The 2.0 of the Town: Scientific American

Posted inDesign Inspiration

by Emily Gordon

When was the print magazine founded? Rufus Porter founded the magazine in 1845 as a weekly broadsheet, which focused mainly on inventions and patents.

When did the website first launch? Who designed it originally, and who designed the current incarnation? Was the design done in-house or by an outside firm, or a combination of the two? Scientific American launched its first website in 1996. Until now, we have designed our websites internally, but we are currently redesigning our site in conjunction with an outside firm. I believe that in any site redesign project, it is most effective when you can form a team that is able to take innovative ideas and mold it to your core business concepts and objectives.

When did you do your latest web redesign, and what motivated the magazine to go forward with it?Our last web redesign was in 2004. We needed to update our site from being a pure companion site to become a companion site with original content and digital subscription. We focused on revenue growth for both the digital and print magazine content sales through our website, and the site design allowed us to achieve that. We have been constantly updating and tweaking the website on an ongoing basis; in fact, we just launched an interim set of design changes in March. We are currently working on a new site concept and design scheduled to be launched in September.

Do you have a full-time web staff or editor? How did the print magazine staff, the web staff, and the outside designer/s work together on the current version?Currently, we have web staff of 20, including myself. The largest department within the Internet group is the editorial team. The editorial staff, both print and online, work closely together. Both groups blog for the site. Steve Mirsky, who writes a monthly column and edits for our magazine, is also the lead editorial person on our podcast products. Our podcasts are growing tremendously and are consistently the top three science podcasts on iTunes. Columns such as “Ask the Experts” are original to the website and appear in print as a column. We have also experimented with “wiki” reporting, where our editors post an article and blog entry on a topic on our site. We collect reader input, and then formulate the final article, which then appears in print. With all the collaboration between the editorial groups, at the end of the day, they still have a core focus on either print or online.

How long did the latest web redesign take? The last redesign took almost a year just on the design and concept.

How much focus did you give the magazine’s impressive history and archives on the website? How much is now reflected in the site?Scientific American Digital consists of all articles from the magazine from 1993 to the present. We offer that on a per-issue basis, or for a annual subscription fee. We do see our users actively purchasing and viewing our archived content on Scientific American Digital. However, the main focus of the current website is to inform our audience of the news, progress, and trends in science and technology. The archived material is great for references and background information. But again, we are undergoing a redesign and the focus may be shifted and enhanced.

Does the website focus on reaching out to longtime (or older) readers, to new (or younger) ones, or both? How, specifically?Both. We have been developing new content that appeals to the new and younger audience. Content such as podcasts, “Fact or Fiction,” “Strange but True,” “Scidoku,” video, trivia, and even the news on our site are targeted more at mass consumers of science information. We continue to serve our loyal readers by providing them easy access to the magazine content (some of which we offer for free) and in-depth coverage on topics core to our brand. We have very successfully achieved that. In fact, in the current issue of MIN, we were noted as the No. 6 top growing sites among magazine brands with a +45.10% growth in PVs and +118.32% growth in UV.

What was your web designers’ key mandate? Our web design manager, Ryan Reid, is charged to deliver the best user experience to help us to achieve our revenue goals. Not an easy job.

How much input did editorial and/or business management have into the site’s design and redesign?Editorial (print and online) and business work together and agree on the compromises in every step of site’s design and redesign. Scientific American is the longest continuously published magazine in the U.S. With that reputation, we are known for our credible and authoritative coverage. It is very important to us that our editor teams are involved in the final product for our readers and advertisers. Business management assesses the product concepts to ensure that the business goals that we had set out to achieve can and will be achieved with the proposed concept.

Is your website creating subscription revenue? Community? Conversation? What were your original goals for the site’s readers, and what has surprised you the most about users’ relationship to or use of it?Our current website generates both digital content revenue and print magazine subscription revenue. As I mentioned, Scientific American Digital allows our users to purchase the issue(s) they need or subscribe to receive 12-month access to the archive. We are the second largest source of new subscriptions for the print magazine and continue to grow.Currently, our blog is our community. We began our blog in December 2004. It is now one of the top traffic areas on our site. With the launch of Scientific American Mind, we launched Mind Matters, a blog hosted by Dr. David Dobbs. Every week, Dr. Dobbs invites experts/scientists to join him in a discussion on a topic. This week, the topic is “Mama’s Boys are Braver.” This type of “seminar blog” has done well for us.The original goal for the website, as it was established in 1996, was to be a premier companion site to the magazine. Since my arrival in 2001, we have turned the business around, and the digital division was profitable in two years. I don’t know if there were too many surprises, but we do know that consumers who have a good experience with a brand are more likely to purchase products from the brand. We’ve also le
arned that it may not be necessary to give away the digital archive to your print subscribers for free. We are fortunate to have such high-quality content to offer to our audience.

Has your site been nominated for or won any awards?Yes. In fact, we were selected as an Official Honoree in the Science Category for the 2007 Webby Awards. We were also nominated for the Podcast category (the other nominees were the Guardian Unlimited, NPR, Spout, and The Onion). We were very happy that we were nominated. (NPR Podcasts won the award—let’s face it, NPR is a hard one to beat for audio content. That’s their core. For us, podcasts are something new, and we’re really pleased to be nominated this year for our new product.

Are there special challenges faced by the website of a classic, storied magazine like yours? If so, what are they? What about unique advantages?I think that classic, storied magazines need to consider taking bold steps to offer content and products that are outside of their core offering, while continuing to serve their audiences well. The competition on the internet is tough. The internet “pure plays,” to use a marketing term, start with little brand value, but are able to experiment with various content set to gain market acceptance. Meanwhile, classic brands like ours have great brand recognition to give us an initial boost of traffic in the market segment, but expanding beyond the core magazine readers online—while maintaining similar product statement—can be an interesting challenge.