In Sept. 2007, I was on a well-deserved holiday, having spent an excruciating 11 months with a startup where 80-hour weeks were normal. I was the Chief Technology Officer and in my short tenure, I had gained new clients, setup the company infrastructure and trained a few interns. On the morning I came back from holiday, my office was packed up, and the bosses were in it to hand my stuff to me. They kicked me out of the door without so much as a thank you.
I went through the various stages of depression, and then realized that I had to come up with an action plan quickly to pay for the massive mortgage and the new baby.
With nothing more than an idea in mind, my wife and I started CraftGossip.com, a niche blog network covering everything that your grandma would be proud of, sewing, knitting, crochet. We also covered some new age favorites like indie crafts, edible crafts and home and garden. We decided to cover news related to the craft world (I explain later why we decided to start this site and not something else).
Since then, CraftGossip.com has become the number one craft site to go to, if you like your news crocheted, knitted or sewn. In 2011, our traffic roughly doubled. We have been courted three times in the last year alone for acquisition.
In this post, I will offer my thoughts on how a niche publishing site like ours can become successful.
Understanding our audience
The online world of Crafts/DIY is fragmented. On one end, you have the big players like the DIYNetwork.com whose web presence is part of a whole media strategy. On the other, you have a host of semi-independent sites like Craftster.org, Craftzine.com, and host of other mommy blogs. In 2007, if you wanted your information about new and interesting things in the paper making or jewelry making industry, you either read an off the shelf trade magazine or relied on main stream media to pick the information up in their supplements.
Our audience were mostly women (97% or more) in their late thirties with at least one kid. They had spare time on their hands. And they wanted to indulge in some creative pursuits. And they wanted to know about everything new and interesting in their pursuit.
We decided that this audience would be best served by a review site which would cover not only independent artists and their creations, but targeted industry behemoths. So, we started CraftGossip.com as a blog network, with separate sections to cover everything in sewing, knitting, crochet, paper crafts (since retired) and a few more.
It helped that my wife had started an independent site (Craftbits.com) that provided free patterns and projects since 2000, so she understood her audience well. That site had always been sent free goodies from major suppliers in the hope that we would use them in our projects and therefore write about them. Coupled with the knowledge gained in running that site and the audience research we did plus the lack of competition at that time helped us to create a site where we could talk about everything new and creative.
Understanding that it is all about the money
The biggest question we had while creating the site was how we were going to find and curate all that information. With a net cast as wide as we could, we had decided to indulge several categories, but we couldn’t ourselves find and write about them. We needed external people — our editors. To have editors, we needed to pay them. And therefore, the site needed to make money to be able to pay these people.
We decided to have ads all over the place. At last count, each page on our site had at least seven ads.
But our content is the king.
We have been slammed several times for having an excessive amount of ads. We have been slammed for having ads in the first place. But if you go to our site, you will immediately see where the content is and where the ads are. There are clear demarcations. You cannot confuse an ad for content. And this helps us to maintain integrity. Our design was changed just once in the last four years, and when we found that that wasn’t working we quickly reverted back. So our design is the same it has been when we started because it was the best design to incorporate our seven ad types.
Having to deal with different advertisers is a pain, but it helps us to keep afloat. It is a small price to pay. We accepted at the start of the site that the site needs to make money immediately, enough to pay our editors and for our efforts. In the process we created the go-to site for everything you wanted to find out about Craft/DIY.
Finding and maintaining the balance with our editors
I mentioned about our editors earlier. Each section on our site has its own editor as we found it impossible to maintain the site as well as find fresh and daily content to post. Between our 20 editors, we post nearly 30-40 new posts each day. Yes, each day our editors find 30-40 new items in the craft world that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.
We require our editors to post at least five new articles each week. This maintains the freshness of each blog. But most editors post more than that, as they love their job!
Of course, the balance comes from almost complete independence in how they handle their traffic and content. They have editorial independence from us and in the last 4 years we have had to only pull content twice. This independence allows us independence as well from checking on them daily. We know that they are responsible for their content and we leave it at that.
The editors have a visceral interest in maintaining this independence as well. When we started, we decided that the way we will pay them is via a revenue share arrangement based on their traffic, and that this revenue share would be balanced in their favour. No other site or blog network I know has this arrangement where the revenue is in favour of the editors.
Paying them via a revenue share worked well for us as well. It helped us to start the network with the minimum of capital. We could only pay out what the site had earned – no more. In the years since, our most heavily trafficked site’s editor regularly earns over $2500 a month. Not bad for finding 5 new ideas a week to post about (although that editor posts much more than that).
Keeping our social media channels open and active
We were very late on this one. It was perhaps our inability to recognize that social media channels could be a great source of legitimate traffic. The problem was compounded by not understanding each social media channel and how to leverage individual strengths. Even now, our Twitter account languishes with only 15000+ followers, and the traffic from Twitter is out of our top 10 sources.
However, once we realized our folly, we increased our efforts in each channel. Mainly Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Twitter, we used for maximum participation from our audience. We organized Facebook giveaways that required users to like us on Facebook (this has been outlawed by Facebook since then).
For example, we gave away a Kindle via Amazon in the race to get to 10000 fans. A prize like Kindle is a great incentive for our audience to participate (and a really easy prize for us to fulfill), so we asked them to not only like us on Facebook, but to leave a comment on the post to increase interaction.
We got over 1000 entries for that giveaway and gained over 1600 new fans.
One of the problems of organizing giveaways like this is that you gain audience that are not really into your product or service. Luckily, our attrition rate after organizing such giveaways has been minimal, as our target is women followers who genuinely like our site and the daily craft ideas that we provide.
Lately, Facebook traffic has been surpassed in leaps and bounds by Pinterest. However, with the legal challenges facing Pinterest, we are approaching this cautiously. Besides, Pinterest doesn’t encourage user participation in the way Facebook does. YMMV.
Appearing bigger than we were
This was always an ethical issue. We approached many suppliers, artists and publishing houses with offers of great reviews for their products, artwork and books in exchange for them sending us details of their wares before anyone else. We did this by pretending to be bigger than we were (at that time).
This worked in probably 4 attempts out of 10. But each attempt, even failed ones, brought us closer to being in the good books of these people because the 4 genuine creative works and products that we featured made us look legitimate and big in front of the 6 who had refused to send us their products.
One classic example was the use of LinkedIn to approach an industry leader for product samples and giveaway of their flagship product. This was audacious because we were a “nobody”, and we were trying to use a dubious connection to request that resource. We had almost given up on that channel working out till eventually, we received a positive reply. The use of LinkedIn helped as it seemed a legitimate request via a trusted source.
Most readers will want to trust you, if they think you are big enough. We mostly find and write about great ideas and inspirations in our vertical and we proudly display the number of people who already trust us via our Facebook, Twitter and Newsletter count. “Hey, if CraftGossip is a great source of daily ideas for 25,000+ other Facebook fans, then it is good enough for me too.”
Whenever we approach new sources, we proudly declare what we have already done for other similar sources in the past.
Giveaways – how we have used them to gain audience
I mentioned hosting a giveaway earlier. Hosting giveaways was one of the biggest ways we gained new audiences and kept bringing them back for more. In the process, we retained audiences that were genuinely interested in our content and therefore, decided to stick around.
The strategy we used was to request a review product or sample from a manufacturer and then to propose to them that either the editor reviewing the product offer up her product sample for a giveaway at the end of her review, or the manufacturer send the winner the prize directly. 9 times out of 10, the manufacturer agrees to send the prize directly, which saves our editors time and (company) money.
Tying up the giveaway along with the social media channels helps. We recently hosted a KitchenAid Mixer giveaway on our edible crafts blog that drew nearly 4000 entries. In part, it was due to the popularity of this mixer, but more importantly, it was because KitchenAid agreed to post the giveaway on their own Facebook page, which had a much more substantial following than overs. During the days we hosted the giveaway, we saw a 100% increase in the daily Facebook likes, and around 75% increase in engagement. It ties in neatly with the other ideas I have presented earlier – social media engagement + appearing bigger than we were.
Always make sure that the giveaway prize that you pick is easy for you to fulfil. There is nothing worse than a disgruntled winner.
These are some of the main ideas that have helped us to get to where we are today. We are a niche vertical blog network, and we have found our happy place. We found passionate and dedicated editors who write about new and creative ideas in their fields, we give our readers what they want and we get advertisers to pay us so we can continue to be profitable. This is no magical formula and we believe anyone can create the same within their own vertical.
[image via flickr/Amit Chattopadhyay]