CoffeeGeek Highs and Lows
Posted July 9, 2007 10:55pm
You may not know this, but CoffeeGeek is five years old, and then some this year.
When I look back at what the website has done, how many people it has reached, and how it has steered my life for so long, it's very sobering. There's been a lot of highs and lows, but thankfully, the highs are a huge, long list, and the lows I can fit into my back pocket.
I'm just free-thinking here, but here's some of the highs the website has managed to achieve:
- the website has gone from 15,000 visitors a month in its second month of existence, to almost 1 million a month during our busiest months.
- I like to think the website has had a huge impact in driving quality coffee consumption not only in the home, but in cafes around the world as well. The boastful in me would even go so far as to say nothing else in five years has achieved the same level of quality growth.
- A very vibrant and everchanging core community of about 5,000 people (never the same 5,000 people for more than three or four months) really drives the "community" aspect of the website. This includes a sizable number of Australians, New Zealanders, and Europeans. Recently, an Australian "regular" commented to me that it was amazing that a Canadian-hosted site somehow became the "defacto" Australian community hangout online.
- Just as I firmly believe the Internet as a whole has driven development and availability in quality coffee machines, I also think CoffeeGeek and its community played an especially large role in it all. As an example - when I started CoffeeGeek's review site (on a previous version of CoffeeKid.com), there were maybe five or ten easily available heat exchanger machines in the US. Today, there's literally dozens and dozens. CG and its community played a large role in making that happen by increasing demand.
- Education. This has always been one of my highest priorities with the website, and while I still drop the ball all the time, I can look back over five years, and count over 30 opinion articles directly related to education. I can see 8 how tos that collectively have been read over 4 million times. I can see 3 guides that have had over 10 million page views. I can see 61 Detailed Reviews, QuickShot Reviews, and First Looks that have been read over 15 million times. So many reads and views. Just mind blowing.
- In my most conceited moments, I think CoffeeGeek has had some responsibility in bringing a lot of coffee people together. As far as I know (and I'm sure he'll correct me if I' m wrong), Nick Cho got his start in the forums, as did Jay Caragay. Many "rock stars" of the barista world cut their chops in our forums. Stephen Morrisey told me he first discovered this whole coffee mania thing thru CoffeeGeek, and now he's touring the US, and going to work for Jim Hoffman. And I could go on and on.
There are, unfortunately, a few lowlights as well.
- CoffeeGeek, and my involvement in it, has exposed me to the real dark underbelly of the world of specialty coffee, and especially the dark sides of the machine sales sides of things. There's some genuinely nasty people out there (thankfully not many), and I've also burned many bridges myself by being so opinionated, and at times, being too... what's the world... optimistic about what I was able to do on CoffeeGeek. I let some people down, and they've never let me forget it. I've also discovered that not everyone involved in specialty coffee is a nice person. Thankfully most are, but some are beyond despicable.
- CoffeeGeek doesn't make me any money. And it's my fault. CoffeeGeek barely breaks even after paying the salaries of the programmer, the editors, some writer costs, travel costs, and the massive hosting costs. I have never drawn a salary from CoffeeGeek. It basically pays for its expenses, but that's about it. I say it's my fault because I'm rather stupid and rosey-eyed about advertising on the website. I limit advertising to only coffee and espresso related companies, and the most popular advertising on the website (geeklinks, followed by sponsorads) are also the cheapest. Our banner ads are fairly expensive, and I had this idea that companies that profited from the massive amounts of exposure they got from CoffeeGeek over the years would see banner ads as a way to "give back" as well as a way to advertise. Thankfully, some companies follow this - most notably Whole Latte Love, Baratza and 1st in Coffee, two of CoffeeGeek's most longest running advertisers. Several other companies that have benefited greatly from CoffeeGeek over the years have long since abandoned any kind of real support for the website, and buy only our most economical (and ironically enough, highest click through rates) ads because for them, it's a no brainer to keep getting these ads. I won't mention names, but all you have to do is go into the Active Advertisers page and see which of the more long term companies have a shitload of geeklinks, and no other ad type. Yeah, this is a bit of a call out. I got asked by one of them over Christmas "what have you done for me lately". I should say to them "what have you done to keep this community afloat, one that has been and continues to be responsible for a lot of your sales?"
- CoffeeGeek is doing the SCAA's job. There, I said it. As I write this, I'm at a very low point in how I feel about the SCAA and where the organization is going. I participate feverishly on another web board talking up the SCAA and its challenges quite a bit, but something happened very recently that made me kind of step back and see what's happened over the past five years. In that time, I think it's safe to say no other media entity has done more to publicize the SCAA and its holdings (read: USBC / WBC) than the CoffeeGeek website. Every year, there's huge coverage of the conference and its goings on. I've probably made more consumers in one year of coverage aware of the SCAA and its supposed mission than the SCAA has in its entire existence on its own efforts. Again, I'm probably being beyond conceited and big headed here, but I still think it's a fact. In 2005, over 400,000 pairs of eyeballs read the SCAA coverage on the CoffeeGeek website. I don't have 2006 numbers, but so far in 2007, all the SCAA articles from Conference have been read over 300,000 times. That's a huge reach, and much beyond trade mag or even mainstream mag coverage of the show.
This last bullet point. It's been weighing on my mind for a few days. And I wasn't sure if I should write or blog about this anywhere, and even told Jay Caragay privately I wouldn’t (he's the only person I've said any of this to before this post).
I said above that CoffeeGeek is doing the SCAA's job, and what I meant by that is the SCAA has, as its primary mission statement, this:
TO PROMOTE PUBLIC INTEREST by increasing consumer awareness, understanding, and consumption of specialty coffee.
In my five and a half years of running CoffeeGeek, I've seen a lot of failed starts by the SCAA to do this, but nothing tangible or very successful. But it's something CoffeeGeek and its community has been doing for over five years. We're doing the SCAA's job.
And to be honest, in some ways, I'm fed up with it.
I'm not fed up with CG being an education, information, and social resource for coffee lovers and people wanting to discover better coffee. I don't think I'll ever tire of that. But I am fed up with maybe giving the SCAA too much credence and legitimacy with consumers, when I don't think the organization has earned that legitimacy in recent times.
Don't get me wrong. The SCAA has done many great things. It's a mutual benefit society and a most excellent one. It puts together businessperson A with businessperson B, and they create relationships. It puts farmers in touch with roasters, and they create relationships. And it puts syrup makers in touch with cafes wanting to pour flavoured coffees, and they create relationships too. Don't even get me started on the coffee sleeve makers.
But one area where I think the SCAA has done a horrible job overall is in consumer outreach. In consumer education. And in making that SCAA logo on the door of a café retailer mean something. If anything, CoffeeGeek has done all that, especially the last part. I can say this because only two weeks ago, I got into a long conversation with a customer at a Seattle-based cafe. He recognized me and was a fan of CoffeeGeek. After we talked a bit, I asked him how he discovered the cafe we were sitting in. He said he noticed the SCAA logo on the door, and knew of the organization from CoffeeGeek, and thought it meant something important because we (on CG) talk up the SCAA so much each year.
I'm tired of doing the SCAA's job for them.
So if you're still with me after 1500 words, here's the conclusion, and I should mention, this is in no way set in stone. If anything, I'm venting here, and probably typing a bunch of bullshit I'll regret in a few weeks. But right now, I don't have any will or desire to do any more marketing and consumer awareness for the SCAA. What does that mean? It means I'm not sure if I want to cover the trade shows any longer, or give any press to the barista events, or place the SCAA on any kind of publicity pedestal any longer. I'm not sure if this serves the readership and community of CoffeeGeek that much, and I'm not sure if the majority of our readers even care if, all of a sudden, without any kind of announcement, all coverage of the SCAA ends on CoffeeGeek.
Maybe I should quantify that. IF the SCAA starts genuinely being concerned about meeting their primary mission statement, and they start some effective marketing and education for consumers, and start making that SCAA logo on the door of a cafe mean something to the average, off the street consumer, then I'd be happy to continue the kind of coverage I've done in the past, and expand on it even. But it looks like the .org doesn't really have any intention on doing full blown marketing and advertising to consumers, even in the "viral" style. (this should be required reading for incoming SCAA Presidents - and note, it mentions the "will it blend' campaign by an SCAA Allied member!). So until the SCAA gets out of its B2B and MBS attitudes, CoffeeGeek acting passively as it's marketing-to-consumers arm is not something I want to do any longer.
But... I don't think I'll make the decision myself. If I still feel this way come December, then I'll do a poll and survey of our readership and community, and let them decide. If they want the coverage, I'll do it. In the meantime, I think I'll start saving up for the Hosts Expo in Milan this year, and make that my next big trade show and conference coverage for the next 12 months.