Professional blogging has an esoteric appeal many of us can only dream of. But few succeed in making a career out of it. So it's almost exasperating to hear Richard MacManus put his meteoric rise in the blogosphere down to the basics: hard work, long hours and passion for his subject.
There must be more to it than that, but MacManus is level-headed about the success of his weblog ReadWriteWeb, ranked the world's 9th most popular blog according to tracking website Technorati and the only New Zealand blog to be in its top 100.
"Obviously it's fantastic to be ranked that high," says MacManus. "It vindicates what the site has been about and we're keen to crack into the top ten and keep up the growth."
Launched in 2003, ReadWriteWeb is one of the most widely read and respected blog in the world, providing daily news, reviews and analysis on the latest technology.
To put its popularity into perspective, there are more than 50 million blogs at our fingertips. ReadWriteWeb attracts more than 1.6 million page views per month, and with an influential audience tracking the site - including high-level media executives from Google and Microsoft - it has the power to push new visitors in their tens of thousands to start-up sites around the world.
Its global reach can be traced back to MacManus's Lower Hutt home, where he spends a good part of the day editing and managing the site in his pyjamas.
So web 2.0
Choice selection of writing talent has been one of the keys to the site's success. MacManus and his team of five regular writers - all US-based web enthusiasts - are quick off the mark with their analysis of web tech developments, ranging from start-ups to industry giants such as Yahoo and Microsoft. This international perspective on technology is admired. MacManus says the analytical posts on products and trends, rather than industry news, are the point of difference from the competition.
MacManus studied commerce and English literature, so an IT-related career might be regarded as something of a surprise. But he 'clicked' with the web during the 1990s and it was while following internet trends as a website manager at Contact Energy in 2003 that he created ReadWriteWeb, maintaining it in the evenings.
"Initially I was just writing about web technology and linking to that space. There wasn't a lot of money in blogging back then. When 2.0 tipped, things started to ramp up and suddenly - this is a media business." The two-way interaction users have with the web in this post-dot-bomb era - with users contributing their own text, audio and video - is exemplified by websites such as Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace and Trade Me.
MacManus learned to bootstrap his business from the moment it was profitable and he advises budding bloggers to do the same. But he says it's easy to underestimate the effort to get the blog ramped up to begin with and the long hours that go into design, management and getting ads. "I wouldn't recommend starting out with the mindset of cracking the top 100. It's virtually impossible to do, it takes time and you've got to be very passionate about it to get any momentum to begin with. You've just got to do whatever it takes to keep the business growing and to get in people's faces."
It took three years of hard slog before ReadWriteWeb could sustain MacManus full time. Now, advertising generates monthly revenue in the tens-of-thousands of US dollars, providing a profitable career.
The creation of two network blogs has also fuelled its expansion. Last100 provides news, reviews and industry analysis on products and services related to the digital lifestyle and Alt Search Engines is a definitive destination for everything related to alternative search engines. MacManus also produces ReadWriteTalk, a podcast about the people behind the web.
MacManus has remained laser-focused on web technology from day one and as the reputation of the blog continues to grow, his passion for this niche remains essential. "A lot of people are trying to make money from blogging, but they're not really interested in the topic. That can be very hard."
Being too focused on the home audience is another mistake Kiwi bloggers often make, he says, and this insular focus is evident in their blogs.
New Zealanders make up just 1 per cent of ReadWriteWeb readers. The blog's focus has been global right from the start and it draws more than half of its readers come from the US and 7 per cent from the UK. To an extent, this has prevented networking with local IT companies and MacManus is now trying to get more involved; particularly in the IT cluster burgeoning in his own backyard in Wellington.
He hails the tremendous talent and innovation in the IT space in New Zealand, but thinks psychological barriers needs to be broken from some companies about reaching offshore markets using web technology, particularly the US.
"I don't think New Zealanders think globally enough sometimes. The talent is here in New Zealand and time and culturally-wise, we're not that much different from Silicon Valley. Maybe New Zealanders just need a bit of a push to think they can achieve over there in the US."
MacManus went largely unnoticed at Webstock in Wellington this year, but his obscurity at home hasn't bothered him. He's keeping his mind open to exciting opportunities to push ReadWriteWeb further ahead of the competition.
Two media companies are prospective buyers. He's also exploring ways to fund the next stage of growth independently. Either way, he expects big changes by mid-year. "There's plenty of scope for the brand to ramp up and expand into more vertical niches, such as mobile in Asia. Monetising by premium content is another option-a tricky thing to do in the blog world, but we're looking at options."
Much is possible with MacManus and, as with the internet, much is to be imagined. Whichever path he takes, MacManus still wants to be the one to take it to the next level. "I'm not finished yet, by a long shot."
Building a profitable weblog
- Focus on a niche.
- Blog every day.
- Be passionate about your topic and become an expert.
- Get other experts to blog for you.
- Build a community around your blog.
- Get involved in topic-focussed communities.
- Reach out to others on the same subject.
- Post on other related sites to build an online reputation.
How to increase your page views
- The more you get, the more you can charge advertisers.
- Link to others sites and get them to link back to yours.
- Focus on what key words you can rank well in Google.
- Post to top news aggregators and social sites such as Digg, Flash Dots, TechMe.
Tips for Kiwi Web 2.0 start ups
- Think globally from day one; don't limit yourself to the local audience.
- Bootstrap and try to do as much as you can yourself early on.
- Don't give away a lot of your equity to an investor up front and there's no need to staff up too quickly.
- Don't forget marketing basics: identify your target audience and your value proposition to them.
- Avoid "me too" - too many start ups want to be the next MySpace or YouTube.