'If you want her time you’ve got to be worth it' – How Lauren Laverne and Sam Baker are applying the rules of radio and glossies to The Pool

TV presenter Lauren Laverne and former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Sam Baker

At a time when most publishers are grappling with how to thrive in an online age, The Pool is taking lessons from the craft of established media and applying it to the web, rewriting the way in which media brands speak to women.

The Pool, the online publication co-founded in 2014 by radio and TV presenter Lauren Laverne and former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Sam Baker, has ripped up the rule book, challenging perceived wisdoms about how, when and where to publish digital content.

With publishers still getting to grips with how to create a successful, commercially viable strategy that’s cognisant with how content is consumed (across multiple devices, at any time of day) The Pool’s founders have built their editorial strategy around the lessons learned from two established media formats – broadcast and print magazines.

Baker and Laverne felt there was no equivalent of what they wanted to offer in the market: a place for intelligent women who are interested in what’s going on in the world, but also happen to like reading about make-up.

“We came from the point of view that we’re interested in politics, music and literature, as well as lipstick and handbags, and we can read without moving our lips,” says Baker.

Content is published around specific times of the day and at the same times each day, in a model similar to TV and radio programming. This broadcast approach to content emerged from Laverne and Baker’s gut feelings about the volume and frequency of content published online; after speaking to their target audience, they found women were frequently overwhelmed and disillusioned by the amount of information they were exposed to on a daily basis by media outlets.

Laverne explains that they wanted to create an antidote to this constant stream of content. “You know those pictures of exploding fire hydrants in New York? It [content] was just shooting out at you,” she says. “We wanted to create a feeling of just enough, dropped at the right time, the right size and the right amount of information, rather than just this crazy deluge.”

This curation is closer to the way in which a printed magazine is created. It’s considered, measured, and tailored to its audience. It’s about making people’s lives easier, according to Baker, preventing the multi-tasking woman who may only have three minutes to spare from having to plough through lots of content to find what’s most relevant.

Compromising in the quest for virality

With lots of publishers pushing out as much content as possible in a quest to attract more eyeballs, quality isn’t always the first priority and it becomes a race to the bottom to get that next viral hit.

“In the rush to be the next blue or gold dress, publishers and content creators have lost sight of the fact that they are content creators,” says Baker. “For most of us, when we clicked on that article none of us knew where it was, whether it was Buzzfeed or the Independent. It could have been anybody.”

Instead, The Pool has encouraged readers to form habits when consuming content. The site’s traffic peaks correlate with the working day: a big peak early in the morning is followed by another during the commuting hour, then lunchtime, the evening commute and another spike at around 9pm. Content is therefore tailored to cater for that.

For this strategy to be successful, it had to be focused around mobile. The Pool’s mobile-centric approach has been key to the delivery of a broadcast model for its content, and according to Baker, it’s never an afterthought – it’s the main event. “We’re always thinking about the woman standing in the queue at Prêt, or at her desk; it’s always completely targeted to that moment.”

Driven by the insight that as our mobiles have become the hub of our busy lives, the publisher wanted to be present in those moments. After hearing the emotional language used to describe people’s relationship with their phones, Baker realised there was scope to build something “as beautiful as a glossy” and which delivered everything that people expect from online.

According to Laverne, the priority from the beginning was how they wanted the user to feel. “That’s where the name comes from,” she says. “It’s not just because it’s collaborative and we have our pool of writers and contributors, it also sounds relaxing, refreshing and clear, and those were all feelings that we wanted people to have. It was about how can you have an emotional relationship with your user? That’s magazines, isn’t it? Everybody has their favourite glossy.”

“Time is the main currency now. You must be respectful of that,” says Baker. “You’re not competing for someone to spend £5.50, you’re competing for them to spend five minutes. In a way, that is so much less tangible.”

Earning her time

This filters into their approach to branded content, too. Rather than targeting users with irritating banner ads, the publisher offers bespoke native advertising and branded content partnerships with a select number of relevant brands. This goes back to the same core principle of the ‘audience of one’, says Laverne: “You have to think about this woman, how valuable her time is. To earn it you must be polite. She’s busy, so if you want three minutes of her time you’ve got to be worth it.”

However, brands on the whole are only just starting to understand, and are still too fixated on metrics like click-through rate according to Baker. “At the moment, the brands say the agencies don’t get it and the agencies say the brands don’t get it. They’ve all drunk the display drug, and that’s why we include display in our brand partnership deals – it just makes them feel safer,” she says.

“It seems to me that because of the avalanche of content, quality went out the window and respect for the user’s time did the same. It’s a question of stopping for a minute and asking why that person is going to give you five minutes of her time. If she’s going to do that, and you want her to come back when she has another five minutes, it’s got to be good. Some brands just don’t really respect that.”

One brand that did get it and came on board with The Pool’s less-is-more approach is Marks & Spencer. Its content partnership for M&S Food includes the publication of an article late afternoon targeting women at the time they are most likely to start thinking about what they will have for dinner.

Future focus

When The Drum meets Laverne and Baker, they’re just closing a round of funding, earmarked for growing the commercial team. Since launch, The Pool has worked with a select number of the brands on its wishlist, including Clinique, its first partner.

With more pitches coming in than they can handle, servicing more partnerships is a big priority. “At the moment we’re having to cherry-pick,” says Baker.

Following the round of funding, another key area of focus is working on its database of email subscribers who receive a targeted e-shot listing three top articles during the morning commute. Open rates are 55 to 60 per cent, says Baker, with a click-through of 25 to 30 per cent. Going forward, the priority will be to build a meaningful picture of the audience. “We know how valuable that audience is,” she adds.

Holding their nerve

Of course, disrupting the status quo hasn’t been pain-free for the two, who have instinctively run against some received wisdom when starting out. Baker says “loads of people, particularly digital people” felt their strategy wouldn’t work because readers wouldn’t accept a broadcast approach online. “Loads of blokes in particular said ‘they don’t want everything first thing in the morning’, and ‘they’re not going to come back because you tell them to’ – but they did.”

Their approach to long-form is also doing well, despite uncertainty from some corners. “Someone said to me you’re really lucky if you can get anyone to watch a video or listen to a podcast more than three minutes long; actually, we’ve found the opposite,” says Laverne. “As long as it’s put out at the right time, our long-form travels and gets a lot of engagement. That’s been satisfying because we had to hold our nerve on a few things, and I’m glad we did.”

Image courtesy of David Levene/Guardian News & Media

This feature was first published in The Drum's 29 June issue.

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