Monday, April 13, 2015

Is there really no more good motorcycle content? Part 3: Let's get serious.

The thing that I found most irksome about “How To Make The Next Great Motorcycle Blog” was a tone I associate with “The 4-Hour Work Week” and the countless life-hacking-for-Millennials blogs, books, etc., that Tim Ferriss spawned.

As far as I can tell, Wes has figured out a way to make a living as a blogger. (Full disclosure: I haven’t.) As an ad guy in day-to-day life, I’m as skeptical as anyone about the advertising model that he dismisses out of hand. 

Every week, Ad Age or Adweek breaks another story about how half the online ads advertisers pay to place don’t ever get seen. While motorcycle journalism is still adapting to the changes imposed by the rise of web-based media, so is the ad industry which is also in free fall. I don’t think that any journalist or ad exec—their fates are intertwined—knows where this ends.

In spite of the fact that there are fat middle-aged dudes wearing Harley-Davidson T-shirts in every airport waiting lounge, if you walk into a U.S. airport newsstand and look at those racks offering hundreds of magazine titles, you'll find one motorcycle magazine. Two, tops. The reason I'm pointing this out is, out there in the larger culture, motorcycles aren't important. And, I believe this is especially true in the U.S., even the people who own and ride them really aren't interested in them, or at least not interested enough to read about them.
Wes may be right when he implies that the ad sales model isn’t the way, in the long run. I suppose he is making OK money from the Amazon affiliate model. (That’s actually my model in a way too, because I justify the effort I put into this blog in part by the money I make selling my own books; those links to the right take you to Amazon.) 

But it’s not the only model. Although no one’s sharing their financials with me, I’m pretty sure that MO’s advertising revenue is enough to make that site profitable. I think that Asphalt & Rubber is generating a decent income for  Jensen Beeler. Personally, I think the motorcycle web site with the best business plan right now is It’s selling ad space, but it can use unsold ad inventory to promote other motorcycle businesses owned by the same group. I guess that’s what Revzilla’s up to, too.

When I talk about the article’s “life hacker” tone, what I mean is blithe advice like, “...develop a comprehensive, multi-language RSS feed of all the editorial motorcycle sites out there. Do the same for the bigger forums, again making sure to include markets like Thailand, Germany, Italy, and the UK...” and, just fly down to New Orleans and get drunk with J.T. Nesbitt, or “Call up the engineers designing the stuff and ask them questions. Get access to their sketches and ideas and diagrams...”

The purpose of acquiring that great content, Wes says, is to get your blog up half a million unique visitors per month, at which point you can make a decent living off those Amazon affiliate revenues. 

To me, this sounds like great advice for someone who actually doesn’t need an income, but terrible advice for someone who is trying to create self-employment. (Which is basically what he promised in HTMTNGMB.) 

You’ll spend a long time—years—building that kind of audience. And, while you’ve got that 0$ a month coming in, it’s not like you’re gonna’ have a day job. Because monitoring all the motorcycle news from all around the world is, already, a full-time job. And, while you’ve got that 0$ a month coming in, flying to New Orleans for one story’s gonna’ be hard on the old Visa balance. To say nothing of the fact that building that network of contacts among secretive engineers and race-team insiders—getting to that critical point where you can call someone for an off the record chat, and have them trust you—is not the work of a few months, either.

But Wes’ hack-the-next-great-blog strategy really breaks down if you’re trying to create what he (I think)—and I (I know)—want to read. Because great stories are not a formula for the eyeballage you need, if you’re to earn $10k/month from affiliate revenues. 

That content’s expensive to produce. There’s out-of-pocket travel and equipment costs, because (as he notes) the manufacturers aren’t going to start loaning you bikes, or flying you to launches and factory visits any time soon. 

That kind of writing takes time, too. You can’t “hack” literature. It takes days to craft a really good 2,500 word story and weeks to write a 7,500 word treatise—and that’s after you’ve finished the ride, or completed the last interview, or turned the last wrench.

In fact, great, long-form, original content will actually hamper—not help—you to reach Wes’ suggested target of 500,000 unique visitors a month. Because you know what? There aren’t half a million people who want to read great, insightful, in depth, original, thought-provoking motorcycle journalism. Not in the English language, anyway.

And before you conclude that I’m just another angry Baby Boomer, longing for the glory days of Cycle, read just a little further.

Maybe when you think of great motorcycle journalism, you remember Cook and Phil and Old Blue; or you think of an idealistic young David Edwards(there’s a thought!) convincing Hunter S. Thompson to write for Cycle World; or Dan Walsh going all Heart of Darkness in Bike Magazine. 

If you bemoan those days and say, “There’s no good motorcycle content anymore”, I sympathize. But none of those stories was read by half a million people, even though they were published when media was far more concentrated, and before Twitter, etc., shattered attention spans. Bike Magazine—the best motorcycle magazine published in English in this century—has never had a circulation over 100,000. 

So there’s no reason to think that if that’s what you mean by “good motorcycle content”, you could use it to attract half a million regular readers now. Aye, there’s the rub. Those magazines were places advertisers had to be, not because the pubs attracted hundreds of thousands of readers but because they attracted the right readers—key influencers, in advertising parlance. And so far, that’s not anyone’s online model.

To reiterate: Great content will not attract 500,000 readers. It will, in fact, guarantee an audience about a tenth that size. 

You want half a million readers? Put up a ton of crap. Even though the motorcycle audience is not that big in absolute terms, there’s a still a decent-sized audience for crap. And—in the defense of a the editors who are trying their best, especially in the online world—the revenues you generate by posting those OEM press releases and swallowing your pride when the publisher insists on a listicle-a-day… those compromises might buy you the freedom to invest in a great story once in a while.

Now, I’ve wasted a few days pondering this shit, and I’ve got to drop this topic for while and make some money. But I’m going to come back in a week or so with one final post addressing the state of the old media stalwarts, and the relationship between manufacturers and the enthusiast media.


  1. Good stuff, Mark. I appreciate the insight. I'm a bit of a hybrid moto-writer with my Street Savvy column for Motorcyclist and previous column with MCN (the American one), I've enjoyed the steady freelance stability that is so rare. I also write for my Riding in the Zone blog/website. Sales of the book and some affiliate ad sales bring in a bit of money, but it's mostly a labor of love...a place where I can write what I want and even use swear words without getting fired. I get between 400 and 2,000 daily blog readers... that's enough to keep me writing. I hope whatever compels you to do it will keep you writing, too.

  2. Too many writers want half a million readers, so they post a ton of crap like you mentioned in that second to last paragraph. It is the age old problem: Quality or quantity?

  3. It's actually quite easy to get people to talk, if you don't approach them like a typical journalist and you include them in the process. They are bike guys just like you and me, and they are happy to talk shop if you are genuinely interested and don't have an axe to grind.

    It truly is simply a matter of picking up the phone or sending an email and talking shop. I wouldn't have believed it either if I hadn't done it myself.