Time Inc.'s Office Pirates Didn't Bring in the Booty

Humor Site Abandoned After Six Months, Failed to Live Up to Publisher's Hype

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Time inc.'s decision to shutter its Office Pirates humor site Sept. 1-abandoning its first stab at an online-only property after just six months-comes down to a cold hard truth: It couldn't get big enough fast enough to benefit parent Time Warner in the eyes of Wall Street.

"We're investing in a whole lot of businesses online," said Ned Desmond, president of Time Inc. Interactive. "We have to be very careful to make sure that the limited amount of investment money that's around is going against the greatest-scale projects. Office Pirates was on a much longer road to become a big business than some of our others. We decided that the sober thing to do here was to make a tough decision and put the resources elsewhere."

Time Inc. lives under intense pressure to improve revenue and results year after year-pressure that led to nearly 500 layoffs in the last year and contributed to last month's shutdown of Teen People's print edition. Time Warner still singled out the unit as a disappointment in the conglomerate's most recent financial report.

Part of the problem is that Time Warner's huge size means only the biggest successes can even move the needle. Office Pirates never got there. It will attract nearly 450,000 unique visitors in August, up from 360,000 in July and 150,000 back in May, according to internal counts.

That sounds pretty good, but the bigger picture makes clear that Office Pirates was not operating on a true Time Inc. scale. It ranked 115th among humor sites tracked by Hitwise, attracting just 0.13% of the category's traffic for the week ending Aug. 19. By comparison, the very popular CollegeHumor.com ranked 9th, with 1.5% of the category traffic. At the top of the Hitwise list, Heavy.com drew category share of 17.8%.

The one upside for Time Inc. is that it picked up some internet experience along the way. It learned that weekly video is not enough to keep people coming back, according to Mr. Desmond, and watched page-view growth accelerate after it added much more daily programming a couple months ago. It got real-life training in search-engine optimization and other technical tools of the trade.

But the wisdom of some decisions remains unclear. Despite many reports that Time Inc. had hugely hyped Office Pirates at its introduction on Feb. 22, for example, the company actually always downplayed it in an effort to encourage viral growth. Whether more publicity or consumer marketing of any kind would have helped now becomes one of the questions for the rearview mirror.

And though The New York Times' Virginia Heffernan reviewed the site approvingly in March, its humor sometimes seemed better tailored for high-school students than office workers.

The few advertisers who signed on included Dodge Magnum and Bacardi; lately the site has been running house ads for videos of Sports Illustrated's "Swimsuit Issue" shoots.

Office Pirates Editor Mark Golin did not respond to voicemails and an e-mail seeking comment, and, through a spokeswoman, both Time Inc. Editor In Chief John Huey and Chairman and CEO Ann S. Moore declined to comment.
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