U.S. News & World Report is known for its rankings, from the best colleges and hospitals to the best mutual funds and cars. Today the publisher launched perhaps its most ambitious ranking.
Unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Best Countries is a ranking and web portal that aims to tell the story of how nations are perceived and how they measure up with each other.
With Best Countries, U.S. News capitalizes on its track record for telling stories with data and making data accessible and useful to audiences. U.S. News chief content officer Brian Kelly says the Best Countries portal will be updated daily and serve as a “yearlong compendium of stories, journalism, and data” to the ranking that will be released annually. “It's meant to be something that people can come to everyday. It's not just one and done. It's a living, breathing thing.”
For Best Countries, the publisher collaborated with brand strategy firm BAV Consulting and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. BAV Consulting (a division of multinational advertising firm WPP) used its global reach to survey more than 16,000 people on their views of the best countries based on a wide variety of subjects (see methodology here). Meanwhile, U.S. News ingested the data to develop the rankings and multimedia web portal that will explore the topic further, featuring reporting from journalists and expert analysis from government, academia, and business.
U.S. News has partnered before in order to have access to high-quality data. They key is to base a content vertical around robust data, says Kelly. “We get a lot of interesting data from the federal government for instance. A lot of our healthcare data comes from the federal government. It's what you do with it and how you make it accessible to people that's the real skillset that we bring to the table.”
Following, Brian Kelly shares his insight on the big launch, as well as the publisher’s goals for data-driven publishing and the enduring value of quality content.
When did the idea for the Best Countries ranking emerge?
Fairly recently. We're talking just about a year ago. We had some conversations with the folks at WPP. They have a subsidiary consulting company called BAV Consulting. They have for many years done corporate branding surveys. They’re one of the experts in corporate branding around the world.
The question was, “Could you take some of those same attributes, the way you measure corporate reputation and brand value -- could you apply those to countries, in the sense of treating countries as brands?” One of their partners was David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the Wharton School. He had done some extensive research on this. They came to us and they said, “You guys are the rankings experts. Is there something here?” We spent some time with them and said, “You know, this is actually pretty interesting.”
The core of this product is this extensive global survey of all different kinds of people. What we said is, “We have this really rich source of data now. We're going to build essentially a new publication around it,” which is what Best Countries is. It’s based on these extensive data sets, which look at attributes of countries’ healthcare, environment, tourism, all these things that people would pay attention to. It's a digital portal but you can almost think of it as a digital magazine. It will be fresh new information that elaborates on the stories about all these various countries.
So WPP and Wharton formulated the idea but came to U.S. News as experts in telling stories around data.
Yeah, right. Making [the data] accessible to consumers. Getting it outside the white paper and the academic world and putting it in front of what will be a large number of readers.
The surveys were done by the WPP folks. We were involved with it but they're in that business. They're doing it all the time so they were able to do some really, really good work. We then ingested the data and we built the website and we're creating all the stories to go around it -- the journalism, the videos, the photo galleries, the kind of things that we're doing all the time.
What makes U.S. News the right partner for Best Countries?
The idea of publishing hard data and then using it to create stories and to create advice is something that U.S. News has been doing for the 80-plus years that we have been around. We have been ranking colleges for 30-plus years. We have 50 data related products that we publish now. We've got pretty extensive experience in not just the numbers but making sense of the numbers.
You’ve been with U.S. News since 1998. How has the way the company works with data changed in that time?
When I first came here we were still almost exclusively a print publication. The big change I think, in terms of data, I think has been the internet. The capabilities of publishing extensive amounts of data and making use of it is just transformational. When we did our college rankings in the print days we might run 30 pages in the magazine, which is an enormous number of magazine pages for one story or one topic. We were creating 50,000 pages of information to publish those 30 pages. That really was, I think, the light bulb moment for us where we said, “Look, we can put all 50,000 pages online.”
We now publish several million pages of data on an ongoing basis every year. You just look at that scale and it's just astronomical. The ability to sort the data, the ability for people to search and compare things really continues to improve. People don't want the best college. They want the best college for them. They want the specific choice that matters to them.
If you think of it, Google is a rankings engine. Google ranks things. That's what their business is and they're great at it. We are also in the rankings business. We are here to give people the best information. It's gotten much, much more sophisticated. A lot of what we do is trying to customize these products. Best Countries, “Where do I want to go on vacation? Where do I want to retire? Where do I want to invest my money?” Those are all questions you can ask and we will find the answer for you.
How do you anticipate advancing the data-driven tools you offer your audience?
The big piece in the future we're working on is customization. How can you give a user exactly what it is that he’s looking for? In some cases maybe he doesn't know what he's looking for. You always try to get your users to share information about themselves. Maybe this guy should be looking at these colleges instead of these colleges. Maybe he should be buying this kind of car. He thinks he wants a sports car but he really should have an SUV. How can we help people find answers that they want?
What was the major business opportunity for U.S. News with Best Countries?
I would say the audience of those global thought leaders and consumers. That audience is a good audience from an advertising perspective for the major corporate brands that want to reach people that are decision makers, whether they are corporate decision makers or government decision makers. This will be a tool that I think a lot of those people will come to and be an important reference point for them. Our launch sponsor is PwC. These are their clients, all the people in government, industry. They want to be in touch with their clients. There's a very rich group of advertisers that want to reach that audience.
It also is a consumer window. We have a very thriving travel site. We have education content. We have healthcare content that also draws a global audience. If you're a kid contemplating going abroad and you decide you want to go to Germany, we can give you lots of information. We can tell you about schools in Germany. We can tell you about the country itself. Then you're in our loop creating a lot of page views.
It's a way of bringing people into our tent and then helping them find what it is specifically they are looking for. Then of course we have advertisers, marketers, other people who also want to reach them.
Is reaching a more international audience a priority?
Probably in the last two years or 18 months we started to focus on that. We said, "Look, there is a growth opportunity here. People know our brand. They trust our information. We kind of live in that world. Why not take it more global? There is so many more people.”
We get tremendous interest from China for our college rankings. There is a quarter of a million Chinese kids going to school in the United States. Every one of those kids at some point probably used U.S. News to decide what colleges and what opportunities are here.
That's what we are building on. For the right topics we think we have some pretty significant opportunities to grow internationally. [Best Countries] is a big piece of it.
U.S News is probably best known for its college rankings, but how do you fair in other subject areas?
If you look at our overall business -- college, healthcare, personal finance, news -- all of those audiences are all fairly equal. They're all around 5 or 6 million unique users a month. We have a very diversified group of readers and group of interests, which is good for us. It's funny because in some ways what we've done deliberately is pulled the old magazine apart and took sections and turned them into channels.
We used to have a health section. Now we have a health channel. We used to have a money section and a news section and each of those things now lives very similarly on the web. In the old days somebody picks up a magazine and they may look at every one of those sections. The way people search now [people interested in] health probably just go to the health section. At some point they may look at a news story but if they're not going to college they're not looking at any of the education stuff. It's been good for us.
Definitely college is the starting point and it’s kind of a great marketing tool. It's a great way for people to learn about us. Our theory is if we help you get into college we can certainly help you find a car or we can help you find a hospital or a doctor or investment advice.
It has a halo effect. It works on Google because you have that strong authority that search authority that starts with college but then anytime we release any ranking product we immediately get a very good rating from Google because we’re good at ranking. And you know all the complexities that go into it, but the simple idea is Google is looking for people who are good at what they do and we’re good at ranking.
Luckily, more and more, Google seems to be rewarding good, quality content.
That's another piece of it. I feel that's happening. I’m happy about it. The herd is getting separated here. The quality folks are actually to do better. Which is a good thing. We have always stressed that we are in the quality business. We have not lowered our standards in terms of fact checking and making sure that things are accurate and in-depth. We write longer pieces, not shorter pieces, these days and it's working.
Denis Wilson was previously content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzed and reported on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aimed to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.