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Five years ago, much to the chagrin of PC bromanis everywhere, Outkick the Coverage was born.
Our first post is right here, way back on July 20th, 2011.
We’ve now been around long enough as a site for one of our original writers, Hayley Frank, to meet her husband, Barton Simmons of 24/7 Sports, date him, marry him, and now have a one year old little girl.
Yes, there’s an Outkick baby.
It’s been a remarkably fun five years for the site.
Last year we had nearly 12 million unique readers and this year, thanks to the launch of Outkick the Show, we won’t just have over 12 million unique readers, we’ll have well over 12 million unique viewers too.
While Outkick is five years old, I have now been writing online on a daily and weekly basis for 13 years. When I started writing online I hoped to get 100 readers a day, 13 years later we have days where Outkick has over a million readers and viewers.
When I started Outkick I said our goal was to be smart, original and funny, hopefully all three in the same article. We’ve managed that…sometimes at least. And as we complete five years as a site, I want to give you five thoughts on the state of online sports audiences. Some of these are lessons learned, others are forecasts for where we’re headed.
Here we go:
1. Pageviews are dead and so is aggregation.
Partly this is because, at long last, we’ve reached full Internet readership. That is, as many people as will read articles online are now reading articles online. The long reader march from print to the Internet is complete and you can no longer rely on more pageviews just because there are more readers coming online.
Now that we’ve reached the outer limits of pageviews, you’re seeing even more aggressive forms of aggregation, all in an effort to get the Facebook clicks for whatever news story breaks. Facebook is now providing, astoundingly, well over half of many sites daily readership. So most sites are totally captured by Facebook now, they live and die based on changes to its algorithms.
I like Facebook and love what they provide when it comes to online video for Outkick, but many Facebook readers have limited value because they don’t typically connect to your brand or to the individual writer on the story. They connect to Facebook and just so happen to click on whatever story shows up on their news feed. They aren’t coming into the front page of your site, they’re bouncing from one aggregated story to another.
Many times readers don’t even know what site they’re clicking on. If everyone has the same article up why do advertisers want to pay substantial sums of money to reach the same readers who are going to click onto a story for twenty seconds?
Can you think of any other healthy business or industry that’s based its long term future on doing the exact same thing as everyone else? That’s the online news business today. It’s not sustainable.
Even wilder, what happens if there is no original content to aggregate?
Which brings me to number two.
2. Be original.
There are hardly any original writers online.
I’ll give you a good example of how everyone writes the same thing — at SEC Media Days last week there were 1000 media members and the result is no one reads any of the articles written from there.
Dan Mullen’s a bad guy, and then Nick Saban’s a bad guy, and then Hugh Freeze is a bad guy and Bret Bielema and Les Miles said something funny and it’s just the same thing over and over, rinse and repeat. I’m not kidding about this, absolutely no one wrote a column that was well read based on anything that was said or done at SEC Media Days. It’s because there are literally thousands of stories saying the exact same thing and readers just didn’t care.
Having a thousand stories saying the exact same thing was great when every newspaper had its own distinct market.
But everyone’s the same market online now.
So now no one reads the stories.
I ask myself this question all the time — will anyone else write this exact same column? If the answer is yes, then I don’t write it. You have to give someone something original to read.
Think about my first book, “Dixieland Delight,” millions of SEC fans could have written that book. But I was the first fan to go to all 12 SEC stadiums in the same year and write about the experience. And I did it without a single media credential, I just sat in the stands like you guys. The result was I wrote more interesting stories about SEC football than the thousands of guys and girls sitting in the press box. Because they were all writing the same thing and I had the fan experience pretty much all to myself.
That’s how I took over the SEC market, not by writing what everyone else was writing, but by writing what everyone else wasn’t writing.
I get asked for advice from young guys and girls all the time and my advice is this — be different, even if that means you get fewer initial “readers” than you would by aggregating. That’s how you create people who connect with you on a personal level. I was ecstatic when my articles back in 2004 started getting 100 readers. A thousand readers was a pipe dream, ten thousand readers was an unheard of fantasy.
I hate to sound like Nick Saban, but focus on the daily process of writing instead of the results. Especially early on.
And then work your ass off.
Do you know why I make a living writing about sports online? Because I’m the only person writing online who has written multiple columns every week for 13 straight years. Writers write, just like shooters shoot, so you better get to it.
There is no magic ingredient — go to work.
The reason why people read what I write is because I move them, some hate me, some love me, but I create emotional responses in readers. That’s the goal of opinion writing, knocking someone out of their slump shouldered stare, motivating them, making them lean forward, provoking thought.
If you can’t do this you have no value as a writer.
So what do you write?
You need to balance what entertains, educates, and motivates reaction from readers with compelling topics that people care about, but you have to add something unique to the story.
Any topic works if it’s done well.
I’ll give you a couple of examples from Outkick — the anonymous mailbag and the Outkick Friday mailbag are two of the most consistently read “sports” columns on the Internet. The time of the year doesn’t matter, the mailbag doesn’t get aggregated or shared by a major media company to get false clicks, it gets tens of thousands of actual readers who come to spend time with us twice every week; it’s appointment reading, a planned part of many of your days. That kind of response takes years to create, it isn’t empty and valueless aggregated clicks.
Focus on those goals, focus on returning readers.
And, once more, be original. It doesn’t even matter what you’re writing about that’s original.
Hell, in the past year I’ve written about driving to Destin with my family, a ghost story, a weekly column on “Game of Thrones” and random Twitter music feuds. All of them have garnered large readerships. Would any part of analytics have suggested they made sense to write? Of course not. But that’s because original ideas don’t show up in analytics or aggregation.
The positive is this: I find that the readership for SEC Network financials or the future of the UFC and the WWE is similar to the readership of dick jokes in the mailbag. People want all types of articles so long as they are smart, original or funny, ideally all three.
3. Display ads are dead and the Internet needs to be more like TV.
Readers hate display ads, advertisers despise their effectiveness, every day they are less profitable, they make the load times on pages awful; display ads are a broken system crying out for a new advertising paradigm.
Display ads have also created the broken aggregation economy. Since pageview ads are sold based on volume instead of quality, there’s a constant rush for more, which devalues the overall quality. It’s a race to a common bottom.
Can you think of any other business that consistently devalues itself by producing more product at a lower quality? Of course not. Online pageviews and the advertising dollars surround them is a broken system.
Online writing is like a country that decides it’s going to lower inflation by printing more money. And then expects that to solve things. And there’s an interesting pop culture disconnect here: as television has been rushing towards quality programming — frequently microtargeted to smaller committed audiences — the Internet has been rushing towards more quantity, generally targeted at the largest possible audiences.
TV ad buyers pay premiums to reach small audiences that they know value their product. Think Jaguar on “Mad Men.” The average “Mad Men” viewer is rich and can afford a Jaguar. So why spend your advertising dollars on people who can’t buy Jaguars?
Imagine if TV ads were sold like online ads. Instead of “The Americans” and “Mad Men” existing, you’d have a ton of cheaply produced crap.
Online ad dollars need to be collated like TV dollars, premium brands for premium content, aggregated ad buys are absurdly idiotic and dumb down everything. As TV and the Internet move closer and closer together, I hope that TV advertising metrics will begin to infiltrate the broken online ad system.
4. Quality of reader connection is all that matters.
This is what has replaced pageviews for me.
It’s a bit more difficult to track, but I look at direct response rates. How many thousands of you click through when we go live with Periscope and Facebook, how many click through on Twitter and Facebook articles? Our direct response rates are outstanding.
But it’s more than that too.
How many shirts are we selling, how many of you come up to say hi on the rare occasions when I’m actually out able to have a few beers? If you’re college educated and an SEC fan, we own that market..
I’m not even kidding about that, I can roll into just about any bar with SEC college grads in the 11 state SEC region and we have readers or listeners there. It’s uncanny. Hell, the entire Gulf Coast beach region is basically an Outkick convention each weekend.
It’s better to have a few hundred thousand true believers than it is to have several million random readers or viewers.
I’ve adopted the rockstar method of growing audiences, focus on what the people who like you the best love that you do, do more of it, and let them be your evangelists. Our Outkick Show is blowing up rapidly because you guys and girls who love it are telling your friends and family to pay attention to the show. That’s what I’ve seen with Outkick over the past five years from a writing perspective too.
While many on the Internet are focused on trying to be all things to all people, I’m trying to be as authentic as I can be and focus on doing more of what Outkick’s fans love the most. I don’t need to be all things to all people, I just need to focus on the people who already love Outkick.
That’s our business and it’s a growing one.
5. It’s time for a new dynamic in Internet advertising — scarcity.
If I was selling Outkick ads right now — and I’m not, Fox is — what I’d be doing is telling advertisers that I was only going to allow (insert number of brands here) to advertise on my site. It would be a small number, maybe eight, maybe six, maybe four brands. And that’s the only ads I would put up or allow.
What’s more, they’d fit the Outkick brand and my own lifestyle, we’d have a beer, a liquor, a gambling company, a car, a ticket sales company, a hotel chain, an airline, you can easily fill in your own brand ideas here. But I wouldn’t just take anyone and I’d integrate those brands into my personal lifestyle — I would only stay at that hotel, drive that car, fly that airline, drink that beer, you see where I’m headed here.
Everyone who read or listened or watched Outkick would know what those brands were because I’d promote the hell out of them and ensure that it was impossible for you to miss them. And once I got those companies signed up, in addition to using them in my own life, I wouldn’t allow their competitors to be mentioned, seen, or utilized in any connection with Outkick’s brand. In fact, if they wanted, I wouldn’t only endorse their companies and promote them all the time, I’d actually denigrate their competitors. I’m great at killing trolls on Twitter, you think I wouldn’t be good at killing your competitors?
So these are my five ideas, put as much credence in them as you wish.
Just know that I thank all of you for everything that you’ve meant to Outkick over the past five years.
Five years ago when I clicked publish for the first time I could never have imagined that Outkick would be as much fun and become as successful as it has.
Here’s to another tremendous five years to come.
And be sure and come hang with us on Outkick tonight after Donald Trump’s absurdly ridiculous RNC address.