Wenner to Put Web in Play With Rolling Stone Site Relaunch

Jann Wenner hasn’t exactly been a maverick when it comes to the Web. For 10 years, he let an outside company run flagship Rolling Stone’s site, and only fully launched a digital counterpart for Us Weekly in 2007.

But now that Usmagazine.com is gaining some traction, he’s changing his tune. In January, Wenner Media will finally take control of Rollingstone.com. But can the magazine catch up online in a crowded music and entertainment field?

Steven Schwartz, chief digital officer for Wenner Media, said that when the Web was new territory, the rationale of having RealNetworks operate and sell the site was to avoid making a lot of costly mistakes.

But success with Usmagazine.com led Wenner Media to reconsider running
Rollingstone.com when its licensing deal with RealNetworks expires.

“I think there was the concept of, let’s partner with a company that had experience in this space early on,” said Schwartz, who plans to relaunch the site in January with new community and customization features. “A lot of companies spent a lot of money in trial and error mode.” That said, he conceded, “It hasn’t evolved nearly as much as we’d like it to.”

Wenner Media wouldn’t specify how much of its revenue comes from digital except to say it’s “very small.” But its two biggest brands have had very different traffic trajectories.

Usmagazine.com, not three years old, has more than doubled its traffic over the past year to 7.7 million unique visitors, overtaking People.com in traffic in July (comScore). The weekly has 622,000 registered users of its mobile site and has collected nearly 225,000 fans on Facebook.

Us hopes to continue the growth when it relaunches Sept. 8 around six channels including news, style/beauty, healthy lifestyle and moms/babies and with more photos, videos and community features.

By comparison, Rolling Stone has been stuck at well below 2 million monthly uniques over the past year, per Nielsen Online, despite a traffic spike in the weeks after Michael Jackson’s death. Its Facebook fans number only around 10,000.

Buyers said that while Rollingstone.com has strong brand cache, it missed an opportunity to gain a foothold online, especially given its tech-oriented male target audience.

Jason Steinberg, media director at Spark Communications, said Rollingstone.com’s listening software and community features lag music sites like Pandora, Imeem and iTunes. “There are just so many different ways people go about music discovery,” he said.

Dave Martin, vp, digital media at independent media agency Ignited, said the site’s photo archive is great but “cumbersome” to navigate. “You’ve got brands like TVGuide.com adopting Facebook Connect ahead of Rolling Stone. That seems backwards to me.”

For advertisers, the lack of video on the home page and ad units below the fold are turnoffs, Martin said. Meanwhile, it’s hard for the site to stand out when it’s broad in editorial scope, like the magazine.

“There are many sites that are better at music, better at celebrity, better at news,” Martin said. “When you’re trying to dabble in so many [areas], it’s hard to stay fresh. They have always been more than just a music magazine, but from an advertiser perspective, that makes it hard to buy.”

Rollingstone.com will have a chance to update its music-listening technology; Wenner is determining if it will continue its partnership with Web music player Rhapsody, a joint venture with RealNetworks, after its relationship with RealNetworks ends.

Schwartz admitted that Rollingstone.com is light on user engagement, which will be a big priority of the site relaunch. “The site that’s out there right now-that whole notion of getting our audience involved in a dialogue is lost,” he said.