Friday, November 26, 2010
At this year’s Canadian Online Publishing Awards, I overheard “who’s Sparksheet?” several times as they proceeded to take home four COPAs, including best online-only website in the B to B division. Turns out they’re an engaging and well-designed website covering “good ideas about content, media & marketing” that I linked to several months ago (oh, my aging memory). I asked editor Dan Levy to tell us more about the site.

Tell me about your site.

Sparksheet is Spafax’s online media and marketing magazine. We launched about a year and a half ago and our mission is to cover the ongoing convergence of content, media and marketing in the online space.

I think we’re living in a world where media outlets are becoming more like brands and brands are becoming more like publishers. I mean, the New Yorker has a pet photo contest and the biggest viral YouTube sensation of the year – Double Rainbow notwithstanding– was an Old Spice campaign!

So we’re trying to help media and marketing professionals make sense of these changes and also spark some new ideas for how brands can tell their stories and engage people in a more human and compelling way. We’re particularly interested in stories that revolve around what we call the consumer in transit, the moving target. So you’ll see lots of stuff about travel and mobile apps and the media that we consume when we’re
on the go.

Unlike other Spafax publications, we’re not published on behalf of a client and we don’t have any advertising on the site. So we’re committed to being an independent, transparent and forward-thinking industry magazine. There seems to be a lot of chest-thumping going on in the agency world so rather than launch a typical corporate blog, we felt it was high time to create some real conversation among media and marketing professionals.

What’s your average traffic, and what part of your site is the most popular?

Since we don’t have advertising on our site, traffic isn’t something we worry too much about. Besides, lots of our readers access our content through our monthly e-newsletter and our mobile app, both of which won COPAs this fall and neither of which is reflected in our traffic numbers.

As an agency-to-agency publication, we’re really concerned with quality over quantity – both in terms of our content and our audience. Our newsletter goes out to travel and entertainment industry clients, to select advertising executives, to publishers and content creators, and to new media thought leaders the world over. Those are the people we’re trying to reach. Of course, if my cousin’s boyfriend stumbles upon the site through Google or a link on Facebook, then that’s great too.

As for our most popular content, I’d say our Q&As seem to connect on a regular basis. For example, the COPA we won for Best Article or series was for our interview with Blake Eskin, The New Yorker’s online editor. That’s a notoriously conservative and tight-lipped organization and he really opened up about how the magazine is still trying to figure out how to embrace new media without jeopardizing its brand.

We’ve also had some great, candid conversations with big names like Seth Godin, Roger Ebert and Bob Garfield.

What feature of your site are you proudest of and why?

We have this ongoing feature called “Engagement Checkup” where we look at how businesses are using social media to interact with customers in a more human and helpful way.

Last year, we were one of the first sites to really delve into the whole “airlines on Twitter” phenomenon and kept close tabs on how they handled the ash cloud debacle. We’re also lucky enough to have contributors in Brazil and China who keep us informed on what’s going on in those rapidly emerging economies. We’re proud Canadians, but our outlook is truly international.

In the end, it’s always the posts and ideas that readers can pluck out and apply to their own businesses that I’m most proud of.

You suddenly have an unlimited budget. What’s the first thing you spend it on?

Staff! Right now, I’m the only one working on Sparksheet full time. We have a really talented Web Director who works on lots of other Spafax projects as well, and we have a part-time community manager who takes care of our Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages. But as far as content is concerned, it’s pretty much me and our trusty roster of freelance contributors.

Right now, we’re putting out two to three articles a week, but eventually we’d love to update the site every day. To get there, we’d really need more hands on deck.

What websites and social media tools can’t you live without?

When it comes to spreading our content, engaging with our audience and connecting with potential contributors and other interesting people, Twitter has truly been indispensable. I can’t tell you how many great friendships and collaborations have come out it.

LinkedIn has also been very good to us when it comes to meeting people and having really targeted, in-depth conversations. We also use Delicious for sharing and compiling links for our Best of the Web roundups, and we’re just getting into YouTube with our SparksheetTV platform, which we plan to expand in the coming months.

There are so many great websites that we read every day. It’s impossible to name them all, but we really like RunwayGirl and The Cranky Flier for airline stuff, NewTeeVee and Televisual for branded entertainment and television content, and sites like MediaPost, Nieman Lab and, of course, Masthead to stay tuned to the ongoing media revolution.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010
A raw-food blog I read, Rawmazing, has a new item up for sale – a 2011 calendar featuring a recipe every month. It’s a good example of how to monetize your website without driving readers away. The blog is free, and many recipes are posted for readers to use right away. What gets sold is packaging, whether it’s an e-book, a printed book or a calendar.

What I especially like is how the format of the calendar – it’s a desk calendar presented inside a CD jewel case – fits the homemade quality of the blog itself. The calendar feels crafty, which is how the readers likely see themselves as well.

What other examples have you seen of bloggers and websites making money off peripheral products?

Monday, November 01, 2010
B.C.-based online-only publication The Tyee is well known for its quality and propensity to win awards, as well as for being the original home of the 100-Mile Diet. Now, they’ve taken that and other food writing and turned it into a printed book, Harvested Here: Delicious Thinking about Local Food. An interesting turnaround of the direction (print to online) most content takes.
Monday, November 01, 2010
One of the lesser-known winning sites at the COPAs on October 20 was Vitamin Daily, which took home awards for Best Online-Only Website and Best Website Design. I asked Vitamin Daily’s Toronto editor, Athena Tsavliris, to tell me more about the site and its readers.

Tell me about your site and its design

I like to think of Vitamin Daily as your fabulous, in-the-know girlfriend – just as comfortable slurping noodles in Chinatown as she is perusing vintage tiaras at a private auction. She’ ll share the details of her address book – the city’s best threader, a couture-trained seamstress, the in-a-pinch dog sitter – and beeline you to the best burgers, bookshops and designer discounts in town. You sign up (it’s free) and get a daily email that recommends things to do in your city. We have offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal (French and English editions) and Calgary. A typical week could include a rising indie label, a family-run pierogi shop, deco-inspired chandeliers, a local letterpress and a cobbler to stretch your Louboutins. The Vitamin Daily writers share a style, but each edition reflects the tastes, personality and lifestyle of its editor. What sets us aside from other similar sites is that our suggestions are heartfelt. We don’t flip press releases or wax lyrical about mascara we’ve never tried. If we’ve eaten/watched/read/heard/done something and loved it, we’ll share it.

The design is clean and simple and feminine. It is easy to navigate (our readers are time pressed and don’t want to futz about searching for things) and clutter-free. We feature our ‘ambassadors’ at the top of our home page. These women were photographed as part of a contest we held over a year ago. They are dancers, teachers, designers, students, doctors – the quintessential Vitamin Daily reader.

What’s your average traffic, and what part of your site is the most popular?

We send out 25,000 newsletters per day. Our most popular page is the Editors’ Diary, where we post pics and coverage from parties, events, festivals and our travels in Canada and abroad. We have some talented bloggers on board who fill these pages with great images and witty reportage. Katherine Holland posted a great blog from this year’s Canadian Online Publishing Awards, where we took home two awards. Our most popular archive is Fashion and Shopping and our Who We Are page gets a lot of hits, which I’m delighted about. We write in the ‘royal we’ so it’s good to know that our readers are interested in the people behind the words.

What feature of your site are you proudest of and why?

I am proudest of the quality of our writing. I can’t write about politics, just as Salutin can’t write about stilettos. We all have our areas of expertise, and here at Vitamin Daily, we work hard to make frivolity fun, intelligent and engaging. You’d be amazed how long it can take to write 80 pithy words on retro bikinis.

What websites and social media tools can’t you live without?

India Knight is one my favourite journalists and her Posterous blog is funny, intelligent and filled with drool-worthy things like Liberty print pillows and rainbow sponge cake. We featured Pia Jane Bijkerk’s book Paris: Made By Hand a couple of years ago, and I’ve been hooked on her beautiful blog ever since. I also really like checking in with local stylist Arren Williams and I can’t resist trolling through the pages of vintage collectibles at Atelier Mayer.

I find Twitter invaluable in terms of generating ideas, connecting with story leads and generally keeping in tune with Toronto. I only follow local feeds because I want to stay focused. This is a city of communities, and Twitter helps us connect. I love that I know what Corey Mintz had for lunch today!

You suddenly have an unlimited budget. What’s the first thing you spend it on?

Birkins! One for each member of our team in her colour and skin of choice. I jest. The Toronto team has grown since the early days of me working away alone in my kitchen. But with bags of cash we would hire more people in the city to further round out our team and drive subscriptions.

About Me
Kat Tancock
Kat Tancock is a freelance writer, editor and digital consultant based in Toronto. She has worked on the sites of major brands including Reader's Digest, Best Health, Canadian Living, Homemakers, Elle Canada and Style at Home and teaches the course Creating Website Editorial at Ryerson University.
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