Is the Blog Network model dying?

Blogging may have started from personal journals, but the diaries of 2000 evolved into something different. As sites grew a new form of company emerged, the blog network, that aimed to take the experience often gathered in a few blogs across many.

Gawker Media was the first notable blog network, but Weblogs Inc was the first to truly go wide quickly in pursuit if growth. That Weblogs Inc model became the inspiration to many, from b5media, a company I was a co-founder of, through to hundreds of smaller and some larger players. Networks thrived during the good times as advertising rates climbed as companies flooded the space in pursuit of targeting blog readers, and blogging itself continued to grow.

In 2008 however, the picture is rapidly changing. The glory days of blog growth has passed, and while many blogs still grow (including this one), many don’t as market saturation makes the market harder than it has ever been. Throw in the economic crisis, and a slowing in online advertising growth, and things are starting to look grim.

The blog network model is under threat.

We reported November 3 that ReadWriteWeb has closed its blog network. Others including Glam Media are facing difficulties (although Glam is a hybrid network + ad network), and the father of blog networks Nick Denton is predicting a 40% drop in ad rates for 2009, after making widespread cuts around his network.

Weblogs Inc sites are thriving, although the company has had a complete makeover since being acquired by AOL 3 years ago. Many of the tech/ special interest blogs have been dumped in favor of a primarily lifestyle play, supported by the AOL portal itself, and the company is shifting to full time employees over the previous standard blog network contractor model. So while they offer good news, they are not a typical case.

One brand advantage

ReadWriteWeb while dumping its blog network is instead launching new blogs under the ReadWriteWeb banner (and on the ReadWriteWeb URL). The inspiration actually lies in traditional media to some extent, but I call this the Huffington Post model. The Huffington Post was an inspiration to the founding of this site, because they proved that you can mix different streams of content on a blog successfully on the one large site under the one brand.

The problem with going wide in a network is the need to have to build individual brands vs a single brand. By increasing content under the one url and one brand, you strengthen that brand instead of splitting your time between promoting multiple brands, even when those brands reside in the one network.

There’s also one other advantage the single brand/ blog method has: it’s easier to sell ads on one site than many sites. Often advertisers aren’t interested in network buys, and may prefer a one site buy over many (particularly where the verticals in the network are different), least this is my experience in the past. It’s easier selling 750,000 page views on one site than 2 million on 10 sites.

Vertical bundling?

My former company b5media was one of the best cases of a wide blog network model. At funding, the company had 250 blogs, and peaked at 350 blogs before cutting back (I don’t have the full number, but it’s around 300 today). Notably b5media has started to launch portal destination sites for its content, such as Starked.com for celebrity news, and Bizzia.com for business news, not replacing individual blogs, but bundling content by vertical, and establishing individual brands for each space. I asked CEO Jeremy Wright the question, and his response came down to verticals

Our belief is still in the “wide” sense (vs say a single vertical) but that you need REACH within EACH of the verticals you cover for it to work. You can’t just do 300-400 blogs or whatever and hope some kind of magic happens. Plus, you need BRANDS.


Slow bleed

The blog network model is dying, although it may never die entirely, and companies such as Weblogs Inc, Gawker, Shiny Media, b5media and others will likely have long futures ahead of them. For those starting new today, the days of building many sites, splitting the focus away from a key brand has passed, and the likelihood of new successful blog networks emerging in the short term is slim at best.

We are likely to see consolidation in the space over the coming years, as titles fold, merge, or join new entities, but even consolidation can lead back to the main brand, for example the Crikey blog network saw existing stand alone blogs come under the one URL, so although the brands continue to exist in some ways, they do so in a way that contributes to the overall brand.

The days of launching dozens of new sites under different URLs has definitely passed. The big blogs of tomorrow will likely be mega-sites that often focus on content outside a key vertical, under the one brand.

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