Category: Work

Case Study: Results of the China Business Review’s Website Redesign

About a year ago, after a lot of late nights, tense meetings, and a breakdown or two, my staff and I relaunched the China Business Review‘s website. The relaunch was part of a move to drop the magazine’s print edition and focus on efforts to engage a broader audience in the US-China business world–a world that had been growing significantly in the past 5-10 years.

People interested in US-China commercial and trade policy used to consist primarily of academics, a few international trade lawyers, maybe a handful of journalists, and a small, elite group of policymakers in Washington and Beijing. Now, China is in the news every day. Friends I went to high school with in  Nevada are putting their young children in Mandarin Chinese classes. And I receive frequent requests for informational interviews on how to break into a job in US-China relations.

At the same time that interest in China has been exploding, the business model for traditional media has been collapsing. We were by far not the first media outlet to face the reality of declining revenues for traditional print media, so the news that I had been tasked to lead the redesign was not a surprise.  However, we faced a huge challenge in modernizing an archaic web presence that hadn’t been updated in about seven years–with a small budget and a three-month timeline.

After a year of running the new website and publishing in a completely different way — moving from a quarterly print magazine to online magazine is a huge jump in terms of editorial strategy — I wanted to revisit the redesign process and where we are now. So I wrote up the  case study below to lay out what we did, why we did it, and where we are now.

Case Study: Results of the China Business Review’s Website Redesign

The China Business Review, the official magazine of the US-China Business Council (USCBC), has published news about trade and investment in China since 1974. For nearly 30 years, the magazine was a traditional print magazine that published six times a year or quarterly. The magazine was available to subscribers and was provided free of charge to employees of USCBC’s 220 member companies.

In 2013, facing declining subscriptions and advertising dollars, the council ceased print publication and decided to move the magazine to an online-only publication.


The China Business Review’s website,, had been online in various forms since 1997. Before the redesign project in 2013, the previous redesign occurred seven years earlier in 2006. Selected articles were made available for free, but most of the content remained behind a paywall. Moreover, content was only updated once every two months or once a quarter, and updating the site could take two or more weeks due to repetitive and archaic systems.

The pre-redesign website was not suitable for an online-only magazine for the following reasons:

  • Unsuitable structure and design for a modern website that is updated frequently. The design mimicked the print magazine and homepage resembled the print magazine’s table of contents, making it impossible to post new content without replacing all the content on the homepage.
  • Archaic and limited content management system. Staff members could not access the backend to post new stories or photos, only to update limited databases (short blurbs on M&A deals and calendar listings). An online magazine requires a modern CMS to publish on-demand.
  • Paywall no longer needed. The decision to drop the paywall reflected the council’s desire to reach a larger audience, and would allow us to choose an off-the-shelf CMS.
  • Unnecessary or neglected sections. Sections like a company directory had languished because staff could not devote time to them. The sections drove web traffic, but 90+ percent of the traffic to those sections bounced.
Before: The previous China Business Review website was updated just four times a year, and the static layout and archaic backend did not allow staff to update content on an ongoing basis.
Before: The previous China Business Review website was updated just four times a year, and the static layout and archaic backend did not allow staff to update content on an ongoing basis.


Create a reader-friendly, easily navigable web magazine with all content available to the public. Utilize a modern CMS to allow staff to update the site as needed without help from an outsourced developer. Encourage readers to sign up for email list and share content across social media platforms.


  • Interviewed stakeholders and readers about their use of the website and discussed with staff how the current site fit into the council’s work and how the staff uses its content to determine features and sections to include in the redesigned site.
  • Generated list of necessary and desired features and, with the help of our web designers and developers, determined what was possible given our budget. We choose WordPress for our CMS and customized a WordPress theme to keep our costs low.
  • Selected and narrowed categories to organize archival and future content from among nearly 100 categories that had been used in the past.
  • Migrated more than four years of content manually before launch date; lined up fresh content for launch as well as recruited new writers for future assignments.

Results – One Year after Launch

The new launched at the end of April 2013.

  • We have maintained a publishing schedule of 1-2 new feature stories (1,500-2,000 words) each week, and 3-4 short news items on M&A deals that involve Chinese companies.
  • Unique visitors have increased by 400 percent since the relaunch, and in October 2013, the site surpassed the pre-relaunch record for pageviews and unique visitors.
  • Email list adds approximately 50-60 new subscribers per month.
  • Social media engagement and followers have increased substantially. Some of that has to do with the new website–particularly archival content that was previously behind a paywall–but it’s mostly thanks to increased followers on Twitter and Tumblr, as well as launching a new Twitter feed dedicated to mergers and acquisitions news.
  • Monthly unique visitors are still growing steadily, thanks in part to our robust archival content, ongoing efforts to provide timely and in-depth stories on business in China, and Google’s algorithm change that rewards real content over search engine optimized posts.

    After: The redesigned site allows for easy updating, has much better search functionality, and allows users to easily sign up for email updates.
    After: The redesigned site is easier to navigate and to update, has much better search functionality, and allows users to easily sign up for email updates.

Tweeting from an Embassy Near You

“The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak.”
Jared Cohen in the New York Times Magazine piece, “Digital Diplomacy” (July 16, 2010)

In the city of suits, Blackberries, and tight-lipped messaging, social media can be a hard sell. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in DC knows that most organizations — whether government, nonprofit, or private sector — are obsessed with controlling the message.

So it is interesting to see how in the last few years the State Department has been loosening the shackles of “the message” a bit and embracing social media to get its message out both in the United States and countries where the US has diplomatic missions. And it’s about time, really.

Last weekI listened to US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul talk (via Google hangouts at a DC Social Media Week event) about how he uses Twitter and Facebook to respond to questions and comments from his various constituencies. McFaul tweets a lot for a busy ambassador. (You can check out his feed at @McFaul) He also tweets prolifically in Russian, which he says helps him connect with his audience, even when he makes language mistakes.

His tip for using social media to engage an audience in an official capacity? Take your time with your response. Social media moves fast, but you can take your time before responding. McFaul also says he sets aside time after dinner–often a few hours–to respond to tweets and Facebook messages personally.

The State Department’s use of social media fascinates me not only because of my personal interest in foreign affairs, but because it’s an agency average Americans rarely interact with and have little idea about how it functions. The same can be true for citizens of countries where the United States has diplomatic missions. If you ask the average person what a diplomat or foreign service officer does day-to-day, they might tell you something about meetings over tea with foreign officials or frantically sending a cable back to Washington about unexpected political turmoil or a hostage situation — all images cemented by movies and television. If you ask the same question in a country like China or the Philippines, two countries I’ve spent a year or more in, the answer might be something like: “They reject visa applications.”

One perception is largely negative, one is positive, and both are stereotypes that social media has the potential to break apart. McFaul said when he heard feedback from Russian that they thought everyone was getting rejected for a US visa, his staff used visa stats to show that Russian nationals were among the top visa recipients in the region.

Of course, digital diplomacy initiatives can’t solve everything. Bob Boorstin, Google’s director of public policy, argues that diplomacy is best practiced face-to-face, and that no amount of social media communication could change the Iranian nuclear program. But he says the tools are effecting the scale and speed of communication, as well as introducing new audiences to the State Department’s messages. It’s important to keep in mind that an audience on the Internet will be wealthier and better educated, and has not only access to the Internet, but often access that is not restricted by their own government.

Digital initiatives are relatively new to the State Department, and will no doubt evolve and change over the years to address new challenges.

Further reading:
America’s Edge: Power in the Networked Century by Anne-Marie Slaughter in Foreign Affairs
Digital Diplomacy The New York Times Magazine profiles two State Department employees leading digital initiatives in diplomacy.
The Political Power of Social Media In this 2011 Foreign Affairs article, Clay Shirky examines how social media can affect national interests and political change.
#Unfollow: The Case for Kicking Terrorists Off Twitter This recent Foreign Policy essay makes the case for kicking terrorists off the Internet and social media.

Magazine Design

2012 cover after

After taking over as editor of the China Business Review, then a quarterly print magazine, I focused on improving our magazine covers, data spreads, and use of photography and design elements. With talented designers at Next Year’s News, we updated the look of the magazine, conceptualized engaging covers and data spreads, and used more photographs and design elements to enhance long-form articles.

The slideshow below features images of the improved cover, data spreads, and story layouts. To see before and after comparisons, you can download PDF files here:

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