It would be an understatement to say that the site has taken on a life of its own far beyond what I would have envisioned a year ago. (At that point, I’d have been happy not to see a zero traffic count when I checked at the end of the day.) We have pretty much a complete ecosystem – Facebook page with 4600+ fans, a very active Flickr pool with 4,700 accepted images, 800-odd contributors, and on average, two hundred images for me to moderate daily; there’s of course the iPad app, and various local communities of readers and fans brought together by various events and workshops.
I post at least every two days, and sometimes more frequently than that. The posts average 2,000 words in length – those of you who haven’t been out of college that long will remember essays of that length took some time and effort to complete – plus the correct images and illustrations required to support the text. Some of these are even longer – camera reviews run in the 4,000-5,000 word range, and require even more extensive testing under controlled circumstances, plus shooting images specifically for the site. Let’s not even talk about how much time is taken up by double checking anomalies that could be potentially caused by sample variation or file handling. Magnum opuses – like the Camerapedia and dictionary (exclusive to the iPad app) – have upwards of 30,000 words and take cumulative weeks of work.
Then there’s the correspondence: direct emails, comments, Facebook messages and posts, Flickr messages and posts, group threads. I have no idea how many individual messages this comes to, but I do know that on an average day, I get 200-300 emails. Long ago – perhaps foolishly – I made a promise that I’d do my best to reply to and interact with all of the readers who cared to do so. I’m sticking by that, because I think it’s one of the things that differentiates this site from others – especially the larger ones where the proprietors sit in the clouds and pontificate, then largely ignore their readers.
All in all, this takes up time. A very significant amount of time, it happens. A ‘normal’ article for me requires around half a day to produce, and a heavy review/ test like the Leica M Typ 240, a day and a half just to write up – that doesn’t include the time spent shooting, analyzing and processing images. The time I spend on the site is time that isn’t billable to clients; unfortunately, I can’t be in two places at once. I did consider hiring an assistant, but the amount of free time that would buy wasn’t worth the price of admission and time I’d have to spend training him. On top of all of this, I spend 3-4 hours a day handling email.
I’m starting to feel that my commercial work is taking a back seat and suffering somewhat because of this: there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to do both properly. After completing my accounts for tax for the last few months, it seems the numbers and my bank account are telling me the same thing, too: the more time I spend on the site and related activities, the less income-generating commercial work I’m doing*. Although I was much busier in November and December than ever before, I made less than in the early days. I’d like to be able to continue, because I think it’s important creatively to have the variety as well as because I’d get bored doing the same thing all the time. I’d also like to keep the momentum going: there’s far too much equipment masturbation and too little real photography online; I’d like to keep flying the flag as ‘the thinking photographer’s read’. Realistically, I spend about half my time or more on the site these days – and it’s a job that seems to run pretty much 24/7. I sleep about five hours a night. I’m almost certain none of the other sites online can compete for quantity or quality, and most of them have teams of writers and sponsors. I’m completely certain that none of them are run solo by people who have other day jobs.
*This is one of the reasons why I charge what I do for workshops: it’s the opportunity cost. Plus, you’re getting the opportunity to spend some time with a charming, articulate, artistic genius – I’m kidding, of course. But I’d like to think I do know both the technical and artistic aspects of photography pretty well.
Then there’s the format of the site itself: many sites spread reviews out over multiple pages to get higher traffic numbers; this is a false metric of traffic unless it’s taken into account with average time spent per page. My site is laid out to make it easy for you to read: everything loads, and you just read the entire article from the homepage without having to click around. Consequently, the stats show that though I don’t have as many page views as the competition, I’ve got nearly ten times the average time spent on page. Finally, I work with some camera companies and brands, but I’m not paid by any of them – I wish – I do it because it gives me access to equipment and people (professional equipment support is important to me). It also gives me the freedom to choose who I work with, and the ability to maintain my editorial integrity.
This brings me to the slightly sticky point of this post: In order for me to continue creating content in the quality and quantity to which you’ve become accustomed, it’s going to have to start generating more revenue – otherwise, this is simply unsustainable in the long term. Before you suggest referrals – the amounts simply aren’t sufficient to make sense; we’re talking in the mid hundreds of dollars here. (I suppose it doesn’t help that I’ve always said that it’s the image and your skill that make the difference, not your gear.) I believe Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer faced a similar conundrum a couple of years back – I don’t remember what his eventual solution was, though. I do know he’s always run ads, though. I’ve been toying with a few ideas on how to make this work:
This would take the form of sidebar ads via Google AdSense. I get some control over the kinds of ads that are posted, but by and large what you see depends on your demographic information (which Google somehow calculates presumably based on your location/ IP address and any other cookies you might happen to have on your computer). I wouldn’t take directly solicited and paid ads from camera companies because this could be seen to compromise my objectivity, which defeats the point of me writing at all. This is probably the most straightforward solution as it doesn’t fundamentally change the structure of the site much, or the way content is delivered. I have no idea if the financials will be sufficient to make much of a difference, however.
2. Subscription basis.
I’d rather not do this as I think it would probably destroy the goodwill I’ve built, and limit accessibility somewhat; administration is also a bit of a headache. However, there are several sites and magazines that illustrate there’s still a demand for high quality paid content. I’d probably do something in the form of a weekly mini-magazine – either via PDF or ipad app.
3. Pay to play.
The final idea is something I’ve been toying with, but don’t have a solid idea of the form it should take: if people want a camera reviewed, they can commit a certain nominal amount – say $5 or $10, (which really isn’t a lot if you’re considering a $5,000 camera). Once a critical threshold is reached, I’ll go out and buy one, and review it exclusively for those who paid. I’d basically have to find a happy medium between cost and volume – enough people would have to sign up to cover my time costs and the loss involved in buying then reselling the camera. This way, I’d only review the things people are interested in. Another variant of this could be if enough people are interested, and the cost of the camera and my time are covered, the review unit gets raffled off and won by one of the parties who paid. This could run nicely with the existing site, too, but administration is going to be a bit of a headache (requiring yet more time).
There was a time when the wealthy supported artisans by paying a monthly or annual stipend to enable them to continue their art; I’m considering something along these lines, too. For a fixed subscription – perhaps there are tiers. In return for the patronage, I’d do a limited fine-art print run every so often (depending on amount) for the patrons. You’d get something unique, and I’d get time to work on the site. This also has the advantage of not requiring as many people.
The bottom line is that I don’t know how much longer it will be feasible for me to continue maintaining the site in its current format if nothing changes: it’s one at the expense of the other now. The site is what it is because of the support of the readers: I’m going to keep things democratic, and open the floor to a poll : it’s multiple choice, so you can pick as many answers as you like (or if you don’t want things to change, then pick #5). Please vote, and feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments – any other suggestions I might have missed would be greatly appreciated, too. MT
Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved