Year-out forum finds a gap in the market

Case study by Tim Dawson.

Specialist social media sites have substantially replaced niche magazines and directories as a source of information in dozens of interest areas.  The largest – like and the Army Rumour Service – are said to sway elections and to have forced the closure of The News Of The World.  Hundreds of less well-known forums link enthusiasts of every imaginable hobby and interest. is a middle-ranking player in this league.  With registered followers in the tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands claimed by mumsnet and around 100,000 unique visitors each month (according to it aims to provide information and advice for those considering a year out.

“We add value to the site with specialist news and by providing a supportive environment for people who want to write, but in lots of ways we are no different to the specialist magazines of the past”, says Tim Fenton, the site’s general manager.  “A magazine devoted to a car marque, for example, depended on a strong letters page.  Specialised social media are simply able to concentrate on smaller areas of interest and they have a longer tail”.

Content within the site is organised into three distinct strands.  Some is produced in-house by experienced journalists or specialist writers – such as advice on avoiding malaria or gap-year insurance.  The forums themselves, where intending travellers swap know-how and ideas, are entirely user-generated and unedited (save when deemed to be inappropriate).

Sitting between these is ‘managed user-generated content’ – which is soon to be relaunched as the Gapyear Writers Academy.  Users of the site are invited to submit on subjects of the site editors’ choosing.  Guidance on writing techniques is available, subbing is provided after submission and it is published to fixed URLs.  “Some will be ‘my story’ type pieces, others will be more ‘how-to’ and it is intended to provide quality information for readers and a beneficial experience for contributors”, says Fenton.  This strand is expected to be extended to photographs and videos in the near future – although none of the contributors will be paid. was established in 1997 by entrepreneurs Tom Griffiths and Peter Pedrick while in their 20s.  In the Autumn of 2010 they sold their interest to the Australian travel agency, Flight Centre (it has around 50,000 staff and is expecting to deliver profits before tax of nearly A$250m in the year to June). 

Flight Centre is investing in a significantly enhanced site, to be launched this August.  Ipswich-based has ten permanent staff whose ongoing costs are largely funded by the proceeds of banner advertising on the site.  Fenton, who is a former BBC political correspondent and managing editor of BBC News Online, joined the company earlier this year, believes there is scope to substantially increase the ad revenue.

“The strength of is its strong URL and its long history – which make a dramatic difference in search-engine rankings”, says Fenton.  “We are the top ranked site on Google for lots of strings, such as ‘gap year’, ‘travel mate’ and ‘holiday rep’.  To that we add robust, transparent content that delivers something of real value to those who join up”.

Google ranking and active members appear to be Fenton’s key metrics.  He hopes to increase these by diversifying further into the mid-career and career-end gap years, as well as extending the site’s appeal to the United States (where the term ‘gap year’ does not have the specific meaning that it does in Commonwealth countries).

Like other forum-based sites, however, he faces some potent challenges.  The most obvious is of interest migrating away to any of the dozens of other sites that facilitate conversation between intending gap year travellers – from ones run by national newspapers to those operate by airlines.  Typical gap year takers spend 18 months saving for and planning their trip, which provides a relatively short time slot to engage their attention.  

If Fenton’s strategy of journalistic integrity and guided self-improvement works, of course, today’s youngsters might rejoin his site when they have earned their mid-career sabbaticals.