Archive for March, 2009

The best design is invisible

March 30, 2009

When designing or redesigning a site – and especially when planning the navigational structure – the best guideline to follow is to make it so the reader doesn’t have to try: everything is obvious, simple and easy.

You don’t have to come up with design principles yourself. There has been a ton of research on web usability, especially by Jakob Nielson at I suggest reading through some of his archives to learn more about usability.

But when it comes to magazines in particular, there are two key things we all need to remember. First, no matter how dedicated the reader is, they are never as familiar with your print product as you are – you can’t expect them to remember section names or even to reliably distinguish your brand from others. Second, your site visitors will not necessarily have ever seen your print product.

What does this mean?

• When naming sections on your site, don’t automatically mirror the sections in the magazine. Use an architecture that works for your site content, and make section names clickable and obvious (which is better for SEO, too).

• Don’t assume that your site visitors know your print product. Make it obvious what the site is about and don’t rely on “insider” information for navigation or site structure.

• Yes, display a magazine cover, preferably the current one. But don’t make it (and subscription offers) so prominent that they overpower the rest of the site.

• Do assume that many of your site visitors are print readers, and come to the site for one purpose: customer service. Make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for.

What are your favourite and least favourite sites in terms of navigation and usability?

Tips on making the most of UGC

March 24, 2009

Remember JPG, the crowdsourced photography magazine that was killed a few months ago and then brought back to life? Its editor-in-chief, Laura Brunow Miner, posted yesterday on Folio’s blog on her conviction that user-generated content isn’t dead like many have been saying – instead, we just need to be careful to use it in the right way and for the right purposes:

As an editor who’s spent most of her time with community created content, here’s what I think about user generated content as it applies to magazines: It has its place, which varies from publication to publication. Virtually all periodicals have some form of it, whether it’s letters to the editor, caption contests or photos-of-the-month. And virtually no magazines feature entirely crowdsourced content, though JPG came the closest with all content having been submitted through and subsequently edited.

Miner goes on to offer useful tips on building your audience – and your content creators – through driving UGC, and makes the always-worth-repeating point that your print and web audiences are not the same: while they may overlap somewhat, you can never be sure of who has read what.

I’d like to add to Miner’s tips with one key point: just as you shouldn’t worry about “cannibalizing” your print product to build up your website (readers choose the platform first), when soliciting stories from readers, don’t worry about people seeing it on the website first and then it following in print months later (as will happen with long print lead times). Show readers that submissions online do make it into print and they’ll be that much more likely to contribute.

Time gets creative

March 23, 2009

In another case of taking what works in digital and trying to shift it back to print, Time is offering (American) readers a unique take on magazines: pick your top five out of their list and they’ll put together a print or digital version using all five and send it to you every two weeks, starting in April. They’re calling it Mine, emphasizing the personalized nature of the product.

Technically this is limited to US residents, but I faked an address to sign up for a digital version. It would probably work for you too, you just have to enter your favourite state and zip code. I’d love to see a print version but I doubt they’d actually mail me one.

This is, of course, an exclusive partnership with an advertiser – Toyota, promoting its new customizable Lexus (you see the relationship?). According to an article in the Globe, there are 56 possible editorial combinations, and if you answer the extra questions (four silly ones – I think they could have done better) the ads will be personalized as well:

A sample ad tag line for a respondent named Dave, who lives in Los Angeles and eats sushi, might read: “Hey Dave, your friends will be really impressed when you drive down Van Ness Avenue on your way to get sushi.”

I think this is an interesting experiment and since it’s free, a great way to expose readers to different Time brands that they may not normally read. But it seems a bit gimmicky to be a long-term strategy for creative ways to increase online ad revenue, especially if readers aren’t paying for it. I love the idea of being able to get smaller amounts of content from a variety of publications that’s targeted to my interests – the automated equivalent of that friend who sends you links to interesting articles. But I don’t really want that in print format, let alone in digital edition format. Print, to me, is about creating a complete package that resonates with the reader. The web is the perfect format for bite-sized pieces of content from a multitude of sources. But this is in-between – it’s from too many different editorial sources to be a coherent whole as a print magazine, but from too few sources to be really targeted to readers’ interests.

But enough about me. What do you think?

What’s a podcast, and should you have one?

March 16, 2009

Podcasts have been around for quite a while, but it’s only recently that I’ve noticed they’re starting to grow in popularity beyond early adopters. Simply put, a podcast is an audio recording, usually in radio style, that users can download and listen to at any time. If there’s a series of podcasts, you can subscribe to them and have the next in the list ready and waiting for you. And while the word does come from iPod, you don’t have to have one to listen to them – although iTunes is probably still the easiest way to find and subscribe to podcasts (not that I’ve tried any others).

CBC has had great success with podcasts – which only makes sense, since not only do they have a ton of audio content to utilize but they’ve got the technology to edit that audio quickly and easily. I never get around to listening to the radio anymore (spending the morning with the CBC is part of my fantasy non-working life) but I do subscribe to several CBC podcasts, including Metro Morning and Radio 3 (a fantastic way to hear new Canadian music, by the way). I also listened to Margaret Atwood’s Massey Lectures via podcast and sometimes even listen to the news in French.

So should your magazine site offer podcasts? Well, they’re another member of that list of things people often have because they think they should, so my recommendation would be not to think of them from that angle. Instead, when working on creating content that meets your users’ needs, keep podcasts in mind as a potential means of transmitting that information. And make sure that you’ve tried listening to podcasts regularly to get a feel for what works before you go out and create your own.

One you might want to try is the new podcasts from Spacing Magazine, which they’re calling Spacing Radio. Hosted by David Michael Lamb, the series will discuss public space issues in Toronto and around the world, starting with an interview with former London mayor Ken Livingstone. But even if public space isn’t your thing, I recommend listening to the first episode to hear why Spacing has created these podcasts. “We’re really interested in discussing public space issues in the immediate and provocative form that radio and podcasts can offer,” says Spacing publisher Matthew Blackett in the pilot show. “It means we can actually go out into the public spaces that we talk about on a regular basis, and from there it gives a real intimate experience with that topic and with our magazine.”

Do you listen to podcasts? What do you like or dislike about them, and how do you think they apply to magazines and magazine websites?

When to post print content online

March 12, 2009

A constant question for magazine websites – especially as most of us have small budgets for online-exclusive content – is when (and even if) to post print content on the website. At one extreme, Tina Brown of the Daily Beast recently said at an event that you shouldn’t put any content online (thanks to Lisa Murphy for the link):

“Now, of course, [Magazines] just simply post it right up online, which to be honest is insane. I don’t think monthlies should post their stuff online. I really don’t… It’s nuts! Why would you do that?”

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Wired, which many of us would agree is doing quite well online, and puts every little bit of the magazine on its website (although admittedly the print content is only a fraction of everything on their site).

So should you put your print content online? Well, why wouldn’t you? For one thing, I’ll guarantee that every issue, you’ll have people looking to link to or share your content, and having it online is the only reasonable way for that to happen. The sad thing is, you won’t always know if a reader came online to send an article to a friend and couldn’t do it – meaning you missed out on a site visitor and potential reader. By putting content online, you’re giving it the chance to build an audience for you. Second, the more (well-repurposed) content you have on the site, the more there is for people to link to and Google to point people to. Simply put, all else being equal, more content equals more traffic. Third, you’ll be building an archive that you and your readers are guaranteed to find useful later on.

As for when to put things online, Phillip Smith recently blogged on this topic quite thoroughly, after surveying many of us in the industry, and came up with a good series of conclusions, which I suggest you read in full over there. But the final word from almost everyone, for a number of reasons, was to stagger the dates that articles go live.

What does your publication do, and do you think it’s the best solution?

How to stay relevant

March 11, 2009

There’s a good article up at Business Week on the future of newspapers by Paul Armstrong, who in his column outs himself as author of Twitter account @themediaisdying (a cousin of local @canmedialayoffs). His thesis is that while the economy isn’t helping newspapers, it’s not to blame for their deaths; the old model is simply not relevant to readers in a tech-savvy and over-informed world. The solution? We (and this includes all forms of media, in my opinion) have to become part of readers’ regular lives by giving them what they want, when they want it.

The days of information monopoly are over, and that’s a fundamental shift. And the industry should be further along than it is. Rather than saying, “Here’s everything we think is relevant to you—and we even put it in sections!” how about, “What do you want to know about today?” Or, for even greater efficiency: “Tick these boxes, and we’ll make a newspaper just for you.” Some might call this RSS and iGoogle while others, such as Hearst, think this will mean yet another device to lug about. Whatever your standpoint, the media have fantastic opportunities and challenges in front of it. It’s truly the time of relevance or death.

Doonesbury takes on Twitter

March 10, 2009

If you’re a reader of comic strip Doonesbury, you’ll know that this week’s theme is news correspondent Roland Hedley’s infatuation with social media, including Twitter. (And yes, you can follow him, too.) The moral of yesterday’s strip? Don’t get caught up in the tools so much that you forget to deliver the message.

The best newsletter frequency for you

March 9, 2009

I’ve already discussed how I believe that every magazine website should have a newsletter and be building a database of interested readers, even if you have limited resources to send one out. There’s no better way to communicate with the largest amount of your readers (as RSS is still for the tech-savvy minority). And a recent article in Business Week discusses how newsletters are one of the best sources of online revenue. But once you’re collecting names, the next question becomes: how often should the newsletter be sent?

There are two main points to consider: what your readers will be receptive to, and what your staff can manage.

If you’re running on limited resources, I would recommend a monthly newsletter; less often than that and I don’t think you’re connecting often enough. Remember that it doesn’t have to be “written” per se; it’s more a reminder that you’re there and offering them value than necessarily more content. Plus by contacting readers monthly – and having them visit the site monthly – you’re impacting your metrics every month.

If possible – and if your site’s frequency of updates warrants it (and it should!) – weekly is best. You’ll increase your repeat traffic and keep readers informed of what’s new on your site.

And if you can manage it, you can also consider a daily newsletter. Dailies are tricky, and I wouldn’t want them to be my only newsletter (as many readers would never sign up for one), but they’re a great way to give your most engaged readers extra value. The key is to make them short and sweet. I’m having success with my Best Health Tip of the Day newsletter (a daily quick health tip with three related links), which was partly inspired by Runner’s World’s daily quote newsletter and Martha Stewart’s Cookie of the Day (which doesn’t seem to be on her site right now, although I am still getting it).

Of course, if possible, you may want to consider more than one newsletter, depending on how you want to engage with readers.

And above all, remember the golden rule: don’t annoy your readers – or, here, subscribers. Give them what you said you would and let them unsubscribe easily if they want to. You’ll be rewarded by happy subscribers and lots of click-throughs.

How would you improve

March 2, 2009

Mark at appears to be a fan of The Walrus, but not so pleased with their website: he’s offering a $20 prize to the commenter on his blog with the best suggestions for improving it. Got some brilliant ideas? Share them and you could be $20 richer (that’s 20 Tim Hortons cookies!).