VanityFair.com Website Design Review

The Most Pressing Question About VanityFair.com is the Strategy of the Site. Is it a True Content Site or Just Marketing Print Subscriptions?

Vanity Fair is one of those cultural icons that doesn’t have to introduce itself. But, being a bit of a cultural dork myself, I’ll let them do it anyway:

“With a unique mix of image and intellect, Vanity Fair captures the people, places and ideas that are defining modern culture. From the arts and entertainment, to sports and media, to politics and world affairs, Vanity Fair is what the world is talking about now.”—Vanity Fair Media Kit.

VanityFair.com, the online presence of Vanity Fair magazine, is a mixed bag as far as the Mequoda website design scorecard is concerned. The most pressing question being about the strategy of the site. Is it a true content site or just marketing print subscriptions? The overview—there are some real A-list moments here, but also some B-list moves.

    A-List:

  • Great subscription marketing strategy: the site increases print subscribers with multiple points of entry to the order form.
  • Exclusive multimedia content: getting additional, webified content from existing editorial efforts creates a reason to visit the site and extend the brand reach.
  • Community: the chattering classes are given a forum to express their witty opinions.B-List
  • Content: a shallow site is too easy to love and leave.
  • Site Design: confusing navigation makes what content there is, harder to find.
  • Relationships: with no relationship-building devices, readers can’t even pretend they’re in the VIP room.

VanityFair.com’s Mequoda Scorecard

1. Strategic Intent – B

VanityFair.com caught our attention because of a comment by Jason Oliver Nixon on Women’s Wear Daily that VanityFair.com got 1,000 new print subscribers on the first day that the site posted the magazine’s cover. Parent Condé Nast hasn’t missed the implication that the online youngsters have a great potential to attract new readers to their print-world elder siblings. Looking at VanityFair.com from this perspective, it’s obvious why the subscriptions to the print magazine are rolling in.

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The average visitor will see more than five subscribe ads on each visit. Subscribe locations:

  • A “Subscribe Now” pop over, and a pop under as well.
  • The current cover image, with “Subscribe now for just $1.50 an issue“, right next to the logo.
  • A subscribe link on the top navigation,
  • On the far right are two more subscribe ads, one for Vanity Fair and one for Vanity Fair and Vogue.
  • The bottom of every page has one more subscribe pitch.

The trouble is, the average consumer isn’t coming to VanityFair.com solely to subscribe. That just isn’t their primary goal. The user comes for content, and this site just doesn’t provide enough. The mainstays of most content sites aren’t here. We’ve got shallow content, no registration, no newsletters, barely any archives and not a lot of Web exclusives.

The result? As far as the business is concerned, this is a marketing site, designed to gain print subscribers. As far as the reader is concerned, they get a teaser of the content that they want, but for the most part are going to feel a bit cheated.

2. Content Webification – B

One of the few things VanityFair.com does right is to create exclusive webified content from their existing editorial efforts. Minimal additional resources are used to create the B-rolls. (A B-roll is a video of a star during a cover shoot. Some intern is given a video camera and walks around during the shoot just watching the photographers look cool and the makeup artists fuss and the stars pose—it’s just like being there.) The video is edited with class—you won’t see the stars humiliated as they scratch their ears. We get to feel like we’re on the inside, watching Pamela Anderson and George Clooney doing their thing.

Otherwise the site content is just print content put online in a less attractive layout (the photos are too small) or even worse, just the headlines of what you could see in the magazine or in the archives, if they were here, which they aren’t. Pysche. The grade here is a B because I was so in love with the B-roll, the cleverness of using the expensive cover shot and creating a reason to go online and extend the relationship with the brand… cool.

3. Relationship Building – F

With no relationship building devices, VanityFair.com has missed the opportunity to create a reason for users to return. What kind of things could they do? Let the reader register for a newsletter, sending the latest from a particular department or columnist, would be a simple way to get started.

4. Community Building – B

I was happy to see that the type of audience I expected to be reading Vanity Fair didn’t let me down. The community building forum was well populated with intelligent, witty posts. The 6,000-plus messages show users “chat with other VF readers about society, celebrities, politics, news and more.” Many posts had well over 10 replies, a pretty decent showing for a non-techie audience.

5. Persistent Navigation – C

About half the navigation was persistent, the rest was a free-for-all. Additionally, while the seven links on the top navigation level stayed the same throughout the site, they didn’t make sense from a hierarchical view. Some were administrative (Subscribe, Contact), and some were content related (Roundtable, Fanfair), but all were visually weighted the same, and in a random order.

The bizarre part comes next. The homepage puts links to deeper content on the lower right, in graphic buttons for each item. Then, going deeper, the navigation changes. Roundtable, Fanfair and Daily Dose, are level two index pages, and each links to individual articles in a different way, creating a situation where the user has to learn where to look on each new page.

Let’s look at the way the navigation links change on each content index page:

  • Roundtable: Link to content either by clicking on the image of the author, or their name on the left side of the center space.
  • Fanfair: Link to the articles via clickable images/department heads/author name (geesh—please see Affordance) which take up the whole center of the page.
  • Daily Dose: These external links are just listed in three columns under the subhead.
  • Inside VF: This page reprints the TOC from the print magazine, complete with page numbers (actually, this is probably pretty useful). But the catch is that it will also frustrate the website audience as most of these articles aren’t available online. To know which ones are here, the user has to scroll down visually skimming for underlined links.

6. Task Depth – D

As previously mentioned, VanityFair.com does a great job with the subscription process. However, that’s not the only task a typical user will want to accomplish. Others might be, for example: the ability to look up a photograph or article that they read last month, the ability to email articles to friends or the ability to manage their subscription. Things that either weren’t there, or were too hard to accomplish (the customer service and emailing a page were very clunky).

Particularly missing was the ability to search through content (there is no search button on the site). Also, putting online archives for many print magazines is a tough call because of the way art and writing were contracted, pre-Internet. A sister publication, The New Yorker, dealt with the legal barbed wire by offering their considerable archives on PDF. Maybe Vanity Fair will do the same, someday.

7. Affordance – D

The links on VanityFair.com came in so many varieties and methods that I’m wondering just how many interns were working here. Some links are red text, some are blue, some are black. Some are photographs, some are image maps. Some underline when you mouseover, some don’t. Sometimes we have black and white graphic buttons, sometimes big text in grey caps. (The “email this page to a friend” looks so much like a static table head that I only clicked on it by accident—that was a link?) Clicking on everything seems to be the best strategy, because the affordance—the visual cues that helps the user get where they’re going—is too inconsistent to be usable.

8. Labeling and Language – B

For the most part, the labeling and language do a fantastic job of matching the print product, using Web standards and being inventive.

Some examples:

  • Print Product Continuity: Fanfair, is used in the magazine for the calendar, Planetarium for the horoscopes. Both of these terms are audience-centric and make the print readers feel at home on the site.
  • Web standards: Don’t mess with the obvious. “Subscribe” and “Vanity Fair Store” makes sure no potential sales are lost due to jargon.
  • Inventive: “Vintage VF” is much more fun than “VF Archives.”

A few bloopers include using “My Stuff” and “Daily Dose.” Both have confusion in taxonomy.

  • My Stuff implies, thanks to Bill Gates, that you get to personalized content—’My documents’ ‘My pictures’ etc.—while instead we get a list of advertiser’s stuff.
  • Daily Dose implies that it will be a daily updated page. Instead it is a list of external links to editor’s favorite sites.

9. Readability (Content Density) – A

Within the content space, the white background on a single flush left column of black type is very readable. Other than the difficult-to-read-onscreen serif typeface, the articles are a pleasant balance of all the traditional magazine elements: department section, headline, subhead, byline, photo and copy. This makes reading the site almost as good as reading the magazine. The balance of advertisement to content space is a little overbearing above the fold, but then, that would be just like reading the magazine too, wouldn’t it? I particularly enjoyed the use of bold to emphasize the name-dropping per paragraph, and the use of the drop cap—what a rarity online!

10. Organization – B

Look over the site with an imaginary 2×2 box and picture each quadrant and count the kinds of links available. While values will change on different pages, on the homepage we’ve got the content on the lower left, and the navigation and advertising on the upper left, and upper and lower right. The requirement here isn’t to have something in every quadrant, but to make sure that each quadrant is used appropriately. It’s not good that the content—what the user is here for—is regulated to only one of the four. The reader will have to fight to find the stuff they’re looking for by forcibly tearing their eyes away from 75 percent of the page. However, everything that should be here, is, so the grade is a B.

11. Content Freshness – C

The magazine is on a monthly print run, the site updates once a week. While each article is dated, the only way to know the schedule is to scroll to the bottom of the homepage and see “coming next week.” I almost missed it, and dinged the site for it.

This is a missed opportunity—as loyal Vanity Fair readers will want a fix in-between issues, and the site is the perfect way to keep the content flowing without breaking the bank. Content has to be daily so that readers have an incentive to return to the site. For a site that bills itself as “what the world is talking about now,” they must think the world talks very slowly.

On a positive note, the blog by contributing editor James Wolcott, updated several times a week, is an example of how VanityFair.com could bring in more frequent content. Unfortunately, Wolcott’s blog is a separate URL that just links to VanityFair.com, but is not a part of the site.

12. Load Time – C

VanityFair.com loads at a rate of 45 seconds on a 56k modem. This score earns a C, as it is under 50 seconds and above 25.

13. Aesthetics – C

Vanity Fair is a part of the history of American visual communications. The early Vanity Fair had been known for creating a pictorial record of our culture with famous illustrators’ caricatures of the icons of the moment. The original magazine ceased publication in 1936, and the Vanity Fair that we know today was brought back by Conde Nast in the 1980s. As our culture has evolved, so have the visuals. Now the magazine is a venue for famous photographers to record images of our superstars. I’m sure I’m not alone in having Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of Demi Moore’s pregnant and naked body forever seared into my brain. Without slighting the excellent editorial history (early writer Dorothy Parker was a member of the Algonquin Round Table), VanityFair.com has a lot to live up to in the aesthetics department.

VanityFair.com maintains the most basic aesthetic of the magazine with the red color, the logo, the fonts when possible. But it falls short. The site is not the visual class act that the magazine is. For example, the ragged right edge of the layout is incredibly irritating (nothing lines up and the eye is always searching for an anchor). Additionally, for this image-hungry audience there just isn’t enough eye candy. The expensive cover shot is barely visible in a thumbnail sized box in the corner. With the obvious visual talent that Vanity Fair magazine can shepherd, the paltry visual offering of VanityFair.com is truly a shame.

14. Brand Preference – B

As the above paragraph on Aesthetics will probably hint, the major problem for VanityFair.com is the separation between the quality of the print magazine and the website. This is often the case for well-established print brands. The Internet has been around for a generation now, and yet the brand battle still simmers in publishing executive turf wars. To the user, VanityFair.com feels like a welcome extension of the magazine, with additional content such as the B-roll adding value to the experience of the brand. Unfortunately, the site itself feels like a step-child, starved of the parental affection lavished on the established Vanity Fair magazine. The edges are rough, there isn’t enough depth, the site feels cobbled together from the elder sibling’s hand-me-downs. The trouble here is the commitment of resources to bring the site up to the magazine’s standards.

Conclusion

VanityFair.com is sooo… almost. The negatives all point to a lack of attention and resources. The site is difficult to browse due to the inconsistent navigation, the aesthetics are not up to snuff, the content is not updated frequently enough and there just isn’t enough content, period. Then we look at what the site does right. The excellent writing and photography from the magazine make a great online product. The B-roll is a brilliant use of resources to create additional content. The forums create a fun community space for an intelligent and chatty audience. From a marketing point of view, the intense focus on gathering new print subscriptions is what earned the site a review in the first place.

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