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The tech unit's sign, autographed by its members.

The reelection of Barack Obama was won by people, not by software. But in a contest as close as last week's election, software may have given the Obama for America organization's people a tiny edge—making them by some measures more efficient, better connected, and more engaged than the competition.

That edge was provided by the work of a group of people unique in the history of presidential politics: Team Tech, a dedicated internal team of technology professionals who operated like an Internet startup, leveraging a combination of open source software, Web services, and cloud computing power. The result was the sort of numbers any startup would consider a success. As Scott VanDenPlas, the head of the Obama technology team's DevOps group, put it in a tweet:

4Gb/s, 10k requests per second, 2,000 nodes, 3 datacenters, 180TB and 8.5 billion requests. Design, deploy, dismantle in 583 days to elect the President. #madops

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audience

Editor’s note: Vikram Goyal is founder of CraftGossip.com. Follow CraftGossip on Twitter @CraftGossip.

In Sept. 2007, I was on a well-deserved holiday, having spent an excruciating 11 months with a startup where 80-hour weeks were normal. I was the Chief Technology Officer and in my short tenure, I had gained new clients, setup the company infrastructure and trained a few interns. On the morning I came back from holiday, my office was packed up, and the bosses were in it to hand my stuff to me. They kicked me out of the door without so much as a thank you.

I went through the various stages of depression, and then realized that I had to come up with an action plan quickly to pay for the massive mortgage and the new baby.

With nothing more than an idea in mind, my wife and I started CraftGossip.com, a niche blog network covering everything that your grandma would be proud of, sewing, knitting, crochet. We also covered some new age favorites like indie crafts, edible crafts and home and garden. We decided to cover news related to the craft world (I explain later why we decided to start this site and not something else).

Since then, CraftGossip.com has become the number one craft site to go to, if you like your news crocheted, knitted or sewn. In 2011, our traffic roughly doubled. We have been courted three times in the last year alone for acquisition.

In this post, I will offer my thoughts on how a niche publishing site like ours can become successful.

Understanding our audience

The online world of Crafts/DIY is fragmented. On one end, you have the big players like the DIYNetwork.com whose web presence is part of a whole media strategy. On the other, you have a host of semi-independent sites like Craftster.org, Craftzine.com, and host of other mommy blogs. In 2007, if you wanted your information about new and interesting things in the paper making or jewelry making industry, you either read an off the shelf trade magazine or relied on main stream media to pick the information up in their supplements.

Our audience were mostly women (97% or more) in their late thirties with at least one kid. They had spare time on their hands. And they wanted to indulge in some creative pursuits. And they wanted to know about everything new and interesting in their pursuit.

We decided that this audience would be best served by a review site which would cover not only independent artists and their creations, but targeted industry behemoths. So, we started CraftGossip.com as a blog network, with separate sections to cover everything in sewing, knitting, crochet, paper crafts (since retired) and a few more.

It helped that my wife had started an independent site (Craftbits.com) that provided free patterns and projects since 2000, so she understood her audience well. That site had always been sent free goodies from major suppliers in the hope that we would use them in our projects and therefore write about them. Coupled with the knowledge gained in running that site and the audience research we did plus the lack of competition at that time helped us to create a site where we could talk about everything new and creative.

Understanding that it is all about the money

The biggest question we had while creating the site was how we were going to find and curate all that information. With a net cast as wide as we could, we had decided to indulge several categories, but we couldn’t ourselves find and write about them. We needed external people — our editors. To have editors, we needed to pay them. And therefore, the site needed to make money to be able to pay these people.
We decided to have ads all over the place. At last count, each page on our site had at least seven ads.
But our content is the king.

We have been slammed several times for having an excessive amount of ads. We have been slammed for having ads in the first place. But if you go to our site, you will immediately see where the content is and where the ads are. There are clear demarcations. You cannot confuse an ad for content. And this helps us to maintain integrity. Our design was changed just once in the last four years, and when we found that that wasn’t working we quickly reverted back. So our design is the same it has been when we started because it was the best design to incorporate our seven ad types.

Having to deal with different advertisers is a pain, but it helps us to keep afloat. It is a small price to pay. We accepted at the start of the site that the site needs to make money immediately, enough to pay our editors and for our efforts. In the process we created the go-to site for everything you wanted to find out about Craft/DIY.

Finding and maintaining the balance with our editors

I mentioned about our editors earlier. Each section on our site has its own editor as we found it impossible to maintain the site as well as find fresh and daily content to post. Between our 20 editors, we post nearly 30-40 new posts each day. Yes, each day our editors find 30-40 new items in the craft world that you wouldn’t have found otherwise.

We require our editors to post at least five new articles each week. This maintains the freshness of each blog. But most editors post more than that, as they love their job!

Of course, the balance comes from almost complete independence in how they handle their traffic and content. They have editorial independence from us and in the last 4 years we have had to only pull content twice. This independence allows us independence as well from checking on them daily. We know that they are responsible for their content and we leave it at that.

The editors have a visceral interest in maintaining this independence as well. When we started, we decided that the way we will pay them is via a revenue share arrangement based on their traffic, and that this revenue share would be balanced in their favour. No other site or blog network I know has this arrangement where the revenue is in favour of the editors.

Paying them via a revenue share worked well for us as well. It helped us to start the network with the minimum of capital. We could only pay out what the site had earned – no more. In the years since, our most heavily trafficked site’s editor regularly earns over $2500 a month. Not bad for finding 5 new ideas a week to post about (although that editor posts much more than that).

Keeping our social media channels open and active

We were very late on this one. It was perhaps our inability to recognize that social media channels could be a great source of legitimate traffic. The problem was compounded by not understanding each social media channel and how to leverage individual strengths. Even now, our Twitter account languishes with only 15000+ followers, and the traffic from Twitter is out of our top 10 sources.

However, once we realized our folly, we increased our efforts in each channel. Mainly Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Twitter, we used for maximum participation from our audience. We organized Facebook giveaways that required users to like us on Facebook (this has been outlawed by Facebook since then).

For example, we gave away a Kindle via Amazon in the race to get to 10000 fans. A prize like Kindle is a great incentive for our audience to participate (and a really easy prize for us to fulfill), so we asked them to not only like us on Facebook, but to leave a comment on the post to increase interaction.

We got over 1000 entries for that giveaway and gained over 1600 new fans.

One of the problems of organizing giveaways like this is that you gain audience that are not really into your product or service. Luckily, our attrition rate after organizing such giveaways has been minimal, as our target is women followers who genuinely like our site and the daily craft ideas that we provide.

Lately, Facebook traffic has been surpassed in leaps and bounds by Pinterest. However, with the legal challenges facing Pinterest, we are approaching this cautiously. Besides, Pinterest doesn’t encourage user participation in the way Facebook does. YMMV.

Appearing bigger than we were

This was always an ethical issue. We approached many suppliers, artists and publishing houses with offers of great reviews for their products, artwork and books in exchange for them sending us details of their wares before anyone else. We did this by pretending to be bigger than we were (at that time).

This worked in probably 4 attempts out of 10. But each attempt, even failed ones, brought us closer to being in the good books of these people because the 4 genuine creative works and products that we featured made us look legitimate and big in front of the 6 who had refused to send us their products.

One classic example was the use of LinkedIn to approach an industry leader for product samples and giveaway of their flagship product. This was audacious because we were a “nobody”, and we were trying to use a dubious connection to request that resource. We had almost given up on that channel working out till eventually, we received a positive reply. The use of LinkedIn helped as it seemed a legitimate request via a trusted source.

Most readers will want to trust you, if they think you are big enough. We mostly find and write about great ideas and inspirations in our vertical and we proudly display the number of people who already trust us via our Facebook, Twitter and Newsletter count. “Hey, if CraftGossip is a great source of daily ideas for 25,000+ other Facebook fans, then it is good enough for me too.”

Whenever we approach new sources, we proudly declare what we have already done for other similar sources in the past.

Giveaways – how we have used them to gain audience

I mentioned hosting a giveaway earlier. Hosting giveaways was one of the biggest ways we gained new audiences and kept bringing them back for more. In the process, we retained audiences that were genuinely interested in our content and therefore, decided to stick around.

The strategy we used was to request a review product or sample from a manufacturer and then to propose to them that either the editor reviewing the product offer up her product sample for a giveaway at the end of her review, or the manufacturer send the winner the prize directly. 9 times out of 10, the manufacturer agrees to send the prize directly, which saves our editors time and (company) money.

Tying up the giveaway along with the social media channels helps. We recently hosted a KitchenAid Mixer giveaway on our edible crafts blog that drew nearly 4000 entries. In part, it was due to the popularity of this mixer, but more importantly, it was because KitchenAid agreed to post the giveaway on their own Facebook page, which had a much more substantial following than overs. During the days we hosted the giveaway, we saw a 100% increase in the daily Facebook likes, and around 75% increase in engagement. It ties in neatly with the other ideas I have presented earlier – social media engagement + appearing bigger than we were.

Always make sure that the giveaway prize that you pick is easy for you to fulfil. There is nothing worse than a disgruntled winner.

In conclusion

These are some of the main ideas that have helped us to get to where we are today. We are a niche vertical blog network, and we have found our happy place. We found passionate and dedicated editors who write about new and creative ideas in their fields, we give our readers what they want and we get advertisers to pay us so we can continue to be profitable. This is no magical formula and we believe anyone can create the same within their own vertical.

[image via flickr/Amit Chattopadhyay]

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©Delaney Allen

I browse numerous photography blogs and magazines, probably not as many as some people, but I’m guessing more than the median photography enthusiast. There are plenty of destinations to find quality work these days but I find there are very few that have a distinct point of view, and finding quality writing about photography is still a challenge. Far too many new blogs and magazines simply want to replicate what’s been done already (me too!) or have misguided editorial missions (“we want to expose photography/photographers we love/think is great/deserves more attention/ to a wider audience!”).

These days I can get a bit cranky about internet publishing, part of which comes from my own frustrations with trying to carve out a distinct perspective for LPV, but also I think there’s a shortage of critical discussions about what we’re dong online. Nobody in general is to blame for that, after all, who really wants to talk about social media and publishing? “Is blogging dead?” “How is social media impacting photography?” discussions tend to be short of new observations and generally resort to platitudes and hype, both of which we need far less of online. The critical, combative, engaged discussions generally aren’t very well received online, and in fact the web might not even be the best venue for those type of discussions. Anyway, I digress.

With this list I want to briefly comment on a group of blogs, magazines, destinations, websites, that I have a tremendous amount of respect for at the moment. There are many others that are very good, but these have triggered something in my mind that I think is worth noting. Please feel free to disagree and create your own list! After all, it is that time of the year!

 

About: A website dedicated to contemporary fine-art photography, founded and edited by Jörg M. Colberg

Comment: Next year will be the ten  year anniversary. If there’s one blog that’s on the must read list for fine art photography, it’s Conscientious. I’ve not always agreed with Jorg but I’ve never stopped reading his articles or viewing the work he publishes. He’s simply very good at what he does and doesn’t mince words. He writes about ideas and is a curious curator. You can try to pigeon hole him, but it won’t work. This year, what I’ve respected most are his new initiatives. He jumped back on Twitter and quickly became a must follow. He published a book, “Conversations With Photographers.” He continued his publishing initiative with Meir and Mueller. He experimented with Google+ and sharing photography books on Youtube. He showed his comedic chops in a couple of very funny videos. He does what every good blogger and publisher should do: he evolves and continues the curious pursuit of his passions.

Recommended: Photography is Over

 

About: “…a unique site combining social giving and photography. Its mission is to raise funds to purchase equipment for young, emerging photographers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds from Colombia, and eventually from around the world…”

Comment: The mission statement very clearly announces what you’re to expect and it’s very admirable. Tom Griggs is a savvy publisher, creating features that tap into the active online community with a keen editorial eye. I’ve always thought that the internet was a good place to learn if you can make your way through the noise. Griggs is certainly someone who believes this and isn’t hesitant to put in the necessary work to achieve his mission. I’m very excited to see where he takes things in the next year and can’t wait to view the work from the students he’s collaborating with. This is an incredibly exciting new site and one that I hope others with aspirations for creating photography platforms will learn from in the future.

Recommended: Current Microgrant

 

About: The blog of photographer Blake Andrews.

Comment: Not much to add from what I wrote last year. Every post is still a surprise.

From 2010: You never really know what to expect from Blake.  He operates in a mental space that very few bloggers can access on a regular basis. He taps into the photography web zeitgeist in a way that adds depth to his irreverent posts.  Beyond the hijinks and humor, he’s also a fantastic and insightful writer.  When he decides to challenge an idea, he makes sure he’s thought about the argument, and offers counter points worth thinking about.

Recommended: The Sprig and Optimal Lag

 

About: To joust in the melee of contested meanings in surveillance, fine-art, documentary, amateur, institution, and virtual photographies of prisons and other sites of incarceration.

Comment: Pete Brook gets straight to the point and he’s on a mission. I was fortunate enough to meet with him twice this year and each time I came away believing more and more in his mission. His blog doesn’t ask you to think, it forces you to think. It’s always smart, finely edited and illuminating. The subject matter isn’t for everybody. It’s the type of work and issues that we’d just rather ignore. After all, of all the members of society, prisoners are the mostly likely garner little sympathy from the general public. Pete understands this challenge but confronts it head on. Realistic, honest, funny and passionate. After a few minutes browsing through his blog, you’ll come away thinking and it’ll be a nagging thought you’re not likely to shake.

Recommended: Photographing the Prostitutes of Italy’s Backroads: Google Street View vs. Boots on the Ground

 

About: LightBox, a new blog by TIME’s photo department, will explore how photography, video and the culture of images define today’s world.

Comment: As I’ve heard, LightBox was a clandestine operation by the Time photo editors that didn’t have the sanction of the corporate overlords. Thankfully for us, they’re disobedience went unpunished. It’s really a no brainer, but the cynic in me says, “jeez guys, it took you this long to get started?” Now that they’re here though, we’re exposed to a very tightly edited, engaging dose of photography on a daily basis. They have the resources and access that most independent bloggers and magazines simply never will have, and it shows in the quality and diversity of the work.

Recommended: Merry Christmas from Lee Friedlander

 

About: An independent charitable gallery (Cardiff, Wales) run by photographers Joni Karanka, Maciej Dakowicz, Bartosz Nowicki and a group of committed volunteers.

Comment: I’ve known Joni for a few after meeting him in HCSP. It’s been exciting watching what they’ve done with TFG this year. Actually, it’s pretty fucking remarkable and shows exactly what a group of passionate, intelligent photographers can achieve if they have a vision and dedication to bringing it to fruition. The TFG web presence is pretty straightforward and that’s all it needs to be. They’re able to get the word out to the right people and have been successful in raising the necessary funds to keep them afloat. In their first two years, they’ve exhibited Tomas Van Houtryve, Rob Hornstra, Ben Roberts, David Hurn, Laura Pannack, Chris Steele-Perkins, Peter Dench, and Carolyn Drake. That’s impressive. What more can you say?

Recommended: Support Us

 

About: Wayne Bremser’s Tumblr/Blog.

Comment: My favorite blog on Tumblr. Wayne is smart and the connections he makes between photographs is stimulating (“Bremser Image Telephone.”) He doesn’t write much, but when he does, it’s always very insightful and relevant. The photos run the spectrum from contemporary to historical, and are generally photographs that haven’t been heavily circulated in our visually saturated internet wasteland.

Recommended: How to Photograph the Entire World: The Google Street View Era

 

About: Facebook group of Flake Photo. “My hope is that by hosting online photo conversations in a single place the FPN will make it easier to share ideas and meet photography colleagues using Facebook.”

Comment: Maybe the years I’ve spent in photography forums has made me jaded, and kind of skeptical of these ‘community’ organizing initiatives, but I applaud Andy for his ability to bring together people that might not normally participate in photography forums. There’s plenty of conversation, insights and idea sharing happening on a weekly basis to keep my interest. It can be a great resource and it’s always interesting to read the opinions of people that don’t normally share them publicly.

Recommended: If you can get in…and tolerate the self-promotion.

 

About: The blog of duckrabbit, an award-winning digital production company.  We work with documentary audio, still photography and video to make compelling film and audio narratives for commercial, charity and broadcast clients.

Comment: There are  some blogs you like because of the attitude. duckrabbit is one of them for me. They have their nose to the grind and are tapped into the pulse of what’s happening with documentary photography and photojournalism. They’re opinionated, passionate and won’t back down from a good argument or debate. One to read for sure.

Recommended: Are photography degrees the joker in the pack?

 

About: Bagnews analyzes and reports news and media images. In an ever more visual society, BagNews seeks to better understand the levels of meaning, the underlying story lines and the various agendas reflected in the more prominent news pictures of the day.

Comment: Bag is one of those sites that I’ve said I read but more often than not only skim. Then this year I really started to read it regularly and found it incredibly interesting and insightful. The way photographs are used by media organizations in our hyper saturated, fast paced publishing world is worth taking the time to consider. For that type of analysis, there really is nowhere else to go other than the Bag.

Recommended: Taking it to the Kittens: The Pepper Spray Cop Meme — and What It Means

 

About: A Photo Editor (APE) is edited by Rob Haggart, the former Director of Photography for Men’s Journal and Outside Magazine.

Comment: The online pulse of the editorial and commercial photography world. Great resource for articles that are floating around. Jonathan Blaustein’s gallery and book reviews are long…but well worth the time investment. Recommended reading for anyone remotely curious or interested in the business side of commercial and editorial photography.

Recommended: Why Does Everyone Think They Need A Photo Book?

 

About: I examine how documentary photography and photojournalism work, the opportunities multimedia bring, and the challenges presented by the revolutions in the new media economy.

Comment: David’s thoughtful articles typically get me thinking. His subject matter might not be the most exciting for photographers but if you’re interested in publishing and how the web is evolving, creating new challenges & opportunities, then David’s blog is a must read. Always well researched, timely and engaging.

Recommended: Agencies as publishers: a new approach to photojournalism

 

About: Feature Shoot is run by photographer, photo editor and curator Alison Zavos and showcases work from up-and-coming photographers alongside established photographers who have completed a project or whose work has taken on a new direction.

Comment: Alison’s eyeballs must get really sore because she seems to see just about every photograph that’s published on the web. FS publishes an eclectic mix of work, crossing many genres and styles. What I like most about FS, is that I don’t like everything that’s published, and yet I keep coming back because I know there will be photographs that I haven’t seen before, many of which I’ll likely find interesting. Having chatted with Alison a few times, I have no doubt she’ll introduce new and exciting features in the next year.

Recommended: Parisian twins photographed by Maja Daniels

 

About: Edited by Constantin Nimigean

Comment: From Bucharest comes this serendipitous find. I’m not really sure how it came on my radar but after I subscribed I started to notice that most the photography strongly resonated with me. It was fun to see what was coming next. Sometimes he’d link to work I’d seen on other blogs but more often than not I’d be treated to work that hadn’t crossed my radar. I’m very interested to see how the site evolves in 2012.

Recommended: Valentina Riccardi – NO RENT

 

About: Edited tags from Tumblr.

Comment: It’s brilliant. Tumblr has chosen a group of photography enthusiasts to edit tags and promote work they think deserves more attention. So, what you get from the chaos of Tumblr is some semblance of organization. You can check the ‘portrait’ tag and find what’s ‘popular,’ ‘promoted’ and ‘everything’ else. They’ve made good choices in their editors too.

To show the power of Tumblr, and why I think every photographer should have a presence there, I’ll share an anecdote. I signed up in 2007 and started aggregating work under LPV/Photographs on the Brain. In four years, I gained about 2,000 followers. A few weeks ago I posted this wonderful photograph by Chris Dorley-Brown. In two days, after being ‘promoted’ it accumulated over 10,000 notes and became ‘popular.’ Within five days I’d gained nearly 4,500 followers. If Tumblr can harness this viral power and create a compelling ‘Front Page,’ they could really be onto something very interesting.

Regular reads, recommended: Unless you will, Fraction Magazine, 1000 Words, Eyecurious, Colin Pantall, LENS, New Landscape Photography, The Great Leap Sideways, Two Way Lens, Wayne Ford, dvafoto, Raw File, Shooting Wide Open, lenscratch, DLK Collection, This is the what, Search the Light, Two for the Road,urbanautica, LUCEO, Banana Leaves

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