It's rare for an established media brand to out-maneuver its smaller digital-first rivals. But that's what CNN did with its CNNGo.com brand, which has leapt ahead of rivals in social media popularity.
Launched in 2009, the Asia-Pacific-focused travel website CNNGo.com focused on a handful of Asian cities, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Bangkok, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Sydney. Its emphasis was on creating city guides, such as an Insiders' Guide to Taipei.
On November 13, it was folded into CNN's main site this month, under the Travel tab. That may sound like failure at first glance, but the site had several successes.
CNN Go's editors were ambitious and creative, and the site soon became a social media hit, drawing traffic volume through search and social media instead of relying on links from the CNN homepage. (CNN declined to give us traffic numbers.)
Its efforts have been rewarded by being accepted into the main company's brand. Since November 13, visitors to CNNGo.com have been redirected to the CNN Travel page. Content has been ported over, and the focus has been broadened from Asia to the whole world.
A look at CNN Go's Facebook page, prior to the rebranding, showed that several articles had tens of thousands of "likes." A sample test of search engine terms on a variety of topics revealed that Google fetches CNNGo content as first search results for a variety of organic search terms.
Whether you're a journalist, blogger, or content creator for a travel site, there are interesting lessons to be learned from CNNGo, and on the current rebranding effort.
1. Pro-am strikes a balance between amateur and professional.
To maintain quality control, CNNGo.com's content came from paid editors and contributors. The fees were low, but freelancers were eager to be have their names associated with the CNN Go brand and have their work showcased on an international platform.
This gave CNNGo.com quality content without having to pay more money to freelancers than could be reaped through the sale of adjacent display advertising and sponsorships.
By drawing from a large pool of talent, the site could update each city page multiple times daily, which is important in drawing and audience and having good search rankings. CNN Travel, which relied, until now, on full-time staff people and syndication/republication, has struggled to publish enough original content on a frequent enough basis to draw users.
It seems the professional/amateur (pro-am) model is being adopted more widely by CNN, with a promise of a boost in original content per day in the CNN Travel tab.
2. Watch out for libel or bad taste tarnishing your brand.
Staff editors vetted content to make sure it was snappy, grammatically accurate, and libel-free. This hasn't always gone perfectly.
A year ago, CNNGo.com had to officially apologize for the remarks of one of its contributors, who had labeled the traditional Chinese dish Pi Dan (preserved egg) as one of the country's "most revolting" foods.
A manufacturer of the product complained that the comment was "unscientific and disrespectful." Editors made clear that the opinion of the food wasn't shared by the brand but was instead just an opinion piece by a contributor.
To maintain a distinction between its full-time correspondents covering wars and famines and its lifestyle coverage, known as "CNN in jeans", CNN Go (and now CNN Travel) makes its freelancers sign contracts that detail how they cannot misrepresent themselves as CNN staff.
According to some insiders, CNN was sufficiently nervous about the inexperienced content creators damaging their brand that they siloed the project on a separate site, CNN Go.
CNN International apparently now thinks that it's safe to use the pro-am aggregation model, and it is taking the lessons learned in Asian test markets and scale them up globally.
3. Email newsletters may be unnecessary in today's social media era.
A few months ago, CNN Go's staff decided to shut down their email newsletter. Says a spokesperson,
"We find better engagement levels via social media. An email mailer appears to be dated nowadays."
4. A brand's positive search ranking can be leveraged to organic search results in new verticals.
If you Google "Cantonese food in Singapore," the first search result you'll often see is an article from CNN Go (now CNN Travel). Tons of similar phrases and keywords now go to CNN content on topics that are far outside of the brand's association with war and politics.
This is an effective leveraging of the SEO juice of an established brand and URL and applying it to other topics. This can create a virtuous cycle, as people who find content through search become introduced to the site's other offerings.
5. Consistent content matters.
CNN Go created fill-in-the-blank recipes for content, such as clever variations on Q&As (with repeated questions) and top-ten-lists, that, once proven to work in one city could be replicated in other cities, ensuring consistent content across the platform.
Templated content (such as "top ten" lists) allow for a steady flow of content because both editors and content creators know exactly what to expect and aren't always creating something new and freeform each time.
6. Talent matters.
CNN had the good fortune to hire Andrew Demaria as editor-in-chief of CNN Go, based in Hong Kong. Demaria's instincts led him to be very careful in vetting content contributors.
When the site expanded coverage to Sydney last year, CNN Go hired Sydney-based writers, journalists, photographers, bloggers, celebrities, and trend-setters, putting them under the guidance of a full-time editor, Sydney journalist Matt Khoury, who had experience writing for local and international media.
It's worth paying editors who have editing skill because they can write, re-write, and re-write headlines until they become truly click-worthy, such as "'World's worst airline' launches world's worst booking site." [For more ideas on writing "shareable" content, see this article about another publishing star, Upworthy.]
7. Video tie-ins are powerful.
CNNGo.com served as a test bed for producers to discover which topics and types of content would be most popular with readers and used that information to create broadcasts for CNN Go, a monthly show on CNN International television.
Broadcast producers could cherry-pick the most popular content and topics from the site and then produce professional broadcast video that is partly based on it. The shows, in turn, drove traffic back to the website.
BBC has executed a similar maneuver with its Fast: Track program, which partly piggybacks on content audience-tested on the BBC's commercial arm (advertising driven) website, BBC.com, directed at a non-UK audience, with apparently increasing success.
8. Rebranding can lead to problems.
The move from the separate CNNGo URL and branding to the CNN main site and CNN Travel branding hasn't happened without hiccups.
Facebook won't honor the "likes" that had been delivered from the CNN Go website, so articles have been re-set to zero when it comes to "likes." Twitter doesn't recognize past tweets in its tweet counters, either. That can be frustrating for content creators who had been proud that their article that used to have 10,000 "likes" or re-tweets.
Upsetting content creators is another potential hazard of re-branding. Some (though not all) articles that, on CNNGo, were bylined by the freelance contributors are now identified as having been created by the CNN Travel team. Anonymity reduces the appeal of contributing to the site, especially given low fees the company is paying. Perhaps that anonymization isn't soon reversed back to the original policy.
All in all, while the prospects for the global vision of CNN Travel are unknown, the past few years have some lessons that are applicable to anyone working in travel content, including those who aren't running journalistic operations.
NB: Disclosure: The author is a freelance content contributor for BBC Travel, a competitor to CNN Travel.