Last week I wrote about some examples of topic-focused blogs, all of which had technology-focused content. Josh Katinger left a comment pointing to his blog about motor racing, called Fast Machines. It didn't look like spam, so I clicked through and discovered that Josh runs a very good topic-focused blog. And guess what - it isn't a techy one! It's geared towards normal people - the phrase I'm using with alarming frequency to mean non-geeks. So I fired off an email to Josh, asking him if he'd answer some questions I had about Fast Machines. He agreed and I'm blogging his response with his permission.
I think Fast Machines is a great example of a topic-focused blog aimed at mainstream people who may not necessarily know what RSS or weblogs are. That's not meant to be condescending, it simply means that blogging is in the very early stages of public adoption. So I was curious how successful Fast Machines has been so far with its target audience and what lessons could be applied by future mainstream content blogs.
Here is a transcript of the email conversation I had with Josh (edited slightly for readibility). My thanks to Josh for taking the time to answer my questions.
Richard: Firstly, congratulations on the design! When did you come up with the idea for this website and did you immediately decide on a weblog format (with RSS feeds, comments, date archives, google ads, etc)?
Josh: Thanks. I worked pretty hard on the design and layout, so flattery will get you everywhere when it comes to that! :) I actually bought the URL FastMachines.com way back in 1999 and was going to put together a news site with a friend of mine. We had a front end design and a custom coded Cold Fusion CMS back end built, but it never really took off. I don't think either of us was really prepared for the amount of work it took to fill the site with content. So, we let the hosting account lapse but I kept the URLs for the heck of it.
Then in early 2003 I started to get into reading a few blogs and really started to understand the power of the blog format and blogging in general. I started a blog on my personal web site (katinger.com) but quickly realized I didn't have a ton of opinions or concerns about anything other than auto racing (sad...I know). So I decided to try a blog that was focused strictly on the topic of auto racing, and focused even further on just a few of the most popular series - in our case NASCAR, F1, IRL, Champ Car, NHRA, and various forms of Sports Car racing.
It was (and is) still a bear to fill all those content buckets with fresh postings and inevitably some of them are neglected. However, the reason this incarnation of the site has been going pretty strong for over a year is probably due to the MovableType blogging software we use to run it. The system was more or less free and makes posting and site management so very easy. The security and ease of use of MT allowed me to enlist the help of other bloggers - including my father, who has been a fantastic source of conversation-rousing entries. I've been working hard to try and get other folks involved and keep the content as lively and fresh as possible. However it is tough when the budget is tight.
As for all of the standard blog features that you mentioned (RSS feeds, comments, date archives, Google ads), I wanted to keep with the standard blog format, for the most part, so that it was still recognizable as a "blog" per-se, but be a little more flexible with the design and layout so that other features can be included in the future (we are planning on a forum, chat room, links directory, newsletter, etc). The one issue I have come up against lately is one that has been plaguing most bloggers and that is content spam. I've used a great plug-in called MT-Blacklist to combat this and it has made dealing with the problem a lot easier.
Richard: As you know, weblogs are still a minority activity. Are you finding that "normal" people (ie people who aren't geeks like me) are signing up to the RSS feeds? The reason I ask is that the so-called "A-List" in the blogosphere are either tech blogs or political blogs. At this point in time, it seems most normal people don't use RSS Aggregators. So I'm curious how successful you've been getting people to subscribe to your RSS feed. I know it's hard to quantify RSS subscribers, but do you have any anecdotal feedback from people on this?
"Right now my best source of revenue for the site has come from customized feeds and sponsorships."
Josh: I don't really have any anecdotal feedback on my RSS feeds. About all I can tell you is that my feeds are featured on the home page of two web sites (that I know of) and that my main feed received 11,577 "views" last month. I think one of the things that has, and will continue to contribute to the growth of people using RSS feeds is the inclusion of RSS Reader functionality in Yahoo!'s My Yahoo service. I experimented with several readers for my own RSS viewing pleasure, but now that it is part of My Yahoo! - a service I already utilized heavily - I have no need to go anywhere else.
The real killer component for site owners is the link you can provide readers that automatically adds your feed to their My Yahoo! interface (see the top of the FastMachines home page, or the footer of any page - there is an "Add to My Yahoo" button). This makes it incredibly easy for anyone with a My Yahoo account to get started with viewing RSS feeds. Once the Windows operating system includes a similar feature there will be no stopping RSS.
Richard: This may be a sensitive question and I certainly don't expect you to give me any figures, but are you making much money from your blog? You've got Google ads, Amazon links, and quite a few other sponsored links. Is it meeting your expectations?
Josh: This is a great question...and certainly one that I would love to ask of many other blog owners. Right now my best source of revenue for the site has come from customized feeds and sponsorships. Google strictly prohibits Adsense users from sharing information about the revenue they receive via the program, but I will tell you that any revenue from something like Google Adsense or affiliate programs has been quite minimal and considered "icing on the cake." The only way I've made money is through providing a service via the site, like a customized feed for a specific e-commerce site that wants some content in conjunction with their product offering.
However, it is important to note that any money I have "made" on the site has been reinvested back into content. The site is not "making" any money month-to-month because I am trying to grow it and revenue is not the goal at this point in time. It costs me money each month. I want to continue growing our readership and the path to achieving that goal (along with grassroots promotion) is to provide something interesting for people to read. Despite some people's assumptions, that does cost money.