For publishers, using unpaid contributors is a way to grow audience without breaking the bank. But it also can lead to quality control issues when their posts misfire, as Forbes and Thought Catalog have discovered.
Time Inc.’s Travel + Leisure is trying for a middle ground by opening up to a coterie of experts. Like all Time Inc. titles, T+L is on an aggressive digital growth push as print pages decline, by increasing its publishing volume from 12 posts a week to more than 100. To do so, it’s calling in reinforcements.
When it relaunches April 8 in print and online, Travel + Leisure will lean on a small network of experts in a topic or place, like current contributors Alexandra Marshall, Ted Loos and Andrea Bennett — ultimately, between 50 and 100. They’ll be paid like freelancers, per post.
At a time when magazine staffs are shrinking, not growing, going the platform route is an obvious way for T+L to meet its aggressive publishing goals. Lump wouldn’t say what his traffic goal was, but the site had just 1.3 million uniques as of February, per comScore.
That approach stands in contrast with the “platisher” model elsewhere, even at Time Inc. Flagship Time has opened up its site to articles from across the Time Inc. portfolio as well as outside publications to pump up its publishing volume. Entertainment Weekly created a network of bloggers, with the stated goal of getting up to 1,000. Even T+L’s direct competitor Condé Nast Traveler created a contributor network last summer with the goal of getting up to 1,000 contributors.
The approach to paying outside contributors has also varied widely across sites. Some publishers pay nothing, while others, like Traveler, pay based on traffic goals. Entertainment Weekly said it would pay some of its bloggers in prestige only.
Nathan Lump, who became editor of T+L in August and who had a stint at Traveler under its previous editor, said his contributor approach is deliberately different from the more popular one taken by other publishers.
“What we’re doing is a lot different and is akin to the way the great news organizations have worked,” Lump said. “All our people will be paid. It’s important to me, because the T+L brand really stands for expertise. In order to deliver that kind of insight and judgment, we really need to work with people who expect to be paid.”
The T+L approach is a safe bet for a publisher whose reputation is built on a luxury, not mass image. The potential downside is that the site won’t grow as fast as it would if it opened the floodgates to contributors.
And T+L is a title with a lot of catch up to do. It ranks No. 24 in comScore’s travel information category, behind sites like TripAdvisor, USA Today Travel and MSN Travel. Beyond the contributor network, Lump also is making the Web the whole staff’s responsibility. He also wants to make T+L a daily destination, by publishing more posts on a wider variety of topics and places and making better visual choices.
Growing an audience that way is hard for a lifestyle publication whose content is more evergreen than newsy. “It is one of the challenges in the travel space — you have to make your own news or your own urgency,” Lump conceded. “You don’t have celebrities that other brands do, or breaking news events to work with. It requires a lot of artfulness, and that has to do with the judgments you make around content and presentation. A lot of people talk about headlines, but images are just as important for us. There’s a certain extra element of seduction in an area like travel.”
But in travel, where the challenge for advertisers is microsegmenting consumers, Lesley Pinckney, vp of digital at Walton Isaacson, wondered if the approach by T+L of growing an audience by massively increasing its publishing output is the best way to do that. “In travel, the W person is very different from the Hyatt person,” she said. “It’s a lot harder to find that match. Travel + Leisure could be that data source.”
Jeremy Tate, vp, group director, media at Digitas, said bringing in subject-matter experts makes sense for a travel site, where deep expertise matters, to build an audience, though. “Niche audiences are hard to find at scale in luxury,” he said.