Tom Phillips: USvsth3m (Hacks/Hackers Brighton)

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Tom Phillips

Warning: liveblogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling typos. Some of them will be mine, some of them auto-correct’s. But don’t say you weren’t warned…

USvsth3m is an experiment funded by Trinity Mirror to see if they could reach new audiences. They were aware that there was a type of traffic that they just weren’t getting – and they were locked into a certain way of producing content.

This is a product prototype, both in the product itself, but also in the way the team works. He hates the phrase “web native” – but that’s what we’re talking here. It was a very fast experiment. He was brought in for one day’s consulting. From the “yes” to launch was 5 week! It’s set up so that it’s OK fail. If it didn’t go well, they’d shut it down after two months. the launched on the first day the team were in the room together. There weren’t weeks of trial runs – but there was some content in place when they launched.

The name is a bit of a gimmick – they’re both producing original content and linking out to the funniest stuff elsewhere on the web. They’re trying to break the silo mentality of many publishing – you can only do this sort of thing if you acknowledge that you’re part of a wider web. Every day they send out a newsletter asking who did better – them, or the rest of the internet. The newsletter is a key part of it. Rob Mansfield who launched B3ta is involved and knew that newsletters are a great way of interacting with an audience. The 3 in the name is because one guy has the usvsthem Twitter account. He doesn’t use it.

Tumbring into life

They launched on Tumblr. Why? Wrong question. Why aren’t more people doing this? is the right question. It has a fully featured CMS, and a huge community already there. If you build your own – that’s fine, but it’s not a priority. They’re prototyping the content right now. Prior to this, he set-up a site called “Is Twitter wrong?” which does social media verification. It became a big thing around Hurricane Sandy and he launched that on Tumblr and Twitter. Can you fact-check in close to real time? Close enough to get the correction to go as viral as the error?

  1. It’s not SEO-based – it’s social-based. Publishers know how to do SEO – but you’re fighting for scraps at this point. This is about working out how to appeal directly to the audience – that’s the knowledge that reaps long-term rewards. With SEO a single Google update can leave you dead in the water.
  2. It’s visual – not articles. Articles are great but not the answer to everything.
  3. Every sentence should be a tweet. They haven’t quite stuck to that, as it’s too restrictive, but the principle remains.
  4. Kill the section. It’s a stream, not broken down into sections. Fussy navigation doesn’t work on phones and tablets.
  5. It’s a minimum viable product. No staff to do stuff at weekends? Fine. No content at weekends.

They were aware of the BBC Radio One middle manager problem. A bunch of people in their 30s or 40s going “Hey, internet, we have cool stuff for you.” So, they hire people a bit younger than you, and you don’t pretend that you’re talking the language of younger people. As you grow, you can hire people who do things more naturally.

There’s a sliver of ice in their soul – it’s not just silly stuff, there’s some political material in there, too.

The skill sets of the teams are designed to overlap. Everyone can do words, Photoshop and a bit of coding. They’re all part of the creative output of the site, and they’re all contributing constantly. They can have an idea in the morning can ship it that afternoon. A bug can be corrected within 3 minutes. The whole site was built fast in Tumblr, through hacking around in the code.

The design is deliberately basic – but they’re done five versions of it in three weeks. They measure every change, and aim to learn from it. Every action on the site records into their analytics.

Where do they get those wonderful toys?

Their toys – standalone Interactives – are designed to be shared, but also something a bit different from what other sites are doing. Their first was a parody of the New York Times’ Snowfall. It was a big media in-joke to target their friends. The next was a Doctor Who plot generator to reach to a bigger, established fan base. They recycled the code from that to do a newspaper comments generator, or anti-gay marriage argument generator. But every time they added a bit more to the code.

Games of Thronesbook was their first Facebook app – designed to build on the Game of Thrones fanbase. However, their new console headline generator failed. So, they turned to Ed Balls. Twitter’s appetite for Ed Balls-related content is insatiable. The game tested how fast you can you type Ed Balls.

Twitter gets them attention – but Facebook gets traffic. The most traffficed post was one about the 14 kind of people on Facebook you want to block – but kinda can’t. Facebook still drives huge amounts of traffic – but you can’t see the sharing. It happens between friends. It’s harder to insert yourself into then Twitter, but drives people to visit. And so does Google+ – sorta.

They’ve built internal tools, including “stormy” – a brainstorming tool, which allows voting on the funniest ideas from brainstorming sessions from comedians. That code’s being reused on the site, for a sick euphemism battle mode…

They pay attention to internet detail – everything has Easter eggs built in. There are references to in-jokes and memes – and stuff hidden in the source code. The home page is only 9% of traffic.

They have four potential commercial models, and display ads ain’t one. The models? SEEKRIT. They’re in audience acquisition right now – but this will come.


No regrets, yet. Almost certainly something is going to go wrong soon – but it hasn’t happened yet. They’ll be hiring staff soon, publishing earlier in the day and expanding to weekends.

Mobile traffic is the “agonising” 49%. Despite being mobile-first, that’s not quite there in the traffic yet.

How much hacking was needed? They’re not at the point of rewriting the platform. The platform is more fiddly from an editorial point of view than an design one. He suspects that when they hit the limits of Tumblr, they’ll roll their own CMS. Tumblr has “mad traffic” – it’s very unlikely they’ll every bring it down. The interactive toys are not on Tumblr.

Is the responsive design from Tumblr, or something they did? It’s less than it’s responsive, it’s that they designed the mobile site first, and then designed the desktop version to look just like it. The initial idea was that the desktop would be three column, and respond down to one column on mobile. In the end they abandoned that in favour of the single column.

The audience? They’re young people in the 18 to late 20s age group, who are very mobile-centric and into viral content. Very Buzzfeedy. What’s in it for Trinity Mirror? They knew this was an audience they weren’t hitting. They want the institutional knowledge of understanding how to do this. Traffic has been good, but not comparable with most of the Trinity Mirror titles yet – but they are ahead of some of them.

Isn’t there enough inanity on the web already? That’s where the stuff with an edge to it comes in. Sometimes it can seem like your drowning in endless lists of 28 cats that look like Ryan Gosling – but Buzzfeed have been hiring proper journalists to do proper journalism for a couple of years. It’s much easier to go from an internet culture to traditional journalism than the other away around. Get good at making stuff that’s shared, and then get good at doing serious stuff.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.