Why Condé Nast Traveler is taking the platform approach

Increasingly, traditional publishers are finding that the easiest way to build audience scale is by opening up their sites to outside contributors. Condé Nast Traveler is the latest to take the platform route. The travel monthly is planning to start with 25 outside contributors when it relaunches its site this summer, but it hopes to increase that figure to 1,000 over time.

It’s a significant pivot for Traveler, which established itself in 1987 as an authoritative source of travel information for the upscale globetrotter. But Pilar Guzmán, who became editor-in-chief last year as part of an overhaul of the magazine’s edit and sales side, said times have changed. She spoke, along with evp, publishing director Bill Wackermann, at an “upfront” presentation Tuesday at New York’s Tavern on the Green to drum up advertiser interest in the new site, tentatively scheduled to relaunch Aug. 18.

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Guzmán said travel has become more common at the same time publishing has become more democratized. Social media has leveled the playing field, enabling everyone with a mobile phone to become a content creator in their own right. Suddenly anyone could become a so-called “influencer,” sharing their travel stories and advice to ever-larger audiences. Guzmán is well aware of this, having already introduced outside contributors to the magazine alongside established travel writers. The new Web strategy is a continuation of that.

“Historically, it’s been very top-down,” she said. “We are in the business of producing these highly polished images. Social media has trained our eye to be even more authentic. Our eye has become tired of that totally polished [look].”

Publishers have taken a variety of approaches to the platform model. Some, like Forbes and Entertainment Weekly, identify contributors as such or feature them in their own section. At Traveler, the contributors (whom the brand wouldn’t identify) will be woven throughout the site, with the idea that readers will find them by searching for topics of interest. Pay is another variable. Some don’t pay their contributors, which makes for a cheap way to build audience; Traveler is paying its contributors based on traffic goals, with the ability to earn bonuses if they exceed those targets.

“It’s not like other models where anyone can do anything,” Guzmán stressed. “They’ll be edited. We’re handpicking them. I think that’s the distinction.”

It may be a long way from a more-elitist title that embraced the motto “truth in travel,” but it’s easy to see why Traveler would go the platform route. The magazine didn’t get its own URL until about two years ago (a holdover of the old Condé Nast strategy of focusing on “destination sites” like Concierge.com and Style.com rather than leveraging its already well-established magazine brand names like Traveler and Vogue). So it has a bit of catching up to do.

While monthly unique visitors to CNTraveler.com jumped 46 percent in the past year, at 1.7 million uniques, it’s still a baby in Internet terms, dwarfed by sites like Trip Advisor (26 million), Yahoo Travel (10 million) and Huffington Post Travel Group (7 million). Those figures represent desktop and mobile and come from comScore.

This is where the contributor model comes in. “The idea is having people who are influential in the social space, so they have a big following. We need that reach,” Guzmán said.

In addition to other content brands like Departures, the online travel arena is full of booking sites like Expedia and Kayak that also provide content and sell ads, said Joe Fried, media supervisor from Starcom Mediavest Group, who attended the Traveler presentation.

“They have a great brand heritage, and Condé Nast is doing a great job at helping their brands get back in the game digitally,” he said. “Social media has sort of democratized travel. The redesign does take into account changes in the landscape. But there’s definitely competition.”