The internet is no longer the tool of knowledge sharing it originally started out being: it’s a commercial and marketing platform, pure and simple. Money goes to he who shouts the loudest, whether they might have anything worth listening to or not. Like everything, there’s good and bad to this. The good is easy: it’s made doing business ever easier than before (even if Paypal takes a huge cut as financial gatekeeper); especially for small businesses and individual proprietors who’d otherwise never have had access to those customers or audiences. Information is easily available; almost everything is there if you look hard enough. And on top of that, there are new and exciting streams of income that simply didn’t exist 15 years ago – sponsorship, paid blogging, pay-per-click, email harvesting…but is any of it really sustainable?
I’m going to write this article from the viewpoint of somebody relatively new to the whole web thing*: mingthein.com has been running seriously for about 20 months now. We have unique monthly readership well into six figures; people visit an average of 5-6 times per month, spending 10+ minutes reading whatever it is that happens to catch their eye. I think this is not a bad outcome at all for a site that was never meant to be mass; I suspect the sheer volume of text puts a lot of people off, let alone the content. So, take that with a pinch of salt.
*But who’s also finally had the chance to try out and refine all of the theory that gets sold to consulting clients; it seems most of it doesn’t actually work in practice. Bottom line: hire people with real experience/ results
There are, however, several unquestionable differences between myself and the majority of the ‘photographer’-bloggers out there: firstly, I’ve spent precisely zero on advertising or promotion for the site. The audience was built organically. Secondly, I’m about as brand agnostic as it gets; I don’t get paid to write anything or use anything. I buy my gear like everybody else. Thirdly, I don’t have any third party advertising – the sole exception, the promo entry banner for the Maybank Photo Awards, is there because I was head judge for the competition – and I think my regular readers should have a decent advantage over most other entrants😉 Fourthly, blogging is not my full time job. Far from it. In fact, net income derived from the site – teaching, workshops, videos – is firstly nowhere near as high as you might think, and I still have to shoot and do other creative work for a living. The inescapable conclusion is that I do this whole thing solely because I want to, not because I have to.
And that I think gives me a lot more freedom to both be objective editorially as well as commercially about the whole thing. There’s no denying that this site and its associated activities take up a huge chunk of time – perhaps as much as 40% of my work hours – and many of you will recall my earlier posts musing how to keep this running and making financial sense. I ruled out subscriptions because it would defeat the point of an open platform. I ruled out advertising because it would imply compromised objectivity, and the tricks required to get the right numbers* would make the site unpleasant to read. The current design is as much a function of aesthetic considerations as well as the underlying structure of the content and limitations of the WordPress platform.
*Clicks or uniques; what this does not take into account is time per page – and implied total time on site – as well as the ability to game the former by having forums, splitting out articles into multiple pages, and on top of that, the quality of those viewers: are they just clicking through because they want to get to the end to read the conclusion for free, or are they the kind that buy? The conversion rate matters: 1000 clicks at a 1% conversion rate is worse than 100 clicks at a 20% conversion rate.
To be a successful site – and the reality is that there’s no way to measure success other than by financial return – I think content is the key; not just random low-quality crap in quantity, but more importantly, quality and uniqueness. If people can find the same content elsewhere, then there’s little chance they’ll come back to you. If you are the only person with that content, then you will attract views even if you don’t shout very loud – and that’s precisely what I’ve decided to do. This site now has approximately 650 full-length articles, 3,000 images and1.5 million words of content; excluding another million or so on the site in the form of in my comment replies, and thousands of emails on top of that. (To benchmark: your average paperback novel has about 100,000 words.) The sheer ‘volume of stuff’ out there with my name on it, in areas of specialist domain, means that I’m visible when you search. And I think this is the future of the little guy: we cannot compete with the bigger guys on advertising. Buying adwords or playing the search engine rankings game is impossible because we would last about a week financially. In order to generate revenue from whatever stream your site does – advertising, referrals, sales etc – you need to have the volume of traffic. Conversion rates are naturally falling as the number of sites increases; the only way to grow is to either drive traffic or drive conversion. And conversion is more likely to happen with influence; influence requires trust, and trust requires consistency and demonstration of expertise. Simply, you’re less likely to buy something from a dodgy looking site with horrible images, text that appears to be written by a five year old and a plethora of ads than one which looks professional and whose writers actually use the product in question and deliver the goods consistently.
I think we actually went through a period where the internet satisfied an unrequited urge to create for a lot of people; as a result, there was a lot of knowledge and expertise uploaded just so people could become visible; enough so that most internet users have been subconsciously conditioned to expect everything for free. That was “Web 2.0”. In consulting-speak, the low-hanging fruit are plucked; the cash cows are milked dry, and we’ve got to move on; saturation point came and went and the first wave of creators realized that it was a lot of work and not much return other than the occasional (virtual) pat on the back via email. But mostly, society is made up of consumers, not creators; people read/ see/ watch/ listen, get bored, then want something new; it’s an insatiable cycle, because if you’re not going to fill it by creating more, faster, better, now, then somebody else will. And there will always be somebody else to take their place, too. Consider this: it takes five minutes to watch a five minute video regardless of whether it’s good or utter crap – but anywhere between five minutes to five weeks to produce. And it’s almost always free to view. Clearly there’s something wrong here.
The cause of the slow shift we’re seeing now is two things: consumers getting jaded, and the creators hitting a productivity wall. There’s only so much you can physically do or produce before it becomes unsustainable and/ or impossible. And creativity isn’t exactly an on-demand commodity. Supply of the new becomes restricted; value is slowly being restored. The upshot of all this is that quality content – and by extension, knowledge – has value again. The more specialised the content, the higher the value. Duh; nothing new here whatsoever. But in the big, shouty ‘look-at-me!’ world of the internet, perhaps somebody has to reveal the Emperor’s new clothes aren’t all they seem to be. Some operators realise this, and some don’t; I’ve been asked to write guest posts or to license material; I only do so if there’s a mutually beneficial gain to be had in exposure. I certainly don’t share my content willy-nilly to all and sundry. There are other operators who’ve gone down the route of more, but not necessarily better; they’ve lost their credibility and as a result, the quality of the audience has declined. If it’s one thing you see on the web, it’s that the speed of information propagation works both ways: you can make a name overnight, but you can lose your reputation just as quickly, too.
Perhaps it’s because generating quality, unique content take time. A review that’s a 500-word regurgitation of the spec sheet in paragraph form is clearly far less useful than a proper, considered evaluation by an experienced professional with proof of merit or lack of; as fast as I am with these things, to review a new camera properly takes the better part of four whole (and unbillable) days. Please remember that before anybody asks me to review their fancy of the moment.
I think the best way for me to end is with a few tips for existing and prospective bloggers, career or otherwise. Listen or not; it’s just my experience.
- Content matters. Quality and uniqueness over quantity, always. Better if you can have both, but we are of course human.
- Don’t try and compete on things you can’t win – SEO, adword bidding etc. Use social media instead, and even partner with existing sites to increase your visibility in the early days. Of course, in order to be a mutually attractive proposition, you need to have something to offer: content.
- Readers are people. People prefer dealing with other people than machines. Be professional, contactable, responsive and friendly – at all times. Just because you are running a virtual company does not mean manners have to be virtual, too Any one of these people has the potential to be a huge customer. In fact, treat your whole web front with the same amount of care as though it was a physical business.
- Visuals matter: site design, usability, graphics, images, logos etc. all have more impact than the text. Try to have a unique visual identity; your site will be remember and therefore revisited.
- Quality control and professionalism: everything from your grammar to the way you answer emails to contributors.
- Be organised and consistent. You won’t get regular readers if you update every day, then once a month, then twice a day, then not in six months. No matter how good your content – you need to condition people to want to come back, and know when they should be expecting something new. It’s not easy to get back customers you’ve previously lost due to neglect; imagine if this happened in a physical business.
- Try to make things interactive to encourage returning visitors; if you can’t manage a forum, then at least encourage and participate in comments. (Sometimes, I think this works a little too well – we’ve had up to 400 comments on a single article before…)
- Be clear about why you’re doing it: if not, then you a) won’t be committed enough to do it well, and b) it won’t be worth your time because the results won’t be what you expect. I continue running this site because it’s an outlet for my desire to write and my desire to share my images, and it also connects me with like-minded people around the world.
- Whatever you do, don’t plagiarise. Anything. You’d hate it if somebody else did it to you.
Above all, like anything else – running a site well requires hard work. Lots of it. Be prepared to put in the hours, the keyboard time (and eventually keyboards, too – I’m on my third one since starting this site) and dealing with the rude idiots who think that just because you publish your email address you’re at their beck and call 24/7 – you aren’t, but there are many ways to say that. I’m going to leave all of you career bloggers with one final thought: measuring your clicks, likes or followers is completely worthless because there is no direct correlation between that number and profitability; measure your ARPU (a metric from the telco industry; Average Revenue/Return per User)instead; it’s the only way to know if your effort is actually paying off. MT
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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved