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From 55 Blogs to 4 Local Websites: An Interview with John Evans

From 55 Blogs to 4 Local Websites: An Interview with John Evans

John Evans’ blog network Syntagma Media always stood out a bit from the blog networks of the early days. First it was because of the hacked Kubrick blog template with the rainbow headers (which I remedied in one of my first design gigs in the blogosphere), and then because of Evans leaving the term blog behind, rebranding as a network of sites, web magazines, and other ideas aimed to make them more accessible and easy to understand.

Earlier this week Syntagma Media launched its most recent venture, the first in a series of “hyper-local” websites. So how do you go from blog network to local websites? That’s what this interview is about.

But first some disclosure. I did the design for the non-rainbowy Syntagma blog network template, and I also design the network magazines, now discontinued or rebranded. If that isn’t enough for you, I’m also the designer behind Devon & Cornwall Online, the recent launch. With that in mind, I’ve stayed clear of anything remotely close to design or branding. I’ll post on that over at as a small case study at some point instead.

johnevans.jpgYou have shrunk your Syntagma network quite a lot since its biggest iteration. Why did you decide to do that?

We went to 55 blogs on the wide network model. That model was extensively funded by text links and SEO plays. Eventually the bonanza was destroyed by Google defending the integrity of its backlink system and also its less lucrative Adsense.

I came to see it was better to have one or two composite websites than dozens of little ones. Some of the early blogs were ridiculously small-niche anyway and doomed to underperform.

I took away from the wide network model the conviction that only mainstream topics truly paid out online. Income from sites about sacred dolls and kickboxing for chimps were never going to rise above baseline costs. “Having fun” is fun, but doesn’t pay the bills for a serious business.

So what do you think about b5media’s business model then? You’ve voiced opinions on that in the past, as I’m sure long-time readers will remember.

Like all the wide networks that started after Weblogs Inc. was sold, the b5 model suffered from hubris, a lack of branding, and dependence on celebrity and narrow tech culture.

My own attempts to consolidate our multitude of sites into branded “magazines” — which you (TDH) designed — was ultimately followed by b5. However, we were coming from a direction that wasn’t quite right, and we were associated with past mistakes across the sector.

The most recent project, Devon & Cornwall Online, is a part of a network of local sites. What’s the idea here?

West Country Websites takes the West Country of England two counties at a time to build four large websites. DCO (Devon & Cornwall Online) covers many topics that are popular advertising magnets in the local press, including the “river of gold”, the classifieds.

The need for local advertising is constant, even now in hard times, and will not go away. In fact, with the local press and TV declining, the need will only grow.

We’re building this up gradually, and taking on staff as we grow. No venture capitalists are involved. It’s all in-house cash, as it was with Syntagma.

Next up, is Hants & Dorset Online (Hampshire and Dorset), then Somerset & Avon, and Glos & Wilts. If they are all successful, we may look eastward to the south, and northward beyond London. But I may have run out of energy by then.

What are the goals, traffic and income-wise, on these sites? Do you have a target percentage of the local ads market that you want to capture or something like that?

DCO has a maximum advertising income potential at Ratecard of £650,000 ($1,066,000) a year. The other sites will be similar, generating at peak over £2.5m ($4.3m) per annum.

Naturally, discounting is part of the game, so anything from £0 to £2.5m/year is possible. The upper number is our only goal apart from delivering a quality product. Fun doesn’t come into it, but will feature heavily as income rises.

As for traffic, with the exceptions of ad agencies, we will be dealing with people placing small ads and personal stuff on the site who won’t really know what any of the stats mean. That segment of our readership is potentially very large indeed, but difficult to estimate in advance.

dcoscreenshot.jpgWhy aren’t these local sites blogs?

They are built around WordPress — largely because I know it well, it’s versatile and constantly updated. I’m sure there are other ways of doing it, and we may try them out in further sites.

I don’t think of them as blogs because the word has long seemed incompatible with serious business. However, when you aim eventually to post 30-40 articles a day on a single site, blog technology is perfect for that rapid turnover. That doesn’t make them “blogs” though.

But couldn’t they just as well have been more traditional blogs, with comments and everything? What makes you think a more traditional site approach will work better than the bloggish one?

We are emulating a local newspaper, not MySpace. The look is important, as is the type of article. The whole bloggy, tech-ridden, link-away style would detract from that impression. Whatever anyone says in the blogosphere, most people are happy with the newspaper format and feel reassured by it.

As for comments, I’ve long dropped them on my blogs, 1) because they are a total waste of time, and 2) you leave your business wide open to attack and possible legal problems. Comments are a vanity play that I can well do without.

I’d like to thank John Evans for doing this interview. Be sure to visit Devon & Cornwall Online, as well as the Syntagma blog, err, site. Naturally we’ll report on the upcoming sites as well here on the Blog Herald. After all, it is interesting to see how blog platforms and blogs are transforming and hiding under various names and designs to appeal new audiences.

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