Q&A with Matt Embrey, co-founder and publisher of LiveOak Media

Over the past five years, the green blogosphere has become a force to be reckoned with. And I would bet it's here to stay, because the mountain of interesting news and information about sustainability-related topics is growing every day. I had a chance to chat via telephone with Matt Embrey, the co-founder of the green blog network LiveOak Media, and he had a lot of interesting things to say about content, building readership, and navigating the turbulent internet advertising market.

Q: How did LiveOak originate?

Matt Embrey:
It's actually an ongoing story because we're still coming together right now. A friend and I started with one site, called Green Upgrader, about two years ago. We both still work full-time jobs. Right off the bat, Green Upgrader was focused more along the lines of product-based, specific upgrades for your life. It started taking off and doing really well. It was on the early-middle half, I'd say, of the green uprising on the internet. Not quite as early as Sustainablog, which has been around since 2005, or Treehugger, which came before that. Anyway, it took off and it kind of morphed into a general green living site where we were publishing all kinds of news, from posts about corporate responsibility to interesting humanitarian issues. I realized we would be better suited to have separate channels for the stuff that's a bit more focused, and bring Green Upgrader back to just products. That's when I started working with Tim Hurst, and we started this network. And we're actually still in the process of rolling out the different channels. Ecopolitology will focus on policy and politics. Earth and Industry will focus more on sustainable business. And we have two more coming down the pike--one will focus on green technology, and one will focus more on advocacy and activism. Green Upgrader will still be there. That allows us to tailor the content more towards the audience. We don't have the resources to be a Treehugger and publish 40 articles a day, so we decided to refine the message down to these specific channels, and I think that makes for a better conversation with the readers.

Q: Did you find that specific types of content on Green Upgrader were consistently more popular than others?

Certain topics did get better engagement than others. What really drove it, though, was editorial engagement. It's fine to publish an article a couple people might post, but it's a much more enriching experience when the author of that article is posing a question to the audience or at least is responding to the comments and interacting in the social media area--wherever that story has moved on to. That way the conversation continues beyond the original post and article. That led logically to having the whole publication be more of a focused conversation, instead of bouncing around from topic to topic.

Q: So you found that the posts with more editorial voice were popular with readers?

Well, there's definitely a certain flavor that people tend to like. And I think when you engage the audience, either by posing a question or talking about something that is relevant to them, as opposed to just reporting on a piece of news, it tends to do a better. You can quantify popular in a different ways. Popular could mean that it gets picked up by a lot of other sites and syndicated in different ways--popular with bloggers and journalists. Other times it's popular because it gets a lot of comments on site. And the third way it could get popular is if it gets picked up on Digg or Twitter and it permeates like that. Social media is really geared toward the activism and advocacy sort of articles. People respond really well to that type of thing.

Q: What is your strategy for building readership?

When we started out, it was all social media traffic. We spent a considerable amount of time out engaging in social media with people, submitting to Digg and responding to comments and Twittering and whatnot. I was spending more time promoting these articles than I was actually writing them. But we've refocusing our efforts on quality editorial content as opposed to the social media. Social media is great way to get your content in front of a lot of eyeballs. At the end of 2008, if you got an article that was really popular on Digg, you could have 50,000 people come to the site in one day. But what ends up happening is that only a small percentage of those visitors stick and become readers, so the conversion from those types of social media aren't really high.

Q: How does the change in philosophy affect your revenue model?

ME: Right now we are all display advertising. You can get a lot of traffic from something like Digg, but it ends up watering down the conversation on the blog. You don't have a lot of engaged people, and those are the people that tend to be more interested in clicking on sponsored links and going through. So while advertisers are paying for every time the ad shows, they are also evaluating what kind of a return they are getting. They could put their ad on a site that gets a million hits, but if none of those people that go to that site actually care, then they've wasted their money. From the business standpoint, as a publication, you want to produce quality content and keep your readers engaged in a way that, hopefully, the advertisers will also fit into it. Otherwise, they'll advertise once and they won't come back.

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