We started the tradition of “A Letter from the Editor” in 2019. It has become one of my favorite articles to write every quarter. The reviews and content you see on STH are only 15-20% of the work involved with the site. This quarterly series is my opportunity to share a bit about why and how STH is evolving. STH will be 11 years old in less than two weeks. That means we have been at this long enough to find several things that did not work and many that do. In this STH Q2 2020 update, I wanted to focus on some of the behind-the-scenes items. As always, feedback is appreciated.
If you want to check out how this series has evolved, here are the links to the first five:
- STH Q1 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q2 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q3 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q4 2019 Update A Letter from the Editor
- STH Q1 2020 Update A Letter from the Editor
This marks the sixth installment of the series.
STH Q2 2020 Behind the Scenes
In this edition, we wanted to focus on Shelter-in-Place (SIP) impacts to STH, what is going on with these YouTube videos, a bit on the business side, as well as the 2020 quest for adding more capacity and writers.
Shelter-in-Place was a difficult one for STH. Normally, I am on an airplane once every five days or so. In the last three months, I have had five international trips canceled and several domestic trips as well. My last vendor meeting was for Hands-on with the Intel Co-Packaged Optics and Silicon Photonics Switch which was recorded in the first week of March.
Normally this travel yields trade show coverage. Trade shows help STH in a number of ways. Two examples are that generally, our trade show articles are shorter in length which helps even out effort. I did a quick survey the other week and our average article length went up by ~4x Y/Y primarily due to the coverage mix biasing towards more review content. We have been trying to cover the best we can in articles such as Facebook Introduces Next-Gen Cooper Lake Intel Xeon Platforms and the video, but it is much harder now to generate unique content.
The San Francisco Bay Area was early in the US shelter-in-place scene. As a result, while many parts of the US were still open, we had an immediate issue in March: how to take product photos. Our photo/ video studio was not in a building considered to be an “essential business” so we effectively lost useful access to the space.
As a result, I spent an afternoon running around taking down the old studio and getting a makeshift version in my home. I take photos for some of STH’s writers as well, so it is an important part of the STH workflow.
Some may not have noticed the change, but it took a long time to get this set up and usable. Due to lighting in the room where photos are being taken, this all happens after dark. During SIP, the days have gotten longer and so that practically means late-night photo/ video shoots. In the normal studio, we have space without windows, concrete floors with loading dock access, and so forth. This was a huge change to our workflow. It is also why we have a dorky picture of me as this article’s cover image. That is what we had to work with.
Where this ties together is that getting products for review has been absolutely disrupted during the shutdown. It may not seem like it, but on the backend, we have had companies say they cannot get product packed and shipped. We have had others who had people brave the lockdown to ship the product and sometimes with fun results. Twice we have received products intended for different sites.
STH has run according to a fairly precise editorial calendar for almost two years now. SIP has changed our content planning, process, workflow, and the workflow of the companies we work with. If we had not started SIP with a 60+ day pipeline of content in progress before SIP (which we are still in as I am writing this) then we would have seen major disruption. There were even some unexpected events such as the recent drive failures that largely happened do to SIP adjustments. Still, we are on track to publish more consistently than in 2019. In 2019, we did not publish on Easter. This year we had our HPE 620QSFP28 Review. Now the challenge is to keep up the pace this year which would make it the first year we published every single day.
STH on YouTube
On December 1, 2019, I set a goal of hitting 10,000 YouTube subscribers by December 31, 2020. That was based on our historical trend. Instead, we passed 10,000 on January 2, 2020. So I set a new goal for 25,000 by December 31, 2020. We passed 20,000 on May 24, 2020. As a result, it looks like 25,000 may have been too conservative as well.
I wanted to answer a few questions that have come in several times each:
- Why do you not do videos for everything? Simply put, it costs too much and we do not have the budget for it.
- Why no giveaways? This is a matter of perspective. I want our channel to grow organically, with people who are interested in what we offer. We probably give up the growth rate, but we have very high engagement. If you look, as an example, at our newsletter, we have a smaller subscriber base than some of the big newsletters but our engagement rate is very high. Smaller subscriber count, but high engagement is effectively our model for everything.
- Why do you release videos at the same time as reviews and articles? 100% this is my fault and it creates operational issues. We have had days where an article is ready and the video is not. I made a pledge to keep our YouTube and main site content synchronized. It may be better for SEO for us to release a video review before a main site article, as an example, but I do not want to publish videos without going through the work of getting hands-on with products, as an example.
- Why do videos and articles not match exactly? I know many of our readers want them to be an exact verbatim match. They will likely never be that way. My perspective is that video and written articles are two different types of content. People consume them differently (or at least I do.) Plus, I am not going to read an article on video since that will numb my mind.
- Where can I subscribe? Ok nobody actually asked this one. I made it up solely for the shameless plug to subscribe to STH on YouTube. Have to hit that 25,000 subscriber goal for 2020 somehow!
If you do not like our videos, that is OK. We still have the STH main site which is so much larger we will not be sacrificing the main site for video any time soon. My advice, just do not watch the videos. We embed them to be part of the related articles to create complete sets of content, but we are not auto-playing them because I do not like auto-play videos.
The Pickle Risk to Independent Content
Something looming on the horizon is a recession. Indeed, we are likely in one that will come out via economic data in a few quarters. Marketing budgets notoriously get cut during these periods, as do IT budgets. That is a fairly clear and present danger to a site like STH.
STH’s survival I am effectively betting on a simple principle is it a site that if I knew how “the sausage was made,” I would still read.
The coming economic contraction will have one of two impacts on the market. First, companies may decide that all they want to patronize is pure pay-to-play media and testing organizations. A typical problem in the industry is that compared to the consumer space, enterprise IT has a smaller audience. As a result, you get some editorial sites that are almost 100% pay per piece models. Some of them are great, but with that knowledge, you read differently.
IT review sites have a different set of pressures. We have actual testing labs and infrastructure that create enormous operational overheads. Most of those are paid consulting firms that focus on creating sponsored vendor content. There are a handful of well-known sites supported by back-channel consulting agreements or marketing budgets even if they are not disclosed. We are ad-based so I get a check from an agency every month that pays for our operations. I have heard from a number of vendors that the independent labs that do work for big IT vendors will charge six figures for something similar to a single STH review. Maybe our model is wrong. I have modeled it more on a Tom’s Hardware or Anandtech (without as much news) rather than traditional enterprise media/ consulting groups.
My bet is that people will still gravitate towards our style of content and vendors will continue to support us. Our effectiveness is through the roof because of the style of content we have, but we are not charging for it like other organizations. There is a non-zero chance that my desire to keep STH editorially independent is going to nip us later in 2020. That is what makes life fun.
As many of our regular readers may have noticed, Will has spun up and is creating a lot of content for us these days, including his great WD Red SMR vs CMR Tested Avoid Red SMR piece yesterday. Will even had a few segments in our latest video:
We have another writer that will be testing a new class of products for us spinning up in the next week or so, his supplies are landing in the next few days.
This is still something we need to work on, so it is time for a call to action here. Even if you do not have experience writing these pieces, we can help you get started.
STH 2020 Call for Action
Something that is extraordinarily difficult for us is onboarding new writers. You likely have noticed that my contributions to the site amounted to something like 90% of the content years ago and now I get a byline in maybe 30% of the articles we publish. That number should be lower, and I completely point the blame at myself for not doing a better job.
Here is the call to action: if you want to write for STH, drop me a note (patrick at this domain.) It is fairly hard for me to action an e-mail that says “I want to write for STH”. So I want to put some guardrails in-place that will make it easier for me to follow-up.
Please include a proposal. Let me know what subject you want to cover. How many articles are you interested in doing per month, quarter, or year. It is absolutely fine if you have a day job, want to focus on a subject, and want to do a single post or four a year. Likewise, if you do not want to review products, but you want to do a series of guides once per week so that you can beef up your LinkedIn profile’s publication section, that is great as well. In the proposal, please also include some sense of format and length.
If you are great technically and are concerned about your writing, STH can help edit so do not worry on that front. Also if you are concerned because you think what you want to write about overlaps with what someone on STH already does, feel free to make the proposal anyway. As an example, we will likely need to add someone on the networking team in 2020 because Rohit will become overloaded.
In 2019 we had someone offer to write articles for $250,000/ year at a rate of 1 per week. We cannot support that model. For some context, other websites that do a lot of news posts pay between $8-20 per post. Our content is more in-depth, but as you can imagine, we have budget constraints. Most of our writers are doing this as a freelance passion rather than a primary career.
Please get detailed in your proposal. My hope with the above is twofold. First, it will help me tremendously in evaluating proposals and responding to them. Second, it will help you figure out if you can follow-through on this. If you cannot complete a proposal outlined above, then it will likely be difficult for you to follow-through on writing. As we have had folks ask to write for STH, we have seen a sub-50% success rate in getting the first pieces completed.
Notice for California readers: California passed AB5 this year. In that bill, there is a limit for California freelance writers that they can only submit 35 articles for publication a year and still be considered independent contractors rather than employees. For those who have not heard of AB5, that does mean that if a news writer spends 30 minutes per piece, they become an employee with under 18 hours of work per year. If you are based out of California, the answer to the frequency should be under 35 per year.
As always, I want to extend a big thank you to our readers, our team, and our partners for continuing to make STH grow.
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Did you know STH has a weekly newsletter that comes out Saturday with a curated “Top 5” pieces from the week? We know you cannot visit every day, so we can deliver our picks for weekend reading directly to your inbox. Subscribing to the newsletter is easy. Here is the form.
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