How I Created A News Site That Surpassed Even Twitter In Traffic!
and became the #1 content portal in the country.
Let me start with the basics. The title is misleading and this is definitely not good news practice. It’s not misleading because of the fact that we surpassed Twitter in traffic, but mainly because I didn't create anything just by myself. Quick Tip: A trick on the headline might work once or twice, but if your actual content is not compelling, you will eventually turn the consumer against you.
This is a short timeline of how myself and an amazing team created Newsit a website that in one years time became the #1 News site in traffic (Nielsen ratings), surpassing all related competition. Four years later, the site still holds the top position and is also among the top websites in a single country as it fights with Twitter every month for one of the top 10 spots.
Keep in mind, I don’t imply at all that I know everything. I am actually in constant beta learning mode. The below are just some of the techniques I used. In every case out there, product building differentiates from one another and always should be seen as unique. Many things have changed since 3-4 years ago, but some of the fundamentals in terms of how teams, individuals, and minds work have always been the same.
1. Build a dream team!
In every successful product, there is always an amazing team behind it. Success is surely a combination of many factors, and among the most important is having a team full of passionate, not-taking-themselves-seriously, no-ego individuals who are willing to risk, work hard, and believe in one common goal. If you get that… about 60% percent of success is guaranteed.
That being said, how do you hire a top-notch team?
First, think as if there is no box! One of my best hires for the team was the head of graphic design, a 23-year-old that had never designed a news portal before (I had never built a content site myself before — more about it later on) nor attended college or attended any graphic design classes. He was someone who was probably already rejected from most recruiters and automatic resume machines (eww) out there! But he had that amazing sparkle in his eye. He didn't care about salary, hours, or vacation time. He wanted to make a difference, and he was more than willing to work day and night for it. That coupled with his amazing design samples which were definitely more edgy than anything I've seen before, made me take the big “risk.” Would he be able to undertake a big mainstream design gig? I am supposed to look for designers that have worked in the news industry again and again, right? How would he react under high-stress (building a news web portal from scratch can be quite stressful), and would he fit in within the team?
It was well-worth taking the risk! Someone that hasn't worked in the same niche before might have a bigger probability in bringing something new than just repeating him or her self again. Someone who is different from the rest of the team might actually make the biggest difference. Look for passion—the wet eyes that are willing to go far to make it happen. Look for hard workers who might not know everything (do not hire anyone that believe they do), those are willing to work long night hours to learn and will keep trying again and again. Build a team with different individuals that depicts the world, and the world will follow and love your product. Build a team who have a passion for learning, risk-taking, and sharing your main requirements; if you do, then you are more than half way there.
2. Share your vision, be open, lose the endless bureaucracy
The role of the Product Lead like myself is to have the vision and to pass it along. Inspire and make the team embrace a certain vision in order to take the team to higher levels. If you do that, the team will surprise you with results that will surpass anything you have ever imagined. But how do you achieve the former?
Building a news website from scratch is a long process, and you can very easily lose hundred of hours of time in endless meetings, long emails, and discussions than have no purpose or results.
I decided to take a little different approach.
Since the team at the very beginning was quite small (2 graphic designers, 2 developers, Product Lead (myself), Chief Editor and the first 2 editors hired), I felt it was important for everybody to be on the same page constantly.
Sometimes a simple approach can make miracles. Everybody worked in the same big room where we all were surrounded with huge white boards. Every thought, every prototype, every user interface design, and every single page of the site was constantly written and updated in that same room. As a result, the whole team had to have a very good understanding of not only the main vision, but what we were trying to build, what every page would ideally look like, and when the milestones needed to be reached.
And that had a tremendous impact. Great ideas started flowing on a constant basis. Everybody shared the same excitement and made my vision their own vision. There was not a daily 2-hour meeting of nonsense since our whole day was the actual meeting. I didn't have to be the last to learn about problems and time delays, since problems were solved the minute they occurred. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am quite the introvert myself (and I love it). Everyone could just take off and work in another office anytime they wanted. Being in the same room was not mandatory. But we got to a point where no one wanted no to be there and miss the excitement, the jokes, the ideas, and the dreams shared.
Of course, when the team grew into more than 60 team members, things had to be organized differently (amazing online tools can help with that). At the same time, communication was much easier and faster since the leaders of every team had already spent all this time together building the product from scratch.
3. Have one single goal
I was given one and only one big milestone to accomplish. Build from scratch the number one (in terms of traffic) website in the country. Yes, it is indeed a very generic goal that cannot be achieved from one day to the other, but at the same time, I was never asked to do anything else. Monetization, growth, and future features were never put on the table until launching date. Of course, I always had in mind all the former, as any creative-type would, but at the same time, I never felt any pressure to do anything unrelated to my goal. That was of tremendous help.
More significantly, I followed the same tactic with my team. They had the same very specific goal: How to build a news website that consumers would love and keep coming back to read; how to surpass all the competition that has been on an already established market for more than 10 years and build an audience base that would return again and again. Nothing else or more. It worked in a brilliant way! They always had in their mind one single goal, one single question that was always in their thoughts, along with ideas and actions on making that goal a reality. And indeed, we made it happen! In less than a year’s time, the site became the #1 news website in the country and among the top ten overall sites (Nielsen Ratings).
At the same time, of course, there was a marketing team already establishing itself and working on brainstorming, building clients, thinking of ways to collaborate with them and eventually make the portal profitable. I was participating in most of their meetings, since the whole vision was in my head, but it wasn't until very later, with the main traffic goal reached, that I focused mainly on how to monetize the already established traffic.
4. Hire the best Product Lead
The question has been always there. Can a product be built without a Product Lead? Yes it can! Can a ship move without a captain? It probably will. But will it reach safe its destination? There are high chances it won’t.
The Product Manager or Lead is the visionary behind the product. He/She is the captain of the ship that won’t only reach its destination safely, but also find new and amazing paths and journeys. He is always open to improve and guide his teams to further destinations.
At least that’s how I see myself. I am given a goal, and I would spend my days and nights, my times in the shower and between my sleep and playing with my dog in conceptualizing ideas and finding practical ways to make it happen. I won’t stop, until I do so.
Do I get it right from the very beginning? Of course I don’t. Every successful idea has never been the same from the time it was born to the launch day. And that’s the amazing beauty of it. Its a magical process that an ideal Product Manager loves to experience and share with the rest of his team.
A Product lead needs to think and live in the consumer’s mind. He needs to be his/her devil’s advocate and always remind the rest of the team that the product or feature they are building needs to be in accordance to the user’s need. Yes, there is money to be made, but I am very confident from what I've seen in the past. If the consumer loves the product, it becomes a daily habit, having a substantial profit then becomes an easier task.
A great Product Lead doesn't require a deep programming or graphic knowledge. He/She needs to understand roughly the technical complexity of the features and partner with developers/designers to make the right trade-offs. I have many times found myself not knowing the technical limits, and so can’t help push the tech teams to higher ones. It is more crucial to explain to the tech team why a specific feature is important.
At the same time, I've spent days and nights of my own time finding proper and visually appealing ways to communicate my ideas.
A great Product lead should appreciate great design and be able to articulate the right directions in the way he finds more comfortable. In my case, since I am more visual than anything, I prefer to showcase with visual examples. One of the things I always keep in mind is the simple fact that the product the team builds doesn't necessarily depict my own aesthetics, but the consumers targeted and their needs. Lastly, when it comes to design, I always remember that most of the times less is more and simplicity makes everything easier.
A great Product Lead has to have a clear sense of the market, know what people want before they actually do, have a strong interest in many different fields (psychology, marketing, branding, design, cooking, sports, anything!).
Do not be afraid to hire Product Managers that haven’t worked in a specific market or niche before, especially if they had successfully launched different products in the past. I was asked to conceptualize and oversee the production of the news site we are talking about, when I had never launched a content portal before. Later on, I was once asked to create another content site targeting army personnel, when I had never even spoken to someone who works in the army before. And a third time I was asked to create a content website targeting women and their lifestyle, and believe me, I had no clue what is the difference between lipstick and Mascara. I spent days researching, learning about the market, learning about their needs and habits, and by bringing new and innovative ideas on the table time after time, we managed to launch what became the #1 lifestyle portal in the country, Tlife, surpassing all major international competition (including Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Elle, People Magazine) and reaching 3 million women monthly.
Lastly, a great Product Lead, thinks BIG, tremendously and passionately loves his profession (money is just a side-effect of never giving up), and envisions products that can change the consumer’s perception on every different market.
While I was trying to build the team, I was already working on the vision of the site. Many questions had to be answered. What is missing from the market when it comes to getting the news online? What will separate it from the competition? What does the competition offer? How will the layout help and make my vision even more clear? What does the consumer really need? How will I use all latest technologies in our advantage?
The Content and Layout
In Part 2 (coming soon), I will share specific examples of the content and layout that separated the site from any major competition and eventually helped it become the #1 news portal. I will emphasize the importance of the Chief Editor and Product Lead becoming one and sharing the same vision. I will talk of how a single service provided made a tremendous difference and changed they way web news were produced in the country. How timing is important when it comes to news and how a small layout change can have a huge impact. How metrics are of major significance only if they’re used as a creative force for something new. To be continued…
Thank you for reading.
Fanis Poulinakis is a Product Development director for Online & TV. He is currently looking for his dream job in New York City after a demanding and very diverse career in Europe. Learn more on his personal branding Breaking News site, or read more of Fanis’ ideas on his Blog.
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