Tuesday, November 24, 2015

State of the Industry, LuLa's going Paid

The Luminous Landscape is switching to a subscription model. $12/year. So what?

Well, it's an indication of the state of the industry, innit? Obviously the revenues are trending the wrong way. Ad revenue is surely in a crunch, for a couple of reasons: ad revenue is in general getting crushed on the internet, and the photographic enthusiast market is on a brisk downhill slope as well. I dare say it's getting ugly out there.

Michael tends to over-inflate Lula's place in the universe a bit, but it still seems to be in the top ten most visited photography web sites. 330,000 unique visitors a month, which probably translates to somewhat fewer actual people (I probably count as somewhere between 2 and 5, depending on how alexa.com's analytics are counting me), and still fewer regular visitors. I am comfortable with 10,000 to 100,000 as the count of humans who regularly visit.

They've made some missteps. Michael, as I read it, hired a friend of his, so now the payroll includes three guys, at a time when revenues were about beginning that inexorable slide. The content, frankly, has suffered. Most of the front page articles are terrible fluff pieces, and they did a site conversion which left the archives of useful historical stuff in a bit of a shambles. They have too many staff, and too little web site. With all due respect, I have no idea what on earth they do with three staffers. So, there's trouble in River City. They gotta do something.

A paywall is a Hail Mary pass, there's just no other way to put it. You either start an inexorable death spiral, or you don't. Most of the time, you do. There's a short interval in which things look good, it's a joyful private club, everyone feels smug, and now if we can just get another 2x or 3x signups we're in fat city, and then people stop renewing and the new signups slow down because things are kind of dead in there, and after a while it's time to turn off the lights.

It's entirely possible that they did some research, I don't know. I'm an active member, and they didn't reach me with any kind of market research, which certainly doesn't mean they didn't do any. It's a datum, though.

Also worth noting is that, based on a handful of comments in their forums, they're tweaking the model to make the forums free. If this is genuinely the basis for the change, they're insane. They have, at a bare minimum, 10,000 regular visitors, and those are the people they need to persuade to part with hard-earned lucre. Just because 4 or 5 or 10 of the self-selected cranky jerks (I include myself in that number) who infest their forums say something doesn't mean it's true or even relevant. In fact, it almost certainly is not relevant, these are by definition outliers. You've got to figure out how to reach that silent majority and find out what's going to make those people part with cold, hard, cash.

Anyways, it's tough out there.

If you're running a popular web site, and you're wondering what to do to solve your money problem, watch LuLa closely, it's gonna get interesting. While you're watching, think about these ideas a little:

  • Launch a Patreon. Running simply on donations with an organized approach is a lot like a friendlier paywall. It can work.
  • Launch a market research firm. Get some books out of the library, read up, and start gently leveraging your subscriber base. Work out a way to compensate them for their time, for their information, in a way that doesn't cost you much, Premium content. Negotiated discounts from useful vendors.
  • Sell T-shirts and other merch. This can produce surprising amounts of revenue.
  • Do you sell anything else? Workshops, prints, videos, whatever? Launch a business helping other people generate and sell similar content and services.
  • Own up to vendor relationships and leverage them. If you like Nikon, or Tamrac, or Lytro, or whatever, ask them if you can be a spokesman. There's no shame in being a paid pitch man for products you like. Just don't lie about it.
  • Etc. Just think a bit, you'll probably come up with more businesses.

None of them are going to be all wine and roses. The trouble is that the pundits and players in the web-o-sphere don't want to do the hard parts. They want to fool about with cameras and write uninformed blog posts (I know that's what motivates me anyways) and they would very much like to get paid handsomely for their goofing off (well, me too, but I'm more of a realist than that). If you just want to play around, you can't expect to get paid a lot for it.

Some people have gotten paid a lot for it, but that was an anomaly, in an anomalous time, which time is now over.

Time to get to work.


  1. Hey Andrew, I was reading all this live when it went down on LuLa today, interesting popcorn time. If anything good came from all this, it is that I found your blog... Thanks for your time in sharing your thoughts.

  2. Maybe they follow the opinion of the forum users because it's the only users they actually have?

    You are saying that they have 10K to 100K users. Alexa seems to believe that as well, but alexa can be fooled. And if they had that many users, would they need a paywall?

    What I see is that they have about 2K regular forum users (you'll see that they have about 200-400 active logged on forum users at any given time). If they have 10K regular users, what are the 8K users supposed to do on the site? Read Alain Briot's articles? That does not make sense. Or, maybe, they are all watching the videos? But if they were, they would not reduce the yearly video subscription from 150$ to 12$.

    The whole story stinks. Their only argument to incite people to register is that they are cheaper than a pack of gums. That should tell us how much they value their content, shouldn't it?

    Basically, lula today is just:
    -workshops (and you already explained the financials of these, but it is only a dozen users per workshop)
    -"articles", which are little more than advertisements for the workshops in recent times (nobody is going to pay for these, even Ming Thein is better and free!)
    -videos, for which they reduce the price 10-fold
    -and a forum of 2000 active members.

    I think the simple motivation is that the video sales must be abysmal, so they slash the price in the hope of 10x better sales. The rest is just wrapping.

    1. That is possible? I don't think they're very technical so I am dubious about then fooling the analytics guys. I too am at a bit if a loss as to what people are looking at there if not the forums, but there is a lot of content.

      Pictures and archives, and lots of them, mainly.

      The breadth of the front page is still pretty good. There are fluffy reviews, fluffy how-tos, fluffy pieces on Art and what it ask means, and even fluffy pieces with pretty girls!

      It's not my cup of tea, but it's an awfully big world.

      Anyways, even 100,000 unique humans looking at the site every month isn't going to feed three men. Maybe one.

      The workshops help, but they just don't offer many.

  3. To blog successfully you must always blog like you don't care about the money.

  4. $1/month is little enough that I will try it out. I'll get to see if access to the video library is worth that alone. But....once you put up a paywall, people (including me) expect to find more value waiting there rather than the same old stream of articles and the occasional added video. Over the years I've come to believe that LULA is a labor of love for Michael Reichmann and Michael really doesn't need the money but that's different than being willing to fund it as a significant expense. With 2 employees it NEEDS to pay for itself at the very least. I do think that things will have to change there other than putting up a paywall. There will be resistance, rational or irrational to paying even $1 for something that was free of cost yesterday.

    Personally, I am a fan of the "Patreon" model and am willing to contribute much more than $1/month for a site of consistent and high quality. An example of that for me is "The Online Photographer" and I do contribute far more than $1/month to that site and have for years. I wish we had more like that, although I will have to say Andrew, that this site here has been hitting a lot of very good notes.

  5. I can't see there being a large enough base of readers that are willing to pay for their content. There's nothing on that site you can't get elsewhere for free. Unless the demand to watch old guys talking about cameras whilst sitting at a table is way higher than I ever imagined.

    Maybe it's a good thing. Maybe they'll take the quality of their content up a notch. Not gonna hold my breath though.