In this interview, we talk to Ian Logue, Owner of PatsFans.com. Ian has built a community of passionate New England Patriots fans that use his site for the latest updates on news, players and game stats as well as talk with other fans on his message boards and forums.
CH: Hi, Ian. I’ve been looking forward to this interview. Thanks for meeting today, and thanks ahead of time for being our featured AMA guest on February 8. So let’s start. You’ve been building PatsFans.com since way back in 2001. What were your goals when you started the site?
IL: The goal was just to have a place to gather with other fans to talk about the team. I actually started a small site back in 1997 and got lucky because I built a pretty loyal following, which was pretty cool considering how new the internet was back then. But the crazy thing was, I was fortunate to get noticed by the right people and it lead to an opportunity to cover the team for a dot-com startup sports site for several seasons, which I did on my days off from my normal job. I did that for several seasons and it was an amazing experience.
Fortunately, I caught wind that the company was shutting down and started thinking about the community we had built and potentially losing contact with all those people. Coupled with that was the fact the Patriots were coming off of a year in 2000 where they had gone 5-11. So it was kind of a bummer both in the sense that the company that I was working with went away, and it was a rough season for the Patriots. But I wanted to try and keep everyone together and keep things going, so I decided to start PatsFans.com.
I spent several months after the season ended and they shut down building everything and putting it all together and got it all done before training camp. Looking back on the months leading up to the 2001 season, I had no idea that was going to be such a crazy year and it still amazes me how things evolved and turned out the way they did. From there, the Patriots started winning and the website kind of picked up and grew from that point. I mean, obviously winning three championships in four seasons helped kind of get things jump-started, which definitely made a difference.
But the goal at the time was to simply have one place where Patriot fans could be together and we could talk football, it just kind of grew from there.
CH: What were some of the challenges you had starting out and how did you overcome them?
IL: The internet in general back then was a lot different than it was now. You didn’t have the advantage of Facebook or Twitter or any of those social networks help get things started and get the word out. My original site was literally like being in a corner of the internet that no one knew about and it took a lot of work to get people to find it. Everything had to happen organically. Honestly, it just took a lot of effort. I worked with a friend I knew online to re-create the board, and from there I had to build the rest of the site from scratch, which was tough. Back then there were no Content Management Systems like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, etc., so I literally bought a couple of PHP books and just read them and built it on the fly. Once I got it up and running, we just went to it. We tried to write, update, put in content each day and make sure that we always had fresh information. We had spread the word on the old site about where we were going to be, and the moderators I had were on our new board having discussions and keeping the conversations going. Because of the success of that season, people got excited and as the year went on, that certainly helped the site from that standpoint.
CH: Yeah. There’s a very passionate audience that you were trying to connect with.
IL: Definitely, and it’s a terrific community. I never expected to have as many people as we do, but we caught lightning in bottle in terms of our start just because it was the start of what’s been an incredible era. No one ever saw this coming.
CH: Yeah, that’s when Brady came in – 2000.
IL: Yeah, that’s exactly when that happened. Then a year later when everything happened and I started the site, Drew Bledsoe went down and the rest, as they say, is history.
CH: I’ve looked at your forum and it’s super active. Forums can be a gem if there is a high level of engagement. They can also be just hard to get inspired beyond questions for support or comments voicing frustration. However, the patsfans.com audience is very active. How do you generate so much discussion and are you actively involved, or is that more of a hands off approach?
IL: It took a lot of effort and when I started it, and I was certainly a lot younger. It was almost 20 years ago now! Back then I was in my 20s and I had more energy and more time. Now I’m almost 40…well, I’m a little over 40 actually. I was probably more active then because my family responsibilities were different. But I think most of the credit really goes to the group of people who have helped moderate the forum. We also have a lot of people who have been members for a long time, many of which are from those first couple of years. It’s a pretty tight-knit group. I’ve limited the registrations in terms of who we let in and anybody that’s disruptive or hurts the community in general, they don’t tend to last.
The goal is to have a good group of people that enjoy coming each day to have discussions, and try to keep out a lot of the problems that some other forums have and keep those to a minimum. And it’s funny, too, because we’ve certainly seen a lot forums come and go over the years. I mean even the major outlets, the official team sites, and a lot of the newspapers chose to get away from forums because it really does take a lot of work and commitment. Honestly, I think unless you really care about the people who visit each day, you’ll never be able to build a community and I think that’s the difference.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s certainly sometimes where it is challenging but it’s one of those things where I’ve done it for so long, I think it would be hard to not have those connections in my life. I’ve met a lot of people from around the world and that by itself has certainly made it worthwhile. It’s been one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, so I’m definitely happy about that.
CH: When I looked at it, it’s bringing all the PatsFans together across the world into one place so they can talk. That’s a big value.
IL: There are so many people. There’s people in the military that are stationed overseas, other people that live in countries where their time zone really would prohibit them from connecting in other ways. You have people up at 3:00, 4:00 in the morning watching games and talking with people. It’s a really cool dynamic.
CH: You recently started using Sovrn’s Signal ads, our viewable ad solution. Have you seen better results with these viewable ads, and what’s your feedback? A lot of our customers are thinking about viewable ads but they haven’t tried them yet. Do you have pros and cons that you can share with them?
IL: The Signal ads have been a good solution and the industry seems to be favoring viewable ad units, so it’s absolutely an important one to consider. I think one of the things that a lot of us, myself included, have to get better about is changing our attitude toward how and where we place ads because the way that they’re being viewed industry-wide in general is certainly changing. The emphasis really is going to be on having the ads be placed where people can see them, which obviously advertisers are looking for. For a few years it got to the point where people were putting seven or eight ad units on a page in hopes of making more money. But the game has changed, and it’s just gotten to the point now where you really have to focus more on the user experience than that part of things.
I’ve found that viewability with ads in general has definitely become a priority. I’ve already seen a pretty significant increase I would say as far as both CPMs and just the overall monetization. My goal has been to cut down to two or three instead of having four or more to improve things for people who use the site while not losing revenue. For myself, money has never been the focus. Granted, we have to cover the server costs, which is the priority and if there’s a little left over, then that’s a good thing. But with our site being football-related, things tend to fluctuate so much when the season ends (and the industry in general has been a little inconsistent) so we try to make sure we’re prepared to ride those months out.
However, I can say from experience that this is definitely a must-have thanks to how it works, especially for content sites with long user engagement. That’s why I feel it’s so important for people to improve the speed and performance of your site, even if you have to reduce your ads. I’ve personally seen as our speed increased after I pulled two spots, so did our engagement and longer user sessions. As a result, CPMs and revenue have gone up with the remaining placements to the point where it replaced the money I thought we’d lose and Signal has played a big part in that. So it seems like it’s been a good strategy and I think it certainly makes more sense than trying to do what a lot of people do by flooding the site with too many ads, which as we’ve discussed, slows things down.
After all, everybody’s battling against ad blockers, and I think it’s kind of silly not to take that mindset now because people get frustrated if they come to your site and you crash their browsers. That’s actually, I’m sure, part of the reason why ad blockers have become so prevalent. It’s pretty simple. If people don’t like coming to your site because it’s irritating and you stop caring about your users, everybody loses.
CH: Have you had any response from your customers about your sites’ user experience?
IL: I have, and it’s been fairly positive. I did a survey a little over a year ago and I’m trying to take that feedback and put it into a re-design right now. Part of those changes have included cutting down ads to a few each page. As I mentioned, that’s worked out pretty well and I’ve gotten good feedback, about people have reached out about how much better their experience has been on mobile as well. It’s been a work in progress and I’ve already been gradually changing things over the last year and people have mentioned that things have been much better, so the goal now is to really to streamline it all and make things easier for people. The less time people have to wait when they hit refresh, the longer they’ll hopefully stick around.
CH: That’s what we’ve been seeing from our other publishers, it’s good to hear from you to reaffirm what we’re seeing.
IL: It has to be done, you can’t get away with having seven or eight ads on there anymore. We still have a lot of people who lurk on the board and aren’t logged in and they used to see more ads than registered users. But the goal is to completely change that so visiting people don’t see it and think “gosh there are a lot of ads here” and hopefully they continue to visit or register and join in the discussion.
CH: So besides programmatic advertising, what other monetization avenues do you have for revenue generation for PatsFans?
IL: Right now, we don’t take advantage of affiliate links and things like that which I’m sure we probably should, but that really hasn’t been the focus of the site. The real goal over the last couple of years has been trying to grow our readership outside of the forum. From a content side you need that to complement the boards for the site to do well. For ad networks, we use Google Adsense in addition to Sovrn. We have also partnered with USA Today as part of their ad network that runs a lot of their national ads. Other than that, it’s mostly just those ad networks. We’re also very fortunate to get donations from members through the message board which has certainly helped. We have more overhead now due to the growth the site has experienced in terms of server costs, etc., so every bit helps.
CH: Yeah, that’s great. Do you monetize your email list?
IL: We don’t, although we probably should. It obviously helps with the referral traffic, which helps since it drives people back to the site to read articles and content, which generates ad impressions. That’s something I’d encourage people to focus on building since it’s extremely important, even more so than social networks because of the way that Facebook and Twitter are making it hard for your posts to be seen. Email still has a better conversion rate in that regard provided that you use it the right way and don’t spam people.
CH: It’s getting harder to be found on Facebook.
IL: It’s so ridiculous. I mean we just broke 30,000 users on Facebook. If we post an article there, the percentage of referrals is in the single digits. It’s just horrific. You’ll get some that go viral and do a little more than that, but overall it’s irritating. I know a lot of people that are certainly annoyed with that. I was late to the party with both of those to begin with, but knowing what I know now, while social media is important, I’d definitely tell people to focus on building their email lists.
CH: So going forward in 2017, what things are you going to do the same and what things are you going to do different?
IL: Like I said, just keep working on improving the site design and focusing on limiting ads while making sure they’re placed in a good spot where the viewability will be increased, which hopefully continue to result in more revenue. The other focus will be on mobile, where I’m working to lighten the pages to ensure they load quickly, which will hopefully help result in a better user experience. Otherwise the other big thing as far as this year goes will be increasing our content and just continuing to improve things. It’s a constant work in progress, as it always has been.
CH: Thank you so much, Ian. We really appreciate the time you spent to talk to us about your business. Sharing your insight regarding how to build a loyal audience from scratch is extremely valuable for our customers.
IL: Absolutely. I certainly appreciate that. Thank you.
Ian Logue, Owner of PatsFans.com, has built a community of passionate New England Patriots fans that use his site for the latest updates on news, players and game stats as well as talk with other fans on his message boards and forums.