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E Tu Essence?: An Exercise in Bad Site Design

As I write this, I feel like a gossipy girlfriend. You know, the one that’s talking bad about you and your momma ‘n them behind your back – the only difference is I have the balls to say it to your face as well.  I also feel betrayed by my hero and am in mourning for an era that seems to be slipping through the digital cracks. That’s said, let’s get to the issue at hand.

Essence.com just relaunched their site, and I can’t say that I’m thrilled with what I saw. The site has been retooled to look more like a blog which I don’t have a problem with per se.  It just looks like one of those blatant attempts to mimic the gritty, “I just got out of bed” look of citizen journalism and that’s because it is. And I understand. The pared down homepage, the large photos with quick and snappy headlines and intro copy, it’s all an attempt to reel in those readers that are rabid Bossip, Necole Bitchie, and Concrete Loop fans. But I don’t want or need that kind of presentation from Essence.

When I think Essence, I think of sleek, elegant, and glossy, not a blah beige background color (which coincidentally matches the coloring from the current issue of Essence on newsstands, if that was the plan and the background color will change issue to issue, that’s pretty boss.) which isn’t doing anything for the blue, black, and grey content housed in the white template that’s supposed to resemble a page being turned in a book. We get it by the way, this is an offshoot of the magazine. But here’s the thing, the content that you have for your Essence Today section, isn’t the sort of stuff I ever expect to see in any issue of Essence. There are three separate references to “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” on the homepage.

I come to Essence to escape the mindless drivel, to see articles like “How to Escape an Abusive Relationship” or “Two-Year Journey to Buying Her First Home”. While I’m on the topic, maybe you can start putting Susan L. Taylor’s old column on the site since it’s been M.I.A. from print for awhile now. I miss her homespun and inspiring words. Not to take away from T.D. Jakes, but he’s no Susan.

On the multimedia front, the site is  pretty solid. The videos are high quality and the slideshows while buggy are still entertaining and informative. If the slideshows could be updated in real time that would be awesome, especially if there were some breaking news. I’m also feeling the location of the social networking buttons, making it very easy to share and disseminate content with the world at large.

At the end of the day, I’m a fan of Essence. I grew up wanting to be that quintessential woman – powerful, confident, beautiful, ready to inflict a positive change on the world around her. That’s why it’s tough to call this site design a FAIL, but with a feature bar that sticks out like a hairy mole, I have to. I think the magazine is still trying to find its way in this digital frontier where so many of its counterparts have crashed and burned. They might want to check out Clutch or Honey magazines, which a lot of folks say remind them of a younger Essence.

This is about staying relevant and getting those all important revenue dollars. For Essence, it shouldn’t be about an elder trying to learn a young woman’s game. You helped invent the game, so people expect you to change the rules every once in awhile. There’s a way for you to exude that high polish the print side is known for without resorting to the tactics of the competition. We the millions of readers don’t need more gossip or jarring web design, we need and deserve more real woman stories presented in clean, discerning design. We need the essence of Essence.

31 Comments

Comments

ALONZO says:

What I am particularly disappointed in is not just that the new site is aesthetically disappointing but functionally disappointing as well.

I have been a member of Essence's message board community for over a year now. It seems however that Essence has overlooked the value of having members discuss issues on its site. I've been wondering why they've never gotten a moderator to help lead some of the discussions or ask the community about topics that were featured or should be featured in the magazine.

Instead they have progressively made the COMMUNITY button smaller and it now takes at least two clicks of the mouse to get to the discussion topics.

One large wasted opportunity to actually connect with readers IMHO.

Jamie says:

Wow, it looks terrible now.

stephaniedanforth says:

Also, I would think that the recent troubles that Ebony/Jet has been experiencing would prompt Essence.com to move towards embracing those readers instead of those that only look at pictures.

P.S. Nothing against those that only look at photos but I need substance.

stephaniedanforth says:

While I understand your frustrations, I'm going to attempt to be a fence straddler for a moment. I don't like the new design either. As an editor of an eMagazine I appreciate a site that has more to offer than just big flashy photos and one liner. I appreciate in depth columns with topics that cater to my life as opposed to the lives of celebrities. However, if I am Essence (the magazine) not .com, I'm thinking “Why would a person visiting us online feel the need to subscribe to the magazine if they can visit Essence.com and get the same if not similar articles.”
From a business standpoint, the new format is a good move because it now caters to their readers but in a different way. For those of us who love visiting Essence.com daily…it sucks!!

iluvblackwomen says:

interesting debate to scroll down or not to scroll down? personally i would rather see essence.com stay away from following the crowd. I believe its like music, books, very few in media are willing to blaze the trail on their own terms.

Just checked out the site. How dreadful. This really makes me sad…

I do hope Essence monitors its brand and will come over here to respond to your insight. As a journalist I know all too well the pressures that traditional publishers are experiencing to be competitive. Remember when no one cared about TMZ? Now many are looking at TMZ as a model. Perhaps Essence was trying to attract a younger demographic? I can't speak to their strategy but you can be sure there were many meetings about who they were trying to attract with the new site design and what they needed to do to start the process. I am with you on the expectations, having grown up looking to Essence for substance. Perhaps that is no longer their target, which would be a shame. You did point out what you liked as well, so maybe there is room to attract a broader group.

sylviahubbard1 says:

don't like it at all.

Tess says:

It's like you read my mind. I logged onto Essence the other day and did not like what I saw. They just redesign their site a few months ago it seems and that look and feel i felt suited them better. This new design is like a step backwards. I agree with RE sites like Clutch, Honey having the right idea. Have you heard of Mahogany Butterfly? That site also has a nice look, as do others. Essence should be leading the pack, but instead it seems they need to take some lessons in UI design or maybe they are just trying to be like Hello Beautiful — another site that seems to be more focused on gossipy type content. You'd think being owned by AOL/Time they'd have access to some of the best Information Architects , designers, creative directors etc in the digital space. This new look seems like they gave the design work to an intern. Harsh I know but true, IMO.

Kato says:

Ohhhh… I see your point. Okay. I agree on that.

rmcaldwell says:

It's not the technology, Kato. The last redesign of the site involved placing Essence.com on a blog platform (I think WordPress). So they're cool that way. I believe what you've read is more about the content and in new media content is king. For those of us who grew up with the brand (not to be confused with aged with the brand) we are accustomed to their changes but for the better part of their history, Essence had superior content that transcended age, class and education status. It was an “every” sisters magazine. Not so now. I honestly don't know the sister they're targeting now.

Kato says:

Ohhhh… I see your point. Okay. I agree on that.

rmcaldwell says:

It's not the technology, Kato. The last redesign of the site involved placing Essence.com on a blog platform (I think WordPress). So they're cool that way. I believe what you've read is more about the content and in new media content is king. For those of us who grew up with the brand (not to be confused with aged with the brand) we are accustomed to their changes but for the better part of their history, Essence had superior content that transcended age, class and education status. It was an “every” sisters magazine. Not so now. I honestly don't know the sister they're targeting now.

rmcaldwell says:

Lynne and Vonmiwi, I rarely go to the site but the truth is I've known for some years now that Essence couldn't possibly be talking to me anymore – site and print. My hope is that there was user-testing and focus groups before the expenditure on the redesign and content. If so, then as in all marketing it's not who I say I am as a brand that makes me the brand, it is who the user says I am that makes me the brand. Some of us say they suck; what's that say about the brand? And at the end of the day, here is the sad reality – there is no alternative unless you frequent sites like Clutch for smart content. {sigh} Oh well… In the immortal words of Common, “I use to love her.”

Heather Keets Wright says:

Agree with all, very nicely done, Sherri. I have to spend some time with new site, er…blog and once I have I'll comment again, but my first reaction is que pasa to all the video, the players and the all the other accoutrements that came along with the Warner Bros./Essence deal from a few years back (http://tinyurl.com/ygk5hnz)? Hmm. Full disclosure: I did some consulting on the old site. Even fuller disclosure: I HEART Essence and always will. Lemme click around…I'm a bit confused…

In that case, the question becomes who the target market is. Maybe none of us on here are the target market and the intended target market is satisfied. Can't really tell without knowing if there was user testing and focus groups that went into this site redesign and editorial content plan.

It already is a gossip site. They've been breaking the latest in “baby mama drama” and the like for a while now leaving me totally disgusted.

rmcaldwell says:

It's not that pretty on Firefox. Trust.

Actually it's a sad day, as it seems all the so called major black sites are going the blog route… Yes essence will become the next BIG GOSSIP site, as like we need any more… Nothing much to brag about… The layout looks terrible on Internet Explorer 8…

Sherri, thanks for keeping it real and writing this piece really well.

I just visited the site and I'm having all sorts of UE issues. I'm sure it will evolve though. For instance, I'm wanting “Essence Today” and “Essence Bloggers” to take me to a landing page so I can “See All” or even a “See All” at the bottom would work. The jiggity carousel effect is cool if it means it's simulating real-time updates of these areas, but where's the archive. Same on needing “Features” and “Hot Galleries” to link somewhere like the Video Galleries does.

Clicking on the main nav elements, I'm not sure what kind of content I'm seeing on the page. I'm not sure it matters, but what's the content type. As far as the SEO game on the main nav, it's killing it. I can tell a lot of thought and dollars went into this step.

I'm feeling the need for some real A/B user testing on various home page looks and feels.

Overall not a bad effort at trying to embrace the SM sphere, while maintaining the identity of the mag. Even the turned-page design comes across as cute and headnod to the actual print product.

There's going to be growing pains in all of this for lots of media folks as more and more independently owned media properties step up to grab attention and eyeballs. At the end of the day, if the brand has mindshare it won't matter one IOTA what the site looks like or how it functions. Marketing is essential. The rest can be worked on with time.

katoham says:

Very nice and well written article. I feel you, but in today's world of technology, I'm kind of glad the see Essence keeping up with the game. It's either that, or pack up. Yesterday was yesterday… and no matter how significant it was, it apparently isn't today… or I'm positive they wouldn't have made the change

thehoodnerd says:

I love your writing Sherri. While I'm not familiar with the celebrity gossip blogs I am familiar with how easy to navigate and user friendly blogs are in general. I think the blog look is a step in the right direction for them. You have the main articles and info all in 1 place and it gives the readers a chance to be more interactive. I checked out their homepage and I think they do a pretty good job with the layout.You mentioned that the content may be geared towards attracting the celebrity gossip blog readers so maybe they might want to change that and stay true to the normal thing they do. Just keeping an ear to the streets I can sense that the celebrity / gossip blog market has been generating huge traffic even for newer blogs so I guess I can't blame em for dabbling a little bit. We all know the print industry is in the crapper lol.

Back to playing the L4D2 demo lol…catch you later Sherri!

rmcaldwell says:

Sherri, you cease to amaze me. You're an awesome writer and storyteller. Could you share more of your geeky heart, please?! LOL

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