Say Media Redesigns ReadWrite, Adds New Ad Units

Refresh Internally Dubbed 'Project Zero'

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What does the future of media look like? Say Media thinks it looks a lot like a blog that covers the future of media, among other things, ReadWrite.

Eighteen months after acquiring ReadWriteWeb (and dropping "Web" from its name), Say Media has once again redesigned the tech blog and added new in-article ad units designed to look and fell more like magazine ads. "We started with the question, 'If we could start from scratch and build a modern publication, what would it look and feel like?'" said Say Media CEO Matt Sanchez.

Turns out, the modern publication looks a bit like a traditional type updated for the digital world. Following the trend of digital publications sourcing their style from print magazines -- the most notable being Flipboard and Vox Media's The Verge -- Mr. Sanchez describes the new ReadWrite article layout as "like a magazine."

The makeover is part of a larger company rewiring to reach another elusive status for media startups: profitability. Last month Say Media laid off 10% of its staff to transition from an ad network into a media company. The company, formed in 2010 from following the acquisition of blog and ad network Six Apart by ad network Videoegg. Say Media received $27 million last July, its first funding round following the merger. Prior to joining forces the startups had raised a combined $57 million.

After last month's layoffs, the company employs 315 to 320 employees, the majority of whom work not in sales or editorial but research and development.

Fourty employees work in editorial, including xoJane, lead by former founding editor of Sassy and Jane Magazine, Remodelista, Gear Patrol, among others.

The ReadWrite redesign sets the groundwork for that new entity, in terms of both editorial and advertising content.

The article is no longer squeezed between an reverse-chronological article feed on its left side and a banner ad on its right. Instead the article feed has been trimmed into a smaller ReadNext feed that recommends posts based on what someone's reading and what's popular on the site, and the article is left to roam the rest of the screen.

The New York Times' "Snow Fall" article is the easiest design comparison. ESPN's Grantland and music review site Pitchfork have also cribbed that layout, but "Snow Fall" only glimpsed at one aspect of online media's future, while ignoring two significant elements: mobile and advertising. Part of building a modern publication is to "prepare for a world where mobile is more than 50% of consumption," Mr. Sanchez said, noting that currently mobile accounts for 30% of Say Media sites' consumption and is growing by 5% each quarter. But mobile pages fetch roughly 20% to 25% of the ad revenue generated by desktop pages.

Say Media developed the tools that editors and writers use to create content so that their articles automatically resize according to the area of the browser's screen and they can set where the ads run within a piece as they compose it, as though it were any other content like photos or video.

Mr. Sanchez acknowledged that we may not have seen advertising in Snow Fall-like stories because a regular banner would look tacked-on and tacky. Say Media's take is to work in fewer, less traditional ads that don't piss on the painting. The company has crafted two units that run within an article, conform to any screen size and deliver brand content like videos, photo galleries or product selectors.

A larger, full screen unit takes over the entire in-view area of a screen and is intended for longer feature-type articles. If an article is particularly short, an ad might not run at all. Again the analogy is to print magazines where an ad might pop up while flipping through a feature or paging between stories. "It's about finding a balance with the content for advertising that's appropriate for the reader," Mr. Sanchez said.

"We wanted to create an ad format that works proportionally to the content on any platform, so you could build an ad once, buy it across a brand like ReadWrite and know that anywhere it might show up, it will show up in the right balance and proportion to the content with the same kind of focus," Mr. Sanchez said.

While the ads fill up the screen, they can be easily scrolled past, although there is a "what was that?" factor as the rich-media module blurs by like when skimming through text and right on past a photo gallery. That attention-grabbing element isn't unintentional. Say Media is seeking premium brands for these ads that are being sold as channel sponsorships. Siemens is the exclusive U.S. sponsor at launch, but Say Media will be pitching other brands when it next rolls out the new layouts to its style sites.

"I think when you're publishing lifestyle magazines like we're publishing online, readers expect an evolved, higher quality experience. We're pulling back on the oversaturation of display advertising and finding the right balance that creates enough value for the advertisers," Mr. Sanchez said.

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