Magazine Hot List 2009: Web Site of the Year, Wired.com

Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired, was stumped. The man who coined the now-ubiquitous “long tail” metaphor wasn’t struggling to unravel the next universal truth about the digital economy, but with something much more nuanced and elementally complex.

“He said, ‘I want to spend time with my children, but everything they want to do bores me and everything I want to do bores them,’” recalls Evan Hansen, editor in chief of Wired.com.

“‘There has to be some way to meet in the middle.’” So what else would a technophile dad do in this situation but start blogging?

The end result of Anderson’s faceoff with his conundrum was the launch of the GeekDad blog back in 2007, where he discussed cool science and tech-related activities fathers could do with their kids. GeekDad took off, and Anderson realized it was becoming a serious drain on his already-packed schedule.

So he turned to the site’s audience. “He basically opened the door and said, ‘I need somebody to run GeekDad,’” recalls Hansen. “‘Send me your posts and tell me why you should run the site.’” After hundreds of responses, Ken Denmead, a San Jose, Calif.-based urban planner, father and self-described geek, got the gig last July. These days, Denmead has a collection of roughly 20 volunteer contributors who in aggregate produce at least four or five posts a day. Among Wired.com’s nine active blogs, GeekDad is one of its more popular.

A recent user posting—one that would strike unmitigated terror in most dads but illustrates what makes Wired.com a magazine site like no other—reads: “Help Me Survive a Hannah Montana-themed Sleepover.”

“When I started at Wired News, we were very much not a kid-friendly site at all,” says Hansen, whose tenure goes back to a somewhat bizarre period (1998-2006) when Condé Nast owned Wired magazine but didn’t own Wired.com. “We assumed our readers were sophisticated urban adults … hipsters. So the idea that we’d suddenly be catering to Saturday projects with little children was a little bit out of left field. But at the end of the day it really suits who we are as a brand. It’s grassroots editorial bubbling up literally from the readers themselves.”

That’s a common theme at Wired.com, and one of the key reasons it’s been named AdweekMedia’s Magazine Web Site of the Year for 2008. Clearly, Wired.com’s readers are seriously into its content. So much so that user-generated content isn’t shunned but rather woven throughout the site and crucial to its makeup. (It’s occasionally even a moneymaker.)
The site publishes real blogs—not random, occasional musings by print reporters, but continuously updated blogs with a point of view and clear reason for existing. And Wired.com’s editors and publishers are an adventurous lot, willing to experiment with just about anything if it might help make the site better.

While the long tail-preaching, book-touring Anderson may be the public face of Wired, it’s Hansen and Wired Digital executive director Josh Stinchcomb who’ve steered Wired.com into the innovative, money-making Web publication that it is today. Both executives’ tenures date back to the pre-Condé era, and each has survived various rounds of ownership and strategy changes to emerge as the stewards of a site that is considered an authoritative read among the tech crowd as well as a rare, magazine-led Web business that is able to command premium rates.

The pair consider it an accomplishment to know that Wired.com is not considered a magazine Web site. “The way I judge a good Web site is, if you are sitting around with digital planners, you ask if they would put it on their plan if there was no cross-media deal,” explains Andrea Kerr Redniss, senior vp, managing director, Optimedia. “The answer is, probably not for CBS News or Esquire or Us Weekly. For example, if you were targeting gossip fans, they’d go to Perez Hilton first.”

But if Redniss were going to target tech enthusiasts or thought leaders in the digital space, Wired.com automatically makes it into the consideration set, which includes a vast sea of similarly-targeted, pure-themed Web sites and blogs. “Wired’s built a real Web site,” Redniss adds. “They cater to the Web audience, not just to a magazine audience. For an average monthly magazine site, I’m certainly not going to be going there on a regular basis. Wired feeds it [content] all day long.”

Wired.com was launched just a year after the debut of the magazine, which first hit newsstands in 1993. Legend has it that HotWired, as the site was known at the time, carried the first banner ad.

Besides having a huge head start, the site’s content and readership are of the Internet—after all, a magazine named Wired ought to have a better Web site than, say, Smithsonian. Still, the site has also traveled a strange and not always advantaged path.

From 1998 to 2006, the site was owned and operated by Lycos, a one-time dot-com darling that was sold to Terra Networks of Spain in 2000, and, over time, neglected. And while the magazine and site did have an unusual contractual arrangement to work together during that period, “There was a lot of friction trying to figure out how to share this brand,” says Hansen.
And nurturing Wired.com was not necessarily a priority. “Lycos was barely an adequate steward. They already had a lot of what Wired brought to the table” in terms of tech content, continues Hansen.

So Wired.com never got a ton of resources and attention, and its staff was slowly cut down, from 30-plus at the time of the Lycos sale to eight by the time Condé Nast stepped back in, in July 2006. “It was pretty stripped down,” Hansen recalls.

Also, during the Lycos era, ad sales had been entirely outsourced to the ad network 24/7 Real Media. “The site was not necessarily sold at a premium level,” says Sarah Chubb, president of Condé Nast Digital. Still, there was a  diamond somewhere in that rough—it just needed the right burnishing. “It was a news site … they had created a real news organization,” says Chubb. “And the site was beloved by that original Internet community. People wanted it to succeed.”

Enter Condé Nast.

Long-time staffers like Hansen and Stinchcomb maintained a passion for Wired.com and a vision for what it could be. The site had always maintained a strong focus on search-engine optimization and getting linked to by other sites. So while traffic had suffered, dipping below 1 million unique users, it was far from dead. “When Condé came on board, we really saw it as a reinvention,” Hansen says.

That reinvention, begun with a major redesign in 2007, paid huge dividends in 2008. According to Nielsen Online, the site’s audience doubled, going from 2.4 million unique users back in January 2008 to 4.8 million at the start of this year, peaking at 5.2 million uniques in November.

Wired.com’s internal stats tell an even more impressive story. By their count, the site’s audience ballooned from an average of 5.6 million in 2007 to 10.5 million in 2008. Average monthly page views shot up 59 percent. And the site’s editors have mastered leveraging the blogosphere—traffic to Wired.com coming directly from blogs swelled by 138 percent year-over-year. According to blog tracking company Technorati.com, Wired.com is the 18th most-linked-to site among mainstream media brands, just behind much bigger properties like Time.com and MSNBC.com.

“I always seem to be ending up there,” says Scott Karp, CEO of the news aggregation services company Publish2 and author of the blog Publishing 2.0. “They do a great job of getting others to link to their content.”

Beyond blogs and news, video was a burgeoning asset in 2008, says Hansen. The site brought on former Ziff Davis staffer Annaliza Savage to become its full-time video editor in late 2007. Hansen calls her a “superstar.” Wired.com now incorporates video in more of its news coverage and produces eight regular Web series. The show Gadget Lab is a regular on iTunes’ top 10 technology podcasts. “We’re throwing a bunch of different options on the table for people,” says Hansen. “We’re just starting to play with it. Traffic has been off the charts for us.”

So has industry recognition. In Web publishing circles, Wired.com is the year’s Slumdog Millionaire. The site was nominated for eight Webbies, including Best News Site and Best Homepage (it took home the prize for Best Copy/Writing). And just a few weeks ago, the Magazine Publishers of America named Wired.com Website of the Year in the News, Business & Finance category, while the Wired Science blog took third place in its category.

“It’s a better product now [since Condé Nast took over],”  says David Rittenhouse, media director, Neo@Ogilvy. “It’s multisensory in a way that a magazine could never be. And it’s got a very unique editorial angle.” As evidence of Wired.com’s unique personality, Rittenhouse points to a recent headline: “Tesla’s Roadster Is Sex on Wheels.”

Fellow buyers appear to share Rittenhouse’s opinion, as Wired.com’s revenue increased 15 percent in 2008, say officials there. New advertisers included Beck’s Beer of North America, Gillette, Lincoln, MasterCard, Mini Cooper, Sharp, Discovery Channel and History Channel.

According to associate publisher Stinchcomb, the traffic surge after the Condé Nast takeover has translated to dollars. “There is sort of a tipping point, or a benchmark if you will, and if you don’t have a certain amount of scale, it just isn’t efficient for buyers to work out a deal with you,” says Stinchcomb. “Having that level of reach is important … marketers have limited bandwidth.” CPMs have gone from under $5 in the Lycos era to an average of about $25 in 2009. Plus, brands are likely to cotton to a site that doesn’t shy from cutting-edge creative, such as a recent oversized ad for Apple that actually overtook the Wired logo temporarily as the homepage loaded.

Just recently, Condé Nast consolidated its digital ad sales under former New Yorker publisher and onetime Wired Media publishing director Drew Schutte, who’s now senior vp and chief revenue officer of Condé Nast Digital. Rittenhouse says that synergy has already proven beneficial for Wired.com, as Condé Nast can package its “thought-leader” audience with Portfolio.com, as well as niche tech-enthusiast blog Ars Technica and other sites.
“Selling one premium site in the current market is tough,” he says. “Volume takes the pressure off their rates.”

In addition, Wired’s willingness to experiment with most emerging platforms—such as Facebook pages and iPhone apps—to serve its early-adopter audience also provides a competitive advantage for advertisers. “It is often tough for a client to do all these individually,” says Optimedia’s Redniss. “If you can package all that, that’s absolutely an advantage. That’s where you can win.”

But the biggest victory for brands, says Stinchcomb, is tapping into that passionate Wired.com audience that flooded Anderson’s inbox with potential GeekDad authors.

That’s where Reddit—which Condé acquired back in October 2006—really places Wired.com miles ahead of other magazine sites. While Reddit.com exists as a standalone news sharing/social book marking community (much like Digg), Reddit’s technology allows Wired.com to harness its audience’s propensity to participate.

For example, Wired editors sometimes use Reddit widgets to energize its users to become a journalism staff of millions. Readers post brilliant photos, start debates and even act as investigative reporters. One Wired.com fan developed a software tool that tracked Wikipedia manipulations by corporate America. “Giving the readers of a site a voice and a reason to interact is crucial,” says Stinchcomb. Several brands have tested Reddit tech in ad units and sponsored microsites. “A piece of our success on the revenue front is the ability to come up with programs that really engage the users in a way that other sites can’t because they don’t have an amazing tool like Reddit,” he adds.

Examples include a campaign for Acura that showcased video interviews with technology visionaries. Using Reddit, Wired asked readers to submit their thoughts on where they’d like to see technology go. “We got an amazing amount of contribution,” says Stinchcomb.

However, it might not be for every brand. For example, Wired.com built a Reddit-infused microsite for Toshiba centered on a panel of tech experts who were asked a series of questions. The Wired.com community was invited to answer whatever questions stumped the panel, but the conversation drifted to Toshiba’s products. “There were some good and some bad,” says Stinchcomb. “But it was hugely engaging.”

Reddit can even be used to make print a forum for user-gen content and to cross-pollinate that Wired.com community passion. Back in fourth quarter, Intel was running a print campaign in which it published inserts in multiple magazines that served as how-to guides for PC buyers. Since that sort of content would likely feel amateurish to Wired’s tech-savvy crowd, Intel instead asked readers to provide their own PC-buying tips.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we have readers tell us?’” recalls Thom Campbell, senior media manager, strategy, for Intel. The top responses did result in some tangible prizes, but the real carrot Intel was dangling was far more appealing: “Being seen by Wired readers as a smart guy,” adds Campbell. “We were stroking that Wired ego.”

It’s that very same ego that pitted hundreds of grown men against each other for the honor to be called a GeekDad.   

Mike Shields is a senior editor covering digital media.