"It was just a place where you could buy the books," Tim Chester, senior web editor at RoughGuides.com, told Journalism.co.uk. "There was some destination content that was quite out of date and [the team] would post two articles a month."
That was as far as Rough Guides went in terms of creating web-specific content for readers, said Chester. Having joined the company in April 2012 from NME.com, where he had been deputy editor of the website among other previous roles, he and the rest of the Rough Guides team were tasked with redesigning the site to inspire readers and travellers.
The lead time on publishing books was still quite long, he said, but by re-thinking the website with regularly updated content and more of a "news feel," traffic to RoughGuides.com has "quadrupled" since it re-launched a year ago.
"With the website we kept it quite simple," he continued. "We have quite a small team, so we're on it full time. If something comes in we can get it out that morning – and I was very much used to that from NME days – but it was nice to bring them up to date in that sense, so we can react to stories that happen and publish articles and blogs that are much more timely."
Screenshot of the RoughGuides.com homepage
Alongside making the new site more timely, Chester also wanted to take advantage of many of the images that would be used in print to make the site much more visually appealing.
Full-screen galleries, quotes Photoshopped onto photos and galleries based on crowdsourced information have all proved popular and in November RoughGuides.com won website of the year at the FutureBook Innovation awards.
There are also a number of key features, including free tools, which Rough Guides have used to engage their readership, present a more interesting web experience, and boost overall traffic to their site.
"Whatever it is you're working on and whatever your speciality is, people just want their interests catered to," Chester said, "and then the buying books, or whatever it may be, follows on from that."
ThingLink is a tool previously featured here at Journalism.co.uk that allows you to embed multimedia from a wide range of sources into an image.
At Rough Guides, maps have made a perfect backdrop for telling the stories of various areas through multimedia embedded in specific locations. Some of the stand-out pieces have included a series on the "Great Rivers of the World", in which Chester added Wikipedia, Flickr and YouTube embeds to maps of the Nile, Amazon, Mississippi and Nile.
Other popular ThingLink features involved embedding Spotify playlists into a map of the US to showcase the musical diversity of various cities, or a street-by-street movie guide to New York City with YouTube clips from films shot in the city pinned to the specific street they were made on.
New York City – A street-by-street movie guide by Rough Guides
"For New York specifically, we know that's a top destination for British users," Chester said. "In terms of that [ThingLink feature] I think it was just trying to think of another way to explore New York, which is quite a well covered city."
That idea of looking at new and innovative ways to cover a potentially tired topic has become central to how Rough Guides now goes about approaching its web content.
"The thinking before you publish anything is 'how can it be different and more interesting and a bit more engaging?' and not falling into that trap of just churning the same thing out for months on end," he said.
Prezi has been popping up in presentations and conferences for some years now. However, the Rough Guides team recognised it as a free and easy way to tell an interactive story on their site.
The winner of a travel writing competition the website ran in February 2013 received money to travel around the world, and the online team collected some of her photos and blog entries into a Prezi presentation on the site for others to enjoy.
"It was a travel writing contest and part of the deal was that she would be blogging for the site, but rather than text blogs we put it into boxes," Chester said. "She went across the States, so you kind of get dragged through the trip in the Prezi and you get photos from various parts of America."
Diary of a Rough Guides competition winner by Rough Guides
The finished product is not as polished as some of the features built by digital development teams at large organisations, but in terms of showing the possibilities of a free tool for creating interactives it stands out as part of Rough Guides' ongoing experimentation on a budget.
"It's a bit more interesting than your normal blog," continued Chester. "I find it amazing how many people just put up a header image and 500 words."
An immersive story template
At the opposite end of the scale is creating a template for immersive stories, as the Times and other news organisations are doing. In those cases the template is created by an in house team and although there are some free tools – such as Scroll Kit – it may be worthwhile paying a contractor or design agency to build something solid and versatile that can be used again.
The Rough Guide to 2014 was produced in this way and features top 10 cities, top 10 countries and more, integrating video, large images, links and text.
"To justify spending money on it you have to make it reusable," Chester said. "They [the developers] tied it with the CMS – it's just a Wordpress CMS – so we can re-use that for next year and we can re-skin it for other types of lists."
Screenshot from the 2014 feature custom built for RoughGuides.com
The Rough Guide to 2014 feature uses parallax scrolling and background video with fullscreen images, built into an HTML5 template for multiple uses.
The text, headlines and multimedia content can all be restyled and reused for later projects, ensuring that the organisation gets the most from its money when creating similar features in the future.
"Obviously it was inspired by Snowfall and the Pitchfork cover features," continued Chester, "but the main criticism of those seemed to be that they look amazing but no one ever reads the content.
"So that's why I thought of a list feature – where each entry is only 50 or 60 words, where you can dip into it and jump around, rather than feeling obliged to follow it all the way through – would be a bit more compelling."
Although Rough Guides had Facebook and Twitter accounts before the site redesign, Chester said the majority of posts were about "what we're doing at the office and some information about the brand".
Having now introduced Pinterest, Google+ and Tumblr accounts, and a more wide-ranging social media strategy, followers on Twitter and Facebook have "tripled", he said.
As such, engaging with Rough Guides' community on social media over the past year has helped to increase traffic, said Chester, but also helped to contribute to editorial content on the site.
"The big thing we learned at Rough Guides is that beforehand we weren't concentrating on content enough," he said.
As well as the travel writing competition that resulted in the Prezi interactive, Chester said that crowdsourcing readers' opinions or experiences on Twitter before collating and sharing them with Storify.
"Everyone likes to share their stories and tips," Chester said, "so building articles using Storify has been really popular. [So] travel tips, things you should know before you set out for the first time, we did something where people could send scans of their passport through on Twitter."
Engaging with the readership through social media is a repeated mantra of online community managers so features which can crowdsource ideas from individuals and deliver them back to the wider readership, like the Storify below, have been particularly successful said Chester.
Screenshot from RoughGuides.com
Update: This article has been updated to clarify Rough Guides' digital output before the relaunch, and to include additional information about the nature of the Rough Guides to 2014 feature.