Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Blogging: farce or chance?

Chris Hunter's blogging success poses the question: Why go to work when you could sit
at home in your comfiest chair, drinking from your favourite coffee mug?

Why on earth would any sensible person write a blog? Unless you're a known brand (a 'celebrity') or can publish from a known brand's platform, no one cares what you have to say. "Another blog?" they'll groan. "No thanks, don't have time."  

... so I'd assumed. 

Then I wrote an article for Motorcycle Trader (a trade mag for bike dealers) about the sorry fate of mainstream motorcycle magazines* – and stumbled upon a successful blog written by a normal guy. Successful? Yes, getting loads of hits and making money and everything. 

My brief was to investigate: "What's next for the motorcycle press?" - are websites killing off paid-for print? The answer, to cut a long feature short (the long version: from page 28 of this), is yes. 

Bloggers don't make a living from blogging, of that I was certain. In fact, I'd assumed that not many websites make much money, either, unless they're the DailyMail.com or some such filth.com, getting a gazillion hits per second by publishing spy shots of Harry’s arse and Kate’s tits. But then I found Chris Hunter’s blog, Bike EXIF

The Bike EXIF homepage
This one-man site publishes photos of highly trendy custom-built motorbikes – not the chrome-festooned cruisers favoured by portly, goatee'd middle-age-crisis victims, but artfully minimalist, stripped-down designs. They’re the engined equivalent of the fixed-gear bicycles so beloved of urban hipsters; the kinds of machine Steve McQueen might've kept shiny for use on the days he wasn't anticipating jumping any ditches. These bikes are sometimes called café racers or retro sportsbikes, but many of them are too quirky and cool to slot into a category.

Siegl custom Ducati 900SS, recently featured on Bike EXIF (Photo: Jason Brownrigg)
Hunter set up the blog in 2008 as an experiment, as bloggers do, to see what level of interest it attracted and “ready to drop it quickly if it didn’t work”. His gut instinct was that interest in these über-hip bikes was a) strong and growing; and b) not catered for by the mainstream press. 

At the time he was employed as a creative director in a large Australian advertising agency. His blog experiment struck a chord with bike fans and took off. It now attracts more than 400,000 unique visitors every month and rakes in a healthy amount of advertising income. 'Healthy' meaning more than enough to pay the bills; Hunter quit his day job at the end of last year. He’s now a full-time blogger; and it isn't that he's taken a pay-cut to downsize and sit around gazing at pretty-bike pictures all day. Not at all…

“It’s very much a business now, and has been for the past couple of years. I now run the site full-time. The income it produces doesn’t quite match my old salary yet, but it will do in the future.”

The first thing Hunter’s success story proves is that your blog doesn’t need a catchy or enticing name.
“Bike EXIF is a strange name, yes,” he admits. “EXIF stands for Exchangeable Image File – it’s the data that’s stored in a digital camera image, a nerdy reference to our focus on photography. If I’d known the site would become so big, I’d have thought of a better name! Too late now…”

What’s more important than the name – as the Daily Mail knows too well – are the photos. Your images must be crisp and high-quality so that visitors can zoom-in and drool to their heart’s (or other throbbing bit’s) content. If the photos are too small or blurry or simply lack ‘impact’, people will stop visiting. More pictures, less text - always. More than 400 words is too much – one reason why this (my) blog is a dead canary.

Online content, unlike print, has a cost-free global reach, and Hunter knew that the appeal of funky, retro custom bikes transcended national boundaries. He also knew how to schmooze advertisers – not difficult, he insists.
“I have relationships with senior execs at most of the main moto and apparel manufacturers and their country-level distributors,” says Hunter. “There’s no secret to it… If you have the stats to back it up – and they need to be very big stats with the right audience breakdown – relationships can turn into advertising.”

Then there are the potential side-lines… Bike EXIF already produces merchandise – namely, an annual calendar that last year “outsold the official and licensed Harley-Davidson calendars on Amazon in the US”.

Hunter isn’t a smug web-geek who wishes painful death on print publishing; on the contrary, he’s a magazine-lover who thinks print will survive for many years yet, provided publishers learn how to fully exploit the internet to complement and market their hard-copy publications.
“The two worlds [print and online] will merge; they are getting closer as each month passes. The old guard in the magazines will move on, and the new guard will be more open to collaboration. I’m actually a huge fan of print, and it might be a part of the EXIF stable sometime in the future. I’m a total magazine addict… but if we go into print, it won’t be anything like the magazines you see on UK newsstands today.”

So, there you have it: Crap magazines are dead (or dying); long live the smart, web-savvy ones. And if you're a canny three-in-one writer/publisher/ad salesperson, you might, just might be able to make a living blogging about your hobby.

How to create a money-spinning blog
Bike EXIF founder Chris Hunter lists the five most important qualities needed if you’re serious about making money from a blog

1. A unique vision or voice. If you’re producing the same content as other people or constantly chasing their tails, you’ll always be playing second fiddle. 
2. A good marketing brain. There’s no point in creating an amazing website if you don’t have an innate understanding of effective promotion and search engine optimisation.
3. Generalist abilities. If you have to pay someone every time you need to change a line or code or restart a server, you’ll never make any money. Unless it’s a vanity project, you need to be a one-man band in the early days.
4. Lots of stamina. It’s hard work and late hours. Can you do that for several years? Do you have an understanding family?
5. Design taste. A lot of print magazines seem to get away with pretty average design, but online, there’s nowhere to hide. Good aesthetics and navigation are critical.

*The motorcycle press is dying a slow, agonising death. I know this because I used to work for SuperBike, which, when I joined in 2005, was selling more than 60,000 copies per month. At the latest ABC count, sales had fallen to 16,000 – a decline of 75 per cent in six years. And my inverse Midas touch wasn't to blame this time.
The title was flogged in 2010 by its then owner IPC Media to Vitality Publishing, who went bust earlier this year, at which point SuperBike was ‘saved’ (along with sister title Loaded) by a porn star. The mag's laddishness has increased; not so sure about sales - it's been withdrawn from the ABC audit.