Thursday, September 9, 2010

Penton redesigns websites within agriculture group

Trade publisher Penton Media announced today that they have launched some new websites for their agriculture group. The websites are a collaboration of the B2B media firm and digital design and tech company HUGE. The Brooklyn based firm has previously worked with CNN, jetBlue and other companies on redesigns and web strategy.

"You might say that we started from scratch - except for the rich content we already own - knowing that our goal was to attract more users, make the user experience more robust, and have a much more modular component architecture that enables editors to introduce new features," Sharon Rowlands, CEO of Penton Media, Inc. said in the release. "The work takes us from the legacies of magazines' companion sites to providing full-fledged Web-first products."
The new sites are attractive and incorporate plenty of white space, but two things that jumped out at me: 1) the site typography appears designed for the over-60 crowd and 2) why is a little banner ad being placed inside a huge space where you would assume a leaderboard would better fit?  (A mistake, maybe?)

Oh well. I'll let you judge, here is a GIF at right that shows the differences.

From a technical point-of-view, the sites are pretty much the same, picking up about 20 pixels in width. The sites still incorporate some Google ads. The biggest change is that the old site incorporated a snippet of the first paragraph of the story, a pretty common practice that is going away. Now, fewer stories incorporate snippets, but the type is now enlarged considerably.

The biggest changes are probably those that would be missed by a quick look at the site. For instance, some changes to the navigation bar shows some category changes -- I'm sure these types of changes will be found throughout the sites that have been redesigned.

"Our Websites will no longer be strictly navigation based," said Nino Tasca, vice president, Internet technology said in the same release. "We have changed the functionality so that there is a better relationship between the user and the content. As Penton continues to launch the other sites within our vertical markets, we will leverage that relational data so both our advertisers and readers have a superior digital experience."

So far the ag group has relaunched sites for Delta Farm Press, Southeast Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press. The remaining sites for National Hog Farmer, Beef, Corn and Soybean Digest, Hay and Forage Grower and Farm Industry News will launch over the next few weeks.

Ultimately the two biggest changes that must occur in B2B websites involve not web design, but changes in attitude within the editorial and sales departments.

While it is nice to see B2Bs add blogs and other somewhat modern features to their websites, it really does them no good when those same blogs are rarely updated. The blogs on Delta Farm Press show the latest entries are a week old -- on launch day!

More importantly, what changes are occurring on the revenue side of the ledger? Most B2Bs still maintain the same attitude that print come first because page prices generally far exceed web ad prices.

One exercise I did in my last publisher position was to create a financial model that would tell me what the revenue levels would need to be at in order to go web-only. This was not the goal -- going web-only -- but by creating the financial I then knew what our revenue goals would need to look like in order to maintain our current level of editorial staffing.

What I found was revealing: the amount of ad inventory that existed online was too small to maintain present staffing levels. This changed my attitude about our sites completely. Instead of worrying about whether this-or-that leaderboard position was sold, I needed to start thinking about whether we were creating enough opportunities.

This led me to the conclusion that single websites for print properties may no longer make sense economically. Think about it: if a single website can not generate the level of revenue necessary to sustain itself, then that unit will have to start thinking about groups of websites. (Because of the nature of web publishing, the cost of two sites is essentially the same as one if maintained and sold by the same staff.)

But most publishers hate the idea of creating niche sites, preferring to try and drive all their traffic to one destination. But just like in print, the best way to compete against a general interest property is to pick off a category.

But whatever the strategy, whether one general site, or a group of sites, the sales department has to be eager to sell web. But we'll leave that subject for another day.