Web Site of the Year 2008: People.com

In a star-obsessed world where Britney Spears’ every move is tracked by the prying eyes of camera crews, news helicopters and fast-multiplying Web sites–from Gawker to Perez Hilton, TMZ to Egotastic–it says something that one of the dominant online purveyors of news about the rich, famous and sometimes nutty emanates from the print magazine that helped define celebrity journalism as we know it.

Its amazing growth in a hot-as-fire category, along with its “right for the medium” editorial approach and surging advertiser support, have led AdweekMedia to select People.com–under the guidance of the site’s editor in chief Mark Golin and People Digital president Fran Hauser–as its first-ever Magazine Web Site of the Year.

Despite considerable competition in the blogosphere from an array of newer players chasing celebrity triumphs and scandals, Time Inc.’s People.com–the Web extension of the 3.62 million-circ People, the 34-year-old chronicle of entertainers we love and remarkable everyday people–grew its audience by an eye-popping 48 percent in 2007, adding roughly 1.7 million monthly unique users for a total of 5.3 million as of December, per Nielsen Online. People.com is, in fact, one of the most trafficked magazine-generated sites, up there with the online offshoots of Time and Newsweek. The momentum continues this year, with February racking up still more traffic records. The site recorded 6.3 million monthly uniques in February, per Nielsen Online. Feb. 25, the day after the Oscars, turned out to be the most heavily trafficked day in the site’s history, with 57 million page views, besting its previous single-day record by 10 percent, according to the site.

David Cohen, senior vp, interactive media director at Universal McCann, says his team met with People.com sales execs roughly a year ago and challenged them on the site’s small audience relative to the massive reach of the print product. “We said to them, ‘Why does your site reach only a few million uniques? It should be so much bigger.’ And they delivered.”

On the ad side, People.com reports ad revenue in ’07 grew 285 percent versus the year prior. The site boasts 28 ad categories, including entertainment, auto, apparel and beauty.

Advertisers include Verizon Wireless, JC Penney and Quantas Airlines. New accounts include Tiffany & Co., Chase and Toyota. (Meanwhile, the print edition of People, the biggest moneymaker of all magazines, continues to thrive, its ad revenue in 2007 reaching a staggering $979.8 million, up 12.3 percent year over year, per Publishers Information Bureau. Ad pages gained 4 percent, to 3,889.)

People.com has grown by attracting a bit of a different audience than its venerable, influential print counterpart–a younger, more celebrity-fixated demo for whom the 24/7 news cycle is second nature. Thus, the site has established its own identity–focusing on breaking celebrity news, beefing up video offerings–rather than simply transporting the People magazine formula to the Web. “We live in a medium now where the cost of entry is sight, sound and motion–many magazines have failed at this,” explains Cohen. “Other [sites emanating from traditional media] like cable networks have had an easier transition. People.com has embraced this concept in that it’s not just a translation of the magazine.”

Golin–a veteran of magazines including Maxim (which he edited in 1999, when he was named AdweekMedia’s Editor of the Year), Details and Cosmo who later served as vp, creative director at AOL and creative director of Time Inc. Interactive, where his projects included the ill-fated young-male-centered viral-video site Office Pirates–became People.com’s top editor in September 2006, a move that indicated Time Inc. wanted to take the property to the next level.

Golin acknowledges that the site has undergone a philosophical evolution. “You go back a few years, and we had a lot of repurposed photos [on the site],” he recalls. “In the past few years, we realized that news drove traffic. Expectations have grown. We really kind of upped our offering. It’s much more around-the-clock.”