We have always thought of this site as a collaboration between us and you, our readers. And going with a membership model, as we did two years ago, has only enhanced that. After all, you members (and sponsors) pay the bills and so are, in effect, partners in this endeavour that is AAC.
So think of this post as a report to the partners on what’s been going on behind the scenes, how we are spending your money, and what we are planning for the future.
It may come as a surprise, but over half of the time Phyllis and I put into AAC goes on activities other than creating content. Administration, marketing, site development and maintenance…it never ends. And so one of our biggest challenges is managing and prioritizing that time well.
Here’s a look at what we have been doing this winter:
Web Site Back Stage
Our mailing lists were, let me see if I can put this politely, a complete dog’s breakfast that we had cobbled together over 12 years using various free tools. Six different lists spread over two different systems with a lot of duplication, which I’m sure many of you noticed when you received two or more notifications with essentially the same message.
We have now consolidated everything at Mailchimp—dumb name, great service, although anything but free—and purged most of the duplication.
It was a huge and surprisingly complicated job, but one that has also allowed us to add services like pictures to post notifications and a monthly digest of posts for members.
If any one thing has made Phyllis and I wonder why the hell we do this, it has been our two year struggle with intermittent server crashes. The root—great pun…you need to be a UNIX user to get it—of the problem is that we have over 800 pages of dynamically served content that have attracted internet robots like honey does flies. Some of those robots are benign (Google) and some anything but.
Our security has successfully kept the bad guys out, but their constant probing was battering the hell out of our server, to the point that it would once or twice a day give up the fight and put its little electronic toes to the air, resulting in a down event lasting from 6 to 20 minutes—not good.
An interesting stat for you: We serve about a million pages a year to legitimate readers but about five times that to robots!
Anyway, after two years of trying all kinds of things to solve this problem, we seem to finally have a fix:
- We installed a program that automatically slows down our response to badly behaved robots (throttling).
- Our long time server host felt so badly about the problems that they upgraded us to our very own private server for half their normal price, a level we can just afford. And this thing is a real beast of a machine that eats robots for breakfast.
We have now been running for over a week without a crash and our site is at least 30% faster.
No More Flash
We used to use a very slick slideshow program that displayed photographs in Adobe Flash for many of our posts. That was fine back in the dark ages of the internet world (all of three years ago) but thanks to an anti-Adobe hissy fit thrown by the late Steve Jobs, Flash was banned from the iPhone and iPad. The result was a less than elegant display on those devices. That in turn has resulted in Flash being depreciated right across the internet.
So we have just finished going through the entire AAC archive, or rather Phyllis has, purging all Flash slideshows and replacing them with standard HTML, a real pain in the neck, but it’s done now.
Oh, how we hate pushing paper, and there is an amazing amount of it, now that we are a real company: Accounting, taxes, yada, yada, yada. Not a lot we can do about all of that.
But the other big time sink was user support, an area we could improve. This winter we went over every aspect of the site to make things easier for you, our readers and members, to understand. The result is that sign-up and renewal problems are way, way down—great for everyone.
A big thank you to several members who worked with us on this project. Without them we could not have done it, because when you have created a web site it’s very difficult to see the flaws in it.
Having said that, there is always more to do, so if you have any suggestions for improvement to an area of the site that you find confusing, please leave a comment to this post.
Phyllis and I were very uncomfortable about the way in which we were taking advantage of our two incredibly talented writers, Colin and Matt (us too), by publishing their efforts without paying them. And never mind the moral aspects, it was simply not a sustainable model.
It’s still not a solved problem since most of our revenue goes straight back out the door to pay our expenses, but we are seeing a glimmer of hope that prompted us to think about how to fairly share the wealth (such as it ever will be) with those who make AAC what it is.
What Phyllis and I wanted to avoid like the plague was what has become, over the last few years, the typical secretive gatekeeper model used by most of the media, in which the publisher keeps 95% (at least) of the revenue and throws a few crumbs to the creatives (including their editorial staff), while treating them like indentured servants into the bargain—been on the receiving end of that crap…didn’t like it.
So over this winter we developed a transparent revenue sharing process, based on the typical fishing boat shares model, where a part is kept for the boat (AAC, the company), and then the balance is distributed between the crew (including Phyllis and I), based on their level of contribution (number of posts).
The 2014 payments were small…OK, tiny…OK, a joke. But at least we now have an agreed model, so if we can grow the revenue, everyone who makes that possible will get a fair share and will be able to see exactly how that share was calculated. Also, if we ever sell AAC (no plans to do so) all of the writers will get a share of the proceeds.
Getting this right was surprisingly complicated, but it’s done now.
Back in the day when I ran a computer systems integration company, my then marketing director’s favourite saying was:
There’s no point in being great, if you don’t tell ’em you’re great.
Like many creatives we were doing a lousy job of that, so we have:
Created a new landing page that shares the benefits of being an AAC member in a simple and visually appealing way.
Used the new mailing system to create a digest of the last month’s new content that goes out each month to all members—makes sense to remind you of all the great stuff you got for as little as $1.66 a month.
Turns out that our original branding of membership as the AAC Bookclub was…dumb, OK, really dumb.
Why? because it set people up to think that the only benefit of membership was our online books, and worse still, that once they had read all of them, they had got everything out of their membership there was. (Thanks to the members who pointed this out to us.)
Crazy, in that the whole point of AAC is our dynamic, ever improving, over 800 hundred pages of content, as well as our community of sailors all working together to make offshore voyaging better and easier—anything but static.
For example, branding ourselves as a Bookclub completely ignored that members get at least four in-depth new articles each month (as well as several shorter ones) for their $1.66, and that we are also constantly updating and improving the online books as well.
It’s a wonder that so many of you were smart enough to see through our poor branding to the real benefits and so joined—thank you!
The Pay Off
Anyway, enough wallowing in past mistakes. One thing I know for sure from founding four businesses is that getting things wrong is an inevitable part of the path to getting them right—kind of like fitting out an offshore boat.
The good news is that both new membership and retention of existing members are up since taking the steps detailed above. The increase is not huge, but it does put us back on the path to sustainability—things were looking a bit shaky a couple of months ago.
It was a very busy winter! Now let’s look at stuff we still need to do:
In a blacked out secret underground bunker here at AAC World Headquarters we are working on a project to provide a whole new set of benefits to members. Real tangible benefits that will save you real cash money—something that anyone who owns a boat could sure use.
We can’t guarantee it will work, particularly since it’s an innovative new idea that relies on a lot of cooperation from others, but we have high hopes. Look for a roll out in the next few weeks.
This site needs a complete makeover. In the two years since our last redesign things have changed dramatically, particularly with the use of phones and tablets to read our content.
We are well on the way to that goal with a new much simpler design sketched out that will also be responsive (phone and tablet friendly).
However, the actual implementation is a huge job because of the amount AAC is customized to support membership. And now it’s spring, and the ice is getting ready to go out. And Morgan’s Cloud is sitting in her shed chomping at the bit—mustn’t ever forget what the point of all this is.
So we are shelving the new site implementation while we go sailing. Look for it next winter.
The new server detailed above has made the site a lot faster, but we need to do better. The planned site redesign will give us a big speed jump and we are also going to implement some sophisticated content cacheing as well as a distributed content delivery network (CDN).
The latter will dramatically increase the page load speed for our readers outside of North America, particularly those in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
All this will (we hope) happen at the same time as the new site design.
Content? Content?…Oh yeah, that is the whole point. In addition, it’s the part of our jobs that Phyllis and I enjoy most. We are getting ready to go sailing, and that always refocuses us on what really matters.
In a week or so we will publish a post revealing some of the cool new content we are working on. You will be happy, I promise.
If you have any questions or suggestions for further improvements to AAC, please leave a comment.