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Boing Boing Plus Battelle Equals Blogs as Big Business?

  |  April 9, 2004   |  Comments

Will Battelle put the bling bling in Boing Boing -- or is the popular blog too successful for its own good?

Boing Boing is hands down my favorite blog. It is smart, funny and interesting, and runs enough work-centric information to be visited during office hours with no guilt.

I hope it stays that way.

Boing Boing is facing a really interesting problem: It's probably the first blog in history that's too popular. The path it takes to address that problem will affect publishers, advertisers, marketers, and most of all, leading bloggers, in significant ways.

Boing Boing the blog grew out of a zine of the same name founded by former Wired editor Mark Frauenfelder. Casually, it grew to a four-person group blog, starting when Mark went on vacation and asked friend, journalist, and author Cory Doctorow to keep things going. Cory stuck around. Eventually, Xeni Jardin and David Pescovitz completed the team.

"It's started out as basically, maybe 200 people a day were coming to the site," Frauenfelder recalls.

Traffic -- and bandwidth costs -- spiked drastically in Boing Boing's four years. "Every week is a new record," says Frauenfelder. "Daily visitors are over 40,000. We get at least that many using RSS. Our bandwidth costs are over $1,000 per month. They're just going to keep going up. It could easily be a couple thousand dollars in a couple months."

What started as a casual hobby is approaching the-rent-and-then-some levels. This prompted Frauenfelder to post an appeal to readers on Monday. He requested suggestions for footing the bills. Many well-considered opinions from the geek, marketer, and publisher perspectives have been aired.

That's not the half of it. Boing Boing's team is nothing if not seasoned and superbly well connected. This blog is read in high places. Within hours after the post went up, says Frauenfelder, offers rolled in.

"We've been hit up by about half a dozen really well-known companies. They're all companies everyone has heard of and are all eager to talk to us," Frauenfelder says. (He's understandably reluctant to name names.)

Fortunately, an agent was in place to handle inquiries. Frauenfelder's former Wired boss, John Battelle, is lending his expertise to the venture. "We're more creative, content-related people," says Frauenfelder. "John has just had tons of experience in this world."

"I'm Reuben, they're the Partridge Family" is how Battelle describes the relationship.

At least one person believes the hippie-era characterization is a carefully calculated ploy.

"John Battelle doesn't get out of bed in the morning to do charity work. It's all PR," challenges always-brash Jason Calacanis, the Silicon Alley Reporter founder who now runs Weblogs Inc. (and is Jardin's ex-boss). "This is a timed release so people don't get scared." Calacanis insists a Boing Boing media empire is in the works, with Battelle as CEO.

Boing Boing is popular with readers and presumably, its writers, because it seamlessly marries garage-band sensibility with insider smarts and confidence. Frauenfelder sounds perfectly credible when he says he never assessed Boing Boing's monetary value or its ancillary effects: generating writing and speaking gigs; driving book and T-shirt sales; and establishing the bloggers as thought leaders.

He swears none of this occurred to him until he saw posts to that effect on the board. "I'm such a cheapskate. I just never really considered marketing myself in that way," he says. "Boing Boing could be considered a big advertisement for all of us. If it came down to paying for it ourselves, I think we could do it. But if there's a good way to earn money, I think it would add to the value. It could be a plus and benefit the readers."

T-shirt sales, he notes, are negligible. "It's like five or six items a month."

Does Boing Boing hope to make enough to cover the nut? Enough to plough into improvements? Or is the goal to become a media franchise?

"At the end of the day, it's for them to decide," insists Battelle. "It has costs associated with it. It has benefits that are hard to put on a spreadsheet, but they're definitely benefits. I don't think they started that site with the goal of plugging their stuff."

Calacanis agrees about the cost part but says Boing Boing's, and Battelle's, statements about their motives are disingenuous.

"We basically offered about a month ago to host Boing Boing for free. They didn't want to do it with me, for whatever reason," he told me.

"There are a lot of people who want to be involved with Boing Boing," Battelle says. "When you get to a certain critical mass, it makes sense to make some decisions. They're making the decision to make a decision: Do we want to make money on the site? If so, what do we do? Gee, maybe that means we can make the site better. If you don't manage your success when you're becoming successful, there's a high risk that success goes away."

Battelle's frames his role as trusted advisor. "If you wanted to put advertising on it, here are various ways. Sponsorship? Here are various ways. Paid subscription models? The one thing they don't want to do is f^ck it up. It's a thing they enjoy. They do want to justify the time they spend on it and the money they spend on it."

Battelle won't name potential sponsors. "But I can say that the approaches have been in the spirit of the Boing Boing community. No matter what is done, it will be done in a manner that will be appreciated and understood by the community. They're readers. They get it. They know there would be no point in pissing off the readers with a pop-up that sits there for 15 seconds. The folks that run the site won't do anything that's outside the spirit of the site," Battelle promises.

Entrepreneurs trying to turn blogs into businesses are watching with a gimlet eye. Calacanis recently poached Pete Rojas, the guy behind popular gadget blog Gizmodo, from Nick Denton, another blog entrepreneur with a traditional publishing background. Denton now owns Gawker Media, with properties including Wonkette, Fleshbot, and Kinja, a newly launched blog guide.

"Blogs are likely to be better for readers than for capitalists," blogged Denton the day Rojas walked out his door. "I've always been skeptical about the value of blogs as businesses."

"Nick is trying to keep people out of this business," scoffs Calacanis. "He's concerned big media will try to get in it. Right now, there are only three people in it: him, Tony Perkins, and me. I'm hyping it up. Media attention is where my advertisers are. But people are scared of over-commercializing blogging"

Battelle, meanwhile, theorizes blogging's success belies "a huge shift in the media ecology."

"It's a three-legged stool: an audience is coming to this space that didn't exist before. Media players in the mainstream space are coming back and realizing the importance of this space. They all came in the late '90s. Now, they're coming back. Third, you've got a business model and advertising support. The entire economy of advertising is robust, not just pretty good. Audience, advertisers, publishers: an important ecology that's growing and will impact this platform.

"I sense something important going on," Battelle continued. "Once, everyone was Yahoo, or they were dust. Well, the tail on this thing is very long -- and very powerful."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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