Four ways to improve the Philadelphia magazine Web site

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A host of people smarter than I am call Philadelphia magazine home.

Better writers, reporters, editors, designers, photographers and more. I suspect they know worlds more about the business model, their print product and Web presence, but I can’t help but think Phillymag.com has a lot of work to be done.

Their lessons are worth learning for all publications on the Web, particularly magazines. Philadelphia is too large a market, and Philadelphia magazine is too historic a product for both not to be served by innovation in every field and industry.

Below see four broad areas Philadelphia magazine can improve its less-than-remarkable online product.

Earlier this year, the 140,000-circulation glossy mag moved its Web site design to this from this, and while perhaps the shift cleaned up the job for staff and updated its interface, in terms of functionality, design and branding, I can’t say I believe it was an improvement.

Here is what I say is wrong.

Organization — It’s perhaps the most important element of any Web site. You want me to be able to find all your content. I can’t on Phillymag.com.

  • Recent stories before this past November have no publication date associated with it. …Seriously. Here go to this story, which I called one of the best 2008 stories published in Philadelphia. Tell me when it was published if not for the comments. I dare you. (I do admit some older archived stories do have dates, for reasons beyond me. But why not include dates in the URL pattern?)
  • Not a very good search field. Frankly, it’s ugly and there is no advanced search options. I can’t choose between listings, stories, features, bylines, etc. No choice of date, no excerpt included in the search field. So even when I search “Hall & Oates,” I get a host of listings for individuals that – and let’s be real – most readers don’t care about.
  • You benefit from having a high-class audience. You get high-class advertisements. Could you get me a Google map, perhaps, with all your advertisers, perhaps, letting me click thru, navigate your ads? This is something new, but I can’t help but think that folks look at magazine ads in a way they don’t news print ads. Why aren’t you making better money off this?

Brands — In the online world this is likely the biggest change in importance from print. When you just had yourself a print magazine that people in this region read, well, OK, we know what you’re about. But now you have the opportunity – an opportunity I don’t think many in this region are capitalizing on yet – for your stories to be read around the country.

  • Masthead — What masthead? It’s naked text, and the mag’s online icon is a green “P.” Really? What marketing consultant would ever recommend that? So why does Phillymag settle for it?
  • What happened to the evergreen content? In switching over to their new site, lots was lost and it’s sadly inevitable. But the rules of online monetization is profiting on archives, passive income on what is already done. So why haven’t really brilliant pieces like this been spruced up and primed for eternal clicks and online ad-revenue, no matter how small it is?
  • The Daily Examiner, the magazine’s blog and daily news presence is mostly dead, I guess. It had been the best blog in town for my money when A.J. Daulerio was running the ship, but now can you even find it from the home page? And if you do, you’ll see it isn’t its own brand, but rather housed on the site and lagging. I seem to get the feeling that too much has been pushed onto Tim Haas, Phillymag’s online editor. Blog? Daily online presence? Let the online guy do it. It’s a struggle too many publications have.
  • All reporter names should link to their other bylines, and, Hell, a biography too. This should be standard stuff. Why aren’t you branding your content producers? Note for all publication, and really, all Web sites, do not link a name to an e-mail address that will thrust open Microsoft Outlook or another e-mail client. List the contact information for me, link to other work or a biography, so I can check the author’s conflicts, understand his authority and authenticity.
  • Where’s the staff list? The contact page doesn’t give me a sense of the staff or brand them in anyway. This is a century-old publication, why don’t I know that after visiting its site? No history of Phillymag on this site? That is a primary suggestion I gave the Inquirer. Any newspaper or, really, any organization should offer a fairly detailed account of its history. That’s transparency, but that’s also branding. Remember, in an online world, your readers don’t have to already know who you are and what you’re about.

Design — Boys, this is square one for a print magazine, so why is it any different for its online product? There are a host of common magazine-design rules broken or otherwise ignored on Phillymag.com.

  • What is the dominant image on the main page? There are too many boxes and that rotater – which is otherwise cool – should be twice as large.
  • Embrace white space, they’ll teach you that day one in design class. On Philymag.com, the use of white space around its masthead makes it seem generic, un-branded.
  • Are those perforated edges on the navigation bar? …Why?
  • Where are the photos? Phillymag doesn’t show off its magazine-quality photos with wide banner shots at all. I want color content, big, wide photos.
  • I want the advertisements to be larger and, I’d say, prettier. Magazines are known for their big, glossy advertisements, where are the online? How can you sell more expensive online advertisements if you aren’t offering anything more than a newspaperdotcom is? This is something about which all magazines need to think. Big, pretty ads, not popups, but biggers ads, maybe click-thru ads with big, bold images. Magazines, you were never supposed to give advertisers the same as newspapers, so why are you now online?
  • Make it easier for me to read. Magazines are based on long-form texts, so give me a wider column. This is an example, I think, of refusing to innovate, but rather falling into what everyone else is doing. Get some designers and give me a wider column. And, while your at it, why not give me the option to have the entire story on one page, rather than forcing me to give you extra clicks. Wider columns can also warrant me wider photos.
  • Where’s the multimedia? I understand not investing much money in this game because you aren’t bringing in money on it, but I’d think you’d want, oh, maybe one big multimedia project a month. Once a month launch a piece of evergreen, with hot design, video and big glossy photos. Make it something that will last forever, so you keep getting clicks for years to come.
  • You know, sometimes you don’t immediately include all of the text online, like this story. I think I am alright with that right now. Of course, I don’t know if that actually makes anyone buy a subscription, but I understand it isn’t making you any money at this instant. So I’ll let others criticize that.

Dissemination — How are people getting Phillymag? Print readers are print readers and that’s just dandy – still value there. But online offers you the chance to broaden that reader base. How are you guys doing that?

  • The above story that I called one of the best in 2008 focused on the owners of the Philadelphia Phillies, now World Series Champions. Who was trying to re-market that story for interest around the region once they were World Champions? Does Phillymag have a staffer who can do that to bring in hordes new readers on archives, to increase traffic and, one would hope, the value of their online advertising. Content doesn’t have to die online. Get off your old media idea that last month’s news is dead forever. You can still bring in readers. Think of folks who clip newspapers and even magazines. They want to return to those stories. Why doesn’t that carry over online?
  • The Daily Examiner blog, mentioned above, seems now to be just filling a requirement. Hey, they tell us we have to have a blog, so there it is. But why not unchain it from its Web site and let it be active, out-linking more frequently and trying to drive traffic.
  • Are we really not linking out or even linking within? I have to think some stories relate to older stories, so why not let me navigate your site. When the reader is done with your story, where is he going next? Ideally, you want options, either automatically generated related posts or enough interesting links in-text.
  • I should add that the tagline of the Daily Examiner is, I joke you not, “Just another Metrocorp Blogs weblog.” I guess it was never changed. Fortunately it doesn’t come up on search fields, but when you sign up for an RSS feed, it sure does.
  • Speaking of RSS feeds, there isn’t exactly a lot of goodness. The only one, as far as I can tell, is for the Examiner, which admittedly isn’t fresh daily and is limited more. Can I get just feature stories, or only blog posts or just interviews, etc.

Credits: I love Phillymag’s cover gallery and like how they offer readers ways to promote their work, like through Digg and Redd It in text. Also, I’ve always thought branding “PhillyMag.com” is great for online. If Phillymag remains profitable, which is almost surely will, that’s freakin’ awesome. This is a product I actually enjoy – note, disclaimer, whatever: I do have a subscription and genuinely look forward to it – but I have to believe they ought to make inroads into the future. Maybe I’m just crazy.

They aren’t hurting for content. While Phillymag gets ragged on for coming off uber-suburbs focused, I understand this is part of their business reality. I just wish they seemed more bullish on Philly and the phrases “New York” didn’t appear so frequently and with such idolatry. But the point is made that a product of their caliber shouldn’t have even an average Web presence. We should all expect innovation out of Philadelphia magazine. I don’t know if any of the mainstream media in Philadelphia have done that in years, maybe decades.

Why not start online?

Philymag.com simply doesn’t scream big glossy magazine. I think its redesign pales in comparison to what the Philly.com did last May and, while it has its own problem, the smaller and struggling 215 magazine is, I believe, a better online product than the bigger fish in town, Phillymag – although, I think 215 magazine is embarrassingly obsessed with New York in a way that even Phillymag isn’t.

So, what do you think? If you’re in Philly or not, as a reader of big publications, what do you think?

Let me know if I’ve been unfair or if you have any more thoughts or suggestions. I’d love to update this post further.