The commercial reality of reviews, writing and blogging

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:

1. Advertising.
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).

4. Patronage.
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

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Comments

  1. Ming,

    Just thought I’d jump in the mix and give my thoughts for what they’re worth…..

    1. Ads- In a perfect world we could avoid them, but that’s just not possible when the rest of the web is swimming in them. I do believe that with your oversight and personal high standards that the ads can be done tastefully and have a minimal negative impact.
    2. Posting volume- While I enjoy posts on a daily basis I think that with the size and scope that this site has achieved it is very selfish and unreasonable for me to expect this to continue. There is something to be said for quality over quantity. Granted you are capable of both at the same time, but it would seem that you are hitting the rev limiter. I think it would perfectly reasonable to limit to 2-3 articles a week. Question, are your photoessays less labor intensive? If so, would it be possible to post 2 articles and 1-2 photoessays to give us something to tide us over till the next article posts. You have always said that the site is about the photography first! If the photoessays don’t overtax you then give us more photography! Another idea for content could be guest posts. You have created a unique photography ecosystem here. Surely there are some of your readers have excellent views and information that they could share.
    3. Comments and emails- I’m sure when this site first started the task of responding to all the readers comments/emails was very manageable. As you said yourself this site has expanded well beyond what you originally envisioned. Once again as much as I appreciate the effort and desire I find it unreasonable and selfish to expect this from you in light of the volume you face. It may be time to dial that back some. It may also be time for you readers to elevate their standards. If we want to comment and expect a reply let’s make sure that it is a well thought out comment or question that adds to the intelligent environment that this site has become. If I as a reader ask “What camera should I buy?” because I’m to stupid or to lazy to find that information for myself (either on your site or the rest of the web) do you really need to concern yourself with a response?
    4. Gear reviews- I think these need to stay for a couple of reasons. 1. The reviews open the door for new readers. Hell I’m pretty sure that’s how I ended up here! Once here you realize that gear reviews are just a bonus and the real value becomes apparent. 2. I really like your gear reviews. I could honestly give a crap about mtf charts and the like. You review gear through the eyes of a photographer not a lab tech. That’s not to say that there isn’t science in your reviews! There is good value in the reviews because it offers a very unique point of view that isn’t found too often on the net!
    5. One idea that is a bit of a stretch…….. 1 or 2 fundraisers a year to help support the site. I couldn’t even begin to break down the logistics on this one. Just a thought. You’re a creative guy…. maybe something will come to mind. Some others have mentioned prints. Could be you work these in some how?

    That’s all I got. Hope it helps! When I get done here I heading over to the donation tab and gonna setup a monthly donation. In my life time I’ve pissed away too much money on useless shit. It’s about time I put some of that money toward a worthwhile cause! I bought the ipad app and I’m gonna need to grab some more vids too. Thanks Ming for all this. I hope you can make it all work, because it would be huge loss for all your readers.

    Best of luck,

    Jeff Christian

    • Hi Jeff, firstly thanks for your donation and thoughts!
      1. I’ll give them a try, but if it proves tough to fill the space with quality and quantity pays crap, then I’ll ditch the idea.
      2. We’re currently at 3 articles a week – has been bi-daily for the last six months. I try to mix up photoessays and articles; both are equally labor intensive because I actually have to go out and find something to shoot to make a photoessay, with the associated processing etc. I did think about guest posts, but this turns into a bigger question: if it continues as it does now, with the intention of the site being a platform for me to have an online presence, then having other people’s content is somewhat counter to this.
      3. I think you’ve got a point to the last one. I got a couple of emails today asking ‘Should I buy compact X or DSLR Y?’ and things in that vein. It’s an impossible question to answer, and asking it shows either callousness and rudeness for not supplying information, or that the writer is likely to be the limitation…
      4. I agree, but I’m only going to do it if I don’t have to buy the camera just for the review. Sometimes one gets carried away.
      5. I was the one who mentioned patronage and prints, but early print offers didn’t work. Perhaps it’s time to try again.

  2. Charles says:

    I’m a regular reader. My $0.02:

    1) Advertising is an easy choice to make — do it. Make it clear that the ads have no affect whatsoever on your editorial policy, but let those of us who can’t buy your Ipad app help support you with our pageviews. This on its own is not enough.

    2) Stop replying to reader email. Seriously. Every minute that you do that is essentially private consulting to that person, but they’re not paying you for the time. Limit your interaction with readers to comments and articles on the site itself, where at least it’s available for others to read. And if it’s something that shouldn’t be discussed publicly, then they *should* be paying you for consulting. I’ve been in this situation myself; I was an active member of a technical discussion list, and constantly got private “help” emails from people who’d seen my postings to the list, and answering those took up an inordinate amount of time. I eventually started form-replying giving them two options, either post publicly to the list, and if I thought I had something to contribute, I would respond, or hire me for private consulting. Trust me, as much guilt as you think you’ll feel for not responding to email will be worth the amount of time freed up to both do commerical work, and work for public consumption on the site.

    Charles

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Charles.
      1. Agreed.
      2. People say it is one of the things that sets me apart and keeps them coming back, but yes, you’re right too. As it is, I’m cutting back the length of reply to the bare essence required to answer questions (and will probably have to ignore some in future). Private consulting…is surprisingly unattractive because the same people who ask are the type who feel it should all be free.

      • Charles says:

        > Private consulting…is surprisingly unattractive because the same people who ask are the type who feel it should all be free.

        Absolutely. And if people think your time isn’t worth anything, you shouldn’t feel any obligation to provide them with it.

        I’m much, much happier if you have a handful of hours to craft another thoughtful article that I’ll enjoy reading, than if you’re spending all your time answering dumb or repetitive questions that arrive in emails. Your past policy of responding to all email may indeed have set you apart – but it will result in burnout or commercial unsustainability, which benefits no one.

        Thanks again for a great site.

        Charles

  3. First of all, let me just echo what’s already been said by many others: This site is the best photography related site I’ve ever come across. The time and dedication you put into this is admirable, and I have learned so much from you and your articles. (And the 1st photoshop workflow video I purchased a while ago, which was very good indeed btw). I found the site while googling for lens reviews, but the thing that’s made me a regular visitor is definately your superb articles on the creative and psychological aspects of photography.

    As for my opinion, I don’t mind ads at all, and I think the donate option is a good idea. I would definately be interested in any ebooks as well as more videos. Studio lighting setups, especially for product photography, would be an especially interesting subject for a future video in my opinion.

    I hope you come to a solution that works out for you in the long-term. I definatly think you should prioritize the missus and your own health and sleep a bit more over the blog and don’t be afraid to cut back a bit on the article frequency if needed. Just my humble thoughts on the matter. :)

    I’ll set up a monthly payment on monday when I get some paypal-stuff sorted, and hope that many more do the same!

  4. Love and appreciate all you do Ming. I’m relatively new to your posts but am learning lots and enjoying what you create. You have an excellent writing style and content is pertinent and highly informational.

    Couple of suggestions:

    Have you considered placing articles in an App such that in-app purchases could be made? That way Apple or whoever collects the money and you receive only one transaction per month and avoid Paypal and such. The Leica LFI has this and I purchase their PDFs often.

    Why not shorten each post by breaking it into a part 1 & 2 and post on subsequent days? That immediately halves the amount of work you must do and still gives readers a frequent read but a shorter read, which satisfies those that say they cannot spend the time to read your longer posts and maintains your desire to be detailed and complete.

    Have you considered getting some volunteer assistants (from on here) to help write or proofread your work? Might give them a discount to your seminars or other training or offer to evaluate and critique their work as compensation. I’d be interested in helping. Like an understudy or intern.

    All the best!

    • Thanks Craig. Technically, I could do that, but I can’t charge for something that’s online for free already – so new articles are pushed to your app as soon as they’re published. Apple STILL collects the same toll on in-app purchases :(

      Changing the post length is definitely going to happen because it seems that people are finding things too heavy anyway – this will definitely ease up the workload some.

      Thanks for the offer of help, but to be honest, it’s still faster for me to work solo – for now.

  5. I found your blog this past December while looking to buy a compact camera. While I knew nothing about photography at the time, the quality of your writing and of your images has induced to read much of what is in your archives (and learn a lot more about photography in the meantime!). I would happily subscribe to your site and make a donation as well. Regarding subscriptions, you might want to look at Andrew Sullivan’s blog for his model. He ditched ads this year and through a combination of subscription and metering has brought in, I believe, roughly $950,000 (hope I am not way off with my numbers here). That said, I would be fine with ads and like many others, I think fewer posts might actually allow me to enjoy your writing and images more fully. In any case, many thanks for what you have done so far and best of luck in figuring this all out. You are doing great work and deserve to be remunerated for it.

    • Firstly, thanks for your donation! Holy wow, that’s a serious number. It does seem a little high, though I’d be happier with significantly less than that.

      Time to better moderate the post schedule. And if not, my archives are enormous. :)

  6. melgart says:

    hey Ming:

    with all of the excellent writing you do here and the amount of time you spend on it, you could write a full-on book. more than just a photo book , more like you philosophy of photography. I’d buy it! ads wouldn’t deter me either, and I’d probably pay for a subscription, too. the patronage-via-critiques is also something I would consider. good luck in your decisions.

  7. Dear Ming,
    I run a website myself that is similar to yours just in a different niche. Advertising is definitely a way to keep the site sustainable, though I think you adwords makes a site like this look cheap. I work with smaller companies and larger ones…
    Also, I switched from writing every second day to writing fewer but better pieces. Sometimes it takes me 3 days to write one piece but this is the content that creates return visitors, attracts links and readers.
    Fell free to reach out if you want to discuss.

  8. Some of the most exciting blogs on any topic–food, news, art– include a small cadre of guest posters. TOP has at least one weekly poster, a techno-geek, who adds variety to the site’s major voice. If you cultivated or curated a team approach to your blog–like The New Yorker’s house writers–you could post once or twice a week and readers would come back because they’d be intrigued by whatever or whomever intrigued you. Your guest bloggers could also expand the culture of photography: you could rotate in a historian of photography, a designer, a pop culture critic on the politics of the image (Zizek?), an interviewer posting conversations with other master photographers. Shelby Lee Adams interviewing Sally Mann? A book reviewer of books interesting to photographers (these might be more than photo books). This might be the start of a media company, along the lines of David Babsky’s suggestions but even more steroidal. Apologies if another respondent already mentioned this idea. I read most but not all of the comments above.

    • It could work with the right people – finding those and keeping them happily rewarded is going to be the challenge, because I’d think if they are at the right level they’d probably have their own site already. David knows what he’s talking about because he’s been in the industry for some time. And I do appreciate you reading through the responses before pitching in… :)

      • I respectfully disagree with your assumptions. Not all good writers and thinkers want to maintain their own sites. The consistently great blogs have a unified brand or worldview but many voices and an extended reach. Readers come to a site to be surprised, for a university feeling. There is an opportunity for someone to start a NY Times-ish content creation site for the visual or esthetic world. The shortfall in photo blogs is that there is little inventiveness or experimentation. Everybody covers the same content and the same gear. Perhaps one day that will change and readers will find something they never knew they wanted…which was always Steve Jobs’s mantra: give people what they dont yet know they want. Emphasis on the YET.

        • It’s possible I haven’t talked to the right people yet, but that isn’t the impression I’m getting.

          The trouble with giving them what they don’t know they want is you yourself have to know what that is :)

      • Ron Carroll says:

        I’d like to chime in… I don’t think the issue here is how we should re-design Ming’s site. He’s shown there’s interest in the content as it’s currently structured. 3,000,000 hits in a year doesn’t leave room for any doubt about that. That’s a pretty good reach. And he did it because he’s not simply repackaging the ‘same content,’ as you suggest. The site doesn’t need steroids; it needs a means of generating some positive cash flow, and Ming was clear about that. Those 3mm hits came from folks who look forward to reading the fresh content that he presents here. Guest bloggers would only serve to water that down, even with topical steroids.

  9. Geoffrey K W Lee says:

    I have been following your sites for a long, long time. Your site is indeed a rare gem and the quality of your essays are, invariably, very, very high (I think, to the extent that most layman (me included) cannot totally understand all the ideas that you are trying to convey.). Your writing is always impeccable (no grammatical mistakes, no typing error, ever..). You have put so much time and effort in this site that I have foreseen that it is simply not sustainable. My suggestions are as follows:

    1. Drastically cut down the time you spend on this site. It is very difficult to generate income from a website, especially with your integrity. This site should remain a hobby. In short, forget about this website, it is not cost-efficient. Our loss will be your gain.

    2. Don’t answer all e-mails (this one included). While it is very noble of you, time is simply too precious (that is why we need to spend so much on a watch!).

    3. Do spend the majority of your time talking and meeting potential clients. There should be enough business opportunities here in Malaysia (I live in Kuala Lumpur.). The more clients you talk to, the more business you will get. The standards of commercial photography in Malaysia, in my opinion, is rather low. You should beat other guys without problems.

    In fact, I am not the kind that feel comfortable writing to people that I don’t know personally, not to mention “giving suggestions”.

    However, you simply have too much talent and there is nothing I loath more than seeing talent wasted.

    Best wishes.

    • I’m not sure not being able to understand is a good thing or not! Perhaps I have to work on the clarity.

      1. That would be obvious, but it doesn’t make sense when you consider how hard other people are trying to work to build traffic…I have traffic, I just need to build revenue.

      2. True.

      3. Yes and no: the standard is low because nobody is willing to pay for quality; you know Malaysians, they select on price. Most of my clients aren’t in Malaysia.

      Don’t worry about it – all thoughts appreciated!

  10. I agree with most of the posts above. The reviews, I can find those on other review sites but I keep coming back on your philosophical views on photography. There is much more soul to it compared to reviewing gear and to which I believe most photography sites have lost. I am actually unsubscribing to one of my subscriptions because their topics are just repeated every 6 months but you have something special here Ming. Your views, and every else’s view evolve as we mature as artists. I do believe that you have instigated here something that most us, your readers, find very stimulating and encouraging. But as you said, reviews attract readers and this will eventually lead to more ad clicks if you add it so in the future. I wouldn’t mind paying for the content you are publishing.

  11. Ads are no problem – we all understand you have to cover your opportunity costs. I would assume you would get more money for photography-related ads since that is your demographic. I would have no problem with seeing ads and would actually prefer seeing photography ads rather than car ads.

    And when you do the ads, you’ll want to do everything you can to get the traffic up, so you might want to read up/invest in a few hours of a consultant’s time re Search Engine Optimization techniques.

    Maybe you fixed it, but when I did contribute via Paypal, it was a bit hard to do as the link did not automatically take me to a screen with your info filled out. That might improve the donation rate if you haven’t tried that (in addition to ads).

    Thanks for being sensitive to your readers and asking their opinion/preparing them for changes!

    • On the SEO already done – I need to fix it so the impressions are higher; time per hit apparently isn’t an important metric to advertisers.

      The PayPal thing should have worked – in any case, I received something then a cancellation notice shortly after – I suppose all is not happy in PP- land.

  12. Can you post the material in one long article in two or three parts? Keeps the blog moving, doesn’t sacrifice what you want to say, and reduces your effort.

  13. Torbjörn Tapani says:

    I have long thought that the level of writing here must be unsustainable in some way. But if anything it has almost increased. How you manage I don’t know. For me there is a real value in knowing you write about stuff you are intrerrested in, not what anyone else wants you to. If there were fewer updates that would be fine but I really like the way this blog has operated this past year.

  14. Hi Ming
    This discussion has certainly taken on a life of its own.

    I agree with Libby and Eric and I think most of the people who have responded. You need to pace yourself for the long term. I for one would like to be reading what you have to say in five years time not shaking my head and wondering what ever happened to Ming. So I am also advocating two articles maximum a week regardless of content i.e. gear, philosophy, the non-sequential nature of time, whatever.

    Lloyd Chambers offers free articles and paid access. I have been happy to pay him $100 plus a year for several years and I know your websites offers a greater variety of photographic and artistic discussion. I find much of your writing and photography complementary in many ways.

    Ads are good if limited and only for things you feel you can promote.

    Like David duChemin I believe you could easily produce and sell a pdf magazine four times a year. You could in part base them around your teaching workshops as well as focusing on a different area e.g. architecture or wildlife, with an extended review or revisit to a camera, lens or other piece of gear, the search for the elusive perfect tripod. I also think with the number of articles written during the past year there is an opportunity to revisit, rewrite and release a number of ebooks.

    I do not have an iPad, regular or mini yet.

    • Thanks for chipping in, Paul. I think the future direction – at least in the short term – is pretty clear; I’ll be posting something tomorrow…

  15. Important, great post Ming, and amazing feedback, you have all the reasons to be very proud of yourself. Just a year, and look where your are.

    The Internet is full of delusions. A prominent one is the one of seemingly easy riches. Monetizing a site is becoming more difficult by the day, no matter how hard you work for it.

    Who understands the algorithms of Google’s AdSense or eBay? As an affiliate you’ll be at their mercy, and even “serious” programs such as B&H or Adorama, what commissions do they pay? And the cookie is gone after 24 hours. They still make money with people you refer, but not you.

    Relying on commercializing the site does, however, mostly rely on content, content, content. That’s the old rule still valid. Well the content you have!

    Second most important asset: traffic.

    You got that, and very loyal one for that. Regarding monetizing the site, fact is that returning customers are, sorry to say, not the most profitable ones. Meaning they tend rather not to click ads. But maybe on your site, with a very clean design, a targeted ad may stand out positively and enrich the overall content. Who knows.

    If you start with AdSense, there will be the waiting period to get higher quality ads, then the CPC drops again, and so forth. Completely unreliable and seasonally challenging. Again, difficult to rely on such income.

    I’d cut down on work for the site and let it grow organically. There’s in not the slightest doubt in my mind that within three years your site is reasonably profitable if you take the right steps.

    Meanwhile, maybe cut down on post, don’t be on the grid 24/7 and try to take time again for things you always loved doing but forgot about. It’s easy to become a slave of the Net.

  16. THEME Photo says:

    Not sure if my comment was sent properly, so here we go again… pls delete Ming if double.

    Important, great post Ming, and amazing feedback, you have all the reasons to be very proud of yourself. Just a year, and look where your are.

    The Internet is full of delusions. A prominent one is the one of seemingly easy riches. Monetizing a site is becoming more difficult by the day, no matter how hard you work for it.

    Who understands the algorithms of Google’s AdSense or eBay? As an affiliate you’ll be at their mercy, and even “serious” programs such as B&H or Adorama, what commissions do they pay? And the cookie is gone after 24 hours. They still make money with people you refer, but not you.

    Relying on commercializing the site does, however, mostly rely on content, content, content. That’s the old rule still valid. Well the content you have!

    Second most important asset: traffic.

    You got that, and very loyal one for that. Regarding monetizing the site, fact is that returning customers are, sorry to say, not the most profitable ones. Meaning they tend rather not to click ads. But maybe on your site, with a very clean design, a targeted ad may stand out positively and enrich the overall content. Who knows.

    If you start with AdSense, there will be the waiting period to get higher quality ads, then the CPC drops again, and so forth. Completely unreliable and seasonally challenging. Again, difficult to rely on such income.

    I’d cut down on work for the site and let it grow organically. There’s in not the slightest doubt in my mind that within three years your site is reasonably profitable if you take the right steps.

    Meanwhile, maybe cut down on post, don’t be on the grid 24/7 and try to take time again for things you always loved doing but forgot about. It’s easy to become a slave of the Net.

    • Very true and sensible in all areas. I’m not looking to make a living out of blogging – it’d be nice, but I’m realistic – I just want to make the most of what I’ve created, and at the same time try not to compromise too much on everything else.

  17. Just looking at the flood of comments to this post should tell you about your audience – they like what they see here. One person said ” your site is a treasure trove”. You’ve are faced with the conundrum of online content publishing – making it worth the time and effort. Based on how engaged your audience is ( time on page – reading full articles and repeat visits ), there is a strong case to be made for point 2 – a subscription (not subscription to content here on the site). I follow this quite closely online. There are a ton of “experiments” in the space to find the right business model for online content publishing. Yours might fit what Marco Arment is doing with his “The Magazine” – http://the-magazine.org – a simple, clutter free, monthly set of high quality editorials piped through a beautiful iPad app with sparse and minimalist design – making the content the focus and nothing else. No ads e.t.c. All this for just $1.99 a month. I subscribed immediately when it came out.

    You can still make your blog posts here but find some editorial angle to make what is piped to the iPad app unique and rich in a way – follow up to reviews , topical discussions, deep analysis of particular topics … Just make sure the app is really solid from a usability perspective. This also opens up an entirely new possibility for you later down the line – creating an online magazine which is essentially a hub for content / editorials from other preselected photographers – much like what Marco is doing. Do you know how many other photographers will like their content / stories featured in an app like that? I am not talking National Geographic or some Photo app – I am thinking an app that carries quality editorials about really interesting stuff.

    You have a lot to work with here! – I will be the first to subscribe (and I just stumbled on your site less than 2 weeks ago!).

    Good luck.

    • You do know I already have an app, right? This is and will continue to be ad-free, in addition to having specific content that’s exclusive to the app like the Dictionary and searchable version of the Camerapedia.

      • I think the current iPad app serves a different purpose / intent – It is not solely focused on editorials. It is essentially a portal for in-app purchases of training materials ( + other supplemental stuff). Compare it to the example in my post – which is solely a platform for weekly editorials – like you are doing here on your blog.

        Here’s one way to verify – compare the user stats ( if you are tracking it ) on the iPad app vs the blog, across various engagement metrics. I suspect the blog wins out – because it is free and also because it has a completely different proposition than what the iPad app offers. The translation ( or enhancement ) of the blog’s core proposition into a subscription based mobile platform is what I am suggesting.

        • Not quite. It’s also an offline reader and has a 40,000 word dictionary that is exclusive to the app. It would be easy to convert it to editorial-only for the content if that was the chosen direction. Of course the blog wins out, for the reasons you describe – I think that would always be the case.

  18. vinh truong says:

    Hi Ming,
    First of all, sorry to hear about the sacrifice you took to maintain this blog. I was original drawn here by your equipment reviews, but I found your photography/image making articles are what keep me going back. That’s why I bought both of your videos to advance my skills as well as support your site but I guess it was not enough. Your articles on making good images really open my eyes even though my only purpose is to make some good photos of my family, friend whenever I can for fun. Thus, I wouldn’t mind making a small pledge like $120/year just like I do to our local public classical music radio station to keep it on the air. I think many of your readers wouldn’t mind doing the same thing. Whatever you decide to do with this blog, I wish you the best.

  19. Your policy of getting back to everybody is suicide. Not to mention that it diminishes the value of your time.

    I’ve run a decent sized website before and the emails never stop. I decided early on that I would answer very few individually. It’s just not sustainable or scalable and it cuts into time that could be better invested elsewhere. In the end, I found that 90% of the emails were variations of the same few questions anyway, most of which I had already answered on the site.

    In the end, there is no way to help each individual that needs help. It’s like playing whack-a-mole and it never ends. Especially when we talk about people that are not accustomed to paying for value and don’t seem to respect the value of other people’s time.

    Maybe do what Zach Arias did and filter questions from the masses through a tumblr page (with comments turned off) that you can answer as time allows. You could put together a list of all the people that have bought from you in the past and give them some email privilege over the general audience. I don’t think it’s fair to you, Mrs. Ming, your students or your clients to burn yourself out trying to get back to every random Tom, Dick and Harry on the internet.

    I would skip the advertising. Like somebody else mentioned, it is getting harder by the day to make it work. People only like that option in the poll because they are spoiled by not paying for value and want to keep a good thing (for them) going. Use good free content to give people a taste of the value you offer. Then package and charge for your premium content. Stop giving so much away! You have a ton of value to offer.

    You may want to look at what people like John Paul Caponigro and Andrew S. Gibson are doing too. When I first read this article, hose guys are the first people I thought. They are writers and photographers who seem to have created something sustainable.

    • Interesting perspective – answering stupid questions is definitely going to stop, but I’ll still try to keep up with communications as much as possible. I don’t mind that being one of the distinguishing aspects of my site; the rest just has to be sufficient to make it work. Subscriptions are a last effort at this point.

  20. jlmphotos says:

    Well Ming I’ve only been reading your blog since late January of this year and I knew this was coming. There was no way you can sustain the pace you work at — paid work, reviews, blog posts, plus your personal life. So you have to do whatever works for you.
    Good luck in your decision process.

  21. Hi Ming, have you ever thought to contact some business company (like for example Adorama) in order to make an indipendent adv space on your site? So you could remain objective to the reader, you will not need to advetise Nikon or Canon or Leica individually. The other solution, I think could be the Fine Art Print: take a look for exemple at the Steve McCurry website (http://stevemccurry.com/fine-art-prints). Of course the potential buyer will be different, but it could be a solution.

  22. hi Ming, Have you thought of writing a book?
    I enjoy reading your blog and your photos. It’s very rare to find a talented photographer who writes as well as you do so I think gather all your writings into a book.
    This is my opinion on a book:
    - build your credentials which you have been doing
    - call it something different to others (common ones are ‘The Art of Photography, Advanced …’
    - if possible get endorsements from Leica & Nikon &… to build your reputation for wider community
    - if possible in “who you are” tell potential purchasing that you are the official photographers for big name Swiss watch companies, naming names would be good “Omega, Rolex….?”
    - include a copy of your DVD, you sell the DVD probably at the same price of the book but it’s about volume or don’t include DVD but ask purchaser to register their name and you send them the DVD, this way you have a big register of names to contact in future
    - on the DVD provide some very nice photos you have
    - give purchaser discounts on things that you sell (photos, seminars, dvd, etc…)

    There are many books on photography out there that are quite average, I think you can do much much better.
    Put me down for the first publication of the book.
    Of course, book should be 2nd priority compared to your commercial work.
    BTW: you should have an online store to sell your stuff, I wanted to buy your DVD but it’s a little inconvenient to log into PayPal, send funds etc.. frankly a lot of people don’t know how to do that. Online people just Add Cart then check out using PayPal.
    Cheers & Best Wishes.BB

  23. Joseph Grunske says:

    I appreciate where you’re coming from. I suggest reducing posts (1 or 2 per week) to allow you more time for profitable pursuits.

  24. Hi Ming, maybe you could have some guest posts? Like Steve Huff is running, but with better editing and selection on who is allowed to post. The you could keep a decent amount of posts to maintain traffic and yet gaining more time to shoot commercially. Time is money if used wisely. Also I think you could slow down your posts a little and still retain traffic. Your quality is excellent, I have bought a few of your videos and really enjoyed them. Working in advertising I can say that banner ads are not really what advertisers are looking for any more. They have very poor results. Look into other ways of getting advertisers involved but still retaining your integrity.

    • The problem is finding people of a sufficient standard…glad you enjoyed the videos. I won’t be doing banner ads – targeted sidebars are about as intrusive as it’s going to get.

  25. Jorge Balarin says:

    Hi Ming, I understand your point. Your web page is present in my daily life and I will miss it if dissapears. So I think it is fair to pay for your effort. However, I’m not rich (actually I’m really poor), so if your subscriptions are not so costly as your mail tutorials : ) I’m ready to pay. If besides that you choose to have advertising it is also ok for me.
    I don’t like the “Pay to Play” option, because I enjoy to discover equipment that I even didn’t know that exists, and because I’m a photo equipment onanist that like to read about thinks he can’t buy.

  26. I’ll excuse you from a reply here. i could have done the survey, but I never seem to fit into anybody’s preconfigured category. Advertising is fine, but’ll I’ll ignore it. Yours is one of very few sites I visit that I enjoy enough and learn enough from that I’d gladly pay a subscription fee. I think the idea of patrons in a good one. Whether I’d be one, depends on the tariff. Maybe there could even be levels of patron. I wonder if it would be possible to add some advertising to a basic content, add full access (maybe even add free) for a subscription fee, and special opportunities and discounts for patrons, like limited availability prints, or a night before the workshop starts dinner or reception for patrons, or a discount on portfolio review or e-lesson. Your time is valuable, we who benefit from it have a vested interest in seeing that the benefits are mutual.

  27. Hi Ming, I know I am late in responding to this thread (although I did vote) but PLEASE do not stop talking about photography!! That is something you offer that is so rare anywhere else. There are tons of (too many) gear head sites around and tons of “professionals” talking about gear, gear, gear – it’s almost like a circus to see who can talk the loudest about gear and never mind anything about real photography at all. I so enjoy and value your site and posts about photography! Anyway, that’s my two cents. Thanks for all that you do and best wishes as you go forward with the changes on the site. And I really like the pay for an image critique option too. .

  28. Jack Hon says:

    Ming, like other people above has already said, I think even two posts a week given the quality and clear thought you have given to yours would more than suffice for me. I read a host of other stuff online and simply don’t check back here enough to read them all.
    Of corse there would be some who would love to read one a day from you but I think that would be a nice balance.
    Just remember, this still beats your old day job, by a country mile :)

  29. I maintain my blog while maintaining a very demanding full time job. I don’t do nearly as much writing as you do but I do post several times a week, sometimes less when work becomes more demanding.

    I think everyone goes through this same thought process a year or two into it. I don’t do affilate links, advertising, donations or similar. I have thought about it but then I think it changes the expectation of the readers and removes a bit of the joy for me. I am staying focused on keeping mine an outlet for me and my enjoyment.

    I don’t do guest posts as it is my outlet and I don’t want to dilute my content with others just to keep content fresh and readers coming. I would do that if it was a business not because I don’t have time to create content.

    I am glad others get pleasure from it as well but I am careful to not let it take over my life. I find some readers became very demanding, especially when I didn’t post for a few days but then I remind myself it is free and it is my outlet to share with others.

    • +1 to this. You’re trying to figure out how to turn a creative endeavor into a business. The creative is fun but doesn’t make any money, but when you transform it to a business, you may lose some of the magic that injected the passion for the site. I think you need to carefully consider what you want to get out of it and then adjust your strategy accordingly.

  30. Gibran Hashim says:

    Love the patronage idea. Wouldn’t mind paying a small fee for limited prints. And I think some advertising would definitely help!

  31. Ming, I just erased a long comment about a lot of the stuff that has already been said on the blog. What I would really like to say is that I visit your site for many reasons, but I get the greatest joy when I see your best images. The art of photograhy as you practice it. Whatever you do in the future of this site, please keep developing as a photographer and keep inspiring us with your photographs.

    • I suppose that was the whole reason I landed up trying to make all of the commercial bits of photography work: because I just wanted to spend all of my time making images. I have to get the focus back to that, somehow.

  32. It’s not just that you write about photography and gear with an appreciation for photography as an art and a passion, but also that you’re really f*%#ing good. Thank you for all your fantastic articles. They’ve helped me choose my gear and your photography has inspired me to get out out and shoot more creatively.

  33. Echoing some previous comments here: Quality over Quantity. There is such a wealth of information about photography on the web that I can read if I so wish, what brings me here is the quality of your writing and your insightfulness. Write fewer articles so you can maintain your USP, which is you. By all means split the articles into parts to keep the daily hits up if you wish. Also, perhaps some posts can be a selection of emails you have received during the week and your replies. This would share more valuable content, reduce the duplicate questions you receive via email, and increase the community feel of the website.

    Good luck with whatever you decide.

    • Thanks. Most of the emails I get really aren’t worth reading…and even if I posted the replies, the kind of people who sent them will still keep sending them :P

  34. Ming – I think you can also try recording your workshop or your shooting process (for example watches, architecture, etc). If you’d like to share, charge on that video. I know people who are willing to pay to see that content (I certainly would love to), why not?

  35. Hi Ming, I ‘d keep part of this site free but not everything (like the archive), I’m fine with a subscription. People have to realize the amount of work to maintain good quality for a web site. Adverts are fine too, and as mentioned it could be from brands like Nikon, but also watches; should not be a problem for AP, PP or JLC their margin is extremely good…. Sponsored links like B&H or Amazon works mainly for people in the US, for me in France ??
    I do not have always time to read the post entirely, so from my view less words, more images would work; I’d like to see more images from you, from different locations (nothing against your city, even If believe that Paris is better :-) ) or subjects .
    I’d like also to see from time to time, images (good ones or not) from your readers, may be from the flickr group, with your review/comments.
    Gear review I think this is important and provides good visibility to the site. There are plenty available on the web, but as a customer before spending 1000€ for a lens, the opinion from someone I trust is very valuable.
    BR
    Michel

  36. Actually, the bigger the brand, the stingier they are with A&P expenditure – logic being, ‘we don’t need it because people already know who we are’. B&H ships to France, and Amazon, well, out of luck. To have referrers in every country isn’t practical though – and would make a big mess of the site, I think. I’m of course willing to make some tradeoffs – otherwise I wouldn’t have put this up for discussion in the first place :)

  37. Thiefsie says:

    Out of interest Ming, where is most of your reader base located? US or other? (Australia here… and I believe I found you through Steve Huff’s site for some reason).

  38. A third in the US, a third in Europe, and the balance everywhere else – mostly Asia.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 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.  [...]

  2. [...] of all, I want to say an enormous thank you to everybody who wrote in or left a comment after the last article on commercial realities – I’ve been overwhelmed by the time people have taken to chip in their thoughts, often [...]

  3. [...] passion means a 60 to 70 hours workload per week just for a website. He does it for free while Ming Thein might be charging $2k for a workshop and asks for financial support by loyal readers. And even that [...]

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