Us Vs Th3m is aimed at people waiting in queuesCredit: Image by Thinkstock
Us Vs Th3m is aimed at a young, mobile audience, with the idea that people will read the short posts, many of which are BuzzFeed-style lists, on a phone, such as while waiting in a queue.
The new project is very much following the lean start-up approach, with the experimental site being launched as a minimum viable product and with an attitude of "if it fails, it will fail quickly".
Instead of using an expensive CMS, the site is using Tumblr, a free social blogging platform. And from concept to launch the process has been fast, with the idea coming out of a one-day workshop held by Trinity Mirror just five weeks ago.
"We did a day's workshop looking at ideas for new sites and Us Vs Th3m was one of the concepts that came out of it," UX expert Martin Belam, who is involved in launching the new site, told Journalism.co.uk.
Trinity Mirror had already carried out strategy work on "where the business needs to go", Belam explained. "And one of the elements of that is to start new things that can grow areas of audience that they don't reach with their existing brands and sites. So this is one attempt to do that, but it's not the only thing they are doing to invest more in digital."
Assembling the team
At the end of April, Belam blogged to say he was looking for a team, and more than 100 people applied.we'll be trying to make people laugh, trying to make things that are social, and trying to prove that you can do this and grow an audienceMartin Belam
That team has now been assembled, with Rob Manuel, creator of B3ta, a site launched in 2001 to curate humour from around the web, as editor; plus ex-MSN editor Tom Phillips; illustrator David Stevenson, and the latest recruit, as yet unannounced, who comes with coding skills.
"Between us we have something like 55 to 60 years' experience of making silly things on the internet," Belam said. "So we'll be trying to make people laugh, trying to make things that are social, and trying to prove that you can do this and grow an audience."
Us Vs Th3m is targeting one of the audiences BuzzFeed also appeals to: someone who is 'bored at work, or bored in line'.
"Our quite clear primary use case is someone who has just slightly lost interest in whatever it is they are actually meant to be doing; it's for when you are waiting for coffee or standing in a queue at the supermarket," Belam said. "So it is just a stream of stuff on a phone."
Us Vs Th3m is a mobile-first site. It is a single column view "built to work on the phone and then we scaled it up a bit for desktop", Belam explained.
The site will not ignore the rest of the conversation taking place online. "We are trying to make funny stuff on the internet, but there's the whole of the rest of the internet making funny stuff too," Belam said.
Us Vs Th3m is therefore aggregating content and inking out. "The idea being that on any given day, the content should be half stuff that we have produced and half other things that have been interesting on the internet that day."
Screengrabs of the site on a mobile phone
Social, short-form and original
Us Vs Th3m aims to offer Twitter-length posts. "We toyed around with the idea that as a product principle it is very visual rather than word-heavy," Belam explained. "And at various times we've had ideas that no sentence should be longer than a tweet, or that there should be no paragraphs. Those are not hard and fast rules but they try and steer you down the route of making stuff that is short and snappy."We have started on Tumblr, because I can't see why you wouldn't start thereMartin Belam
And sometimes a picture and headline is all it takes. "The example I keep coming back to is when the Mars Rover drew a penis on Mars," Belam said. "It's funny but all you need is the picture and the headline. Most news organisations would spend the money writing a 500-word piece, probably even explaining what Mars is."
Belam expects Us Vs Th3m to develop based on audience reaction. "It's very experimental and the type of content will evolve over time," Belam said. "That BuzzFeed-style of list articles is obviously very popular socially so it would be silly to ignore what they've learnt about that."
And in writing their own rule book, the team is ignoring some of the recognised conventions of digital publishing. Initially they are "not really that worried about SEO", for example, instead focusing on social sharing. Therefore they have optimised pages around the share button.
So how will Us Vs Th3m make money? The first step is to grow the audience, Belam explained. And after that, will they be going down the same route as BuzzFeed in content marketing? Belam suggested that is something they are considering "but we think we have something that is quite an interesting and different take".
"What we are not interested in is display advertising as I don't think display works on mobile phones," he added.
From idea to inception in five weeks
It is just five weeks since the Trinity Mirror's one-day workshop, which came up with an idea for a mobile-first site about "topical funny stuff".
The past few weeks have been spent assembling the team, which is based beside the Mirror's digital team. Belam is part of the writing team at launch, with the idea that he will "gently fade away" if the venture is a success.
In the past few weeks they have held a comedy writing brainstorming session where four stand-up comedians went into Trinity Mirror for the afternoon. Between them they came up with amusing article ideas and used a random headline generator (which came up with suggestions such as '12 carparks that look like Cher').
"That starts you on a train of thought," Belam said.
When I met Belam on Friday they had been running as a live team for three days with half the staff, organising themselves as though they were a TV or radio comedy writing team.
"We come in in the morning, we have a huddle, we have all looked at the papers, seen the news, looked at what is interesting on Twitter, and then we pitch some ideas to each other and work on the ideas and then divide the team up, each with one or two pieces of content to write and produce. Once you've got something ready in Tumblr then everyone else has a look at it and passes it to someone else to tweak the copy."
A start-up within Trinity Mirror
Trinity Mirror now has a new outlet for funny stories, memes and infographics. "We have tried to assume that if you are a publisher like Trinity Mirror or any other big publisher and you want to try and do something that is very funny and of the internet, it is very hard to shoehorn that into your existing operation," Belam said.
Along with A/B testing ideas and experimenting, there will be wider lessons for Trinity Mirror from launching a start-up, Belam said, whether or not it is a success.
And there are benefits to a start-up being based at Trinity Mirror, drawing on resources such as the Mirror's photo library which contains a wealth of twentieth century images that "haven't been on the internet".
"It's the best of both worlds," Belam said. We are "independent, small, lean and agile, while also having the resources of the big media organisation".
And they bring fresh thinking. "We made a set of product principles that were almost like 'what's the obvious thing that someone like Trinity Mirror would do when they were setting up something like this?' And we say 'let's do the exact opposite of that'."The project will live and die by whether the content is funny and social, and so the CMS you use for that is pretty irrelevantMartin Belam
The Us Vs Th3m team has therefore opted against using the Mirror's CMS. "Traditionally a publisher would say we have already spent X millions of pounds on this content management system, so whatever we build, we build in this content management system.
"We have started on Tumblr, because I can't see why you wouldn't start there. If we are looking for a young audience who are into sharing funny stuff around the internet, that's where you would go and be part of that community."
He added: "If we can prove that there's an audience for it we'll move off just being on Tumblr. But the project will live and die by whether the content is funny and social, and so the CMS you use for that is pretty irrelevant."
The team members are now tasked with finding that audience. "The targets are more about demonstrating audience growth rather than real-term absolute numbers," Belam explained.
"We've got enough money to do it for a couple of months and see whether it works or not. If it doesn't work then Trinity Mirror will have spent some money and know this wasn't the thing for them to do."