This week the Times Educational Supplement relaunched its website TESconnect.co.uk as part-social network for half a million users to share and rate teaching materials . Alex Lockwood spoke to Head of Internet Edward Griffith:
“When we launch, we’ll have the largest single professional network online in the UK. The community lends itself to a social media network.”
What was behind TES’s move into social media?
In terms of content, the old site was really the packaged-up paper. It got some traffic, particularly in the forums, which had strong growth from about 2003/4. The conversations are what you’d expect: some tightly controlled, and some rants. They’re not actively moderated, but we do police them, post-moderated, there’s always someone on hand for that.
Then the business was bought from Murdoch and there were some new eyes on the project. Someone noticed in the forums there were two big conversations going on. People were seeking support and ideas from each other. Second was sharing teaching tools and resources. So we thought, hang on, there are over half-a-million teachers, and there aren’t that many classes, so we thought: what can we do?
We had a resources section, but it was a bit of a dog. So we developed a prototype resources sharing tool, and it went through the roof. It’s grown 200% y-o-y ever since.
The really weird thing was that, in some focus groups we ran, teachers were telling us how isolated they were. They were spending a huge amount of time planning their lessons in the evenings and at weekends, and doing it all alone.
Link that with what the teachers are looking for in the forums, and we’ve got the premise for biggest single professional social network in the UK.
What’s the thing to watch here?
A way to share material, and a UGC platform. To me they’re the same thing. As a photographer that uses Flickr, you see how tightly community is woven into the content. On TES.co.uk, when the user has found a great piece of content, they click through to see the rest of the content from that user, friend them, and subscribe to their friend feed.
That’s the million dollar moment for me, when the users add each other to their networks. And then they can rate the content. We wanted to get the right rating system in place, so it’s not just about most downloads or average rating, but is a useful indicator of real quality, so we’ve worked hard on the algorhythm.
How will you grow the proposition?
The sharing and UGC all works around the resources. There’s a taxonomy, and then users can tag the content. The taxonomy will suggest a more formal classification, such as Physics at a particular Level, and then the user can make it more specific, such as say wave oscillation.
The other tool we’re using really shows the evolution of technology. We’re using Autonomy, which a few years ago was costing half a million, but which now costs a lot less. It’s very powerful.
One of the technical people here wanted to interrogate its ability so did a search on Ted Bundy, and the system reads into documents, and it found Ted Bundy on page seven of a literature PowerPoint on Frankenstein and the making of monsters. That’s just so powerful as a tool for sharing UGC.
How are you making money from online?
There’s a strong separation between the two businesses, but we do have a joint pot of money, so we don’t have to cover all online costs.
We get most of our money through jobs ads. TES has always been the leader for the education jobs market, and it was a wise decision in the 1990s to migrate that online. In April [when most September jobs are advertised] the paper is a brick; online it’s the same, and advertisers can buy online prominence. We have some display ads, but it’s meaningless in the grand scheme.
Does the move to social media mean the print publication is in decline?
Not at all. The print edition is not disappearing any time soon. For business media and publications that can ride on greater trends that the demand for news print, such as the Economist (we share an office with them), then the future of print and online is very strong.
Digital media consumption is driving working-week habits, and then weekends are still old media, weekly media, such as news magazines and the weekend papers. I get all my media during the week online, I don’t touch newsprint. Web can satisfy that desire.
And old print news, particularly those that relied on classified advertising, well that’s all over now, sorry boys, there’s better ways to do it. And those old media that rely on jobs advertising, specialist jobs boards are closing those old media down, too.
Is there any tension between TES and TESconnect.com as ad revenue moves online?
There’s no real tension around the commercial. There’s more tension around the share of editorial voice. The TES always been the professional newspaper for the education community. There is the old world media organisation upstairs, and a lot of the content will go more rapidly online, but it’s going to be less important as the years go.
The user stuff is going to be more important. What’s key for me is harnessing the creativity of half-a-million professionals who week-in, week-out are preparing and testing the resources in the classroom: that’s the really valuable content for our users.
So print editors feel threatened? As Jeff Jarvis said in the Guardian Monday, who needs editors?
I’m a believer in the role of the editor. The editorial voice still has, perhaps has an even more important role, in the world of mass collaboration. It’s about point of view, but it’s also about promoting what’s out there. Even in today’s world, an editor’s view holds real credibility. If there’s a few thousand people voting on a theme, it’s the editor’s power to take notice of it, organise it and promote that content.
There’s definitely a role for editorial, it’s just finding that role to play.
What are you overheads? Do you have a big staff?
We’ve got 30 staff, and only six for content. Compare that with about fifty editorial on the paper.
What Web1.0 features didn’t work for you?
We’re not closing them down, but we are pressing pause on specialist blogs; it was really an old media form online, commissioning copy, and it didn’t seem a good use of time when you think about the effort going into each individual piece and the audience share it might get.
It seems a much better use of our time to build a framework for half-a-million people to provide content.
Who did you learn from to put together your social media tools?
Lots of media organisations have related well to their audiences, but it can be a leap of faith to give the audience its own voice. The Guardian and NYT have done that, but there are very few good UGC propositions coming out of traditional media companies. So we looked at all the good UGC sites, and we took them apart, really did, to find out what made them work.
And it wasn’t old media habits. In many ways what we’re not doing as well online is the old media bits, you know, publishing articles, and we can do a lot better on that. But I think we’re doing it the right way round. Get the social media right first, and then the publishing.
And what’s going to make you succeed?
The essence of success here is that teachers need information; they’re information intensive workers, and there’s a huge value in bringing that information together so it can be shared. Our strap, and this is a shift from the brand of the print TES, is: ‘for teachers, by teachers.’