A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the 99U Refresh

2016 marked the seventh anniversary of 99U: a website, magazine, conference and book series dedicated to helping people make their ideas happen—and the publication I’ve worked on in various roles since September 2012. In that time, the website has amounted an impressive resume: About 650k uniques a month, more than 260k in book sales from three books, a few Webby awards, and a yearly sold out 1,000-person conference in Lincoln Center.

But in the past year, a lot changed. Of the five people that worked regularly on 99U, all took the year to move on to other projects save one: me. This includes publisher/founder Scott Belsky and founding editor Jocelyn Glei. There’s no replacing talent like that.

After the initial shock, we realized that we had an opportunity to rethink 99U from scratch, to take a swing at making this great thing even better. A lot of pixels are used to describe how new editorial products are launched from scratch. But in going through this process, I struggled to find any advice on how to adjust an existing product, one with a small staff.

Additionally, at 99U we often ask people for their thinking behind their creative processes. In that spirit, what follows is the process used that led to the current iteration of 99U that launched today, one I’m extremely proud of.

Note: this will cover the “how.” If you’re more interested in a shorter recap of what we did head on over to my post on 99U.com.

Step 1: KTLO / Keep The Lights On

99U in 2012

After losing more than a decade of combined experience I had to face a hard reality: We weren’t going to be as prolific as we were in the past. This was tough, because if you measured my blood pressure each day, I’d bet it is lower on days when we publish. Putting ideas out into the world is fun.

However, there was no way we could keep our editorial schedule moving while writing a book, while planning an event, while hiring new team members.

I made a decision that we would sacrifice the short-term appearance in favor of long-term gain and entered what developers would call KTLO mode or keep the lights on mode. Instead of publishing 3 features a week, we did 1–2. Instead of 10 blog aggregation-heavy posts (we called this section “Workbook”—more there later), we did 1–2. I tabled all future book plans and shuttered a small number of half-completed projects.

Outwardly, the site was still regularly publishing. But behind the scenes, the new 99U team had time to regroup.

Step 2: Realistically Assess The Current State of Affairs

This period of transition would be time to investigate how we could stretch further. I had my own ideas, but if we really wanted get this right, we’d have to ask our readers and look at the numbers. The number one job of any editor is to know your audience. In this case, I made a priority to seek out bad news before good news, because criticism is more actionable.

We published a survey (see it here), posted it on 99U and pushed through our channels, receiving 343 responses. The question I paid the most attention to was “If I’m being honest, one specific critique I have of 99U.com is…” Some trends immediately became clear:

Though it resulted in great traffic, our “Workbook” blog was hurting our brand credibility.

Workbook was the “flow” in our stock and flow. A twice daily blog that quoted other sources with a bit of commentary. What we thought this Workbook was accomplishing: Providing insights between our deeper and more thorough “feature” posts. What it was actually doing: Undermining our credibility as a place with deep, thoughtful insights. We had spent years building meaty evergreen feature posts and our readers came to expect that. But soon our audience didn’t know the difference between the two and many thought we had switched to ONLY writing that way.

Lesson: Whatever nuance you think exists in your publishing/post types, most readers don’t see the difference. It’s all coming from you with your earned authority.

Some excerpts from the survey:

“The articles sometimes do seem too short or snippets of a bigger article in the making. This doesn’t apply to the majority of small articles, but I do get that feeling from time to time.”

“Some of the articles don’t go in-depth enough. A few come off as quick summaries”

“Write. longer. articles. A lot of articles I read and think ‘I wish there was more. This was great.’”.

“Sometimes I get excited about a feature in the newsletter, only to click through and find it’s a very very short curated piece, and I have to click to yet another link to learn about the topic. Offering more in your summary or linking directly to the article would be better for me.”

These comments were clearly directed at our Workbook product, not our “features.”

Our survey rated Workbook the lowest of our written content. Readers rated “overall quality” of 99U at 4.22 for comparison.

Our audience is largely those in visual creative industries, yet our site communicated in its design and some of its language that it was for a business audience.

Previously, for the sake of editorial workflow, we kept the images simple and small. But it was clear that wasn’t hacking it anymore. Editorially, I also began to feel constricted when I would interview a leading illustrator but couldn’t embed their work in a big a beautiful format. The tension between these two ideas proved too much and the reader noticed:

“Feels a little corporate/safe sometimes”

“Not enough visual pictures”

“Perhaps the design of your messages…and I mean design in a very literal sense. Visuals (color, font, layout) communicate what you are all about as do the words. .”

“The look of the site is academic sometimes.”

Lesson: Our branding wasn’t speaking the language of our target audience.

The second part of our data audit was looking at web analytics. It’s easy to look at your stats and see the picture you want to see. However one number stuck out to me:

The average person spent 4:14 on our articles. This told me that our articles (not our “Workbook” blog posts or static pages) were being read the entire way through and valued. Anecdotal data backed this up as comments were always productive and social media chatter positive. But the bad news: we were hovering at around one page view per visit. So it seemed people came via our social media or our email list, read one article, enjoyed it, and then moved on. Frustrating, because 99U’s content is purposefully evergreen. We edit all articles to be as useful in 2010 as 2020 by focusing on first principals and avoiding the mention of specific apps or trends. Yet, we weren’t taking advantage of these archives. We were surrendering our greatest advantage as a publication! This drove me nuts.

So we had 3 actionable next steps:

  • Kill our short bloggy stuff, direct more resources into our articles.
  • Set up a design and editorial workflow to embrace more visual content.
  • Take better advantage of our evergreen archive of nearly 1,000 articles.

Step 3: Determine Where We Want to Go

99U in Early March, 2016

Ah, the hard part! In the interest of stripping everything down to the core, we wanted to candidly access how we could be the most use to our audience. 99U’s past success has been because of our focus on “insights on making ideas happen” which had been in place for seven years. In some ways I felt the pang that many feel when they write about a similar topic for years in a row: We had said most everything there was to say. There’s only so much one can edit, write, and curate about productivity and creative psychology. The insatiable desire for such content far outpaces any advancements or research in the field. While that subject is relevant and needed, 99U could easily explore other topics and focuses and still be of use to our audience.

Before we hired a staff, rebranded 99U, or started writing more stuff, we had to figure out what our mission was. Sounds simple, but this order of operations was agonizing to acknowledge. I spent weeks sketching action plans and then scrapping them after I realized that until we remade our core value proposition and mission statement, nothing would matter.

It took a lot of doodles to get me to the laughable simple premise.

This is when I called in the calvary. Head of Behance Will Allen, 99U’s Creative Director (and Behance’s Head of Brand) Mark Brooks, and Behance’s Lead Designer Zach McCullough and I met in mid-August to lay everything on the table and discuss how we could take 99U further. We all agreed that the current iteration of 99U was a success. But in order to grow 99U’s audience would have to better and more explicitly overlap that of Behance’s, 99U’s “parent” product. Behance has an audience of 6 million members and growing. Despite being in the same office, and despite publishing insights useful to that community, 99U often didn’t leverage this audience.

A painstakingly constructed graph of 99U’s next few months from my notes.

We decided to cater to the Behance audience and those that could potentially be in that audience in a direct way. This actually wasn’t a huge departure from where we were. We just never stated it explicitly, whether in our branding or in our copy. But we often used the word “creatives” to address our audience. Being clear here would allow us to be more obvious about who should read us while opening new avenues of content.

Before: we write about idea execution. After: that plus creative career advice plus profiles of those with something to teach our creative audience. Both things we did sparingly in the past.

The action plan from here nearly wrote itself: We should provide career advice to creative professionals. This doesn’t mean we only have to talk to and about creative people, but we should look at everything we publish and ask: Would the career of someone in the creative field benefit from this in some way?

I wrote a loose 1000-word action plan to the stakeholders. We all agreed and then we were off. Shortly after these meeting we hired Assistant Editor Kiana St. Louis and Senior Writer Matt McCue to help execute the new product, and everything that follows could not have happened without their insight, assistance, and dedication.

Step 4: Create a Production Calendar

I learned a lot of great things from Jocelyn Glei, 99U’s founding editor. One habit of hers that I stole is the production calendar. Just lay out everything you want to do on a calendar, order, prioritize, assign responsibility, and get out of the way.

I found myself having a ton of ideas whirling around in my head with no cohesive vision. We should do a podcast again! And a redesign! And get more writers! All ideas with no action or strategy. When this happens, write them down, write them all down. Even the stupid ones. Especially the stupid ones. You won’t be able to do this in one sitting, nor should you try. Though flights and train rides are a good time to chip away at this list.

A “white board session” focused on ideal homepage design

I locked myself in one of our conference rooms with a white board, played some Black Keys, drank a lot of Coca-Cola, and wrote out every single thing I had floating around in my head. It was incredibly relieving once I felt like I had it all out.

With everything on the wall I invited anyone interested to look and offer feedback. I then organized the ideas by product and made a giant Workflowy document.

A small sample of a very long document

I then arranged this into a timeline and we had our action plan. Not a hard guide (you’ll see we missed our redesign date by 45 days) but more of an order of operations.

Step 5: Do Things.

With mission and production plan and staff all on board. Now it was time to execute. From the site to the brand itself to the magazine, all of this was led by Mark Brooks, who is instrumental to creating everything you see. Not just designing the products, but as a reader. He did his own version of locking himself in a room and came up with our new brand, catered explicitly to the creative audience. Convenient as he is a member of our creative audience.

Our new logo while under construction. WIP: Mark Brooks
An earlier version of the new website we scrapped because we realized we should stretch a bit more. WIP: Mark Brooks

Mark presented the new brand to us, we dug it and we set in place mini production calendars for the new magazine, new website, and new conference identity. Together we wrote out the feeling or strategy behind each product, he would design, we’d talk about it, he’d iterate etc. We had a very collaborative and unstructured process for each. We’d set the final deadline, work backward from there establishing milestones.

A sample document I sent Mark outlined what I wanted on the homepage.
A sample from our timeline, made in Google Docs

Step 6 (ongoing): Ship Things

Today marks the debut of the first wave of 99U products with the new branding and focused mission. Allow me to introduce you to…

99U.com

Notable features:

  • Increased focused on email signups, our best converting and most efficient form of audience development.
  • The end of Workbook (per reader feedback).
  • Many articles scroll into two other articles hand-selected by 99U editors. This is to better expose our archive and “capture” those who come in via social media.
  • Capacity for images as large as 1240 pixels (up from 550) though posts with small or no images scale gracefully.

99U Magazine

A rendering of our brand new 99U Magazine, with a playful “Ninety Nine U” nameplate.

Notable features:

  • 96 pages of content (up from 64) yet price point is exactly the same.
  • Many many many more visual spreads and a focus on prominent members of the Behance network.
  • 2 more Q and A interviews, for a total of 4
  • A scalable design. Previously, each issue was designed from scratch.
  • Infrastructure change to allow purchasing of back issues. (Thanks Hemlock!)

99U Apple TV app

Notable features:

  • Every 99U conference video ever made for free.
  • A chance to test video as a future focus of the brand.
  • Not a feature, but big ups to our mobile team for suggesting this and knocking it out of the park.

We won’t get everything right. There will be bugs, ideas that didn’t land, and things we can improve. But I’m super proud of our progress thus far and cannot wait to build on this foundation. I’d love to know what you think on Twitter: @SeanBlanda

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