"What does it take to build a website as big as MSE?" It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot recently. So it’s time to reveal that the blueprint was in my very first BBC appraisal. Let me tell you the story…
Having left financial PR in the 1990s to take a postgraduate in broadcast journalism at Cardiff University, I was lucky enough to get my first job afterwards as a broadcast journalist in the BBC business radio unit, a standalone unit from any actual stations, though my role was producing and (very occasionally) reporting on BBC Radio 5 and the Today programme’s money and business inserts.
All was going well. So I remember being surprised, and knocked hard, by a less-than-glowing first (and only) appraisal.
Now with the benefit of hindsight, reading back the comments of the now long-gone editor of radio business programmes, I realise I was definitely in the wrong job for me.
Stop doing interesting stories…
"Martin is developing a sound editorial judgement, although is still [sic] needs to work on defining in his own mind the difference between a news story and one which is just interesting."
In fact, my admittedly slightly hazy memory recalls being verbally told something akin to "stop doing interesting stories and concentrate on pure news, even if it’s not that interesting".
And don’t give the programme what it wants…
"Some of the stories Martin fixed were not really suitable for the programme’s agenda. Martin feels this was part of his learning experience in his first six months and that sometimes he was too far swayed by what the [Radio 5] programme team wanted, rather than by the judgements a producer in a specialist department needs to be making."
At the time, I fumed when seeing this write-up of my review. In fact, I had far from "agreed". In the review I was stunned at being told not to listen to "what the programme team wanted". And I was more dismayed that I was re-assigned because I was too close to the actual programme.
As an experienced journalist, my view remains unchanged. A specialist team like the BBC’s business unit gets much of its work from internal commissions and needs to remember it’s notionally paid by the BBC radio stations / TV Channels that use it. I love Radio 5 live and it has its own style, so to be told by my business unit boss to effectively ignore that and follow the business unit’s own agenda was a very strange statement.
Thankfully, according to colleagues still there, the business unit is now a very different place – business programme producers work closely and are often now located with the programmes they’re creating output for.
A couple of months later, Radio 5 canned that business unit insert. If I remember correctly (my specs may have been rose-tinted with time) while they rightly loved the presenter, it was because the show had stopped delivering the content the station had wanted.
The blueprint for MSE
I didn’t last that much longer as a BBC staffer. I moved rapidly on to Simply Money TV and then went freelance.
Four years after that review, I set up MoneySavingExpert.com and, for the first time, had unfettered editorial control.
I remember making the conscious decision that with MoneySaving, it was far better to focus on writing interesting stuff, than pure news.
In practical terms, that meant writing things that people could act on, without need for a news peg. At the time, some personal finance consumer sites still ran headlines like "Bradford & Bingley advisers see a change in commission rates". Not exactly riveting reading for consumers.
Plus, as I’ve blogged previously (see That’s not personal finance, it’s about buying a bloody DVD player) it meant listening to what people were asking me and trying to do something on it, even if it was outside the box of traditional personal finance content.
These precepts, powerfully laid out as what-not-to-do by that one BBC business unit appraisal, are still key lessons I try to give new members of the MSE team.
Every day, I still look at the software on my laptop that shows me where most people are going on the site, to see what I can learn from it. It isn’t always the obvious.
Take our Uniform Tax Rebate guide. We first mentioned it as an aside in the weekly email, and were stunned by the huge traffic it got. So on the back of that, we wrote a bigger bells-and-whistles guide on exactly what to do.
So now, when I’m asked "how do you build a successful website?," my answer is simple.
Come up with unique content that interests or – can be used by – people. And know your audience, they’re the ones who keep you going. The next job, of course, is getting them to come and see it.
PS. I love the BBC, it is an incredible institution that creates many brilliant programmes others simply can’t do. And I still enjoy appearing on many of its TV and radio outputs. This story shouldn’t be seen as a critique of its operations, just that over a decade ago, I was a triangular peg in a square hole – and that inspired me to find a triangular hole to fit in (no fnnarr fnnarr intended).