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How to Launch a Blog Network

Blog-NetworkLast week David put together a great list of 46 Things To Do Before Launching a Blog Network which might be worth a read if you’re considering going the network route instead of just having your own blogs.

As I read his post a few comments on his list come to mind. Let me attempt to add a little of the wisdom accidental learning that I’ve gleaned from the process of being involved in the launch and growth of b5media. Let me pick up a few of the areas that David writes about (there’s more in his post that I won’t cover):

Points 1 to 4 – Money

You don’t actually need a lot of money to launch a blog network – however it does help and it does accelerate the growth significantly. I don’t remember the exact figure but when we started b5media the founders each put in around $200 (it could have been a little more or a little less). We decided early on that we wanted to not put too much into it but would grow it gradually as we went and put any profits back into the company.

This worked well for us – we each put in the skills we had and were able to get things up and running reasonably well with just a few hundred dollars. We did already have some profile between us and called in a couple of favors – but we only ever added to that few hundred dollars once more (again with $100 or so).

Having said this – after a year or so we took on $2,000,000 investment and the money certainly didn’t hurt – in fact it accelerated our growth incredibly. So it is handy – but not absolutely essential to have a lot of. I guess the key take home lesson is that if you don’t have a lot of money to accelerate your growth slowly but steadily and to not expect to take any money out of the business but to invest it back in. Also – devise a blogger payment system that doesn’t pay out more than you receive if you don’t have cash reserves.

Points 5 and 6 – Goals

Good advice here from David – we’ve set Goals all along the journey. These goals included how many blogs we wanted to have, setting deadlines for different projects, setting goals for income etc. Going through the process of seeking Venture Capital took this goal setting to a whole new level. You should see some of the models and projections that Jeremy (our CEO) put together in the lead up to landing investment. It was a lot of work – but even just in the preparation stage and the thinking strategically about where we wanted the company to be in the years ahead was a great learning experience and something that helped us grow in and of itself.

I think David’s point of putting people around you to help you achieve these goals is important too. We did this initially as a team – but involving VCs helped a lot with this too. We’re also exploring ways of doing this with others outside the company too (we should have an announcement on this in the coming weeks).

Points 7 to 11 – Blog Overview

One of the keys to launching multiple blogs is to develop systems to help you do this. We now have around 270 blogs in the network (we’ll hit 300 in the coming months). Launching one single blog (and then managing it) can be an overwhelming enough task – but doing it with hundreds in just a few years is a real challenge and means you must have procedures in place around design, recruiting bloggers, launching the blogs publicly etc.

I won’t pretend to understand how our tech team does it – but they have streamlined the process so that a blog can be up and running quickly. We have a procedure for our Channel Editors to follow in recruiting bloggers. We have things that need to be done before launch by bloggers and have systems in place. We have systems for maintaining blogs so that we don’t have to make individual changes on each blog if we want to make tweaks – but can instead manage it all centrally. We have processes that streamline blogger payments. (I could go on)

This doesn’t just happen (we are still tweaking and streamlining things) – but the earlier you start to put procedures like these in place to help you automate processes or at least cut down the work needed the less work you and your team will need to do. Without doing this you’ll end up hitting a ceiling of how much you can do and won’t be able to continue to scale things up!

Points 12 to 14 – Hosting

Hosting is critical to a blog network (or even a single blog). When you scale things up it becomes all the more essential that you have good systems in place. Again – this is not my area of expertise (you’d have to ask Aaron our Director of Technology for more details) but it’s something we’ve worked hard on and dedicated significant resources to.

I always remember Jason Calacanis talking in the early days of Weblogs Inc about hosting issues being the major challenge. Most blog networks go through patches where they struggle with it – we’ve been no exception. I think one of the keys is to keep ahead of your growth and to have a system in place that will not only handle your blogs current traffic – but their future traffic (and a little more, in case three of them land on the front page of Digg simultaneously).

Points 18 to 21 – Advertising

Thinking about how you’ll monetize your blogs is obviously something you’ll want to put significant time into. In the early days for us this was almost exclusively with AdSense. It didn’t take long for us to realize that while AdSense converted reasonably well on some of our blogs that it didn’t with others. We began to explore other options including YPN (Yahoo’s version of AdSense), Text Link Ads and a variety of other ad networks. We also began to develop relationships with other ad partners, look at selling private advertising etc.

The key is to quickly realize that there is no one ad solution that will convert on every blog and to experiment, tweak and track how different ones work for your blogs.

We also took on an ad sales team to help us sell ad space directly to advertisers. This is key to scaling things up to the next level.

Points 25 and 26 – Graphics

I don’t think that each blog in your network needs to look completely unique – however it is important to have some elements that are. This is a balancing act – but one worth thinking through. Most of the blogs in our network have the same template but all have their own logos and color schemes. This enables us to make changes quickly to templates across the network but give each blog it’s own brand and look.

I guess this depends somewhat on how many blogs you’ll have in your network. If it’s a small network it probably is less important to have standardized design.

Points 29-31 – Writers

Finding quality bloggers is essential for a blog – or a blog network. We’ve learned a lot about recruiting and managing bloggers and I have no doubt that we’ll continue to learn a lot more.

A few random lessons:

  • Know what You’re Looking for - advertising for bloggers and taking anyone who applies doesn’t work. Define what you’re looking for and don’t take people on who compromise this too much. There’s more work in having to let a blogger go than in holding off for an extra week or so to find the right person. Read more on some of the lessons I’ve learned Advertising for Bloggers
  • Don’t change the Rules too often – while the systems that you set up will never stay the same – changing things around too much too quickly is unsettling for your bloggers (this includes payment systems, the tech side of things, procedures etc).
  • Create Community and Add Value - some of our bloggers would probably blog for no money simply because they enjoy the community aspects of b5. Add value to what you pay people where you can by creating ways for your bloggers to connect, running internal competitions, offering training, having newsletters etc. However – also keep in mind that not all of your bloggers are wired this way for community – forcing them into it can be frustrating to both you and them.
  • Look for more than just Writers – recruit people who are not just good writers – but people who have more skills and experiences to bring to the table. I personally look for previous examples of where people have been successful at building things up, people who know how to promote themselves, people who are willing to promote and market their blogs rather than just put content on it. Finding those that go the extra mile will often lead to great blogs.

Points 36 to 38 – Domains

Picking domains is something that we’ve put a lot of time into. It’s also something that we’ve always had fun (and fights) with. Like David writes – picking domains is important. We have taken different approaches with them but ideally it is memorable, good for SEO (keywords can help), says something about the topic, isn’t too long, doesn’t have hyphens, is a .com and is catchy/brandable. Having said all that – sometimes it’s impossible to get everything you want and a less than ideal domain isn’t the be all and end all.

Points 39 and 40 – Workflow

I’ve already touched on the importance for good systems. They’ll help you scale up, improve internal communication and cut down a lot of work. We’ve used a variety of different internal communication and management tools including Wikis, internal forums, tools like Basecamp and internal mailing lists (we use Google Groups to manage many of these).

In terms of blogger workflow – we tend to leave this up to bloggers. Some use blog editors, others prefer to work in the back end of WP etc.

Point 41 – Management

It’s so important to have a good team in place – particularly if you’re looking to really scale things up. We started with a group of pretty experienced bloggers as our founding team – but soon realized that while we had skills and experience in blogging that if we wanted to grow that we’d need to fill in the gaps in our combined skill set and also hire people to help manage the workload.

In addition to hiring bloggers we’ve hired numerous others including administrators, tech team (including WP experts, code ninjas, hosting gurus, designers), ad sales team and a variety of other managers. At last count I think we had 14 staff (mostly full time) and there are more to be announced in the coming weeks.

Yes having a team this large costs – but it is also the reason we’ve been able to grow so quickly.

Point 45 – Statistics

This has been something that we’ve grappled with since we started (ie finding the right tool to measure our traffic and other metrics).

We’ve used a variety of tools including server side stats and some custom made tools.

The reasons for knowing metrics are many:

  • They help in the selling of ads
  • They contribute to how much we pay bloggers
  • They are important in reviewing blogger performance
  • They identify trends and point out possible new directions

Don’t just measure traffic – look at other things like how much bloggers are posting, how many comments they might generate, incoming links etc.

Point 46 – Exit Strategy

When it comes to having an Exit Strategy I think it’s worth to have one in mind – however the key is to build a profitable business. Whether you want to sell it down the track or whether you want to build it to enjoy the profits – the key is to build a business that generates good income.

Concluding Thoughts

Wow – that turned out to be quite the epic post!

A few random concluding thoughts:

  • Blog Networks Can Be Big or Small - starting a blog network may sound like a massive task after reading some of what I’ve covered above – but really it can be as big or small as you like. While we’ve built a network with hundreds of blogs – I guess a network is really anything more than 1 blog :-)
  • Networks are a lot of work - having said that they can be small – many people mistakenly believe that they are easy to run. While I hear some talk about starting a network as simply having lots of people write for you – multiplying the content produced and therefore the income earned – keep in mind that you not only multiply the content – but other things including expenses, logistics of managing the blog, keeping bloggers happy etc.
  • Verticals and Leverage - if I were starting over again today I would probably tackle a single vertical. While we’ve done well targeting everything from business, to entertainment, to technology to video games – I think the way of the future for blog networks will be much more around more tightly targeted niches. Probably the best way to do this is to start with a blog that you currently have and to add another that is on a related topic so that you can leverage the traffic, profile and credibility you already have to launch the second blog.
  • Successful Blog Network are Built on Successful Blogs - if I had one piece of advice for an aspiring blog network owner it would be to start by building (or acquiring or partnering with) a successful blog. I’ve seen a number of blog networks attempt to start 20 new blogs from scratch – only to find that they had nothing to build them on.

I’m sure much more could be said on the topic – but before this becomes coma educing (for all of us) I’ll leave it at that and hand it over to you for your comments and reflections on blog networks. Again – read David’s original post on the topic here.

PS: The graph above is actually a picture of the b5media blog network created with this website graphing tool.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. David says:

    Thanks for the link Darren, and as usual, I have to bend down to your mastery, as your experiences with b5media have surely given you much more insight into these different areas than my experiences with Bloggy Network. Kudos to you and your amazing post on the subject.

  2. Missy says:

    Insightful post, Darren. It is interesting to hear what you would do, if you were starting the network today. That would have been my #1 question to you.

    I’m trying to build a small network, and yes, it is not easy or cheap. Great post.

  3. juggle says:

    common darren your still pimpin the hood.

  4. Ankit says:

    The best advice is hidden at the end of the post. I think you were saving best for the last. :)

    Successful Blog Network are Built on Successful Blogs

    A successful blog network need few big blogs, which need to be authority in few niches. This not only attracts good bloggers to the network, you can even leverage your advertiser base easily across your small blogs.

    But for a new blog network, who wants to start from scratch (like we did with Instablogs), its extremely important to let your best writers focus on blogs which you think have the potential to become big.

  5. Great follow-up to David’s post, thanks, really insightful.
    You guys (b5media) should offer services as Blog Network Consultants to people wanting to create their own blog networks / empires. You sure have the experience and the expertise.

    Oh yeah, congratulations to the –soon to be reached– 300 blogs count.

  6. tassilyn says:

    Stumbled upon this site. Seems to have some great tips for beginners. I just started my blog and sometimes find it hard to keep up with just one.

  7. BlogInsider says:

    wow. Excelent post Darren. Congratulations!

  8. Wow, something to aspire to! We have just started our first blog, so the thoughts of starting a network is a bit overwhelming at this point in time. Great information!

  9. Sweet post Darren! I am actually also building my elite of bloggers, this article will be taken to consider!.

  10. Although I have limited experience in blogging, and zero experience in a blogging network, your post does bring to mind how I started a computer sales business at the beginning of the “household computer” boom with very little money.

    I offered a percentage of my business to a lawyer, accountant, technician, landlord and a store manager in exchange for a salaries.

    Everyone had their own expertise while I focused on promotion and sales. Your b5media blog network seems to share some of these methods.

    Your posts always get me thinking so please keep them coming. Thanks.

  11. Great reponse to the original article Darren! This truly is a blog worh coming to on a daily basis. Thanks!

  12. Marko Novak says:

    You’re timing is perfect. I just received an offer to create blogging network and this article helped me a lot.

  13. Excellent info, thanks Darren! While I’m not at a stage today that I’d want to start a network, it is something I’ve thought about for the future. I have wondered though, how you would pay bloggers in your network, especially since you mentioned that when you started out that you really didn’t put much money into the network. Would they only receive part of the advertising profit from the blog they work on?

    Thanks again, I’m so glad that I found your blog before I ever started blogging, just a ton of useful info here.

  14. Jimson Lee says:

    Great post! I now have a blog empire of 2, after I spun off my Team Blog with my own solo coaching one.

  15. Man adding a few pointers turned out to be a full assault!

    As usual Darren your tips are very informative, and your wisdom has certainly shown.

  16. jhay says:

    I’d be sure to remember this when I set out to create my own blog network, in the years to come. ;)

  17. Darren, is this the seed to a printed book? I think that would be a noble project and very popular amongst the blogging crowd. Your writing skills and success as a blogger would definitely be a welcome addition on my bookshelf.

    Great post.

  18. Chad says:

    Great article! All of those sections are definitely important!

  19. I don’t have anything against anyone doing follow up posts about anything. Generally, it’s even considered a privilege, specially when it’s done by a bigger “blogger”, such as yourself.

    But giving a thorough insight and all of the same information that David gave, through different words, is like taking over the conversation. And from the comments above, it’s easy to see that most people are giving you credit for the ideas that weren’t originally yours (though I’m not saying they belong exclusively to the author of the original article).

    I’m not saying you didn’t refer David properly, or that you didn’t link back to him, but the way you wrote the article leaves the readers with little or no interest to bother checking the original, since you cover basically everything that he did, and add a few things of your own.

    From one of your last paragraphs which states: “Wow – that turned out to be quite the epic post!” – I can understand that perhaps the article turned out bigger than you expected it to. Still, in my opinion a follow up shouldn’t provide all, or most, of the information the original did.

    I hope you consider this comment and consider not making other follow-ups similar to this in the future.

    Sincerely,

    Marco Jardim

  20. Thilo says:

    really interresting post.

  21. Travis says:

    Darren, in talking about domains, you mention that it’s best to use a .com domain – how important is this? I’m mulling over a new project, and one of my top choices for a domain name isn’t available as a .com, but the .net tld is. Would I be better served by taking the .net domain with the ideal name, or compromising the name to have a .com domain?

  22. That was very insightful Darren, thanks!

  23. Darren Rowse says:

    David – no problem – thanks for getting me thinking about my own experience with your post. You covered a lot of great ground!

    Vince – on the blog network consulting – we probably won’t quite go that direction (so much work in just running our own) but we do work closely with a number of other networks and even offer a service or two to them from time to time :-)

    JoLynn – these days we pay our bloggers a flat monthly fee (that goes up over time as they’ve been with us for longer) then a traffic bonus. In the early days it was based more on a revenue share basis – but we found that that wasn’t really scalable for us and that our bloggers wanted something more predictable (ie a minimum income per month).

    Frederick – books will probably come but this wasn’t really written with that in mind.

    Marco – you’re right, this post didn’t start out as being anything like it ended up being. I hope it didn’t come off as taking over the conversation – I did link to David’s prominently and he did leave a comment above which doesn’t indicate he was put off by my post.

    One thing I will respond to your comment with though is that I feel I added something different to the conversation than what David said. I think if you read my post carefully you’ll find that my advice differs in numerous places to what he says. I didn’t take the approach of pointing this out because I didn’t want people to think I was disagreeing with David (because these things are different in different situations) but I don’t think this was simply a rehash of what he’d written. I only commented on his points that I thought I could add something to the conversation on. I actually left out numerous points that he covered which I hope drove people to read more of his post.

    I do take your point on board – but I guess in my mind at least this is what blogging is about. One person writes something from their own experience/opinion and then others take it and add their own from their own experience. That’s blogging and hopefully through it we all learn something important on the topic.

    Travis – on domains – I prefer .com simply because I think it makes it easier for readers. Most automatically will go to a ‘name’.com. Obviously you can still be successful with another extension – but it’s easier if you can get the .com. I’ve done both – but these days wouldn’t go with anything but a .com unless there were extreme circumstances or unless i was targeting a specific market.

  24. David says:

    Hey!

    Just starting a new network so perfect timing on your post.

    Perhaps you could expand a little on the statistics side of things? I agree with your points, but would love to know what packages you use, or combination of packages?

    And a post that would be REALLY helpful is a guide to creating a “media pack” or how to sell sponsorship on your blog. I know there is the “how to get sponsors” post, but I mean a deeper look at the construction of a pack or document, what information to include, how to pitch it, and most importantly, what is the first move you make when trying to get a sponsors attention / communication chanels open?

    Keep up the good work and I will ping you a mail when our new network goes live. :)

    TTFN,
    Dave
    http://www.thoseshows.com

  25. Dan Schawbel says:

    This is a really great guide. Remember that success is in people/talent.

  26. “JoLynn – these days we pay our bloggers a flat monthly fee (that goes up over time as they’ve been with us for longer) then a traffic bonus. In the early days it was based more on a revenue share basis – but we found that that wasn’t really scalable for us and that our bloggers wanted something more predictable (ie a minimum income per month).”…….thanks for your feedback on that Darren. It sounds like it would be OK to start out with the revenue sharing in the beginning if you don’t have a large budget, but then transition to the monthly rate.

    Also, re: Marco’s comment……I took your post as being your experience with running a blog network, because you do have experience in it. I don’t think that discounts David’s original post or his experience, because his experience is his own, just like yours is.

    If you simply reposted the same thoughts that David had, then that would be a problem. So, I appreciate both sides of the story re: starting up a blog network, since I don’t have any experience in that yet!

  27. ReviewSaurus says:

    Well, I think I was pretty late to go through this but I think still not too late. Well, we are also working on a blog network and I’m glad to see that we’ve followed almost each and every tip till this time, so I think we are heading towards the right direction.

    Although, big blogs are required in building successful networks, I think combining small blogs together can also help in building a successful network, isn’t it ?

  28. Hi Darren,

    That was extensive.

    Thanks for the info.

    Cheers,
    Carlo

  29. Jenny says:

    I saw this post on another blog earlier. Can’t remember which one but eh. Nifty tips though. Not something I would ever attempt.

  30. TheVamp says:

    Thank’s for info derren

  31. Hi Darren,

    I was wondering if you’d seen Blue Hat SEO’s SEO empire posts? They’re quite related, especially the part about having systems in place.

    On a related note, please do check your email as I have a business proposition regarding a system for increasing revenue across the network.

    Regards,
    Gabriel Goldenberg

  32. Wow this is quite an epic post for sure. In the future, my goal is to have a blog network of my own :). Thanks!

  33. I’m late to this post because I’ve been going out of my mind busy trying to start a blog network for our nonprofit organization.

    b5media didn’t want to take the heat of a religious category, so we’re trying to come up with a model that will give people latitude and still create boundaries of good behavior.

    It’s been tough. This post couldn’t have been more timely.

  34. vineet says:

    Very extensive post. I am an IT professional and I have seen and experienced the systems you talk of while blogging, esp. things like process orientation, creating a system that will work over and over again – principle of CMM 5 quality standards.
    I am new to blogging so I never realized that someone can be managing like 300 blogs. That must be a humongous task, sounds really exciting.

    Your blog is awesome. My favourite so far among all I have discovered..

    Thnk .

    Vineet Nair
    http://internetbusinessjunkie.blogspot.com

  35. HongKong says:

    Dear Darren,

    Excellent job done! and very informative post…I’ll be appreciated if you could keep up your awesome work on sharing the secrets of blogging!

    Thks

  36. Well, how I can say this?..Hum… I’m gay, and I’m not respected in my country by being gay. So, I’m trying to make some friends on the web. We, the gays, have rights and I need a lot of people like me to do a revolution in my country.

    Thanks for read this, I will feel better….

  37. Steven says:

    Excellent article Darren. Starting off that first successful blog is key as you say – but do you recommend (if your long term goal is to have a blog network) hiring contributors from the get-go or for the founder to be the main blogger/voice until its successful? Thx.