A lot of time is spent on E2 discussing how a business model would or could work with a site such as this. I've been looking at one site that seems to have found a way to make money and do something similar to what E2 does. It's called simply writing.com and I have explored it for around a month now. I'll share with you what I've learned, even though it will not be an exhaustive study by any means since I've only tinkered around the edges and not become fully immersed in their world. That would cost money. So, their business model has not worked on me. That, however, is only because I'm used to having a free playground in this arena. Let me say right up front: I think E2 should cost money. I think that is the only way it will survive. I think the only argument should be centered around "how much?"
I will begin by telling you what happened to me when I posted a handful of writeups at this for-profit writing site that is, by all measurements I can use, booming. After being posted on the site for almost a month, the five writeups I posted have had a total of 58 "views," 7 "votes," and 3 users have given me "gift points." I've received 3 private /msgs from users commenting on my posts. Just to compare that to what happens on E2 these days, my last 5 posts here have gotten a total of 189 votes, 21 cools, and (I haven't kept count, but I'd guess) around 30 private /msgs concerning the writeups in question. I have no idea how many "views" they've received, but that would be an interesting thing to know. And this is on a site (E2) that just took a full 60 seconds to reload one page in order to get this information. The servers at writing.com are lightning fast and seem to be capable of hosting several hundred users at a time. In fact, just now when I looked, there were over 1,100 registered users on-line there. So what do we learn from that block of information? I'll try to answer that, but first let me say this about submissions at writing.com: There seems to be a steady stream of new writeups at the rate of around 15 per hour. None of these are ever deleted, but editing may be suggested. Many of these writeups are poems and little snippets that would probably not survive on E2. In fact, I think it's safe to say that writing.com is much more emo than E2, and probably populated by a much different crowd. Most of the folks I've had direct contact with on that site seem to be what you'd call housewives who like to fancy themselves writers. We do learn that, in comparison, E2 has a very active userbase and that a new user is likely to get more attention here than he would at the competition's site. There really is no way to put a price on that fact. Dem bones used to call this site sticky, and he was and is right.
I discovered this writing.com site in an odd way. I was going out to lunch with a friend a few weeks ago and there was an older guy in a large American-made car in front of me at a stop light with a bumper sticker that said, "I'd rather be writing" with the URL of the site below that statement. I thought, "Yeah, me too." Then I flashed back to bumper stickers advertising E2 that were popular a few years ago. I even had one on my own car at one time. It just said "E2" in a hazy yellowish type on a gray background with the URL in such a small font that no one could read it. So there is the first thing to ponder. Is it better to have a simple message that is clearly understood for your advertising materials? I'd say, "Yes." The E2 bumper sticker was no doubt more artsy-fartsy but who really knew what it meant? No one but me, I can assure you.
Writing.com is run by two folks who go by the handles TheStoryMaster and TheStoryMistress. I requested an interview with either or both of these folks, and was told (in a nice way) that they were too busy for that. But they gave me some links that are not easily found to some interviews they have done in the past as well as some articles about the site. The two met at college around 1995 and have been dating since. The Mistress is said to be the artsy-creative one, while the Master refers to himself as techy-creative. I guess you could imagine JessicaPierce and Nate, if they had happened to hook up IRL. They call themselves "a good team both on and off site." They both appear to be in their early 30s. He had owned the domain stories.com but that was used almost exclusively for interactive stories. The idea of what we'd know as individual writeups took place on writing.com when he created what he calls "static items," meaning "stand-alone pieces," as far as I can tell. The writing.com site was released in the form it's in now on September, 1, 2000, and is owned and operated by 21x20 Media, Inc. I would suspect that this is a corporation solely owned by these two folks, but I have no way of knowing if other (larger) moneyed interests are involved. Out of all the links I was given, none of them really discussed the ownership.
At one point early on, the StoryMaster changed the site from a purely free one to a paid account one. Of this, he says, "The amount of negativity I deal with on a daily basis is surprisingly lower than it used to be. The worst by far was when we limited our free accounts. It was difficult to deal with some of the cursing and name-calling, people telling me I was 'stifling their creativity and their ability to write,' that I should 'get a real job' so that they could continue to get everything for free." Big surprise there, eh?
They have around 200 moderators. None of these folks are paid, so they are almost entirely analogous to editors and admins on this site. They often run contests which would be analogous to quests here.
So where does the kicker come in: The money? You can sign up at writing.com for free. You will notice that you're inundated with ads, or as least it seems that way when you're used to an ad-free site. After you post a couple of writeups there, you're offered 30 days to view the site without ads. Of course, you can pay a subscription fee and see the site without ads from the start. However, here is the real meat of the subscription issue: You can post five writeups for free. But if you want to post a sixth, you have to subscribe.
How much do they charge? For a basic membership, it's $20 a year. But this only expands your writeup limit in what they call your portfolio from 5 items to 25 items. As of today, there are around 500 users with this type of membership. The upgraded membership is $50 a year, and this expands your portfolio to 250 items. Today, there are around 2500 users with this type membership. A premium membership is $140 a year and allows you to post up to 1000 items. There are around 400 users with this type membership. If you're adding that up, that right there is around $200,000 a year in income from memberships. There are two other, more expensive, membership options, but very few users take advantage of those. But we're already out of your price range, aren't we? There are several other features that these upgrades buy, but I am dwelling on what E2 folks would probably consider the most important: The ability to post their work.
You can vote on other users' writeups once you have an account established. It's based on a 5-star rating system. You can be awarded "gift points" which can be used to either buy merchandise on the site or you can bestow these gift points on other users for any reason you like. I would suppose it could be considered analogous to the C! on E2 when you award these gift points to other writers or receive them yourself.
So how would a business model like this look on this site? Let's imagine that it could look something like this:
You can create an account at E2 for free. You can post up to 5 writeups for free. If you wanted to post a 6th item, you'd have to pay a $20 per year membership fee. This would allow you to post an unlimited number of writeups. That's pretty simple, isn't it? And a hell of a lot more generous than what the comparison site is charging.
Since there are no ads on E2, it's hard to say what should be charged for not having to see them. I would also be interested to know how much revenue the ads generate at writing.com, compared to the membership fees. Again, no real way to get that information that I can find.
Now, let's say that the level system is changed so that you have to post 25 writeups in order to be able to vote. However, after you've posted 5 writeups and pay for a membership, you could buy the ability to vote sooner by paying an extra $10 with your subscription fee.
Let's expand this idea to say that for an extra $20 with your subscription fee, you can post a picture on your home node as well as get ten C!s to hand out. So for just an extra $20 a year, you could jump to a Level 6 power and post that home node pic. I will bet you this would pay for a lot of bandwidth right there.
So, for a flat fee of $50, you could have unlimited writeups, vote sooner than normal, post a picture on your home node, and get ten cools to give out. This fee, of course, would roll over each year and you'd have the option of just paying for the basic $20, assuming that you'd actually earned these other extras in the old-fashioned way by that time. In other words, you could always just pay the $20 yearly fee and go about your business earning these extras like you would have in the old days.
I don't really expect that any of this will be implemented, but I do stand by my original statement. If E2 is going to survive, it's going to have to improve its service to users. And the only real way to do that in the real world is to make money. Plus, have you ever noticed that you tend to take better care of things you actually have to pay for, as opposed to stuff you get for free?
UPDATE SEPT. 20, 2006:
I closed my account at writing.com since the experiment was over, and I wasn't planning on paying to post a sixth writeup there. Closing an account and removing your work was very simple and easy to do.
Let me just say that the reaction I received when this piece was first posted was a bit jarring to me. A few folks understood exactly what I was saying, but most folks seem to have missed the point entirely. This was not about "they suck, we rule" or vice versa. The point was to try and study a business model that was making enough money with a similar site to E2 so that they could:
- Afford a website that loaded pages efficiently.
- Remain in uninterrupted operation day after day, year after year.
- Pay a couple of folks to run the place with diligence.
Just so you could see a site and say to yourself, as I did, "Hmm. It can