6 Lessons From A Content Empire: Meet Copyblogger

Statue Reading

Statue ReadingHave you ever wanted to be the absolute authority in your field? You define the knowledge base. Your voice. Your style. Your ways of sharing. These are the qualities that keep audiences coming back time and again.

But there’s a gap between sharing your voice – starting a blog – and building a following that will help you become that go-to destination you dream of being.

Anyone who’s earned that go-to status has been right where you are today: wanting to reach the top. So why don’t we take a lesson (or six) from one of today’s go-to giants to help you along your path?

Copyblogger began back in 2006. Founder Brian Clark’s initial goals were to share the knowledge he had about how sharing information online worked, and in the process, build an audience and create a sustainable living. Eight years later, Copyblogger has become Copyblogger Media, a multi-million dollar company that’s the go-to for everything and anything related to content marketing. I sat down with Brian and asked him to share his six never-forget pieces of wisdom about building a content empire.

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How Oxfam engages readers with digital storytelling

Oxfam America blog
Oxfam America blog

Oxfam America’s content focuses more on people than problems. Anna Kramer asks of her own ideas: “If I saw this on Facebook or Twitter, would I find this interesting?”

For-profit companies like HSBC are using digital journalism to engage and inform current and potential customers. But they aren’t the only ones. Nonprofit organizations—who’ve long used storytelling to tug at the heartstrings of current and potential donors—are increasingly publishing online content designed to build awareness and spark conversations about their mission.

With an 11-person creative team working out of its Boston and Washington, D.C. offices, Oxfam America exemplifies this trend toward using content to build community. The four decades-old nonprofit recently rebranded its magazine, which goes out to 250,000 donors three times a year, as Oxfam Closeup, re-emphasizing its focus on narrative storytelling through photography and words.

The organization also has a robust website and publishes two blogs: The Politics of Poverty, which focuses on the organization’s policy work out of Washington, D.C. and First Person, which puts a human face on the issues the organization addresses, among them workers’ rights, disaster relief, food security and microfinance. (The organization has had a blog since 2008 but created two separate blogs in late 2011 as its audience goals evolved.)

Oxfam America: play up dignity, not poverty

Some organizations working in developing nations use their communications materials to play up the challenges of the people it serves and the direness of their lives. But according to Anna Kramer, who edits the First Person blog and contributes to the magazine, Oxfam America avoids that strategy.

“The way we approach poverty and hunger issues, we’re trying to portray people with dignity,” she says. “We don’t portray people as victims. We bring out the agency of people.” Not only do Oxfam America writers follow this tenet but when the organization hires freelance photographers in the countries it serves, it also looks for those who can capture the dignity of the people they photograph.

Kramer and Oxfam’s other writers travel on occasion to the communities the organization serves to collect stories from the trenches. Last year, Kramer spent three weeks visiting rural communities in Peru.

“We go just to gather content and then when we get back, we figure out how to use it,” she explains. “It may turn them in a magazine story, maybe short a video, but we work closely with Oxfam’s offices in those areas.” Using material collected with pen and paper on her Peru trip (and with translation help from someone at their local partner organization), Kramer penned a 2,000+-word story about women earning a living by cultivating traditional crops. She posted a shorter version of the Peru story on the First Person blog.

Seed of a viral idea: everyone can relate to groceries

Earlier this year, Kramer compiled a post for First Person comparing what seven families eat in different parts of the world over the course of one week. Since late January, the post received over 38,000 shares, including 6,500 Facebook likes and 4,000 tweets. Oxfam Great Britain had commissioned the photos using its community contacts around the world, so Kramer pulled seven of them from their shared photo database and wrote an introduction to frame the piece.

Kramer says she was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the post took off on social media and attributes it to the popularity of listicles and the quality of the photos.

“There’s an everyday quality to these photos,” she says. “Everyone can relate to this idea of how much food you buy, but these people in different countries have a very different experience with food, so there’s a difference but also a relatability.”

Other recent posts tie in with the organization’s work raising awareness around the inequalities facing female cocoa growers. The organization redesigned several iconic candy bars urging chocolate companies to create fairer policies for women growers. Kramer posted an explanation of the campaign along with shareable images of the candy wrappers on the blog, while another blog contributor created a roundup of the worst chocolate ads targeting women. One of the candy bar graphics posted on Facebook has gotten over 4,500 likes.

In brainstorming post ideas for the blog, Kramer says she asks herself, “If I saw this on Facebook or Twitter, would I find this interesting?” She says that has helped her focus not on “pushing out our content to people, but engaging with people on something that’s interesting to them. We want to engage with people instead of just telling them.”

Andrew Sullivan: not the only blogger charging his readers

Andrew Sullivan

Andrew Sullivan Last week’s announcement that Andrew Sullivan is leaving The Daily Beast to create his own metered paywall sparked a debate across the media world about what this means for journalism and whether others will follow suit. Complex’s Foster Kamer sees Sullivan’s move as a sales pitch to other big media outlets. (It wouldn’t be the first time a major media outlet acquired a blog; Andy Borowitz sold The Borowitz Report to The New Yorker in 2011.) Meanwhile, GigaOM’s Matthew Ingram calls it a “flag of hope for every writer who has dreamed of building his own mini media empire.”

Whatever the case, Sullivan does have an impressive following (in fact, in the time that Sullivan blogged for the Beast, the site’s traffic jumped from 2.8 million unique visitors to 5.7 million). Within 24 hours of his announcement, he said he’d attracted close to 12,000 paid subscribers, generating over $300,000 in revenue.

Sullivan may be among the most prominent bloggers and freelance writers to create his own paywalled site, but he’s not the only one to eschew advertising and charge readers directly for content. Ebyline looked at several others who have used or are currently using paywall or similar subscription models.


Founded by former TechCrunch contributed Paul Carr and funded by Crunchfund and Zappos’ Tony Hsieh, the Las Vegas-based Not Safe for Work  charges subscribers $3 a month for access to the entire archives and Desknotes, the discussion system where NSFWCORP writers and editors discuss the day’s news. (The latter reminds us of a virtual and perhaps racier version of The Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café.) Subscribers also get access to content via RSS, e-readers and offline reader services. Between its launch last July and a Betabeat article that ran in September, Carr said the site had picked up 3,000 subscribers.


Jesse Waites, founder of a Boston web/software development firm, blogs about what he calls “notable things for intelligent people” on his blog Particle3. In his January 7 announcement about his own paywall, Waites echoed Sullivan’s sentiments about online advertising, writing “I don’t want to participate in a morally bankrupt system wherein I am motivated to write bullshit drama-filled clickbait articles so I can tell advertisers about my millions of monthly pageviews.” Waites is using TinyPass, the same service that Sullivan will use for his own paywall.


Washington, DC-based career and tech blogger Rebecca Thorman experimented with a paywall on Kontrary.com between March and June 2011, initially charging subscribers $5 a month before raising it to $7. “I believe so strongly that writers deserve to get paid,” she explains. “I don’t agree with that content farm mentality. I think it cheapens the whole media landscape, which makes it more difficult to find great content.” Thorman had built up a following through her earlier blog Modite, so Kontrary reached about 80 or 90 paid subscribers. However, she ultimately ditched the paywall because she missed the virality of sharing content. “I don’t think my writing was able to breathe [when it was behind a paywall],” she explains. “There’s something very powerful about when you publish a blog post that it kind of takes on a life of its own. Books and newspapers, you have that pass-along factor, and I think the internet amplifies that.” At the time, Thorman couldn’t find any services that allowed for a metered paywall, so none of her content was accessible to non-subscribers. Now that services like TinyPass allow for more flexibility, she says she may experiment with new revenue models in the future.

The Brooks Review

Seattle-based tech blogger Ben Brooks moved his blog from advertising to a membership model last year, charging $4 per month or $40 per year through Stripe. Instead of a metered paywall, though, he gives members immediate access to posts and makes non-members wait seven days, a move that he justifies because he’s not a news site like NYTimes.com. Members can also link their website to any posts and give their readers access to content behind the paywall. In December, Brooks posted a detailed analysis of his experiences with advertising vs. a paywall. Although Brooks fell short of his 500 member goal (he had about 255 as of December), he wrote that “the membership is great because it’s no extra work, but it is growing really slowly—yet very stable. I’d recommend it to anyone out there, but temper your expectations.”

Photo via Creative Commons license courtesy of Stuckincustoms.com.

#NMX preview: David Perlmutter on the evolving blogosphere


perlmutterOn January 6-8, bloggers from 50 countries will descend on Las Vegas for the New Media Expo (formerly BlogWorld). Come visit Ebyline at NMX and enter our contest to win free content for your blog.

Dr. David Perlmutter, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Iowa, is holding the Journalism 101 For Bloggers at this year’s NMX conference. Ebyline recently chatted with Perlmutter about the changing online media landscape and his predictions for 2013. What follows are excerpts from that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

As blogging has evolved, how has your message about blogging and journalism changed?

We’ve gone from a time when bloggers and freelance writers were seen almost universally as outsiders, rebels, people who weren’t part of the system, and who were challenging the system of traditional media. To some extent there is a large community of bloggers that still see themselves that way, especially in terms of political bloggers.

It used to be that with a successful blog you could make a lot of money through advertising or get a six-figure book deal. Now it seems like a lot of the opportunities are trending more towards using a blog as a calling card to get hired. Is that what you’ve seen? How have those opportunities changed?

I think that social media now is less of a gold mine than a lever. For one thing, a lot of the shelf space is already taken up. There’s a lot of competition and there are people who have been doing it for a while and [corporations] who are spending millions of dollars on it. So, I think there [are] fewer opportunities to directly make content part of your success but rather see content as a lever to increase your success in terms of connections to industry [and] to other platforms that have a revenue model.

Every institution, [whether] nonprofit, governmental [or] corporate, is looking for people to be their leaders in how they communicate in this scary and strange new world that we’re in. Our students are being hired by Boeing Aircraft, by the Federal Reserve Bank, by McDonalds Corporation. They are being hired by non-media companies [that] maybe traditionally wouldn’t hire somebody right out of school with a journalism degree.

What blogging trends do you see in the horizon for 2013?

Well, obviously mobile. People want to carry everything around with them. One of our students referred to a desktop computer the other day as a “grandpa box.” That tells you how far we’ve come. I think if there isn’t a facility to get what you want, when you want it through a mobile device, then it’s never going to be as successful as something that is. And I think everybody, including Microsoft and Facebook who were a little slow on that, now realize[s] that.

Anything else you want to add?

One of the reasons we are doing our presentation is it’s incredibly important for independent bloggers to have a professional edge. And so, we are going to try teach them, in a very short time, some of the techniques that professionals use to look professional, to sound professional, to be taken [seriously] as professionals.

Author Brette Sember on Balancing Blogging and Book Writing


Veteran freelancer and author Brette Sember has contributed articles to over 140 publications and written over 40 books on a variety of topics. Her latest book, The Muffin Tin Cookbook: 200 Fast, Delicious Mini-Pies, Pasta Cups, Gourmet Pockets, Veggie Cakes, and More!, was published by Adams Media this spring. She’s also a prolific blogger.

Ebyline caught up with Sember to find out how she juggles so many topics and mediums.

Nowadays, authors and publishers are obsessed with the idea of platform, especially as it applies to blogs and social media. But it’s hard to juggle constant blogging and tweeting with actually writing a book. Any thoughts on this?
They are completely different animals and it puts such a huge burden on authors to do it all and be everything to everyone. You become a writer because you like to write, but you find that you have to learn all these other skills as well, and that really you spend most of your time doing things other than just working on manuscripts.  And then when you have a great idea for a book, you realize no one will care unless you can show you have a platform. It can be really distracting, and I know a lot of authors who just feel overwhelmed by the social media demands and feel they can’t find the time to actually write.

You’ve written about divorce, cooking, and several other topics. How do you transition between these specialties, both in terms of promoting yourself and shifting your language?
I also write college textbooks and have written books about pregnancy, adoption, seniors, business, and much more—I’ve got over 40 titles at this point. I like tackling vastly different subjects because it keeps me interested and  engaged to be thinking about something different for each project. The primary theme that runs through all of my writing is helping people do and learn things, whether it is getting organized for a divorce, cooking in parchment paper, helping your parent decide about long-term care issues, or improving your reading skills in college.

My focus is always on making information, processes, concepts, and skills accessible and understandable. Really what I’m doing is teaching, I think, which is no surprise since my parents were both teachers. I started out writing self-help law books, which was all about taking complicated legal processes and boiling them down into step-by-step instructions so that people could file their own divorce papers, for example.

You blog on your own site and for several other sites including Momma Said and Huffington Post. Journalists and content writers hear a lot about how they should be blogging, so how do you decide if a blogging opportunity is worth your while?
I think there are three main reasons to blog: to promote a book, because it’s a paid gig, or because it’s a topic you are passionate about. I started blogging about food long before I had a book to promote, so for me, that was about writing to satisfy my own interests and passions. I also sometimes write about travel and decorating on my blog, which has nothing to do with my books.  I blog about topics related to my books to keep on top of those topics and also to reach readers who might be interested in those books. And I have paid blogging jobs where I’m producing content for someone, which for me has replaced magazine freelancing.

What was your most unusual freelance assignment?
One of the craziest things I ever wrote was an article about how to use tea for home beauty routines. It involved brewing lots of tea and soaking, slathering, and generally making a mess with it all over myself. On my MarthaAndMe blog I’ve done all sorts of crazy cooking and home projects as well, which almost never end well.