Sky Full of Bacon

A couple of notes about being a small, one-man media outlet in this fast-changing world, rooted in my corner of the world (Chicago foodblogging/podcasting) but surely applicable to any niche market in the new media world. If you’re mainly interested in food, feel free to scroll to the next post.

Data point #1: I commented on a blog post at a major Chicago media outlet’s food blog on either Friday night or Saturday morning. Then I thought, why did I just bother doing that? No one will approve the comment till at least Monday. (I was correct.)

Data point #2: Another major Chicago media outlet does food videos too, not exactly like mine. They host them on Vimeo too. So I checked their stats. Here they are, with a subscriber base in the six figures and celebrity chefs (okay, I have those now, but not until recently) and all the power of cross-promotion. And their videos… draw way fewer viewers than mine do. As in, the one I put up 5 days ago has already outdrawn the one they put up a month ago. As in, my most-viewed one has had six or seven times as many as most of theirs.

I point this out not to gloat but to make a serious point. For all that newspapers and magazines are going around bemoaning the impending porcelain swirl of their industry, these factoids suggest to me that they still haven’t grasped how to harness the power of new media and build an audience online. The things I know how to do that they still don’t, quite, include:

• Post frequently. Blogging isn’t even the main point of Sky Full of Bacon, the videos are, and yet I manage to get 3 or 4 posts up a week. Where oftentimes the bigger media, with contributing food blog staffs of anywhere from 2 to 10 people, manage to get… 3 or 4 posts up a week. If you can get a daily paper or a weekly magazine out, yet can’t manage to post new content online on a regular schedule, that says where your priorities still are.

• Post on an audience-timely schedule. I became acutely aware of when most people are at their computers while helping run LTHForum. It was dead till about 9:20 am, busiest from then till just before noon, dead from noon to about 1:30, moderately active till about 4:30, dead till about 7, moderately active from 7 to 9, then low but steady until past midnight.

So what’s the blogging schedule at most big media publications? I suspect it’s basically like this:
10:30 am: writer turns in blog post to editor
4:30 pm: harried editor turns from putting out fires on print edition to email box, reads and finally approves post
4:57 pm: post goes up just as audience shuts down computers and goes home

• Interact with your readers. The name of the game is reader loyalty— they have to want to come back. What makes them want to come back? Interaction. They come back to see if someone else responded to what they said. They come back to see if the writer of the original piece flatters them with attention. So how do you expect to build that if 1) you can’t even approve a comment in less than 3 days and 2) your writers are too busy on print assignments to check back and interact on the blog?

Fact is, I can’t remember on most of the big media blogs when there’s even been the least little sign that the bylined writers even read the comments. Which is why when a similar topic goes up at a big media outlet and at LTHForum, frequently the big media outlet with thousands of paid subscribers will be stuck at 3 or 4 responses when the LTHForum thread is on to its 3rd or 4th page. There may be far more readers at the former, but there’s far more positive reinforcement at the latter, and that’s what builds audience loyalty and keeps them coming back.

That’s why, even though I don’t get many comments, I take the possibility of comments very seriously, and check my blog at least a few times a day to make sure I can approve any that have appeared. And I try to respond in comments to any comment I have anything of value to say about. I am grateful for the time commenters take to write anything here and try to reward it with appreciation.

• Don’t underestimate the audience. A few people questioned, when I started doing these videos, if people would sit still for 15 or 20 minutes on these subjects. It’s odd, 15 or 20 minutes is, of course, shorter than any food TV show, but the perception was that online video needed to be 2 or 3 cute, snappy little minutes at most; the idea of spending 20 minutes going somewhat in depth into a topic (and a restaurant, and the life of the guy who owns it) seemed like something nobody would watch.

Yet here we are about five months later and as the viewership stats at Vimeo demonstrate, there’s a much stronger audience for 20 in-depth minutes on the people and philosophy and technique behind something than for 3 quick little minutes on the technique alone. There’s a much stronger audience for something that represents a single podcaster’s quirky personality and way of looking at the world than there is for something that plays like a skillfully-made but rather generic food demo that just happens to have local chefs.

And I think that points to another thing about our new media world. Generic doesn’t sell, individual does. The sites I go back to are the ones where I feel some bond, some kinship with the blogger/podcaster/whatever, because of his or her unique personality. It’s not about getting a million vaguely interested readers with the common denominator any more, it’s about getting a thousand fanatically loyal ones because they feel they need to hear from you on the topic of the moment.

Follow these principles and the lowly individual blogger, with no more resources than his own sensibility, will and spare time, can be shockingly competitive with huge media companies in terms of audience gathered, and by some measures occasionally kick their butts. Which is an exciting thing for him, but will be tragic if it means the big media outlets sink before these lessons sink in. I don’t want a world in which the media I grew up on and still read pretty faithfully bit the dust and were replaced by I want a world in which they successfully made the leap from the print era to the online era by absorbing the ways in which online behavior and expectations and tactics are different.

And if any of them would like my help in getting there, they know where to reach me….

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