Co-founder of The Pool, Sam Baker, on the importance of editorial innovation, native advertising and quality content

Two years ago, two friends were having coffee when they discussed the possibility of setting up a new website. They wanted something that would cater to female readers like themselves: a site which provided intelligent, appealing and varied content, and which could harmonise with people’s day-to-day activities the way radio does. They slowly began to formulate an idea.

In March 2015, The Pool was launched as a fully formed website. Its founders – former editor of Cosmopolitan and Red magazine, Sam Baker, and BBC Radio 6 presenter Lauren Laverne – hired a host of well-known journalists such as the Guardian’s Sali Hughes and comedian and writer Viv Groskop to pen ope-eds and features for the site.

Uniquely among online publications, content is released several times a day in “news drops”, which is similar to a radio-style schedule. Readers can see in advance what the day’s schedule will hold, with each news drop being assembled based on a corresponding activity (think video content to watch at lunchtime, a five-minute read on your 11am coffee break, or a late night music playlist for the insomniacs among us).

And with over 22,000 Twitter followers and counting, The Pool has certainly made a splash on the UK online publishing arena, a notoriously difficult thing to do.

We spoke to Sam Baker, The Pool’s co-founder, about writing for women in the 21st century, the benefits of using The Pool’s distinctive linear and what the future holds for the site.

The Pool definitely has a distinctive tone and style. What gap do/did you hope to fill in women’s publishing by launching The Pool?

There was nobody speaking to our demographic (psychographic – sorry) where they were, when they were. In the main the user had moved on from the old methods of content delivery – you only had to look in the queue in Starbucks to see where people are spending their time –  and we felt that there was a big opportunity to deliver content that really spoke to them right in that moment. Also, all too often, digital content is a by-product – the off-cuts of something that was really produced for print or broadcast – or it’s a cheap, fast, hot-take, rather than entirely designed for digital/mobile with an investment in quality.

Can you tell us why you decided to go with the traditional broadcasting structure of releasing content in three “bursts” per day? 

It’s more like seven bursts to be honest, sometimes more, and the bursts aren’t random – far from it. We spent a huge amount of time talking to our target audience about where they were and what they were doing at different times of the day – where their heads were at, if you like – and what device they were on. Then we tailored the content accordingly both in terms of format, length and subject matter.

This notion of speaking to an “audience of one”, thinking about where they are and what they’re doing when you’re trying to reach them is very familiar to anyone who’s worked in radio, so it seemed natural, given Lauren’s background, to adapt that content delivery model to digital. Lots of people in digital thought we were nuts – digital is so MORE MORE MORE NOW NOW NOW – but we stuck to our guns.

This focus on where she is, when she is, what device she’s on, is also why we’re platform agnostic – people, in the main, are – and we wanted the user to be able to have the same experience whatever device she was on.

Do you have any evidence that readers are sampling content in this way on a regular basis?

We do! Thankfully. We are seeing two types of behaviour forming from our loyal user base. The user who comes in every day, initially driven by the email at 8am and then pops back at lunchtime and/or on the way home. And then the other loyal user tends to come in at the weekend to catch up with things they’ve missed.

You have a tool which tells readers how long, in minutes, it will take them to read each article on The Pool site, and readers can search for content based on how much time they have.  Why did you decide to design it this way? 

Because people (women) were constantly telling us how little time they had, and how they wanted someone to cut through the furious noise of the internet. Time and again people said they wouldn’t start watching a video or listening to a podcast because they didn’t want to cut out half way through, so we said ok, this will only take five of your really precious minutes. It’s turned out to be an incredibly popular piece of our functionality and is arguably the most simple.

As is often lamented, we live in an incredibly fast-paced world. Are you concerned that people’s attention spans are getting shorter? 

I was, before we launched, but I’m not now. For instance, everybody said only very long reads and very short reads worked online. Our experience is that that is patently not true.

What do you think is the key to holding readers’ attention and improving “dwell time” online?

Good relevant, well targeted content. It’s as simple as that. Be respectful of the commitment you’re asking from people – their time is as valuable to many of them as money – sometimes more so. That, quality and relevance is what keeps people coming back.

Was it essential to have a “unique innovation” when launching The Pool? Does innovation still count in digital publishing?

Innovation matters but our functionalities were born out of user need not gimmicks. Bells and whistles in digital are over-rated, in my opinion.

What other websites do you admire for producing inspiring content?

So many. Off the top of my head: Quartz is super-smart. I love The Cut. Vice for its investigative news video content. Rookie. All produce good content but also really understand their audience. To me, the one is no use without the other.

Do you think it is tougher for UK editorial website new launches to be successful than their equivalents in the US?

Yes, in as much as we’re a smaller market and we’re poorer! Seriously though, markets – especially English language markets – are more fluid than they once were and we’re already seeing a significant minority of our traffic coming from other English speaking countries, notably America.

A hot topic in publishing at the moment – for obvious reasons – is the rise of adblockers. Do you have strong opinions on display advertising? Is The Pool going to be monetised mainly by native advertising?

I believe display is dying. I wouldn’t want to be a brand dependent on display on mobile when iOS9 launches with ad blockers as given. That’s one of many reasons we don’t sell display on the site, plus it’s intrusive and it pisses people off. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve just opted out when my screen has taken an aeon to load and then been filled with a takeover or pop-up. (Brand partners can have display as part of their package if they so choose, and we do sell email display). Brands need to create great content to tell their story, creating great content is what our team is brilliant at. It make sense for our monetisation to pivot around that. So far (touch wood) it’s paying off.

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