On paper, The Pool goes against everything we think should work in a digital publishing site. It publishes just a few pieces of content, and releases them in timed ‘drops’ throughout the day to a schedule, inspired by radio timetables. To top it off, it targets younger women – a market arguably already well-served by more traditional media companies.

But every detail of the way The Pool works has been carefully thought through and meticulously implemented by founders Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne, drawing together years of research into not just what women want, but their daily habits and their relationship with both their mobile phones and the internet.

The proof is very much in the pudding for the site, which is going from strength to strength three years after its launch, with a six-figure email subscriber list, almost thirty employees and ambitious plans for the year ahead.

In a recent interview for the Media Voices podcast, I spoke to Sam Baker about her background in women’s magazines, why she decided to launch The Pool and what she thought was missing in women’s media. Sam made some valuable points which can be used to help other publishers, and I’ve drawn out some key learnings here.

Focus on what’s working

Towards the end of her time working in magazines, Baker realised that people “were just not going where magazines were sold any more”. But she still firmly believed that there was a future for good content, it just wasn’t going to be found by existing magazine publishers and the way they were approaching it.

One of the first points that her and co-founder Lauren Laverne set out was that it wouldn’t be a case of putting together the best magazine brains together to find a good magazine, or putting the best broadcast brains together.

“The way we approached it was to put lots of different brains together, and work out what is working about our respective media backgrounds, what isn’t working, and if there’s a future,” Baker explained. “What’s working about broadcast, what’s working about magazines, radio, niche.”

It was this that led to one of The Pool’s unique selling points: timed content drops. Radio is timed throughout the week, and consequently The Pool has been built like a radio programme, whilst still maintaining that intimacy that magazines have with their audience, something Baker believes magazine publishers have lost focus on.

Know your audience

As the ad model challenges have really started to bite, there has been a noticeable swing in industry conversations and case studies back towards the readers. It seems that those publishers who are set to weather the storm are those who have a laser-focus on exactly who reads their content, and the relationship they have with the brand.

The Pool is no exception, and this is partly due to a year’s worth of research by Baker into women and their lives before the site launched.

“In the race to tackle the digital monster, people kind of forgot that what is at the heart of any media brand is the audience,” she said, explaining why she spent so long researching before launching. “We talked to about 200 women, a real mix of vocations, age, type…and just said, ‘What’s your life like?’”

By this point, mobile phones had really become embedded in our everyday lives, and Baker was quick to pick up the difficult relationship women had with their devices.

“It really struck me the minute I started asking women how they felt about their phone – which was that they loved it and had almost a physical relationship with it in the way that people used to have with magazines – so what’s your relationship with the phone? Love. What’s your relationship with the internet? Hate. But I spend all my time on these two things.”

From these conversations, Baker drew the conclusion that the women she spoke to wanted some sort of gatekeeper back to filter out the quality content from the sheer volume that’s available on the internet every day. If they could give these women good content that was worth their time, that they identify with and which is available on their phones at the time they’re looking at their phones, then that’s starting to establish a habit.

This approach informs The Pool’s approach to native advertising as well. Right from the beginning, they had to keep their savvy readership in focus.

“Who are the women who will come to The Pool, why will they come here, why will they keep coming back…and also why will they then tolerate us giving them convent from advertisers?”

Baker said that the first few times they carried native advertising there was definitely a backlash, and that they had to take a lot of time with that audience to explain that they pay all contributors and staff properly, aren’t VC-funded and don’t carry display ads because they don’t believe they work, so branded content is one of the few ways to keep money flowing.

“We treat all content as valuable, and when we’re building branded content, we always say that it doesn’t matter who’s paid for it, whether we’ve paid for it…or Starbucks have paid for it, it’s got to be worth the audience’s time, and that’s the barometer that we put it by.”

Don’t be afraid to evolve

Change is always a challenge, but readers and their habits are always changing, so it makes sense to keep on top of your audience’s relationship with your content. The Pool has not just evolved, but is willing to evolve alongside its readers, as Baker explained.

“In the beginning, we didn’t want to do ‘women-oriented news’ we wanted to just do news. But it was probably blindingly obvious to everybody…that you’ve got to give someone a reason to come to you. We can’t compete with the BBC or the Guardian, and so just gradually we evolved, always asking ourselves why someone would come, why they would want to read it, how it would make them feel, and then catering towards that.”

“What we found is that we were quite early to speak up about…domestic violence, and any kind of women’s issues – although I hate the phrase women’s issues because it should be people’s issues – and the traffic grew commensurate with that…We have a mission to celebrate women’s voices and to amplify them to tell women’s stories.”

What next?

The Pool still have a way to go to a really sustainable future, but for such a young company, their pick-and-mix approach to what really works in media, combined with a real relationship with the audience and a willingness to change with them stands them in very good stead to ride what is set to be a very difficult year for many media companies.

The key questions for me come in two parts. Firstly, who exactly reads your content: what are their daily lives like, and how do you fit in to that? Secondly, what is it about you that makes them want to come back – what’s your unique selling point?

Further reading

Lessons from majority member-funded sites & being clear about who sites serve – The Membership Puzzle Project

How to Survive the Media Apocalypse: Pivot to readers – The Atlantic

In an era of loyalty, newspaper publishers focus on time spent and frequency – Digiday

The Pool’s Sam Baker on measuring digital success and launching paid-for newsletters – Media Voices

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