Friday, May 07, 2010

So You Want To Start Your Own Collecting Site

Here's something I mentioned briefly on my Twitter page back in February. I only touched on it briefly (140-character limit, and all), but as the trend continues, I've decided to expand on the idea a bit without such pesky restrictions.

Here's what I wrote:
1. A lot of people are "graduating" from posting on message boards to launching their own "fan" sites these days.
2. Participating on a forum doesn't prepare you for creating a decent site. You need at least one of two things to deliver anything worthwhile.
3. The first thing is a consistent source of insider info, and that's something you don't get by having a few thousands posts on another site.
4. The second thing is the ability to write well, and most of these new "webmasters" are seriously lacking in that department.
5. No one wants to go to yet another site for commentary written by some functionally illiterate goon with nothing original to say.
6. If they did, these "webmasters" wouldn't have to keep spamming forum threads with links to their new sites.

Before I continue, I'm not suggesting that anyone look to my site for an example of how to do things. This is my personal site, dedicated to my own collection. Sure, I have some tips and tricks for other collectors, and I write about topical issues on this blog from time to time, but this isn't a news or review site. Its primary function is to serve as a place where I can showcase my collection online, even though the galleries are hopelessly outdated. But because this is just my personal site, I can take my sweet time with updates, as it's more for me than for any kind of audience. In fact, that's one of the reasons why I've avoided getting heavily involved with that kind of site, because my free time is often too limited to devote the necessary attention to such an endeavor. I sincerely appreciate those who do so much to provide the rest of us with fresh information, and I'm sure you do, too. It takes a hell of a commitment to do that consistently.

I have, however, contributed to "fan" and "news" sites in different capacities. I've helped with news updates, redesigned established sites, and built sites from scratch. I've also written content for a few sites, going back almost a decade. In addition to all that hobby stuff, I've designed and written copy for literally hundreds of sites professionally. I wouldn't include all of them in a portfolio, but they were what I was paid to do. My point is that I know what makes for a quality web site, and I know all too well what does not.

Action figure web sites are a dime a dozen. Where there were relatively few of them ten years ago, the interweb is littered with them now. Plenty of decent ones attract only modest traffic, but you've decided this series of tubes needs another one.

It needs your site.

You've been posting on toy forums for several years now, shared photos of your collection, and interacted with webmasters and other collectors. Now you want to move on from just being a message board member to having your own playground. But why? What are you going to bring to the table? Do you believe you can do it better than those who are already covering this stuff? What can you offer that will make me want to visit your site?

If you haven't thought that far ahead, these are some things you'll need to get started.

  1. Insider info: Everything else on the list is secondary if you can cover this one. Are you tight with employees who work for the big manufacturers, people who can and (more importantly) will share knowledge and images with you? You know, the kind of stuff that no other sites have gotten their hands on yet? The most likely answer to this question is no. The action figure collecting hobby, right down to the smallest niche, already has more Drudge-style aggregate sites than it needs. Besides, the forums themselves are sufficient for that sort of thing. If you're just repeating news stories you got from other sources, that's not really news. It's redundancy. That's not to say you should never post something as "news" if another site got to it first, but if that's all you're doing, you're just taking up cyberspace.

  2. Competent writing: This is where so many wannabes fail. Remember #1? If you don't have the connections necessary to make that a reality, this is crucial. I can do my best to ignore the ramblings of the functionally illiterate if they provide me with images and intel that no one else has. If your site is just like several others, though, forget about it. If you write poorly, I won't be checking back to see what you have to say, and you might be surprised by just how many people feel the same way. I'm not saying you have to be Ralph Ellison; you don't even have to be some kind of grammar Nazi. You do, however, need to be capable of writing coherent prose that is not replete with thoughtless errors one might expect from a third-grader. Do you know how to properly use were, wear, and where? What about their, they're, and there? It's and its? If you don't, you have no business publishing your words on the internet. That doesn't mean you can't have a site, but if you want to have one that's up to snuff, you damn well better partner up with a good writer (or several).

    In addition to having adequate command of the language, you should possess the ability to craft what you have to say into an interesting and entertaining read. You might take fantastic photos, but images aren't the sole ingredient responsible for making any of the most popular action figure review sites a hit with collectors. The ability of the reviewers to capture visitors' attention with their words is just as important. If you produce several paragraphs of flat, monotonous text, your readers won't be your readers for long.

  3. Photoshop skills: There are plenty of software packages available today that have made a grasp of HTML optional for potential webmasters, but that software won't design your logos and banners. This element of starting a web site really speaks for itself. If your site comes out looking like it was designed in the '90s, check out some online tutorials or find someone who will be willing to help you.

  4. A decent camera: If you're going to showcase pictures of toys, nothing will send people scrambling for their back button faster than grainy, out-of-focus photos. Make sure your camera has a macro setting, and invest a few bucks into lights that won't result in overly yellow pictures.

  5. Unique content: We're back to a question I asked earlier: What are you going to bring to the table? What makes your site different than all the others? What are you doing or saying that others aren't? The idea needs to come before the execution. All the pretty design and slick photography in the world won't do you a damn bit of good if you're not doing something to stand out from the crowd. Plenty of web sites already post news in the form of press releases, feature reviews of recently released toys, and offer commentary on products and the hobby in general. Come up with a plan to distinguish your new site from everyone who came before you. One of the ways to accomplish this was covered in the second part of this list. If you're reviewing the same figure as someone on another site, but you can write a better, more entertaining piece on it, that's a start. And if you're an incredibly talented customizer like Casimir, then you don't need to mess around with news or reviews, because you already have something special.

  6. An actual site before you start promoting it: If you link me to an "under construction" page or one of those Go Daddy pages you get when you first register a domain name, good luck ever getting me back to the site.

  7. SEO: Answer these two questions. First, do you want to get any organic traffic to your site? And by organic traffic, I mean people finding and arriving at your site in the course of their normal browsing activities, not through paid links (which you won't spend money to use, anyway). Yes? Okay, here's your second question. Do you know what search engine optimization is and how to implement it? If you don't, you need to learn. A great site will languish in obscurity if no one can find it. Some people will swear up and down that SEO is, "cheating," but that's only because they don't know how to do it. I'm not saying you need to make your site all spammy, but you should definitely get familiar with linking structures and how to use anchor text to your advantage. The basics, which are all you'll need for something like this, aren't that difficult. I did it professionally for two years without any formal training. You don't need to enroll in a class, or anything. Just do some research on the web.

  8. Visitors over sponsors: It's one of the of the worst-kept secrets about popular toy sites, that webmasters, reviewers, and sometimes staff members get free products from online retailers who advertise on the site. Some of them get free merchandise straight from manufacturers, as well. Maybe that's why you're hoping your new site will take off, but if that's the case, you're going into it for all the wrong reasons. If that's your sole motivation, you're not likely to have much success, either.

    This advice really only applies if "community" is going to be part of your site, and it comes down to one simple rule: Don't be a dick. If you have active forums or comment sections for your posts, that's your "community." Most sites get more traffic from people who don't participate in online discussions than from people who will, but how you treat members of your "community" will make an impression on both sets of visitors. If you get to the point where an online retailer wants to advertise on your site, don't look at that as an obligation to censor anyone who criticizes the business. I'm obviously not talking about blatant trolling, but if someone has what could be construed as a legitimate complaint about a sponsor, the price for silencing that will be the trust of your readers. If a sponsor leaves, others can take its place. If your readers bail on you, I guarantee there won't be any sponsors.
There's certainly more to creating and maintaining a successful collecting site than what I've covered here, but these are areas where I see the most mistakes. Much of the negativity directed at various sites could have been avoided if the people behind them gave consideration to these points before getting started. If you do that, you'll at least have a head start.

I nearly beat that whole no-character-limit thing to death, didn't I?