There's no good motorcycle content anymore. That's a) partially my fault b) a damn shame and c) a great opportunity for an enterprising enthusiast. Here's how to do it, do it right and make money doing it.
Just so everyone's on the same page: I have zero interest in ever again writing about motorcycles full time. Bikes are fun and all, but being the World's #1 Dog Camping Journalist is even funner. Man, it'd be nice to read about bikes sometime though.
I bounced this piece of fellow cranky old writer Sam Smith, just to make sure I wasn't totally off base. He told me to include the following three points:
Why bike journalism matters: Because motorcycles are awesome. Because we care about them. Because they deserve a larger place in the world and because more people should ride them. And because they're hard to get into and most people go about it all wrong, then get scared off instead of becoming life-long riders. Because riding a motorcycle means freedom and sticking it to the man and extending a middle finger in the face of people who say you shouldn't or can't.
Why It currently sucks: Because no one is even trying. Bonnier bought all the magazines, then just made them feel even more identical and even more like advertorial. Because a press release is not an article. Because no one's figured out how to make money doing it. Because the big brands are scared. Because no one's taking chances.
I'm definitely going to piss off my friends who write about bikes by writing this article. To them, I simply ask: Are you proud of your work? Are you doing the best you can? The best you could if your company actually backed you? Be honest.
What I miss reading: A review that really tells me what it's like to ride a new bike. Or one that feels free to tear it apart. And one that gets it right when it does. Amazing first person, life confirming adventures. Substantial insight into how new technology works. The real life stories of the crazy, awesome people who make crazy, awesome bikes. Stuff with attitude, articles with intelligence, content that really draws you in and really demonstrates how great riding bikes really is.
Yesterday afternoon, I sat down, opened a beer and my computer and just really wanted to spend an hour or so getting lost and learning something new about motorcycles. Maybe a really in depth review of the new H2R or an interview with the guy who designed it for Kawasaki. Maybe a story about doing something utterly insane with it. But, despite the big budget launch that just took place, there just wasn't any of that. Just some lame first rides in which various ex-racers competed to gobble the Kawasaki's knob with hackneyed metaphors. That's not just a shame, it's a real problem. If no one cares enough to make motorcycles interesting, then who's going to be interested in them?
So, I'm going to make this easy for you.
At the risk of sounding like too much of a Gawker cheerleader, I'm going to suggest you start your budding bike blog right here on Kinja. Over other easy publishing platforms, it's almost too simple, it's totally free and it will make your content easy to share across the main Gawker sites like Gizmodo and Jalopnik.
There is no more powerful traffic referral out there than that achieved by getting a story on the front page of a Gawker site. Not Reddit or Digg or Twitter or Facebook or anything, but you can still use those too. Eight years ago, I launched a business on that premise and it's Gawker's traffic that was the main reason I was able to grow it into the most widely read motorcycle website only a handful of years later.
You could, of course, go through all the trouble of building your own website on Wordpress or something, then hope Jalopnik re-blogs the occasional story. Doing that will cost you money though and will never put the same number of eyeballs on your own stuff as them putting your stuff right on their front page will.
If you're business minded, you're probably spotting one big flaw here: by doing this on Kinja you're giving up the ability to sell your own display advertising. I wouldn't worry too much about that, there's extremely, extremely, extremely little money to be made from selling ads in the bike space and there's more effective ways to make more money more easily. But, we'll go into that below.
Right now, you should be worried about growing an audience. And that audience exists right here. A breakout, major scoop, most popular story of the year on a motorcycle site will be lucky to get more than 10,000 page views. Here's some incoherent ramblings easily netting 100k+ here in the Gawkerverse. Yes, you really do have an opportunity to be more relevant than everything that exists currently in the motorcycle space.
If you make compelling, interesting, unique, original content, they will come. There's no point in copying what else is out there or even using it as a model for what's possible. Not only is there a serious dearth of quality in motorcycle content right now, but as an upstart, you're not going to have the same access as all the lazy old men who write bike reviews. That's ok, it just means you need to work harder and, you know, actually be creative.
News: You should aim to break every news story. No one else is putting in the effort to do so, which is all it really takes — hard work. This is going to be both your low hanging fruit and your biggest driver of traffic.
To do it, you should seek to develop a comprehensive, multi-language RSS feed of all the editorial motorcycle sites out there. Do the same for the bigger forums, again making sure to include markets like Thailand, Germany, Italy, and the UK, where bikes are both a larger part of the overall culture and where they're produced, designed and sold in large numbers. Create google alerts for important new models, under all the logical permutations of their potential names. Identify major influencers and subjects on Twitter and create columns for them on Tweetdeck. Identify the big, influential Facebook groups around motorcycles, across the world, and check in with them daily. The general idea is to create your own spider web that's capable of capturing all information around motorcycling as it falls through the Internet. Spend time doing it and continually mining it and you'll own motorcycle news.
And owning the news is sort of a self fulfilling prophecy. Be seen to be the place where news is broken and be the site that people want to read and people will send you scoops. There was never any subterfuge or intrigue involved in gaining any of my sources, people that work at motorcycle companies are motorcycle enthusiasts and just liked my work and wanted to help out.
Look at news as more than just new bikes. You should also be covering tech innovations, exciting new gear, shake ups in the world (Audi's Ducati purchase for instance), political stuff and just anything that's interesting and ongoing around motorcycles. Then go deeper.
Reviews: You're not going to have access to test bikes not only to start with, but for quite a while. Likely years and years. The manufacturers are all staffed by people who are either ignorant of the media space, scared to take risks, or more typically both. And, the only press fleets are in SoCal, so if you live literally anywhere else, you might as well give up on the idea of testing mainstream motorcycles ever. There's also nothing worse than a badly written, amateur hour bike review that lacks perspective and insight. Writing a professional review takes perspective and expertise. Both exist in the space right now, but not paired with talented writing and the freedom to tell the truth. That's sad, but there's not going to be much you can do about it to start.
Where the opportunity here lies is to tell first person stories around interesting, unique bikes. Why hasn't anyone flown down to New Orleans yet to take JT's bonkers Bienville Legacy for a spin? Do that, take some awesome photos. Get drunk with JT after and come back with an awesome story. I did that with one of his previous bikes back when I was getting started in this world and it remains one of the best stories I've ever told, even if I did get sued over it.
Do the same with a friend's oddball classic bike and tell us what it's like from the perspective of 2015. Find custom builders near you and do the same with their work. Try and get some seat time on a famous race bike. The opportunity here is to tell great stories about interesting bikes, not to try and compete with CycleWorld for launch access.
Technology: You know what's interesting about bikes? All the stuff that makes them work. Which, by the way, is totally changing as we speak. So tell us about it. Call up the engineers designing the stuff and ask them questions. Get access to their sketches and ideas and diagrams and test procedures. Explain what makes it great, explain how it works and explain who it's going to change the bikes we ride and the ways we ride them.
Personalities: Motorcycling may not be a terribly lucrative world right now, but it sure is an interesting one. You will have no dearth of crazy people to talk to and you'll find access to them fairly easy. Email Pierre Terblanche and ask him what the hell he's doing at Royal Enfield, a company that hasn't designed a new bike in 50 years. I bet he'll respond to that email and I bet he'll tell you exactly what he's planning.
Features: You can do some neat stuff on a motorcycle. Go do it and tell us about it. Seek out people who have done their own neat stuff and tell us their stories too. Go places, do things and take good photos along the way. Not only will this be good content, but it'll inform your growing knowledge of the world and help shape your budding expertise and perspective.
Racing: Don't bother, no one cares. And modern racers are perhaps the least interesting people in the entire world.
In general, you should seek to make motorcycle content that's interesting to a wide audience. Yes, geek out on them, yes treat your audience with respect as the smart, knowledgeable people they are, but don't chase only the audience you see on bike forums or on existing motorcycle sites; that's simply a very, very small group. The wider world is interested in bikes, it's your opportunity to fulfill that interest with interesting content.
And please don't just copy someone else's work. There's way too much plagiarism in bikes, something that results in a swirling descent into poorly-informed, badly made, toilet-worthy bike content.
Make something you can be proud of, without caveats.
There's no money in display advertising in the motorcycle space. You could spend three or four years chasing manufacturers, then eventually net yourself what they'll call a "trial buy" which is really just a check for $5k for a solid month's advertising, an amount that's a total insult and which will never increase. Or, you could join an ad network, but those will only pay you a $1-2 CPM rate by the time it's all said and done; you're effectively just making someone else money.
As an indication of how little money is spent on ads in this world, everyone seems to be aping the BikeEXIF tiny little ads thing nowadays. Those are typically sold at $50-200/month depending on the site we're talking about; an amount that even in volumes of 8 to10 spaces just doesn't merit even the minimal effort these require.
Your best bet to earn real money, do so from day one and without having to spend all your time trying to sell ad space is going to be affiliate. Amazon will pay you 3-5% of any purchase made after following a link from your site to theirs (even if you're writing about a helmet and your reader ends up buying a box of crayons). With real traffic, that's potentially real income, all without having to put on a tie and go to sales meetings or promising to write nice things about someone's shitty bikes or products.
That's the great thing about an affiliate model, it gives you the freedom to work for your readers. If you're seen to be transparently testing and recommending stuff in their interest, then they'll trust you and buy the stuff you recommend as a result. It's an ideal arrangement between outlet and reader; foster trust and profit from it.
Kinja is a great platform to run affiliate from, as an independent publisher. It's easy to seamlessly include the links and the potential for real traffic creates potential for real profit. There's no reason you can't do the same on a different platform, but again, doing so would just be adding unnecessary complication and barriers.
You'll need to be covering products that are available for sale online, of course, but riding gear, tools and all that stuff can fit seamlessly into a larger editorial view of the motorcycle world. It just so happens that Amazon's next big conquest is going to be motorcycle gear and their inventory of it will be increasing dramatically this year, so that's good timing for you.
RevZilla also operates an affiliate program that's very beneficial to independent publishers. It's an invite-only thing, but if you're making an awesome bike site, I'll bet they'll want to work with you. Doing so will be more profitable than just working with Amazon and you'll be informing readers about products sold by the company they want to buy them from.
How much you're able to make obviously depends on how well you're able to accrue eyeballs, your ability to retain them and how well you're able to integrate affiliate into your larger editorial picture. That'll take some trial and error and some experimentation, but it'd be reasonable to expect to be earning $2,000-$5,000/month from it within your first year.
The overall traffic potential in motorcycles isn't super great, sadly. But even with an audience of, say 500,000 uniques (a reasonable goal), you could get your affiliate earnings over $10k/month. And at that point you could make this a full time job.
If you're able to do that, you won't need my advice anymore. But, allow me to give you one last recommendation: Don't sell out. If you are able to beat the odds and make a successful, standout publication then other entities will come courting. Take it from me, you are better on your own than you are with a boss or a business "partner."
I've probably managed to piss off a lot of people by this point. So, let me close on a positive note. If you accept this challenge, if you sit down and start making great motorcycle content, then I will put my money where my mouth is and help you. Impress me and I will open my Rolodex to you, make introductions on your behalf, answer your questions and maybe even write you the occasional article that's rude, insulting, disrespectful, but also totally accurate and something that needs to be said. And I'll do that for free.
So who's going to do it? Who's going to write something about motorcycles that's actually worth reading?
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.