On The Value Of Great Content

Quantity May Be Good, But Quality Is Still Better

by Stephen Von Worley on March 3, 2011

On February 7th, AOL acquired the Huffington Post mothership, and a small army of bloggers watched as founder Arianna rode off to the bank – on the back of the articles they had Posted for free.

“We deserve some too!” the gratis authors protested. Maybe so. But, according to blogger Nate Silver, if Arianna does opt to make her minions whole, she’ll be paying most of them in peanuts. Per his calculations, the average Huffpo article grosses $13 in ad revenue, with fully half earning $4 or less. Total.

Upon hearing such news, the aspiring wordsmith might be tempted to grab a cheap bottle of gin and pull a Bukowski. But that’s not necessary. Because armed with an exceptional piece of writing, one can do better. Much better. So well, in fact, that when the content farms figure out what’s happening, they’ll wet their pants and run screaming to papa. Let me explain…

For most of my adult life, I’d created things anonymously and for-hire. So, in spring ’09, I launched Weather Sealed: a blog where I could say whatever I wanted, whenever it felt right, and maybe make a positive contribution to society in the process. Alas, three months in, despite a few tasty tidbits of snark, readership hovered one visit an hour above flatline. Or double that, if you include the sympathy hits from my family. Thanks, mom!

Then, during an early September road trip, my inner anti-consumer got to wondering… just how far can you get from McDonald’s? I had to know. So, I wrote an app to figure it out, plugged in AggData’s geolocated restaurant information, and voilà! Mathematically, at the time, the McFarthest Spot in the Lower 48 states was a place in rural South Dakota, 107 miles as the crow flies from the nearest McDonald’s.

Clearly, others might find my McResults interesting, so I spent three days rolling them into an article and accompanying visualization, entitled Where The Buffalo Roamed. It flowed well and had two irresistible hooks – the McFarthest Spot factoid and the day-glo visual – and, quite frankly, it made me nervous. This was my peak half-week creative output, and if no one wanted to read it, I might as well pawn my paper and pencil, pack up, and move on to the next town.

With much anxiety and limited pomp-and-circumstance, at 10:31am Tuesday, September 22, 2009, Where The Buffalo Roamed made its debut on my blog. The link went out to a few friends of mine, AggData CEO Chris Hathaway’s own network, and a handful of tip lines. Total promotional effort: 15 minutes, tops.

Readers slowly – but steadily – trickled in. Just after 1pm, food site Serious Eats posted the first re-blog. Two hours later, clicks began arriving from Buzzfeed. Then, at 9:30pm, came the first significant traffic burst: twenty eyeballs a minute from an article which had floated onto Digg’s front page. OMFG, my story had gone viral!

During the next three weeks, Where The Buffalo Roamed was splashed and rehashed across literally dozens of big-name Internet properties. Here’s a graph of unique visits over the first four days, by referring domain:

Where The Buffalo Roamed visit graph

At the peak, during the Gizmodo-Consumerist tag team, a new visitor arrived every second. Interest held strong for about two days, then rapidly declined to about 20% of the maximum and trailed off slowly from there. By the end of October, it was over. Final numbers: 290,000 unique visits, 420,000 page views, and 0.01% peak daily global reach. Per subsequent experience and Alexa traffic data, for a popular story published on a relatively-unknown web site, these numbers are remarkably typical.

So, what’s a traffic spike like that worth?

In lieu of hawking merchandise, the small-scale site operator usually makes money by displaying advertisements. The ads sit in the pages, and for each view, they earn a fraction of a penny. At the time, I wasn’t running ads, but if I was, we can easily estimate what my return would have been…

In his article, Silver calculates that the Huffington Post makes about $6.25 in ad revenue per thousand page views. For another data point, consider The Deck, an ad network that includes MetaFilter and Kottke. Each month, they sell 33 ad spaces at $274,000 total, run across an estimated 56 million page views, yielding $4.87 per thousand.

If we use $5 as a healthy, achievable, per-thousand-page-view rate, the math on my traffic spike is:

Payoff Equation

Now, certainly, by itself, $2,000 won’t retire anyone to Fiji beaches and piña coladas. However, it does translate to a respectable $83 for each of my 24 hours of effort, which beats the snot out of the rate HuffPo is paying.

The true value comes through repetition. A $2,000 piece each week adds up to more than $100,000 a year, plus a fan base to amplify future successes. Of course, achieving that level of output won’t be easy. To succeed will require originality, creativity, honesty, and don’t forget, durability: because people can be mean, things flop, and to make up the difference can take the effort of a thousand dogs. However, dig deep and build enough brilliance, and the readers will come.

Goddamn, I sound like iTony eRobbins. Nurse, could you please kindly fetch me that cheap bottle of gin, por favor?

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