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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The strategy behind Slate’s engaging new design

January 16, 2018 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

Today, Slate unveiled a sweeping redesign that includes its logo, website, mobile, and events branding. But this redesign runs much deeper than a new aesthetic approach. Slate’s new look reflects the organizations’ emphasis on audience engagement over scale.

“Our last major redesign, in 2013, was at the height of the Facebook boom. Social was the driver.” That design was very successful, according to Slate’s editor in chief Julia Turner. However, like most websites, it prioritized social sharing over increasing user interaction and time on site.

The landscape has changed a lot since 2013. In fact, the only constant has been change—with traffic, audiences, and distribution largely reliant on the algorithmic whims of search and social platforms. This is evident in Facebooks recent decision to de-emphasize news articles and anything published by brands in user’s News Feeds. While many publishers are concerned over how the latest change will affect traffic, few are surprised.

Engagement versus Scale

However, the pursuit of likes and shares was just one symptom of a larger trend that dominated the thinking of digital publishers: the quest for scale. As Dan Check, the president and vice chairman of The Slate Group, describes it “social isn’t about increasing time spent on site; it is about touching more people. Scale is fundamentally the pursuit of uniques.”

According to Turner, “We began to see fairly early on—in late 2104, early 2015—that the pursuit of scale for scale’s sake, didn’t make sense for a brand like Slate.” In fact, last September the company moved to engaged time as its primary measure of success, which enabled teams across the organization to put loyalty at the forefront of their initiatives. “The Landscape has become inhospitable to cheap scale. But even more, it doesn’t suit our audience and values.”

The new design builds upon Slate’s commitment to understanding and serving its audience, which Turner describes as “a highly-informed omnivorous media consumer.” Given that they are looking for “sophisticated next-level analysis,” she said it was important that this new design help guide them to information that will offer a deeper contextual understanding of topics in Slate’s five verticals: News & Politics, Culture, Business, Technology, and Human Interests.

With the new design, regardless of whether the visitor is a regular or lands on a page via search or social, Check said “We wanted to give people stronger signposts and a better understanding of what they can expect from us.” The redesigned Slate (which doesn’t use a third-party recirculation partner) will “show people more relevant content and tell the story about who we are. For years, our message was ‘like us on FB, follow us on Twitter.’ Now, it is more about contextualizing what you’re seeing.”

Listening to Opportunity’s Knock

This, in turn, is intended to deepen visitors’ time-spent on the site and affinity for the brand, both of which translate into revenue opportunities. While Slate CRO Charlie Kammerer says that the company has been able to “baseline monetize purely with our programmatic dollars,” the new design will offer more premium membership prompts for SlatePlus as well as newsletter sign ups.

It will also better surface and integrate Slate’s popular roster of podcasts on the homepage and throughout the site. Check points out that for many years, podcasting was a medium awaiting a business model. However, in the decade between the company’s first podcast (in July of 2005) and the explosion of podcasting a revenue driver, Slate remained committed to the format—in large part because its audience was. “Podcasting was something that garnered a lot of audience interest for about a decade. There’s rabid listenership. So, though it wasn’t a business for a number of years, it always made sense from an audience perspective.”

Today, Slate claims 2% of the podcast market share. Kammerer said “We’re glad we stuck with it because when the model matured, we were already in a good position in terms of expertise and audience.” And, with this redesign, Slate will also be investing more in audio, further increasing its roster from a current 24 podcasts and putting out more original shows like its hit Slow Burn, about the untold stories of Watergate, which hit #1 on iTunes on its first day out.

However, Slate’s emphasis on audio and the written word is not an indication that it has “abandoned video” said Turner. “Our video focus is what we can do well.” And, as Kammerer pointed out, the “the case for the pivot to video was a case for scale. The CPMs were higher so a lot of outlets chased those CPMs forgetting that video is expensive to produce well, and that the margins aren’t that great.” In his experience, the CPMs for audio are as good or better than video. “It’s about focus for us and we continue to focus on maintaining a super-premium audience. The written word and podcasting delivers that audience in a very meaningful way.”

News Judgement

And, while engaging its existing audience is a critical piece of Slate’s strategy, they plan to continue to build a quality audience without embarking on an unbridled quest for scale. As Turner put it, “It isn’t that social isn’t a good way to drive traffic. But what you want is a real relationship with your audience that isn’t dependent on social media.” She reports substantial growth in Slate’s Google and Apple News-driven traffic.

Referring to Facebook’s decision to downgrade publishers’ content in News Feed, Kammerer said “If they really want to drive more meaningful interaction, I like our chances. But who knows what changes they’ll announce two months from now?”

As Check put it, “You saw big publishers reach huge audiences through Facebook; a lot of people discovered content they wouldn’t have otherwise. Unfortunately, it has also given rise to a lot of things that aren’t great like fake news and low-quality content.” He sees a genuine market opportunity for existing or emerging aggregation partners who “want to be more responsible.”

Ultimately, Turner sees a real upside for Slate in Facebook’s move to back away from media distribution. “My instinct is that being an arbiter around the news space requires a whole set of real responsibilities and rigor that they’ve been fairly freaked out about. Now maybe we’ll see the return of news judgement to the institutions that have been cultivating that judgment for years.”

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