Looking for more laughs

The uncertain future of many Web sites may be no laughing matter, but Comedy Central is relaunching its Web site this week in an effort to increase chuckles, traffic and revenues.

Ken Locker, Comedy Central's senior vice president, enterprises and new media, made the new site a priority when he came on board, pushing for it to be up during April, when the network was celebrating its 10th anniversary. The staff kicked into high gear and managed to do in eight months what ordinarily would take a year.

"We've totally redesigned it, taking something that was very horizontal and making it very vertical," explains Locker. "The navigation system is easier. Before, it was complex and would give you a headache."

A visit to the new site makes it clear that the number of laughs per page is up. The use of Flash animation, games and hidden surprises gives the site a liveliness that the previous version didn't have. The goal is to create ownership for visitors, allowing them to participate in the site to a much greater degree than previously. And areas like "Time Wasters," which encourage visitors to goof off by keeping a running tab on how much time they have wasted and then crowning them champion like the videogames in arcades of yore, may just do that—and, in the process, increase user registrations.

"We create a lot of incentives for people to register, whether by playing games or becoming part of the community," notes Locker. Currently, 280,000 users are registered at the site. Locker hopes to raise that to 1 million by the end of the year.

"One of the key revenue generators is registering your users, because then you get various data points that you can leverage into money," he explains. "We send about 4 million e-mails a month, but we expect that to grow to about 20 million a month by the end of the year. We have about 280,000 registered users and hope to have that up to a million by the end of the year. Once we do, we can start effectively monetizing this with targeted advertising."

Getting those numbers up is important because the classic way of judging a Web site's effectiveness, through page views, is increasingly, a bad indicator of quality visits. "Page views are very deceptive because, if someone goes to Comedy Central Radio on our site, they're probably there for about a half-hour but that registers as a one page view," Locker says. "And they're probably getting 500 ad impressions. So page views aren't indicative of the effectiveness of your site."

Comedy Central's new-media staff numbers only 20, with outside contractors hired to build a game or other feature. "One of the problems with most dotcoms is, they way over-expanded in terms of head count," says Locker. "We hire as we need rather than have a whole bunch of people sitting around."

Each Comedy Central program will have its own area offering chat, games and other features. And The Daily Show With Jon Stewart will provide a deeper experience for viewers by allowing them to read jokes that never made it to air, something that will no doubt help fuel social commentary among college students, who rely on the program for their daily news fill.

One of the key factors in the improved functionality is the use of Interwoven's TeamSite, an open-source publishing system that can work with XML, HTML and other common tools. Previously at Comedy Central, each page had to be produced by hand, every day. As a result, new pages were kept to a minimum given creating them was so labor-intensive.

"Now we have an automated publishing system that allows us to create dynamic pages that we can change as quickly as we can create the artwork," says Locker. "And it's rules-based as well, so we can tell it when to publish things or take them off the site."

The system's simplicity enables writers for The Daily Show to make their unused jokes available for public consumption.

"It doesn't require a high degree of technical knowledge to use because we create templates and the backend defines the text," explains Locker. "So it allows us to have producers who don't have to know HTML."

Call it the new version of the easy laugh.