Shelby Bonnie, co-founder and one-time CEO of CNET, recently leaped back into the online media business with the launch of Whiskey Media, an evolution of the experience gleaned from creating PoliticalBase last fall. (Read ClickZ’s full coverage).
Bonnie took a few minutes to chat with ClickZ about the move, the current state of display advertising, and what it was like to watch CNET’s sale to CBS.
Q: How did Whiskey Media come about?
A: Our original team was a bunch of former CNET people and our focus again is on building vertical content sites. Political Base was the first site we did, last fall. It was timely and fun, but the model was not fast enough or scalable enough from a platform standpoint. We learned a bunch of things in building that in terms of scalability. It was an incredibly important lesson for us. We moved to an open-source publishing platform called Django. In June, Whiskey Media relaunched ComicVine, a site first developed by two of our guys. We launched GiantBomb last week.
Q: How have the new sites been doing?
A: We have had enormous interest from a user standpoint. In the first four days of GiantBomb, we did 2.6 million page views, with 13 pages per visit. The average visit was 14.5 minutes, and we got 52,000 wiki submissions and 100,000 message posts. We have been very pleased in terms of initial visits.
Q: Whiskey Media is as small as CNET is big. Do you plan to grow it?
A: The best innovation that happens on the Web happens in really small teams. A small group of extraordinary people can beat an army of very good people.
The question for us is how we can maintain that small structure so that we can adapt and try new things quickly. There’s magic that you get in a small organization. The ability to do a lot with not a lot of money happens in small teams.
When the VCs roll in and want to put capital in, they say you don’t have enough people. The next thing you know you’re in a room talking about benefits, versus waking up every day and saying ‘what do I do for the users?’ When you lose sight of that you lose sight of what makes them special.
Q: Why are your sites wikis and not blogs?
A: What we have done is we have built a structured wiki. Unlike a normal wiki that lets you just create pages, we have created an underlying data framework for people, games and community. You get a very structured, browseable model, and then you can hang content and community off of that because there’s a place for it to live.
One of the challenges in the blogging world is that content shows up on the page and then it disappears. With a framework, the content is still there. If someone comes in six months later and they are interested in “Halo 2”, the content is still there.
When you are dealing with product types, there is a hard type that you are associated with, so you have to have an underlying structure.
Q: Will you be selling ads on these sites?
A: We will be starting advertising this September. The path we are taking now is that we are a small team and the most important thing we are doing is that we are building sites. We are comfortable that advertising will be a significant part of the revenue stream but our focus now is on a really good user experience.
It’s all about users, users, users. If you have users and have a good relationship with your users you have something to offer advertisers.
Q: There’s a lot of competition for your target demographic, 13- to 30-year-old males. How do you fit it?
A: Competition has changed in the last four years and people wondered where that male demographic had gone. They use a lot less TV, play more video games and Internet media. We are still small and we don’t need to bring in hundreds of millions in revenue. We think that we can build a good relationship with users.
Q: Display advertising seems to be in a slump, judging by earnings from Microsoft, Yahoo, and ValueClick? What’s your perspective on that?
A: I think there is an important role for display ads, but there is not as much innovation around display ads as there should be. I still think that we went through a period of innovation, with larger ad units and Flash, but there is more to do in terms of leveraging relationships.
We will try new models, and a bunch will fail. But whatever we try will have to be done in terms of honoring the relationship that a site can have with its users.
My expectation right now is that we will see some challenging years in the advertising market.
Think back to 2001 to 2003. There were pop-ups and junk like aggressive list rentals, things that were that were a real violation of the relationship sites had with users. They lost sight of the quality of the user experience. From that was born Google. They weren’t worried about making quarters, so they could do something different.
Challenging markets give us an opportunity to do something different. We think we can emerge from it quite strong.
What did you do after you left CNET?
A: I took about six months and spent time with my dad, my brother, and my family. Then I hooked up with the others and we started working on Whiskey Media in earnest this time last year.
We are based in Sausalito, and so far it has been my favorite place to have an office. We have a good little group. It has been a special group that really clicks.
Q: What was it like watching CNET be sold to CBS?
A: I had only good feelings about it. I think it was a good thing for CNET employees, for the CNET brand, and I also think it ends up being a good deal for CBS. CNET had been really successful in the content business, but it wasn’t quite big enough and it wasn’t small enough. The partnership with CBS Interactive gives it the next leg of growth.
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