directions to the bird, articles, searchable archives and historical records – you need to subscribe, starting at £40 a year.

I use this site every day, currently as a non-subscriber. Even the non-premium service is useful enough to me that it’s worth a daily check. When I’ve got some spare cash (and maybe more time to act on the information, binoculars in hand) I’ll pay my subs again and make use of more features. But for now the free service is good enough that I don’t bother much looking elsewhere, and they’ll be front of mind when I’m ready to pay for more.

Does the subscription model work for them as a business? I don’t know. But I do know that as a user they’ve kept me loyal with decent usability and judicious distribution of the essential content. A great example of why, for a organisation where the product *is* content, the content strategy *is* the business model.

Red Visitor
Jeremy Head – Travel Editor

I’ve been thinking about destination guides of late.  Airlines, tourist boards, airports, hotels. The web is awash with the things. The end result nowadays is lots of rather generic, sometimes ageing content which is often targetted at search engines and not particularly useful for the user.

So I’ve been hunting for a site that does destination guides really well. And I think I’ve found one. It’s called Red Visitor and it’s in its relative infancy so doesn’t cover that many places

What’s good?

Stunning design. Ok. This is not a pre-requisite, but it certainly helps and the lovely pics and clean, simple design of this site are just great. There’s a nice balance between inspiration and genuinely useful stuff and that’s reflected in the design too which I really love.

Interesting ideas. People are looking for inspiration as much they are hard core info like train times…(Well I certainly am and I think many others are too!) I really like the Travel Ideas tab. If you’re in browse mode rather than hunt mode this kind of stuff is genuinely useful. It’s also easy to navigate using the tag cloud on the right. That’s very nice indeed. Often sites that try to offer you ideas get  the content OK, but screw up the user experience so it’s really hard to find.

Keeping it simple. I don’t want a list a thousand items long. I just want a few judicious choices. And this site does that very well under the experiences tab. For each location it lists the ‘Best’ Galleries, Landmarks, Parks, Shopping etc. Very bite-sized and easy to digest.

Using expert opinion to add more credibility. Who is Red Visitor? What do they know about London or wherever?  Why should I trust their opinion? This is one of the biggest problems for me with on-line content generally. Can I trust it and is it right for me (as opposed to some 10 years younger or whatever)? Using interesting and respected locals to provide insight and opinion really adds a whole new layer to the quality of the content.

Using Video. I’m not a big online video watcher, but I can see why they are a great idea. Very accessible and they’ve been quite tightly edited too. You don’t have to spend buckets on high quality production shoots for online, but you do have to make the edit fast and clean. And again, there’s that veneer of crediblility because the contributors to the video pieces are all local experts

Adding maps. This is totally cool. Want to see where a restaurant they recommend is? Click the view on map link and you get a bespoke google map with all the restaurants on it.

No adverts. Ahh bliss! The design is reason enough to love the site, but the lack of banners with stuff whizzing around and god knows what else interrupting your browsing experience is just lovely. It’s a breath of fresh air. Makes you realise that the web can be a nice place to spend time.

I’m guessing they’ve spent quite a lot of money on RedVisitor already and I wonder how revenues are looking. It’s likely to be a long journey to long term success – I really hope they are successful.

Trisha Brandon, Content Strategist

One trend that I love is on a site I visited daily in the US: Gilt.com. It’s an online shop that has new items joining the sale daily at noon in limited amounts. They send a daily email at half eleven or so with the brands going on sale at noon, to get you primed. Then at noon the “doors” open. The stock is limited and the site shows you what’s already in people’s basket (so limited stock), so there’s a real incentive/pressure to buy now. Sales typically end after three days or so, if there’s any stock left.

Why do I like it? It’s got an upmarket feel with exclusive and some everyday brands, but it is highly curated to have an intimate feel. When there’s a brand I like on gilt.com, I feel in-the-know and like I’ve gotten a real bargain. Basically, it’s like an online TK Maxx but without having to trawl through all the clothes to find the gem. And because there are just three to four brands per day, it doesn’t feel like I’m taking any time to shop and I’m much more likely to impulse buy. They could do more socially, but there is a real buzz about what’s going to be added. For example, in my old office it was a regular topic of conversation for meetings at noon, like “let’s hurry up, because American Apparel is on Gilt starting at noon.” So they’ve really succeeded in creating a water cooler buzz.

There are others too that have followed this model in the US, Gilt isn’t the only one. Perhaps the UK does something similar?

Simon Handby, Editor, News and Blogs

I’m going to be dull and predictable and say Facebook. Its user interface could be better and people seem to find its privacy options baffling, but despite its frustrations I visit almost every day. Why? Because everyone’s on it, and because it’s a good way of staying in touch with people without having to actively do so. They do stuff, you see it, occasionally you’re moved to comment or send a message asking how they are. I like that.

What I don’t like is having so many ‘friends’. It’s partly my fault for accepting requests from colleagues new and old who might be better classed under LinkedIn, and possibly also for not having sorted friends into lists. I don’t like seeing adverts, either: I’m not interested in companies on Facebook, and I’d gladly pay a minimal subscription to filter the paid content. Conversely, when visiting third-party sites, I generally couldn’t care whether my friends like them or not.

Natalie Walsh, Senior copywriter / editor

When it comes to great design, slick functionality and high quality, interactive content Lastminute.com gets my top vote. In fact, when working on projects for our travel clients this is one of the sites I point to as a benchmark for success.

It was on the money before we slid into recession – now it’s raised its game with a richer mix of deals for leisure activities home and away, it is for me a primary resource for bargain hunting.

The search and transactional elements are clearly set out and easy to navigate. It’s my first port of call to check out hotel prices which I then compare with other sites such as Expedia.  For city breaks, I’ll usually book my flights and hotels separately and for my latest trip to Barcelona in May, I opted for a Lastminute ‘Secret Hotel’ and got four nights in a four-star boutique hotel (Hotel Soho – a short walk to the Ramblas) for just under £400. That is a genuinely fantastic deal.

On a more regular basis, I check out the restaurant deals. In addition to the ‘Eat out for £10’ offers there are very tempting deals for fine dining at London’s finest – a current example of which is a three-course lunch at Marcus Wareing at the  Berkeley for £38. I’ve booked deals like this several times when I’m organising a birthday meal for friends or a family get-together.

This is a site that understands who its readers are, their needs and how to meet those needs in engaging and innovative ways. Deals and content are clearly presented. Its consistently ‘joined up’ approach showcases the benefits of setting out a clear and dynamic content and social media strategy, and its commitment to high editorial standards is impressive. From its onsite copy to its blog, Lastminute.com delivers engaging, well-written round-ups and posts across a wide range of mainstream and specialist travel destinations and activities and niche/special interest topics.

Tamsin McCahill Senior copywriter / editor

Despite its ‘bunch of whining women stating the bleeding obvious’ image, I still really like Mumsnet.

I guess the reason for its huge popularity (20 million monthly page impressions, according to the Guardian) is the reason why I like it too. Like millions of others, my mum, sister and mum-in-law live miles away and I don’t have aunts or neighbours to turn to for advice. So Mumsnet is fulfilling a vital role – giving a sense of community that may be lacking in today’s more isolated society.

The site is made up of two parts. The first are the static advice pages with subjects that include sleep, food and travel, plus completely impartial reviews on everything you may ever need to buy for your child.  Unlike most other websites where the advice can leave you feeling guilty that you’re ‘doing things wrong’, the tips here are anything but po-faced. Take this one on cleaning for example: “My second favourite household chore is ironing. My first one being hitting my head on the top bunk bed until I faint.”

The second part is the forums, where you can post questions on anything parent-related. In the past I’ve asked questions on everything from sleep problems to how I can get my lazy baby to crawl. But when posting, you need to choose your words wisely, as it’s here that the site gets its distinctive personality. Some members are amusing, but, as The Times points out, they can be more ‘bitchy’ than supportive.  Take this frank exchange on elimination communication, for example.

But as long as it’s not you that’s getting flamed, it can still be a great place for a bit of banter that you miss out on when you’re not at work. Parenthood is tough and confusing,  with midwives, health visitors and experts all giving masses of seemingly conflicting advice. Mumsnet is an excellent place to get impartial advice from the people who really do know what they’re talking about.

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    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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