Last 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.
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.