Rob McGibbon: Is there a living to be made from online?

“But, Rob, how are you going to make any money?” If I’d got a quid for every time I’ve been asked that question since launching Access Interviews.com a year ago, then, well, I’d be writing to you from Barbados while sharing a chilled Banks beer with Fred the Shred as we wondered where it all went wrong.

It is hardly surprising people ask me this. After all, it is the alchemical media conundrum of the digital age, which is baffling the sharpest of minds: How the hell do you make cash out of content that is more expensive than gold to produce when every web user sees it as free lead?

My situation is a microcosm of this all-consuming problem. To bring all you thoughtless no-shows who don’t know about AccessInterviews.com (AI) up to speed, I shall quickly re-cap: AI aggregates and catalogues links to interviews which are produced worldwide in every key media genre – newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, online.

We don’t carry the content but instead direct users back to the copyright holder’s website. Essentially, we are a bespoke search engine for premium journalistic content, as well as a promotional platform for journalists and publishers. Hacks love it, particularly for research, because there isn’t anything else like it. Yes, I am a genius.

But what is the reality of being a lone freelance who creates a major website, then spends a vast chunk of his time running it and trying to make it a success? Very rewarding. Endlessly frustrating. Unbelievably challenging.

Add expensive to all that those – and knackering. Websites never sleep, so the past year has seen me working unpaid seven days a week during which I have researched and uploaded upwards of 15,000 interviews. My poor eyes. I am mad.

But I didn’t launch AI blindly. I knew it would be a massive commitment, and that any financial payback was a long-term gamble, but I have always had – rightly or wrongly – a spirit of adventure to pursue ideas rather than join the big-talking “What If Club” down the pub.

Testing

The internet is testing everyone, especially at the highest levels. Recently, I had lunch with a senior national newspaper executive who has personally helped spend untold millions on its websites, which simply give away his company’s hard-won journalism. Why? I asked quite bluntly, and he replied flatly: “In the hope that it will come good.” I have had the same conversation with others in similar positions across the UK media.

Amazing, isn’t it? All this money is being thrown at the web without so much as a business plan. Surely, no intelligent business people would invest heavily in a scheme that promised high returns without checking the small print. Hang on a sec, has anyone heard of Bernard Madoff? Is the media investing in a colossal iPonzi? Ugh – am I!

The thing is, in a small way, I am already starting to get a return from AI, so maybe it is not all a scam. It has been a phenomenal struggle, but our audience has risen from nothing to 72,000 unique visitors in February who viewed 187,000 pages. Given recent growth patterns, these figures will double within a few months. That is a respectable audience.

While our traffic appears modest next to the millions that newspaper sites attract, we’re not in the thrall of numbers for numbers’ sake. We have particularly solid user loyalty and depth of visit statistics, which mean more to us at this stage than ephemeral volume spikes. We also have a “power audience” (yep, you media lot) which has attracted a sponsorship deal with the innovative travel debit card company Caxton FX.

Furthermore, the Perform Group has recently taken over our advertising solutions and its team there is confident that worthwhile advertising revenue is achievable given our audience and the quality of our filtered content. They see AI as a highly desirable boutique brand, not a shopping mall.

It has also been encouraging to see how much has changed in the way that content publishers edit their websites since we launched. Newspapers realise that an exclusive interview is a potent way to attract new online users, and increasingly they are channelling these into a dedicated “interviews” section with an RSS feed, rather than losing them within impenetrable sections such as sport, entertainment et cetera. The Guardian and The Scotsman have led the way, but AI needs every title to do this to have any chance of linking to all the latest interviews.

Glossy magazines are catching up with newspapers in terms of running interviews on their websites. I had a positive dialogue recently with Condé Nast managing director Nicholas Coleridge, who is keen for the company’s titles to further exploit their unrivalled interviews access. Soon, AI will launch the “Magazine Rack” which will promote the forthcoming interviews in magazines, which could even help drive readers to the hard copies.

In January, I had an excellent meeting with Leigh Aspin, head of interactive at BBC Radio 4, and he wants its entire interviews inventory to be automatically linked on AI. This will be a phenomenal step forward. I have had similar chats with the people at Sky and ITV.

Community

All this adds up to a bigger and more interesting website. One of my main hopes is for AI to become a journalists’ community site, and already many journos upload their back catalogue because they see the benefit in having their portfolio of work from many titles in one place.

Pretty much my entire journalistic career has revolved around interviewing. I believe that the interview is the essential piece of content that unifies all media genres and all readers, users, or viewers. Everyone is interested in someone. I think the interview will become ever-more vital to the media during the digital age.

I hope to see a day in the future when AI is the all-powerful central search hub for the world’s interviews. Every journalist, newspaper, magazine, TV and radio station will automatically link their latest exclusives to us so they can reach our global audience and enjoy a share of our advertising revenue.

Around about this time, I will bump into an old journalist pal who will ask me how the heck I managed to make any money out of AccessInterviews.com. I will look at him through my pebble lens glasses and say: “Well, it all came good. Thank ****.”

And I won’t be the only one with that feeling of monumental relief.

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