I’m greeted by a charging springer spaniel, wet from the morning’s rain, tennis ball in mouth — a dog whose sprightly mug I’ve seen before in Fader magazine and on the Urban Outfitters blog. Lancey, named for Delancey Street in New York‘s Lower East Side, is a wily hound. The dog put a drool-covered tennis ball on the back of my chair on the sly and got my chinos a little wet in the crotch with the same. A good dog.
You don’t typically see a dog with that much room to play in New York, but Michael Williams works out of a relatively massive showroom filled with clothing, shoes and accessories belonging to clients of his PR firm, Paul + Williams, and decorated with pieces of Americana he’s picked up while digging around flea markets.
Michael is wet, too, from the rainy walk between his apartment next to the World Trade centre site to his office in the Soho Building on Greene Street. It’s a nice building on a block of expensive retail shops like Louis Vuitton and Adriano Goldschmied. The place looks pretty much how I expected from reading his blog, AContinuousLean.com (ACL): A well-kept hybrid of men’s clothing boutique, factory floor and antique barn. The floppy-eared spaniel is almost too much.
Williams is what you’d call a lifestyle blogger, part of a growing contingent of guys who write about gear, fashion, food, and so on, just like what you’d find in a traditional men’s magazine except that instead of a whole editorial staff, it’s just one or a few people writing through a more personal lens about a niche, focused topic. Zeitgeisty stuff, mostly things you can buy. Lifestyle.
Michael Williams on his hit blog, A Continuous Lean
The blog should be hyper-focused, niche
Talking to successful bloggers, guys who can or could live off of the revenue their blogs generate (directly or indirectly), I whittled down three maxims that can help us understand this whole blog thing: What it is, where it’s going, and how to be successful at it — the whole telos of the thing.
Maxim No. 1: The blog should be hyper-focused, niche. ACL was born of Williams’ interest in Americana, especially American-made clothing and products. “I worked for a Japanese company, so I saw all these Japanese magazine interpretations of Americana,” he said. “I thought it was interesting that they were so into it and that they understood it very well and at the same time didn’t understand it at all… And I thought, this is something that I find interesting that’s maybe worth exploring.”
You also get the sense that Williams, there having a game of catch with Lancey — that damn dog is so endearing — has an abiding interest in America that’s deeper than clothes and products. He gets worked up talking about the state of things:
“If you look at companies like Red Wing, a client of mine, they fought to keep their factories open in the States. Everyone was saying move offshore. The owner was like, ‘I don’t care.’ All these public companies, that sh*t would never fly. This country has a terrible three-month view of the world. It’s all based on quarterly earnings. They don’t give a f*ck what happens five years from now. There’s no skills, no facilities, no infrastructure. What’s gonna happen when it’s super-f*cking expensive to make stuff in China?”
Discover the two other rules of blogging, next…
Benjamin Clymer, founder of Hodinkee.com, is also knee-deep in his subject: high-end watches, their history and the world of “haute horlogerie.” “Half the people I tell what I do, they either feign interest or just aren’t interested at all,” he said. “More than half probably. One in 10 is like, ‘I’m absolutely obsessed with watches.'” Pretty niche. Even sites like Atif Kazmi’s PorHomme.com, which might explore a guy-focused Hollywood film one day and a vintage shirt company the next, has a unifying principle, his vision of “well-made and well-represented” things that interest him — which is a subject that’s inherently niche.
When I left Michael’s office, poking around his building to see what amenities were available to occupants (a nice marble bowl sink in the bathroom, coffee shop), I felt like I should get in on the action around lifestyle blogs.
The word “lifestyle” has been worn pretty thin by advertisers and marketing gurus. Just the other day, a friend with a very serious government job forwarded me an email from the highbrow culinary magazine Saveur, promoting the Tonnino brand of tuna. The email subject: “Tonnino: More Than a Trend, A Lifestyle.”
Now, I like tuna very much — on a sandwich, straight from the can, in a salad of cannellini beans and parsley — and Tonnino appears to be the cream of the crop when it comes luxury canned fish, but it never occurred to me that tuna could be a lifestyle. Say it out loud: “Tuna lifestyle.” “Tuna lifestyle.” I don’t know what that means.
But tuna seemed like as good an option as any — it was niche and I already knew it was a lifestyle. I went back to Brooklyn and registered Tuna Bro on Tumblr, the site that hosted Clymer’s Hodinkee in the beginning. It turns out there aren’t many competitors in the tuna blogosphere. Ideas started to flow: stunning pictures of Skipjack, Bigeye and Yellowfin; a profile of the bluefin that fetched $396,000 in Tokyo; reviews of the best sushi restaurants in New York; a look at Greenpeace’s campaign against Big Tuna for using fish aggregating devices (FADs); and so on. This would be easy. I just needed to figure out the other rules of blogging.
How bloggers (try to) make money
Maxim No. 2: There needs to be money in the blogger’s industry. The tuna industry, meaning everything from sushi-grade bluefin to canned albacore to our high-quality jarred filets of Tonnino, is a multibillion dollar business, so I was pretty confident I’d be able to drum up the ad dollars.
Clymer’s success was instructive. “My situation was dumb luck,” he said. “I didn’t realise how much money these watch companies spend on advertising, promotions, trips. These marketing budgets for the Richemont group, which owns Cartier and Vacheron, among others, is just astronomical.” Being in a position to benefit from those budgets meant already having a large enough audience to command ad dollars and content partnerships. The revenue model for ads is evolving, but it’s generally based on the CMP (cost per mille), a dollar amount paid by advertisers for every 1,000 impressions. Banner ads and sidebar ads will pay out less than one of those maniacal jobs that covers your whole browser window and gives you Information Super Highway road rage.
Williams, whose blog gets about 350,000 unique visitors per month, only sells ads directly to companies — no ad network negotiating on his behalf. The advantage is that he keeps all the revenue and has total control over what appears on his site. “Part of that,” he said, “is I came with built-in relationships on the brand side. I knew a lot of marketing people, and it was relevant to a lot of companies. People ask me how do I build a site to make money and I’m like, ‘F*ck, good luck.'”
Other bloggers estimate that Williams can make as much as $15,000 per month for a banner ad. Clymer, whose site sees 250,000 unique visitors per month, negotiates ads from watch companies directly, but he says that working with an ad network can also be beneficial. Without it, he wouldn’t have seen income from companies like American Express and Burberry.
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