Any Web editor will tell you that iPhone rumor stories are traffic godsends. So in anticipation of the iPhone 5 announcement yesterday, tech sites braced for mammoth traffic and took to their liveblogs to compete for clicks throughout the much-hyped announcement. Yet, in a crowded media landscape—Adweek found dozens of liveblogs from major tech publishers—The Verge managed to distinguish itself in the wide world of liveblogs with its Syllabus liveblog platform, setting an all-time daily traffic record for the site, which is less than a year old.
Trei Brundrett, vp of product and technology for Vox Media (The Verge's parent company) told Adweek via email that, according to Google Analytics, the site saw "two million unique visitors yesterday, with most of those on the liveblog, and about 5.5 million pageviews." For Brundrett and the product team, however, the biggest win was the performance of the liveblog, which according to Brundrett "didn't even hit a speed bump at these numbers."
Initially built after outages by its third-party platforms, The Verge’s liveblog is the result of Brundrett and his product team’s collaboration with Verge editorial staff, led by editor in chief Joshua Topolsky. Listening to Topolsky talk, it is clear that The Verge is as much a site designed for its audience as it is for The Verge/Vox team itself. “I’m a reader of this site and other liveblogs and so I thought ‘what do I like and not like about a liveblog?,’” Topolsky said. “We came up with the idea that we wanted big images, naturally and instantly appearing text, and the ability to pin posts at the top of the blog and once you understand what you want then you need the tech to do the talking.”
For Topolsky and the Vox team, the marriage of technology and design is perhaps the most crucial element for success beyond editorial content and it is one that the company relies on to distinguish itself. “It all really comes down to passion,” Topolsky says. “We’re the viewer. The people that work here—the sales, editorial, and product teams—they’re also the viewers of our content and if we build it we know it will be really great because we really, truly do care.”
What Web publishers can learn from The Verge’s liveblog success:
Be your own audience. Topolsky and the Vox staff are not only producers but consumers of The Verge’s content and interface. Though it seems obvious, the quickest way for publishers to create an intuitive and seamless user experience is to experience the platform through the eyes of a user. It might sound simple, but given some of the cluttered, confusing, and downright ugly interfaces out there, it is a mindset more ought to adapt.
Understand what you want out of your product and build just that and nothing more. With Syllabus, The Verge didn’t reinvent the liveblog or turn it on its head and shoot it out of a cannon. Instead, it focused on a few essential features and made sure they could be deliverable under pressure. “If you’ve…got this mountain of traffic coming in and you’re trying to serve updates to millions of people at once it can get pretty nasty,” Topolsky notes. “The goal was to zero in on the info you need to give to people and make it happen in a way that feels completely natural.”
Don’t be easily satisfied. Topolsky and Brundrett both note that the liveblog product spawned from a series of passionate discussions. “It was two people that really want the same thing but have different methods of getting there and having arguments of which road to take,” Topolsky said of the idea process behind Syllabus. “I wouldn’t call it friction, but there were many moments of intense discussion.” But for Topolsky and company, the iterations will continue. “What keeps me up at night is improving on what we’ve already done across content, technology, and scope,” Topolsky said.