Awesome TCG Blog Business Models (and How Not To Fuck Up)

So you’ve started a blog and have been updating it faithfully. You have a nice little following of regular readers, your twitter account is full of interactions, and you find yourself enjoying the whole process. Now what?

Now you have to answer the hard questions like:

“What the hell am I going to do with this thing?”
“How do I justify spending all this time working on a hobby site?”
“Do I want to start letting other writers in on this?”
“How do I make some money?”

The last one almost certainly drives the rest.

Fellow part-time troll Josh Silvestri pointed out a couple of things that rang very true while we were chatting about blogs and new websites in general. The first is that most blogs, regardless of their subject, die quickly unless they start making money. The second cogent point he made was that most blogs have content that is simply worse than what you would get on the major websites. If it wasn’t worse, the websites would snatch that person up and pay them. The lesson? Money ends up being important one way or another.

This is why you need to decide on a business plan for your site, and you need to do so early. Without a plan, you’ll just flop around for a while, eventually run out of air, and your site will probably die. With a business plan, you at least have a chance to succeed and do cool things.

Potential Paths
1) The Store Front
Assuming you are running a blog that you want to turn into a full-fledged website about a trading card game, you have a few different revenue streams you can tap in to. The first one is the obvious one where you act as the front end for a store (old StarCityGames.com is the classic example, places like ChannelFireBall.com and GatheringMagic.com – now owned by CoolStuffInc – are the current ones). You generate daily content for a website, which in turn is tied to a store front that sells things (like games and cards). The traffic from your clicks then drives traffic to the store, which then (presumably) results in increased sales for the store itself.

This is by far the easiest way to get a revenue engine running behind your website but it takes knowing a store or building that relationship, AND (very importantly) it cedes some of the control to the people with the purse strings. There are plenty of small vendors out there who might be interested in this type of relationship, but they need to be willing to spend money on marketing (which is what your website will be doing) to help increase their sales volume. Meanwhile, YOU, as the person who developed this whole thing in the first place need to make sure that you a) don’t lose control of your baby and b) get paid in the end for success you help generate.

2) Ad Revenue
This is far more hit or miss than tying yourself to a store, but it allows you to keep your freedom. On the other hand, your budget and livelihood lives or dies based on your ability to generate vast amounts of hits. What’s interesting about our demographic is that most of us could reliably pick out ads that would succeed with them ahead of time, which means you could end up with some pretty decent per click/per serve rates, but finding that type of ad service is tough. My view is that all the media sites should have some sort of ads running on their site (but DEAR GOD DON’T HAVE SOUND AUTO ON) to help offset hosting costs and the like, or in the case of the bigger sites, to help them pay their talent and create quality content.

All of that is cart before the horse though. Generate lots of hits on a consistent basis and you can spend time figuring out the rest. Even when you do this, don’t expect to earn a ton of money from it – internet advertising is a much lower revenue model than being a store front unless your site is absolutely huge.

3) Merchandise Revenue
This is a more classic internet revenue stream that rarely seems to get applied to MTG sites. Basically it involves selling T-shirts, mugs, playmats, sleeves, stickers, whatever – stuff that would appeal to your customer base that you can make a percentage on. If you or your staff are particularly creative (like @griffnvalentine), you can do some very cool things with this. However, it involves extra work beyond just what is on your media site, requires finding a vendor you like that can work within a price structure, and possibly some investment in stock as well.

In short, it’s complicated.

4) Subscriptions
This one is also complicated and is really a next-level play. The problem here is that you need to have a thriving website before you can really consider adding a paywall/subscription model. Said a different way, you need to have interesting content people would be willing to pay for.  Additionally, by adding this revenue stream to your website, you will take a PR hit, so your site needs to be at such a point that it can take this hit and keep chugging along.

Star City wasn’t the first site to add a paywall to their content, old Brainburst was (read: TCGPlayer.com) around 2003 or so. For those of you playing the home game, that means pay Magic sites have been around for eight years already. Oddly enough, since that time only QuietSpeculation.com has decided join the painwall wagon (TCGP actually ended theirs at one point and never put it back, though some of their old content is bafflingly pay locked). I don’t know what things look like behind the scenes at Quiet Spec, but I was dumbstruck when I found out they had a paywall. Maybe it works for them because of their niche (financial market plus smennendian blathering), but I’d almost certainly want to be bigger than that before I took a site pay.

I do have to say, considering they have been a proven success for eight years, I am shocked more sites aren’t using paywalls. You have to have something readers want to pay for in the first place, but given the size of the Magic audience these days, that’s not nearly as hard as it used to be. As Aaron Forsythe used to say, “Tech certainly does not want to be free.” Nearly a decade of experience tells us that when it comes to articles, that is certainly true.

5) Top8Magic.com
Technically this could be filed under merchandise, but it feels like these guys deserve their own mention. They basically invented MTG podcasting, and reinvented MTG writing in book form. However, their site just kind of exists – updates are irregular and really just an excuse to get together and talk about Magic. Once a year or so, they let you know there’s a new product you might be interested in and that’s about it. It’s a very unusual spot to be in, but they’ve been around for years, and while they occasionally sell merch, they seem to do it mostly out of love and have been successful.

As usual, not everything fits neat into one analytical box.

Next Steps
Once you have some idea of what your business model will be, you can start fleshing out your expectations for the site. If you’re a storefront, then you need to provide some of what the store owner wants (and they likely want to sell cards). If you run on an advertising model, then you need to be serious about exploiting ideas that generate tons of hits on a regular basis. (In reality, you probably want to do this as a store front as well.) If you want to focus on merch, you can use your website to poll readers for feedback regarding potentially interesting products.

More than anything, you need to figure out what you need from writers (or in this day of mixed media, “content producers”).  What kind of site are you? Do you want to do a little of everything like Gatheringmagic.com? Do you want to be mostly tech like SCG/CFB/TCGP? Do you want to go niche and do Legacy/Cube/Finance/Canada? Even if you don’t want to lock yourself in to a specific path, you should have a general idea of what to emphasize to make recruiting talent easier.

In order to keep readers coming to your site regularly, you need good updates at least three days a week. Five is one level better than this, and two-per-day five days a week is really the sweet spot. That’s way too much content for one person to create and still be interesting, so you’ll need to recruit and groom a team of writers that you can rely on. To help with this, you might also be interested in running a weekly content contest. These typically only cost 25$ or so, but this small outlay can result in a massive amount of content generation (at which point your editorial staff becomes the bottleneck).

You need to accept that the best of these writers will eventually leave for higher-paying pastures. If they get an offer of double what you can pay them per article, they certainly should. However, if you maintain good relations with them, you can ask for favors from time to time. (Example : “Hey Bob, I know you are busy with your work at writerstealers.com, but how would you like to do some Drafts for us once a month?” Or “Any time you want to write an issues article and need a platform, let me know.” It doesn’t always work, but there is no harm in asking.)

Since I have done this type of thing a couple of times before, I have a pretty good idea of what can be done within a particular set of budget constraints. If I were starting off on my own, once I got the website work sorted, I could start and run a pretty solid website for $100/week ($5200/year). It would take a ton of personal grunt work and I’d need to produce strong content of my own as well as editing everyone else’s, but with a strong leader who can recruit, you could certainly create a contender in a year or two. The real cost here though is the opportunity cost of my time (which for me is massive, but for a college student is much smaller) plus whatever my outlays are for writer costs and hosting, etc.

At $500/week ($26,000/year), I could create a site to rival anyone except SCG/CFB (who are problematic because they have multiple revenue streams that presumably lead to an enormous potential budget, which they would then use to steal all my best writers) in about two years. You would need to be extremely strict with your writer budget and absolutely bust ass recruiting and editing on your own, but that level of money would allow you to approach the best sites out there. On the other hand, fifty dimes is a lot of money, the work load we’re talking about is beyond a full-time job, and there’s nothing in that budget that accounts for paying YOU. Additionally, at the end of that time, you’d need to be absolutely sure you were profitable going forward or you’d need to fold the whole thing as a failed experiment.

The thing to remember here, is that the Magic community is smart and massive, and they will do a surprising amount of work for relatively minimal compensation if the other benefits make it worthwhile for them. If you manage to create a site with a thriving, interactive readership that gets writers a bunch of hits and exposure, it’s very likely a great place to be. This is especially true if you are an unknown looking to make a name for yourself and the site you are looking at has a good reputation for grooming talent into popular writers. In short, never ever underestimate what the Magic community can do with proper encouragement.

Mail Time!
This is perhaps more of an introduction than a comprehensive look at what you can do with a Magic website. My next piece directly addressing this topic (and others) will be a reader mailbag. If you have thoughts about anything you’ve seen on here in the last two weeks or questions you want my feedback on, pop them into the comments section below and I’ll write about them soon.

Cheers,
–CardGame

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12 responses to “Awesome TCG Blog Business Models (and How Not To Fuck Up)

  1. This should be required reading for anyone starting a Magic-related blog. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying all your recent posts and this one is jam packed with information I haven’t seen anyone else cover. Great read!

  2. When classifying Magic players, ‘casual’ is a consistent term thrown around (among several others). How do you define casual and does that distinction impact how sites and writers should approach the masses? Is there any hierarchy of content and where does casual fit in the mix alongside the usual competitive content?

  3. What do you need to do differently to attract hits to a site structured for Casual players than you would for competative players?

  4. “most blogs have content that is simply worse than what you would get on the major websites.” Agreed. This is why I tend to focus on blogs that target smaller niche markets. It is more likely the articles there are not something the major sites want, thus they can be better stuff.

    Looking forward to following this series of articles. Nice to see that we are already following some of your suggestions (and should be able to implement others).

  5. Love what you’re doing with this blog Ted. This is a great post for where I’m at with mtgalters.com just struggling to find the time to update/develop the site. If you have a chance, check it out and give me some feedback!

    Cheers,

    Jeremy

  6. Hey Ted,

    I’d love to see lists from you. I dug the Top 5 Current Writers. I’d love to see Top 5 lists even if they were just names and no elaboration and as bonuses for your other entries.

    Example: Whole post dedicated to “Top 5 Best Writers EVER” or “Top 5 Pro Tours” or something like that. Or just random Top 5 favorite comic books or TV shows/music of the week or something like that. I enjoyed when Aten or Sanchez would have those at the end of their articles.

    Please keep up the good work and the writing. I loved your writing back at SCG in the old days, and I’m glad to see you back.

    -Andy

  7. People are always surprised when a smaller site like mine (Quiet Speculation) has a pay wall, when in fact it’s probably the best model for our size and readership.

    1) Readers choose involvement level.

    2) Flexible rewards – I can reward readers for taking specific actions without giving away a product.

    3) Legitimacy – People wouldn’t pay us if we weren’t good. We get the best feedback from people who pay us money, period.

    4) Aesthetics – I consider my site one of the best-looking TCG sites on the internet, and that’s because we spent weeks on the layout and we don’t run ads. When we do, they’re specific to a product we created or some special promotion going on, and they’re never imposing on our content.

    Ads are hideous, take your content out of your own hands, and only start paying REAL money when your traffic gets quite large.

    Pairing with a retail store is a nice bootstrap option, but it would hurt the credibility of a -new- financial site to be partnered with a specific store. At our current evolution, i think we could be trusted to pair up with a good store, but I’d like to stay independent as long as possible.

    Frankly, starting an MTG site becuase you want to monetize it is a horrifically bad idea. I’ve been running QS for two years now and it’s a massive time sink. I choose to reinvest the money we make to grow the site, rather than take a fat paycheck, and that’s how you have to be when you run a site.

    Now, if someone wanted to BUY us….that’s a different story entirely. But don’t write because you want the money. There’re easier ways to make more cash.

    • If you want to write because you want money, then get a paid writing gig. However, if you are creating a website you need to sort through all the end game questions about business model or you are virtually guaranteed to fade away into Bolivian.

  8. TCG Player has a pay wall… for the automated drafting bots.

    Want to talk about a golden opportunity just floating around? Total number of bot drafts so far -> 3,425,590

    If only someone had a way of doing it better and wrote an article laying out the overall product specs as well as the internal DB structure necessary for supporting it…

  9. Ted,

    There is one other option that is both Aesthetically pleasing and does not interfere with Ads/Subscriptions. That is hooking up with the TCGplayer Price API:

    http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/mtg-card-links/
    http://magiccards.info/wwk/en/31.html

    And there are also direct API’s for Forums, Phone Apps and websites not WordPress related.

    This allows a Blog to “add on a card database” with no development needed, and also have pricing data accessible to them for their use in any way they see fit. And of course we pay a nice commission fee for all referred sales.

    Chedy

    • The card popups are great, but they are only available if you are running your site on your own servers. WordPress.com will not allow the formatting changes necessary to add the application.

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