Fast Company’s Aaron Cohen shares the story of Dotdash, the network formerly known as About.com. Big Medium had a big role in this tale, and it may be the most successful design- and business-turnaround story we’ve ever been involved with.
Three years ago, About.com’s audience and ad revenue were plummeting, and CEO Neil Vogel told us the company was “circling the drain” and needed drastic change. We helped the company develop a new vertical strategy, carving out the content from the main network into branded premium experiences. The new network, Dotdash, relaunched its vast archive of content with a collection of great-looking, fast, and premium websites, powered by a single CMS and a themed design system. Big Medium led the design of three of those early properties—Verywell, The Balance, and The Spruce—and the network has since grown to nearly a dozen.
Maybe you’ve never even heard of Dotdash, but its service content reaches about 90 million Americans a month. … Collectively, Dotdash’s sites have increased traffic by 44% year over year in Q3 2019. Driven by advertising and e-commerce, the company’s annual revenue grew by 44% in 2018 and 34% as reported in Q3 2019 earnings.
A big part of this success boils down to some very intentional design and technology bets that we made together:
- Make more money… by showing fewer ads
- Create a respectful UX that celebrates content instead of desperate revenue grabs
- Create a front-end architecture that is modular and nimble
- Make the sites fast
It’s worth noting that all of these choices are counter to what most media companies are doing. Most are pouring on more ads, imposing design that abuses readers and content with popovers etc, slowing their sites with heavy scripts and trackers. No kidding, it was a seriously brave and non-obvious choice to reject those paths. Fast Company describes the impact of Dotdash’s industry-bucking choices:
While other independent media companies were engineering their coverage around social media, video, and trending topics, Dotdash doubled down on text-based articles about enduring topics and avoided cluttering them with ads. … Dotdash sites run fewer ads, with no pop-ups or takeovers, and because the ads are relevant to each article, they perform better. At a time when digital ad rates have continued to crater for most online publishers, Vogel says the company’s ad rates have increased nearly 20 percent each year since 2016, and 25 percent of 2019 revenue came from affiliate marketing fees (bonuses paid to the publisher after Dotdash visitors made purchases via ads on the sites.)
The sites load very quickly, and the company’s proprietary content management system is designed for efficiency: Designers and editors can choose from fast-loading templates that include images, video, and interactive applications. And there’s an emphasis on creating the kinds of detailed, informative articles that turn up in search results. At Verywell, for example, each article is updated at least once every nine months and reviewed by medical professionals.
Dotdash has not only turned itself around, it’s been expanding as other media companies have contracted, selling themselves off piece by piece. Big congrats to our friends at Dotdash: they’ve demonstrated that ad-supported websites can be presented in ways that are both respectful and (very) profitable.