The destination website, reborn

Posted on August 6, 2013 3:49 pm by | Brands | Social Media | Technology | Web

In 2009, Edelman’s Chief Content Officer, Steve Rubel, declared, “After years of erosion, it now it appears the destination web era is drawing to a close.” Rubel was right and had the numbers to prove it. Between social networks and places where the former audience could become content creators, hotfooting it to cool websites became uninteresting.

Since then, the nature of engagement has solidified: It occurs with likes, plus-ones, comments, shares and sometimes one-through-five-star ratings. Now, After years of liking this and sharing that—on computers, tablets and smartphones—the way we engage is starting to feel as old as visiting a destination website did five years ago.

And that opens the door for innovators to breathe new life into websites.

Last Thursday, I saw a demo of just such a site. It’s not a social network, exactly, although people can socialize there. By curating content into personal collections, community members can feel like it’s their site, even though the brand is always front-and-center. The home page is a living entity, updating in real time to display what’s happening now. And even though the site targets a niche audience—some may go so far as to say it’s a cult—the way the site encourages engagement and interaction could apply as easily to organizations as diverse as automotive companies to hospitals.

The backstory

Thanks to David Jones, VP of social for the digital agency Critical Mass (and half of the original Inside PR podcast team), I was invited backstage at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco last Thursday. That night, guitar god Warren Haynes was due to join the San Francisco Symphony for two nights of music by Jerry Garcia. Backstage, Critical Mass was hosting a small reception for local media to introduce the website, JerryGarcia.com.

Trixie and SunshineThe agency’s Mark Silverman explained that, as a longtime Deadhead, he was dismayed when his own visit to the domain redirected him somewhere unrelated. Inspired to do something about it, he fired off an email to someone he thought might be able to steer him in the right direction. He finally connected with Trixie Garcia, one of Jerry’s daughters and one of the main forces keeping her father’s legacy alive. Silverman explained his vision and got the family’s buy-in. (Trixie at left in the photo, and her half-sister, Sunshine Kesey, right, were both at the reception.)

Critical Mass would produce the site “to make something creatively extraordinary in a new vertical.” “I figured we’d spend $20 or $30,000,” Silverman said, but as the vision for the site expanded along with the realization that there was a lot more content to incorporate than originally assumed, the price tag ballooned.

Mark and Amy from Critical Mass
Mark Silverman and Critical Mass Creative Director Amy Haiar reveal details about JerryGarcia.com

The results—those we were shown on the development server, anyway, since the site hasn’t launched yet—are worth the cost. For Jerry’s fans, it’s a no-brainer, a living celebration of Garcia’s life and music and the role his fans played. More important, though, is the glimpse at how a website can become a social gathering ground without resorting to a post-comment-like-share architecture.

The site

Fans relate to Garcia on a number of levels. There’s the music, the shows, the tours, the community, and the sense of being part of something important. Between the Grateful Dead and his numerous other projects (e.g., the Jerry Garcia Band, Legion of Mary, Old and in the Way), Garcia performed a lot, and the site catalogues 3,500 shows, searchable by any number of criteria. You can then refine the results with intuitive filtering and, if you were at that show, you can indicate you were there. For many shows, you can listen to tracks from the concert, meet up virtually with others who were at the show, and find out more about the tour (if there was one) of which the show was part.

JerryGarcia.com show page

The Tours section lets fans revisit the tour and relive part of the experience with music from the shows, maps, statistics and detailed descriptions.

JerryGarcia.com Tours page

Other sections let you meander through Garcia’s life via an interactive timeline, get to know the guitars he played, explore the various bands he was part of, and dive into the extensive catalog of his music. Then there’s The Vault, a collection of photos, videos, tickets, posters and artwork.

The Vault

In the next evolution of the site, fans will be able to visit the Parking Lot. If you’ve never been to a Dead show, the parking lot transformed into a communal gathering place, complete with home-made T-shirts, drum circles and “kind veggie burritos,” among other things. It was a place to run into old friends and make new connections. Online, this will be a place to connect with old and new friends and curate your own collections, adding bits and pieces from throughout the site to form your own personal reminiscence.

In other words, you can signal your connection with each piece of history on the site, share your thoughts and memories, engage with others (and with the family), and do pretty much everything you can do on a social site. But it looks and feels nothing like a social network. Rich with imagery and sound, the site is more like a community sharing its collective memory.

It’s not just JerryGarcia.com

Critical Mass isn’t the only company experimenting with what it means to be social on a website. Gawker honcho Nick Denton has for years wrestled with the idea of commenting. Recently (as I reported on Monday’s episode of FIR), he has introduced an intriguing concept as part of Kinja, a site that curates the top stories from across the Gawker environment. the new functionality lets visitors rewrite the headline, lede and commentary. The original will stay right where it is, but your share of the article—which features the entire piece—will include your revisions.

On the Nieman Journalism Lab blog, Adrienne LaFrance gives the example of a Gawker story about a Canadian who swam to the U.S. across the Detroit River on a dare. The original headline was a rather staid “Canadian Man Sorry for Chugging Eight Beers and Swimming to Detroit.” The lede was also rather traditional. As shared by reader Jesus Diaz, however, the headline chhanged to “Canadian man causes international incident for a drunken bet.” His lede: “John Morillo mobilized three ships and one helicopter from the U.S. and Canadian coast guards after trying to cross the Detroit River, following a drunken bet. The aftermath: he was jailed and has been fined $5,000 by the city. Worse, he really pissed off his mom. “She just hung up on me. She said ‘you’re just so stupid.’” Morillo is a 47-year-old boy from Canada.”

Much better! Diaz was also able to add his own art to top the story.

Denton is quoted in the piece saying, “The whole point of Kinja is to turn the conversation into news, on a grander scale than we do already on the Gawker blogs.”

Right now, the reblogging features at Gawker are available only to editors, but will roll out at some point to everybody.

What was that about the automotive industry?

All these reimaginings of the destination website and news site led me down the garden path to the somewhat stale sites of brands and organizations of all stripes. Think, for example, of Ford’s iconic Mustang. Mustang owners are a community as passionate about their cars as Deadheads are about their music. So why not a Mustang site that strolls through the vehicle’s history? Why not let people find the model they owned years ago and declare their connection with that car, share pictures of it and connect with others who owned that year’s model? Why not digitize those archives and offer old advertising, collateral and other materials fans haven’t laid eyes on in years? Rather than limit Mustang.com to the occasional blog post and photo, it could become a community of Mustang fans, the gathering place for nostalgia as well as current passions.

And as for those blog posts (e.g., “Rare 1970s Ford Mustang Mach I Cobra Jet to be Auctioned”), why not let fans rewrite the headline and lede before sharing it with their friends, providing greater levels of interactivity and engagement, and making the shared item more personal and relevant to the user and his community?

Whether the brands that own big destination sites will follow Gawker’s and Critical Mass’s lead remains to be seen; these are both experiments, neither of which has yet launched in all its glory.

But if brands do pay attention, it could mean a renaissance for the destination website as the gathering place for a communal brand experience, and a new birth of fan engagement and interaction.

08/07/13 | 0 Comments | The destination website, reborn

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