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Sourcebench Community Blog Consulting Summary

Problogger-Consulting-SourcebenchThe first ever ProBlogger Community Consulting job has been wonderful to watch this last week.

A quick recap on the idea – together we know so much more about blogging than any of us do individually. So together this week we’ve been critiquing and work shopping one blog – this week it was Sourcebench. You can read more about the why and how of the idea here and see the first community blog consultation here.

So how do we sum it all up and pull together some take home advice for the blogger behind Sourcebench? Over 80 varied pieces of advice were left – so it’s impossible to come up with a definitive list of things that Sourcebench should do – but here are a few of the main themes from reader comments:

Header and Whitespace

Perhaps the most overwhelming piece of advice was the size of the header and the amount of white/empty space. Here’s how Sourcebench looks when I view it on my laptop (what appears above the fold).

Sourcebench-Header

My first questions when seeing the page was ‘what’s it about?’ and ‘where is the content’? While a clean and minimalistic design can work well – I think most who left comments felt that this design was too clean and too empty – to the point where content was hidden and readers were confused over what the site was about. Perhaps on a larger screen there is more able to be seen – but on smaller screens it probably needs some reworking.

Branding

Most readers responded well to the little cartoon icons. Similarly – the response to the name ‘sourcebench’ was positive.

What’s it About

A recurring theme in reader’s comments was that their first impression was that they didn’t know what the site was about. While the title tags of the blog do say ‘building a better web’ – I wonder whether something that is more specific would work better as a tagline – particularly if it was repeated on the actual page in key positions. People make a decision about whether they’ll continue to read a blog in the first couple of seconds – part of this is based upon whether they feel the topic of the page is something that they have an interest in.

Mixed Objectives

Numerous of readers left comments that they were not sure what the main objective of the site was. Is it about promoting the company behind the blog (to get new clients), is it to make revenue from advertising, is it about building the profile of it’s author, is it to generate a community….. While a site can have more than one objective – I think it’s important to have a primary objective (particularly in the early days of a blog) and then to centre the design around getting a conversion around this objective. So if it’s about advertising – put ads in a key position, if it’s about getting clients or raising the company’s profile – put something front and centre that sells this etc.

Community

A number of readers pointed out that to comment on the blog it was required that people register and login. This will always decrease the participation rate on a blog. Also I noticed on the front page that there is no indication that there is the ability to leave comments – signaling to readers that they can participate. Lastly a few readers said that they wanted to see social networking tools – enabling readers to pass on the site or posts on it via bookmarking, emailing to friends etc.

Font Size

I wasn’t personally put off by the font size – but quite a few readers felt that it was at least 1 or 2 points too small. Perhaps this could be enlarged slightly. A number of others commented that they felt that the font style was difficult to read.

Tag Cloud

I’ll admit that I’m not really sold on Tag Clouds and rarely use them. To me they look messy and when I’ve tested them I’ve not found them to get much click action. However that’s just my prejudice. Others commented that the tag cloud didn’t work for them – some suggesting that the smallest fonts in it were too small to read.

Content

We’ve already pointed out that the large header and welcome pushed the content way down the page under the fold – a problem. A number of others suggested that content/posts needed to be highlighted more prominently – perhaps using some sort of a ‘featured post’ system. I mentioned above that people make a decision whether to stay on a site in the first few seconds. This is partly decided upon by the topic – but then reinforced by the quality of information that they find there. You need to give people a reason to subscribe – and on a site like this that reason will almost always be that they found something useful and think you’ll produce more that will help them. As a result it’s important to find a way to highlight the most useful and helpful content possible.

Visual Elements

I didn’t see many mention this – but it strikes me that despite the little cartoon characters in the header/welcome that many of the posts had nothing about them that were particularly visual. I find that posts with a visual point of interest tend to get more attention than others. Also break up the posts more with headings, styling etc.

About Page

There is information about Sourcebench on (or linked to) from the front page – however a number of readers pointed out that there was no dedicated ‘about page’. Web users are wired to look for ‘about pages’ if they want more information about a site – so I’d suggest creating one that has dedicated information for those wanting to know more. Call it something like ‘About Sourcebench’ – the more obvious the better. Position it prominently.

Advertising

If one of the objectives of this site is to generate revenue from advertising then it’ll be vital to find more prominent places to display it. Ads in footers can work – but there are much ‘hotter’ spots on blogs – particularly above the fold and also (but less so) at the end of blog posts (around comments).

Footer

A few readers felt that the footer didn’t really fit with the rest of the blog. I don’t mind it – but when you compare it to the wide empty spaces of the top half of the blog it is quite full. If you’re going to put so much information in a footer it’s important to think about how to draw people down into that area.

There’s a lot more that has been advised by readers during this community blog consultation – so I’ll leave you to read the full comments on the introduction to this week’s consultation.

What’s next with ProBlogger Community Blog Consulting?

This first experiment with Community Blog Consulting seemed to go quite well. My theory that our community is wise and can produce excellent advice was proved to be true in my mind and I hope it was beneficial to the blog being critiqued (in fact it seems it was because they have announced a redesign as a result of it).

As a result community blog consulting will continue in the weeks ahead. I’m chatting with someone to help coordinate it and hope to share more about it in the coming days. In the mean time – if you’d like to be the subject of a blog consultation feel free to leave a comment below. No promises that we can use everyone who offers – but we’ll select one of the comments below to be the blog that we look at next week.

Blog Jobs – Get them Here While They’re Hot

The ProBlogger Blog Job Board has seen some interesting new jobs for bloggers go up over the last week. If you’re a blogger looking for a blogging job – here are a few you might like to check out:

And that’s just the last 12. If you’re a blogger looking for work or someone looking to hire a blogger – find a blogger or a blog job today.

Google Analytics Announce New Features

Google-AnalyticsThe Google Analytics team posted about some upcoming Announcements on their blog today. New features are coming to Google Analytics including:

  • tracking of site search – ‘find out what people search for on your site and where these searches lead’
  • Event Tracking capability – reports ‘designed to help you understand how people use and interact with Ajax, Flash and multimedia on your site without artificially increasing your pageview metrics.’
  • Outbound Link Tracking – ‘report on links visitors clicked on your site that direct them to another site’

The first one will be available to everyone and the second two will be limited beta tests.

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.

Free Report Reveals Smart Way to Make Money Online

Teaching Sells Free ReportWhen Brian Clark from CopyBlogger releases a free report – you know it’s going to be something you want to read. So when he emailed me a draft copy last week I put everything else aside and immediately devoured it.

The report is titled ‘Teaching Sells‘ and having chatted to many of you about your frustrations with making money online lately I just know that this is going to connect with a lot of you.

You can download it here (both as a PDF and MP3 audio file).

“Forget About Blogging for Bucks and Make Some Real Money”

Some of you will read that section heading in Brian’s report and wonder why a blog about making money online would be promoting something that seems to undermine the idea of making money from blogging.

I’ve long said that making money from blogging is possible on two fronts:

  1. Making money directly from your blog (usually through advertising or affiliate programs)
  2. Making money indirectly because of your blog.

Most bloggers take option one, thinking that they’ll become rich from earnings directly from the blog – but I’ve long held the belief that it’s actually option two that has the biggest potential – ie using the blog as an attention grabber and a point of leverage that can open up bigger things for a blogger.

This report will help those wanting to explore the second option through selling content – and more specifically through selling ‘teaching’ content.

I could write a lot more about the report – but really it’s something I’d encourage you to download and read for yourself. Then perhaps I’ll write a follow up post where we can discuss it more fully once you’ve had a read.

PS: Brian’s told me a bit about where all of this is heading, and he’ll be offering training for people who want to get on the fast track to acting on the content of the report. There’s more free articles coming as well as some paid training later on.

Whether you go for the paid options or not I think this initial report is a great read and give you lots of food for thought.

Click here to get your free copy of Teaching Sells

More on Google Reader Subscriber Numbers

Since Google Reader started showing how many people subscribe with its service to different RSS feeds there’s been a lot of talk and analysis about how many subscribers different blogs and sites have. However one element hasn’t been talked about that much – the fact that many blogs have multiple feeds and Google Reader doesn’t combine them all into one result to give you a true number.

Most of those analyzing the data don’t seem to be looking at multiple feeds.

For example – here at ProBlogger there are two main feeds that people have subscribed to – the original ProBlogger feed and the Feedburner one:

Picture 1-6

Andy picks up the ‘why’ and ‘how’ it could be useful to have these two figures in his post The Secret Statistics In Split RSS Feeds – Google Reader.

Matt Cutts points this out too and also reminds us that blog software like WordPress creates many feeds – including feeds for categories, comments etc.

Update: Pete Cashmore also makes a strong case for these sorts of numbers being compromised by ‘default feeds’ such as Google Readers ‘bundles’ which he says will inflate your figures by around 50,000 simply by being added to a bundle.

A Secret to Profitable Blogging – Trending Up Over the Long Haul

Over in my question box reader JoLynn Braley asked me:

“Was there a time when you first started blogging that you became despondent and thought about quitting? If so, what happened that gave you the confidence to keep going?”

[Read more...]

How Can Bloggers Be Environmentally Responsible?

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day Today is Blog Action Day – the day where thousands of bloggers around the world are all blogging on the same topic – this year it’s ‘the Environment’.

So on a day like today I thought it might be good to have some discussion around the topic rather than me just spouting off on my theories – after the stated goals of Blog Action Day are to ‘get people thinking, discussing, questioning and talking about the environment’.

So my question for us bloggers is:

‘how can we as bloggers be involved in saving the environment?’

Surely there are a at least a few things specific to bloggers that could reduce our ‘footprint’ on this wonderful world we live in.

Here’s a few to kick us off:

  • Get a more energy efficient monitor
  • Turn off Your Computer at the End of the Day
  • Donate a Days Earnings to an Environmental Cause
  • Keep your computer longer and learn how to recycle it when you do upgrade (learn more about the ‘computer problem’)
  • Consider offsetting the carbon emissions from blogging with some tree planting

I’m sure there’s a lot more we could do – keen to read your suggestions.

Is New Media a Threat to Journalism?

Here is a quick question for your discussion. I’m writing a short column on the topic for a magazine (ironically) and while I’ve already written most of it thought it’d be a better article with your ideas. The topic:

Will the growing popularity of digital user-generated content pose a threat to the traditional journalist?

I’ve been given the task of writing in the affirmative and presenting the case for digital user generated content – although don’t have to take the extreme.