Micropatron follow-up report: how things went APR 10 2005
People have been asking and I have been promising, so here it is: the "how the kottke.org micropatron fund drive went" post. And then we shall never speak of it again until, maybe, next February.
(Oh, a quick note about the gift giveaway. I have distributed all the gifts, so if I contacted you about winning one and you wrote back, whatever gift you received should be on its way to you shortly, either via email or snail mail. If you haven't received anything or don't received anything in the next week or so, drop me an email and I'll follow up with the lackabout that's in charge of distributing your particular gift. Thanks!)
Instead of just droning on for many paragraphs about the fund drive, how much I made, the lessons learned, etc., I'm going to show you this graph that sums up the whole thing...and then I'm going to drone on for many paragraphs about the fund drive, how much I made, the lessons learned, etc. etc.
Note: This "graph" is not actually from the data and is not to scale. But the general trends and zones are fairly accurate. Plus, it's kinda purty with the blue there.
(And before we get going, I'd again like to thank everyone who has contributed to the site so far. I really appreciate it.)
So that's how much money came in over the three week fund drive period. As you can see, there was a rush at the beginning (over half of the total amount came in during the first 48 hours), followed by a small-but-steady stream of contributions until the end of the drive. The curve blasted through the "I have to move back in with my parents" barrier within the first few hours and exceeded the point at which I could eat something besides ramen noodles for every meal sometime during the second day.
The most I got from any one individual was $500, with a couple more people giving $200 or more. The majority of people gave the suggested amount of $30, which demonstrates the power of suggestion but leaves me wondering what people would have "priced" the site at had they been given no suggested amount. (My guess from the responses is that $30 was artifically high, but not too far off as an average. But that's just a guess.) Four people contributed two cents or less, either as a joke ("here's my two cents") or as the equivalent of leaving your waiter a penny tip for crappy service, but since PayPal takes the first 30 cents of any payment, I didn't see any of it. Two people handed me their contributions in person at SXSW and it was fun to able to thank them in the flesh.
And a bunch of people gave $1-5 each, usually accompanied by a very nice note that said something like they wished they could afford more because they really wanted to support me but money was tight or they were in college or grad school or something like that. Those were my favorite contributions to receive because it shows that there are people out there who value media and think about what kinds of media they want to support financially, even though they may not be able to afford it. And that they chose to support kottke.org makes me feel good about my efforts here. (And also nervous because I feel the need to really kick some ass to put their scarce dollars to good use.)
As I mentioned in my initial post about all this, my goal was to make "about 1/3 to 1/2 of my former yearly salary to support my efforts here for a year" and I very nearly reached that goal, although not quite as you can see from the graph. But it's close enough that I'm not going to worry too much about it and I won't need to supplement my income with any freelance work, which means I can focus on the site full-time, something I'm very pleased about. I probably could have made more had I pushed harder or guilted people into giving a little more to "put me over the top".
Near the end of the drive, a friend commented to me that he was impressed at how restrained I had been in not pimping the fund drive out to the max. A better salesman than I could have made a lot more, I think...maybe even double. (Then again, a better salesman would probably do the whole site differently and I'm not sure it would be quite the same, you know?) But I knew that the regular kottke.org readers would read what I had to say about why their contribution was important to me and the site, consider what it meant to them, and then make a decision...no coercion necessary.
And finally, the answer to the $64,000 question: is this a sustainable business model for independent media on the Web? The short answer is probably no, with a few caveats. I did make enough to support myself for a year, but I'm already worried about next year (if I decide to ask for contributions again at that point) because there's going to be the inevitable drop-off in year-over-year contributions. I think several people who contributed this time around did so as an experiment or as "back payment" for the previous 6-7 years of content and may not be so likely to contribute next time. And some are going to decide it's not worth it to them to keep up their "subscription".
Some who didn't contribute may look at the site's performance over the next year and decide to contribute the second time around, but all things remaining equal, I think the overall amount of contributions for the second year will be 1/2 to 2/3 the first year's amount. However, now that I'm focusing on the site full-time, the traffic will probably increase over the next year, which will add to the pool of available contributors, but it would probably need to increase quite a bit to make up the difference.
Looking at the numbers, less than 1/3 of a percent of my current average monthly unique visitors contributed to kottke.org...that's less than 1 in 300. I expected more than that, but I think it's difficult to "sell" media in an environment where people are increasingly not paying directly for media. Most media is bought for viewers/readers by advertisers, making it either free or much cheaper than it would be. We pay for cable (and most of us are paying for a ton of channels we don't even watch), but NBC is free and they support themselves by advertising to their viewers. Magazines are heavily ad-supported...an issue of Vogue or Wired would probably be $30 if they didn't run ads. Most of the commerical media on the Web is free and supported by banner and text ads. Many movies are subsidized by marketing tie-ins and cross-promotions and movie theatres make their money by getting people into the theatre to munch on popcorn & candy and view the ever-growing amount of ads they show you before the previews (more ads!) start. And those smaller movies that you love because they don't suck like the big Hollywood films? They wouldn't even be made if they weren't subsidized by the Shrek 2s of the world bringing hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. Plus, when Coke runs an ad on TV or in a magazine, you may not be paying a lot for that show or magazine, but you're probably paying a lot more for that can of Coke.
But anyway, it's all indirect so people don't think too much about it, and so it's difficult, I think, to get people to support media directly (myself included...I certainly don't want to pay $30 an issue for Wired). Difficult, but certainly not impossible.
So and but anyhoo, where does that leave the folks who want to do reader/viewer supported media? Can you actually blog for a living and not plaster ads all over your site? Here are a few suggestions from what I've learned so far:
1. Consider advertising. No, really. If you're ok with the trade-offs involved, it's easier, more stable, and more lucrative. There's a reason media is heavily supported by ads.
2. Think community (or cult of personality). The more investment people have in a site, the more they will be willing to pay for it. There are a lot of people who have been reading kottke.org for a long time (thanks!) and are probably fairly invested in it, but compare that to any of the popular political sites or knitting sites or other topic or event-based sites that intensely involve their readers (through various means) and make them feel as though they are part of a group. kottke.org doesn't have much of a community associated with it or a rabid following and I don't polarize people the way some of the political blogs do, so my "earning power" is limited, but that's not what the site is about. But if you site is about community and/or getting people rallied around a cause or something, you're going to have an easier time raising funds.
3. Be committed to growing traffic. That's not one of my top priorities here, but if your primary goal is making money, increasing traffic is the best way to do that. (How? Posting more often is the easiest way. If you can, get Slashdotted...that'll get you more traffic that the front page of the New York Times.) If you're doing something like subscriptions or contributions, you've always got to replace the people that you're going to lose for whatever reason.
4. Keep costs low. Duh. I guess what I mean by this is because you can run most types of blogs from anywhere, if you live in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Malaysia, or India, you're going to have an easier time supporting yourself than if you live in a big city in the US...as long as you have reliable high speed internet access. Bad news for Americans, Japanese, Europeans, and those who live in other places with a high cost of living...unless you're in high school and still living on your parent's dime.
And that's about it for now...that's more than I wanted to write, but once I get rambling... If anyone is interested, the contribution form is still available for use and will be available for the next few months, but I just won't be bothering you about it.
 Are you getting the sense that I don't treat this site as a business too much? Good, because I don't. Most of that stuff I wrote above (traffic, the "price" of the site, conversion rates, etc.) doesn't factor into how I think about the site at all. The fund drive was, for me, a fairly uncomfortable undertaking that I would have liked to avoid if I didn't need to support myself financially with it. The day that kottke.org becomes a real business that focuses on profit first (instead of the pseudo-business labor-of-love it is now) is the day the site will probably start to suck. Instead, I'm going to do my best in setting a course I think is favorable for the site and hope that there's a way to support myself with it along the way.
 The wiseacres in the back will no doubt exclaim at this point, "start to suck? Ha, you're long past that!"