Gorkana Insight & Analysis Team
Gorkana meets...The Pool
We catch up with Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne, founders of The Pool, a new multi-media platform for women who are "too busy to browse".
The Pool was founded by former Cosmopolitan and Red editor Sam Baker, who is editor-in-chief, and 6Music presenter Lauren Laverne, who is broadcast director.
Sam and Lauren worked together when Sam was editor of Red and Lauren was a columnist for the magazine. They both started kicking around ideas, about what would eventually become The Pool over a coffee more than two years ago, but it was only in October that they came together to bring the new offer to life.
Since then the team has grown, with the first two staff starting on 5 January. They now have a 14-strong team (many are part time and there are usually 10 to 12 in the office at any one time).
It’s a small team to produce the content required, and Lauren says they need to be “unicorns”, meaning they have to do a bit of everything. That said, everyone has their specialisms so the team will often play to their strengths.
Whether users have 30 seconds or 30 minutes, The Pool broadcasts a variety of content, including music, video and podcasts, straight to their device at a time that suits them, day and night.
The Pool features a daily schedule of content across news, opinion and comment, people and politics, film, fashion, food and books, brought together by a team of award-winning contributors.
The idea for The Pool began by looking at “the day in three” – an email that starts the day with the three things women needed to get them through the day. Lauren says there is a lot of noise out there and she and Sam wanted to create something that could cut through that.
Sam and Lauren wanted to fill the gap of what they thought was missing from women’s lives in terms of content, which would play to mobile. They started to talk to women they knew about how they would use a mobile-driven title and what times of the day they would use it – and it went from there.
As the idea developed, the team wanted to create a site that could take The Pool beyond the morning and offer strong vibrant content throughout the day.
After initially talking to women they knew, the conversation broadened out to Twitter and Facebook, with the team asking women how the internet made them feel. Words like “overwhelmed,” “deluged,” and “drowning” were regular replies. From this, Lauren and Sam decided to create something that would combine the emotional relationship you can get from a magazine with a broadcast content delivery.
Readership numbers are commercially sensitive so early after launch (four weeks), but the team has already exceeded its targets. Engagement is far more important to Sam and Lauren. They have already seen high levels of return visits to the site throughout the day, as well as return visits at the weekend.
Clarity and honesty is an important part of the tone of the site. From the beginning, Sam and Lauren wanted The Pool to “speak human”. It’s about speaking to women the way they speak to each other.
The team doesn’t want to define an age for their reader, but she’s probably 30+. Although when women were asked who they thought The Pool was for, whether they were 25 or 50, they described themselves when answering.
She’s metropolitan in spirit and is busy. Work is a huge part of her life, but there have also been some long reads around parenting that have proved very popular, which shows just how much she has her hands full. The long reads that feature on The Pool have been popular, despite the site being for busy women.
A lot of The Pool’s traffic is coming via social media, particularly Twitter. Caroline O’Donoghue, head of social media for The Pool, has led a lot of interesting conversations with women. Sam doesn’t just want to use social media as a tool to push content out, which is why the team responds to all tweets. “It’s free research,” says Sam. “Why would you not?”
The Pool’s content plan is two-pronged. There is a schedule for longer reads, while news is planned out on a daily basis. There are two news meetings a day at 8am and 3:30pm, when the team will plan email content for the next day and will commission for a more thought though take on what’s going on.
There are 10 drops a day, from the inspirational quote in the morning, the email at 8am, news in the mid morning, and fashion, beauty and shopping at lunchtime. The afternoon slot is designed to be a “breathing space” (health, mindfulness, food etc), followed by the regular contributors who will kick in for the journey home. The evening is rounded off with arts, culture and social chatter about what has happened during the day.
Sam finds it odd that some online titles boast putting up 100 to 150 pieces of content a day. It’s far too much, she believes. The Pool averages around 15 to 20 pieces a day. It’s not about the quantity of content, but how many drops a piece of content can generate.
The site’s home page features a radio clock style, mirroring how a radio show is planned (a circle with slots that represent each section of an hour-long show). It reflects how the team approaches The Pool as a broadcaster.
The site has been live for four weeks now and the team has been analysing what time users are coming to the site and most and which device they are using to access it, from which they’ve found a natural rhythm to its “programming”. Essentially, it’s about creating timely content that’s relevant to when the audience is there. Like radio, Lauren wants The Pool to be part of someone’s day.
The Day at Three will usually contain something related to fashion, a consumer-based story and a news story of the day. This may not be the biggest news story out there, but it will be the one the team thinks The Pool readers will want to talk most about. It’s about conversation starters.
Sam is a big book fan and The Pool covers a lot of book content. Its Bed Time Book Club features one book a week, with five extracts each day that should have a reader hooked by the end of the week. Books are usually chosen by Sam, but not all the time. It doesn’t have to be a book that is yet-to-be released or a hardback. There is no rule on the type of book it should be. They have also had authors contributing to the site, including journalist and author Elizabeth Day, who wrote a piece about how writing as a man had changed her self-esteem (It also included a #BeMoreHoward for Twitter, which proved very popular).
Lauren also did a podcast interview with singer, songwriter and writer Tracey Thorn. From this, they also created a playlist of the songs that were featured in her new book. Because of the nature of the site there are many different types of content the team can create and Sam and Lauren welcome creative ideas from PRs.
Arts and culture is a big part of The Pool. It’s extremely important to Lauren, especially with her broadcast background. Nothing is off limits, but it comes back to how relevant it will feel to the reader. Even if content on the site is not “feel-good”, it should make you feel good.
At the moment, health and fitness sits in the beauty category, something the team is keen to rectify. This is down to how much content the team was able to produce pre-launch. They’ve covered some health and fitness stories, but are keen to do more in the future.
Guest opinion pieces from other magazines are also welcome as long as the piece speaks to The Pool’s reader.
Issue-based stories are of interest to Sam and Lauren, but it depends on what the issue is. Both Sam and Lauren have charity partners they work with, which they’re keen to make space for. A friend of Lauren’s recently went out to Sierra Leone as part of Oxfam’s Rumble in the Jungle event. She has produced podcasts about her experiences there which were featured on The Pool.
The team intentionally doesn’t allow comments on the site because they don’t want the site to be “a conversation in a locked room.” The Pool should be a safe place for readers, says Sam. It’s a place away from the noise, and sometimes abuse that comes with the internet.
Sam says that if you don’t see something on the site, don’t assume they wouldn’t do it. It often just means they have yet to do it. Nothing is off limits.
All video content on the site is original at the moment. The team currently uses independent production companies, although they are keen to set up an in-house video team at some point. Sam would be happy to take ready-made videos at some point, but her experience tells her that they tend to be too brand heavy. If they are brand heavy, they won’t be used.
The Pool’s name came about because Sam and Lauren wanted to create a pool of talent for readers, who they could feel connected to.
Comedian and writer Viv Groskop is also recording an agony aunt podcast, which was retweeted this week by American novelist and essayist Cheryl Strayed.
Former Times journalist Laura Craik is also writing a weekly fashion column, while journalist and broadcaster Sasha Wilkins and MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers (founder of the Wahaca restaurant chain) provide food content for the site.
If PRs have something inspiring to tell The Pool’s contributors, get in touch. Having a cemented relationship with them is always helpful. Many of them are already talking to PRs on a regular basis.
Working with PRs
Lauren’s music background has seen her working with lots of music pluggers. In her view, “there’s nothing netter then a great PR”.
Sam likes PRs who can come to her with the right thing. It’s easy to say that, but being specific and targeted is very important.
She also prefers a PR to be totally honest. Selling everything as if it’s the best can be a turn off. If you have a good relationship, tell her that while what you’re pitching may not be the greatest thing ever, asking for a favour can often prove fruitful. It doesn’t always work, but it does build trust.
Lauren knows that it is tricky to build that all-important relationship. She knows a PR needs to get the brands they’re representing out there. It’s about having a good experience when a PR first makes contact; and coming to her with the right brand or person that can work for The Pool.
Sam also says that relationship building goes two ways. When she was writing a book column for Harper’s Bazaar, she had no real contacts in the book industry, but over time she built up a strong relationship with several book PRs, with mutual trust on both sides.
Until three weeks before launch, the team was not allowed to reveal anything at all about The Pool (they weren't even allowed to use the brand’s emails), which proved tough when trying to put together content. The PR contacts they had then were very supportive and now this is paying back.
Lead times can be “terrifyingly short”, says Sam. Some of the team have as little as a 12-hour turnaround. That said the Bedtime Book Club is quite full. May is totally full, but there are gaps for June and July. On the whole the team is quite hand-to-mouth, “but then that’s the nature of broadcast”, says Lauren.
firstname.lastname@example.org is the best way to get in contact. Editorial intern Hannah Varrall also siphons content to the team as it comes in.
All content on the site is original, including anything related to brand partnerships. Editorial decisions are always taken from the reader’s perspective. It’s important not to live in a digital bubble, says Sam. Something may have already done the rounds elsewhere, but Sam will be asking whether her readers have actually seen it and whether they’d still be interested. If she thinks they will still be interested, it would be foolish not to run it.
When meeting a large retail brand, one of its board members didn’t think The Pool’s readership projections very high. Sam’s response to this was this could easily be increased by sticking a picture of a Kardashian on the home page. But there is zero value to that strategy because readers pop into the site for that story and leave again.
The team started with a wish list of potential brands they wanted to work with and so far, have yet to stray away from their A-list. Every brand they’ve talked to so far has said yes. They have secured three annual tenancy brand partnerships with Clinique, Microsoft and M&S Food. Jo Morrell, chief commercial officer, handles all brand partnerships.