This post was written in 2008, and while lots of the specifics have changed (like traffic, which doubled and the tripled and then doubled again) the core ideas are still relevant.
This is essentially a white paper about my Offbeat side project, which includes my book Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives for Independent Brides and offbeatbride.com. It's quite long and may only be interesting to marketers, authors, business bloggers, social media obsessives, etc.
I'm a writer who's spent a fair amount of time on both sides of the writing fence — equally focused on marketing copywriting and journalism. When I got my book deal in 2005 I was excited to blend these two sides of myself into one big fat project. Yes, I was going to be a first-time author, but I was also going to finally be applying my years of marketing work to a product that I was truly invested in. I was mulling over marketing ideas as I was writing the book, and in fact I had a notebook on my desk for jotting down tangential ideas as I was clacking away at my chapters in Word.
Although I've done a fair amount print journalism (magazines, alt-weeklies, etc), blogging is definitely my native tongue — so of course many of my marketing ideas were focused on web content and social media.
I purchased offbeatbride.com and put up a simple informational page in early 2006, and then officially launch the site when my book Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives published in January 2007. My goal was simple: promote the book and attract new readers.
I originally envisioned that the site would attract four kinds of readers:
- Existing readers curious about my book (i.e. Electrolicious readers, colleagues, family, friends)
- New readers who wanted more info (i.e. non-traditional brides who read the book and liked it)
- Non-readers who heard about the book via newspaper, tv, radio, whatever and wanted to know more before buying
- Non-readers who hadn't heard about the book (ie non-traditional brides searching the web)
Obviously, the first three types of readers would be direct traffic: folks who knew about the me and book and went directly to the URL. The fourth group was going to be the most challenging to find. How could I get myself in front of people who are totally unfamiliar with me, my writing, and the book? How do you reach total strangers who may not even be looking to buy a book?
In my effort to attract non-readers to the site, I very consciously set the site up to be SEO-friendly, using WordPress to make sure that blog posts had clean URLs. I made a point to give blog posts straightforward titles that were good SEO fodder. On Electrolicious, I've always been a fan of giving my posts clever or even slightly poetic titles that act as teasers. This works fine when you have mostly direct traffic. But when you're aiming to bring in first time readers via search engines, it's important to have blog titles that are search-friendly. In other words, not "OMG, can you believe this shit?" but simply "Game Over T-Shirts"
Probably the best example of SEO working well on offbeatbride.com is my red wedding dress thing. I don't know why I'm so fixated on red wedding dresses — I just love the drama and have written about them extensively on offbeatbride.com — always with a straightforward title like "Penaran's red wedding dress" or "Red wedding dresses kick ass."
As a result, when you google for Red Wedding Dress, offbeatbride.com is a top result.
My theory here was that people searching for things like red wedding dresses are clearly planning non-traditional weddings — ie my demographic. I mean, of COURSE offbeatbride.com is the first search result for "Offbeat Bride." But fully half my traffic comes from searches like wedding invitation wording, Father daughter dance and bride blog, generalized searches that even traditional brides are doing.
A more cynical way I used SEO was by naming my Wedding Photos section "Wedding Porn," knowing full well that having the word "porn" in the title would attract hits. Granted, probably not hits that were going to be sticky, but at least initially traffic is traffic. As it stands, I get close to 100 hits a day from searches for things like wedding porn, bride porn, and wedding dress porn. It's sort of cynical and gross, but I've spent enough time in my referral logs to know that people spend a lot of time looking for porn online. And I'm more than happy to milk some of that traffic.
I also made an effort to have good SMO (Social Media Optimization) offbeatbride.com. Each post has a "Share this!" link that makes it easy for readers to post the entry to social bookmarking services like delicious and digg. Interestingly, I've gotten very little traction with these tools. I think in part because many social bookmarking sites like digg cater more to tech topics, and wedding planning simply ain't that. The only social media/social bookmarking site that I've gotten much traffic from is StumbleUpon.com.
Running ads on offbeatbride.com was something I had in my mind right off the bat, but it took me six months to gain the critical mass I needed to attract advertisers. This is where things got really interesting.
First, this great quote from Dave Winer:
When they finish the process of better and better targeted advertising, that's when the whole idea of advertising will go poof, will disappear. If it's perfectly targeted, it isn't advertising, it's information. Information is welcome, advertising is offensive. Who wants to pay to create information that's discarded? Who wants to pay to be a nuisance? Wouldn't it be better to pay to get the information to the people who want it? Are you afraid no one wants your information? Then maybe you'd better do some research and make a product that people actually want to know about.
Although visitors coming from search engines see Google AdSense sidebar ads, my advertising strategy is primarily focused on targeted, in-context advertorial content.
- Businesses apply to appear on the site. If I don't think their product is of value to my readers, I don't accept their money. The list of declined products would crack you up, but I'm too much of a lady to embarrass anyone. I try to make it clear to businesses that my being picky is to their advantage: why waste their dollars on an ad that's not going to resonate with the readership?
- Accepted advertisers then supply me with the features/benefits and a few keywords they want me to address in the ad. This way I can give each advertisers a solid hit of SEO-friendly contextual links to exactly their keywords. (Not all advertisers really get this concept, which is fine. Those that do are freaking stoked.)
- I write a blog post about their product/service, making sure to use their keywords to link to them — ensuring they get a good dose of google-fu from their ad. My background as a copywriter has made me a total control freak when it comes to copy, and I refuse to let other people's writing appear on my site. I let advertisers know that my copywriting service is actually part of what they're paying for in the cost of the ad.
- My advertorials are very clearly marked as paid content, but are published in-line with the rest of the blog content, meaning there's no way to block them.
- The ads stay on the site forever, happily pumping out google-juice long after they've slipped into the archives and stopped getting clicks.
RESPONSE TO ADS
Since the advertorials are written in the same voice as the rest of the site (ie, ME!) and feature only targeted, contextual products that I know my offbeat bitches will love, readers actually read them and often leave comments.
Perhaps most amazingly, I often get emails and comments from readers thanking me for the advertisements. Here are a few example:
- OMG THANK YOU for this information! I was meeting with photographers all last week and one woman actually quoted me that it would cost $1000 to make me a coffee table book because of all the hours of labor and such. I just kind of looked at her like "Why would I pay you to do soemthing I could do?!?" Thanks again, Ariel!
- HOLY CRAP! You saved me in my long dark night of the wedding-planning soul.
- Thank you so much! I have been going crazy looking for a special wedding dress and I think I just found the answer!
These comments have been remarkable. I have a lot of respect for my readership — these are smart, independent women who are critical thinkers and often quite web savvy. We're not talking about a "PUNCH THE MONKEY!!" demographic. So the fact that they resonate with the ad content to the level where they're thanking me for it is pretty stunning.
I did have one odd situation to deal with with a first time reader (the husband of a bride I was profiling on the site) who didn't understand my advertising model. I received this comment to one advertisement post featuring an affiliate link:
Take note, readers: this glowing testimonial profits this website every time you click. I wouldn't even have noticed if it wasn't so blatant. One link would have been sufficient, but when you pepper an advertorial with two dozen sponsored links it really dulls down the impact.
Large grain of salt. That's all I'm sayin'.
I responded to the commenter:
Your comment confuses me. Offbeatbride.com is an advertiser-sponsored site and I'm totally transparent about that. The post is clearly marked as paid content — did you not see the word "Advertisement" before the post on the homepage?
I made a big announcement when I started running ads on this site. My rates and policies are linked from most pages. The first thing you'll see in my advertiser FAQ is that I'm super picky about who I accept advertising from. I turn down about half the inquiries I receive, although I have no control over what shows up in my Google AdSense sidebars, which kinda bugs me.
I'm just not quite sure what the problem is here, other than the fact that you don't seem to understand how I run the site. If any of my regular readers have questions about advertising, feel free to ask! I ain't got no secrets.
His emailed response was basically "Oh, oops. You're right. I was just confused because I really liked the product, and then felt like I'd been manipulated." In response to this, in addition to the enormous "Advertisement" title before each advertorial post, I added a large note at the top of every advertorial archive page: "This business has paid a fee to be listed on offbeatbride.com because they feel their wedding products and services are in-line with offbeat brides' philosophies and needs … and I agree. Here's more info about how advertising works on offbeatbride.com."
The addition of this note made no impact on the number of times I've been thanked for advertisements. Readers have made it clear that it's not that they don't understand that it's an ad, it's just that they like my judgment when it comes to which businesses to work with. I like to think that my readership understands that I respect them too much to advertise crappy products on my site. (I also respect MYSELF too much, really. When whoring, one must be picky!)
It seems that Dave Winer is right: if advertising really is well-targeted, readers seem to actually appreciate the paid content. I would add that the key here is that my ads are presented in-context — ie, in the same voice and format that readers are used to.
EFFECTIVENESS OF ADS
Oh, what about the results? My advertisers have been STOKED:
Sponsoring Offbeat Bride for a month gave us a better return than I expected. We not only experienced a solid bump in traffic throughout the month directly as a result of Ariel's coverage, but our conversion numbers from her traffic were higher than our usual conversion rates. It was a great financial return. — Porter Bayne, Nearlyweds!
Advertising with offbeatbride.com was well worth the money — I've booked two weddings from offbeat brides in the month since my advertisement. Offbeat Bride has gotten me the best response out of all my advertising.
— Michelle, Layer Cake Films
Our campaign on offbeatbride.com was really awesome for us. I wish more bloggers were offering editorial advertising! I've approached a couple of other blogs and they aren't interested — I think because they don't get how optimized linking works. Offbeatbride.com is definitely ahead of the curve! —Nicole Kraft, mywedding.com
Here's the basic overview, updated August 2008:
- 2007 saw my traffic increase ten-fold: Launch in January 2007 was 6,000 hits/mo, and December 2007 was over 60,000 hits/mo.
- The first 3 quarters of 2008 have seen traffic more than triple, up to 150,000 visits a month
- Pageviews are currently just over 500,000/mo.
- The site is visited by 100,000 unique visitors each month.
- Consistently, half my traffic comes from search engines.
- Traffic's growth has been consistent, gradual, and steady, month over month.
WEBSITE + BOOK = ???
So if the website was originally established to promote the book, how's that going? Well, the publishing industry is weirdly proprietary about sales data, so the best I have to go off of is my Amazon sales rank data, which is notoriously squirrelly and doesn't give you any REAL sense of number of books sold. Given that sales rank data, however, I can say that my book has sold significantly better in the second half of 2007 — despite the fact that my mainstream media press-push was the first half of the year.
Honestly, the website has been an infinitely better publicity tool than the mainstream publicity push was. The amount of time and effort involved in press appearances and bookstore events was MASSIVE … often only to sell a couple books. I spent six hours at one very busy, heavily publicized event and didn't sell a single book. Granted, you can't measure all PR in sales, but still. I focused the second half of my year on offbeatbride.com which was not only way easier/more pleasant, but if my Amazon sales rank is any indication, way more effective.
Initially, the book was my focus, and the website was clearly there to promote it. Now, honestly, I think the website may be the bigger draw.
The business model has shifted significantly as the site as aged. Whereas initially the site was something read mostly by folks who knew the book and wanted more, fully 60% of my traffic is from first-time visitors. This means that most people now find the book via the website than the other way around.
Initially, the book was my focus, and the website was clearly there to promote it. Now, honestly, I think the website may be the bigger draw. The book is an accessory that people who love the website buy — sometimes I think just as a vote of confidence, as a way to keep the site going. I've made it clear to readers that I consider myself an entrepreneur and that if the website isn't profitable, then I have to focus my writing attentions on projects that bring in money. The feedback I've gotten is that readers who like the website buy the book as a means of supporting a vision and an idea about nontraditional weddings and lifestyles. Not because they were in the market for a wedding book.
WHAT ABOUT THE MONEY?
So, let's get down to the nitty-gritty: can I live off offbeatbride.com or Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternative For Indepdent Brides?
I didn't get much of an advance for the book — less than two month's salary at my normal job. This was not a "get a book deal and quit my job" kind of thing. Not by a loooong shot.
But! At the rate I'm selling ads on offbeatbride.com, I'll be making more money off the website than I did off the book, which is really really interesting to me. We'll see if my next royalties check reflects an increase in book sales, but considering I'll only make $1.50 off each book sold as compared to $400 for a one-time ad, I don't see the book ever out-earning the website.
Then again, I turn down fully half the advertisers who contact me about offbeatbride.com. Thankfully, I have the luxury to do that because offbeatbride.com is a side project. I have a 25/hr/week permanent corporate blogging job to take care of the mortgage, bills, food, gas, bla bla. So all the money I make from offbeatbride.com is basically just butter-cash — un-budgeted bucks that make me feel like I'm livin' the luxury life doing what I like and gettin' paid! Truly targeted advertising is awesome for readers and makes a nice side-project for me. Truly targeted advertising is not, however, a full time job. And I can't outsource the ad sales to someone else, since it's basically editorial work.
The success of the website as more of a money-maker than the book could suggest a number of things:
- Maybe I'm a more natural web writer than book writer.
- The web format is better suited to wedding planning than a print book — certainly my readers love all the photos and links as much as they like my writing.
- The print publishing industry is slightly broken.
- The web is better suited to niche publications than print
Mostly, I'm just happy that I have a income-producing side project that I so genuinely enjoy. Truth be told, weddings specifically aren't actually my passion — but the ways nontraditional people and communities celebrate commitment total fascinates to me! I love seeing how people navigate all the relationship challenges and communication that has to happen during wedding planning. I love the amazing fashion nontraditional types put on when they decide to go all out. I love learning about new subcultures I didn't know about like goth country, or Steampunk, or any dozens of others. I love getting to talk with awesome, weird women all over the world about the people they love and the values they have. Weddings? Fun enough. Subcultures and love and celebrations? HELL YEAH!!
Updated to add: I'm not the only one thinking about these issues. Here are Seth Godin's recent thoughts on "Permissions Marketing," as he calls it:
Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.
It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.