Co.Design recently underwent its second redesign in as many years. Do you think regular redesigns have become an expected part of web publishing?
More than anything else frequent redesigns are a symptom of what’s going on with the industry at large, which is that people are learning the value of production and packaging and the intelligence that goes into an editorial product.
People are thinking about their products more and more like a magazine, as a curated point of view that presents a specific voice. Part and parcel of that is designing a web experience that actually speaks to what you’re trying to do.
Does that mean redesigns are just the result of technology catching up to the changing vision of online editors?
From the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, web publishing was thought of in a very blunt way, which was, how do you get your content up on the web as fast as possible? That was the overriding challenge that created web services such as WordPress.
Now it’s about dealing with images and collections of objects in a more elegant way, and that speaks to the rise of sites like tumblr and Pinterest.
It’s no longer an issue of just getting online and making it easy for people to publish, but more so an issue of allowing people this sort of expression and richness of product that readers are increasingly showing they want.
You’ve said that the idea behind the latest redesign was to make Co.Design “less like a blog” and more like a “bonafide magazine section.” How do you think an online magazine differs from a blog?
It’s funny, for over 150 years the magazine industry developed all these tools that are precisely geared towards these exact problems.
They developed things like pull quotes, headlines, big splashy feature openers and illustrations – all these kinds of things. And what you’re seeing in this paradigm of web design is that web designers are increasingly figuring out how to integrate those elements into what they do.
If you look at recent site designs such as Animal New York by Mother or Vogue.com, which is done by Code and Theory, they’re essentially trying to figure out this broader question of how to translate some of these basic presentation insights that magazines have had for so long, onto the web.
How much do you think about shareable content? Does SEO factor into your audience development strategy at all?
We actually get very little traffic from SEO. If you don’t know what you’re searching for then you’re not going to find it under the SEO paradigm. We’re about providing people things that they didn’t know they wanted to read about.
What’s more important to us is social. And that’s why people say social is the new search, because it’s more important for us to be liked by an audience that has a certain sensibility [and] who will share that story across their network than it is for us to have every single keyword in the headline.
The audience for Co.Design is two million readers a month. We get about 18 million page views. One rational question to ask when you see numbers like that is, where the hell are these people coming from?
The answer is that they’re coming from all over, but these are people who are interested in the subset of the things that Fast Company covers on a day-to-day basis in the magazine.
But you can’t catch those people by just creating that overarching brand because unless people associate you very strongly with certain things, you can’t compete with the oversaturated media landscape that we exist in.
So you have to microtarget those people with a more specific offering that actually speaks to exactly what they’re trying to look for. Each site has a slightly different audience, and by creating more targeted sites that speak more specifically to those audiences you grow the pie.
And then there are Fast Company’s value-added media products, such as 30 Second MBA. How do these fit into the Fast Company brand?
That’s the thing about media in the online age – there’s sort of this general idea of an online reader, an average of millions of people who share a set of concerns. But that idea has been blown up continually by every single magazine failure you can list in the last five years.
It turns out that the “generally well-informed reader” that Time and all these publications were meant to speak to doesn’t exist anymore. People want a more crafted news and story mix that actually speaks to what they’re concerned with on a daily basis.
Any examples of magazines that are doing it right?
I think New York magazine has been quite progressive in the way that they have expanded through their dedicated politics channel and fashion channel.
The person that’s reading The Cut is not necessarily reading New York magazine’s Early and Often politics blog, but you have to assume that the people who are interested in each little sub-brand of New York magazine are interested in the sort of New York sensibility as applied to xyz subject.
To be a brand is to be some sort of overarching approach to the world that can be applied in various different ways. That’s true of a product brand, that’s true of an electronics brand, and it’s also particularly true for media companies.