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Sept. 25, 2012, 1:45 p.m.
Mobile & Apps
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Building a better sports bar: SB Nation redesigns its blog network

Vox Media used responsive design to unify its more than 300 sports blogs and meet the demands of a growing mobile audience.

News website redesigns these days often hit on a few current trends: making them cleaner, more responsive, more touchable, more app-like.

The sports network SB Nation has done all that with today’s design update, but with a unique challenge: trying to modernize the site will also unifying the look of more than 300 distinct sites. And they had to do it in a way that balances the needs of the fan communities of each site while giving the entire network a universal consistency.

“One of the things we’re seeking to accomplish is to bring together the disparate SB Nation community to a more universal, consistent visual and editorial style, but maintain their individuality as well,” Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff told me.

SB Nation’s sites — all blogs focused on a specific team, market, league, or sport — were something of a pirate armada, each with its own look and voices unique to whatever strain of fandom was important to the writers and readers. The sites were succeeding individually, Bankoff said, but there was little that was connecting them, either from a design or a content standpoint.

Today, the flagship site and its network share a more sparse, magazine-y look. Lead images play large across the page, with plenty of breathing room for text, not to mention the occasional animated GIF. Fan discussion gets prominent placement in a sidebar on each homepage. Comment sections also get a cleaner, more airy treatment. Stepping back, there are some clear influences from The Verge.

Bankoff said they’ve learned a lot from SB Nation’s tech-focused sibling and plan to implement better live-news coverage on SB Nation, similar to The Verge. The sports blogs will also be getting into more longform writing. The Verge’s wider layout was an invitation to produce longer features, Bankoff said, and SB Nation will emulate that, offering current writers and freelancers a chance to go in-depth on a topic.

“We learned a lot from what we were doing on The Verge and realized the audience already has plenty of stuff on web that is shorter and more digestible,” he said.

The redesign also puts SB Nation on the side of responsive design, reflowing content to whatever size screen a reader is using. Mobile web is where readers eyeballs are, said Trei Brundrett, Vox Media’s vice president of product and technology: “The mobile web numbers just dwarfed the native app numbers. That made us think, What do readers want from us?”

A responsive redesign can take some serious work; a responsive redesign of hundreds of sites at once takes even more. “Imagine taking the specific needs of each of these 300-plus sites and then layering that on top of the complexity of designing across multiple screen sizes,” Bankoff said.

Chorus, Vox’s home-brewed content management system, allows for the integration of text, video, comments, and other user-generated work. Brundrett said the new layout lets each site use these tools better, but also lets sites share material more efficiently.

Making better connections

SB Nation is calling its new look SB United, which emphasizes the company’s ideal of bringing together all the sites under a common flag. (And matches up with soccer royalty.) One of the earliest steps in the redesign process was figuring out the right branding for each site, something that combined individual logos with a nod to the broader SB Nation family. Bankoff said one of the intentions of the new design is to encourage fans to find other sites they might be interested in.

But sports fans tend to compartmentalize. As Brundrett put it, “We have a sports bar analogy: They all have their own sports bar. They decide how it’s going to be furnished, what kind of beer they’ll have, and what music is on the jukebox.”

If you’re a fan of the New Orleans Saints (like Josh), what are the odds you also really want the latest on Michigan State basketball (Adrienne)? I may personally read about University of Missouri football and the Minnesota Vikings, but I may be in the minority.

But no sports fan is an island. If you’re from Boston, you’re probably not just a Red Sox fan — you probably also like the Celts and Pats, and maybe BC or UMass. When a top college prospect heads to your team out of the draft, that’s another connection. When Anthony Davis goes from the University of Kentucky to the New Orleans Hornets, it makes sense that blogs like A Sea of Blue and At the Hive would coordinate on The Brow.

As part of the redesign, SB Nation made updates to Chorus that will let site editors plan and share coverage more easily, Bankoff said. One tool lets editors pull together related content for a story package, while another allows editors to work across multiple sites to coordinate stories. For readers, Brundrett said, they’ve created a notification system that shows new stories on sites where they are a member.

“These are opportunities for us to leverage the editorial power of our network to create packages that are compelling to consumers and syndicate those across the network,” Bankoff said.

“The behavior is changing.”

The move to the mobile web continues, and native apps haven’t kept up. Some don’t want to deal with Apple’s app store, but more are looking at their readership and finding shifting numbers.

SB Nation readers track in ways you might expect: a steady climb in readership that spikes at lunch, subsides in the afternoon, and rises again in the evening, Brundrett said. But mobile has changed that: The trend is more steady and consistent throughout the day. Tablet readership, on the other hand, tends to spike on nights and weekends, he said.

“It’s how our audience wants to interact with us. It’s just that simple; it’s what they want. The behavior is changing,” he said.

This is why switching to an responsive design is a bet on the future for SB Nation as well as the rest of Vox; it’s probably a good bet that their forthcoming gaming site, Polygon, will be responsive as well. Brundrett said it represents a shift in the way media companies think about presentation and the needs of the reader. “It really is a mentality,” he said. “What it forces you to do, and this is hard, is to treat mobile and tablets as a first-class experience, and to really try and nail it.”

POSTED     Sept. 25, 2012, 1:45 p.m.
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