Taking the shine off: Why blog publishing 'failed' in the UK (or at least didn't create a $30m exit)

Next Story

Three-alarm fire at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters

US entrepreneurs have had notable success with Blog publishing startups, in particular Jason Calacanis (Weblogs Inc sold to AOL for $25m) and more recently Rafat Ali (Paid Content sold to The Guardian for $30m). Ashley Norris, former co-founder of early UK blog network Shiny Media, left the company last week to create another startup – but there is no multi-million sale yet in sight for Shiny. In this guest post for TechCrunch UK he makes his first public statements on the matter, he rails against the BBC, VCs, ad agencies and pores over why he thinks Blog publishing has had only limited success in the UK. Did Shiny ‘cut the mustard’ or were wider factors at work? You decide.

The last five years have seen an explosion in the number of independent commercial blogs, blog networks and websites in the US. The Huffington Post, Sugar Publishing, Perez Hilton, Gawker Media, Engadget – the list goes on forever, and they are just the Web 2.0 premiership. There are thousands of individuals running less high profile blogs and websites who are making a significant living from their work.

In the UK it is a depressingly different story. I have spent the last five years of my life developing Shiny Media, the largest and most successful UK blog network. When I left the company at the end of August it could boast that over four million people each month were either reading or viewing its content. Shiny Media is however one of a handful of independent UK content companies to attract more than a couple of million monthly readers to its sites. There are some amazing blogs and sites out there, Hecklerspray, Anorak, The Spoiler, Coolest Gadgets, Unreality TV and Pocket-Lint spring to mind, but of those only one can claim more than a million monthly readers.

There have been several attempts to develop a UK based blog network (Mink Media, Blog Nation and Messy Media are the most high profile) but many have crashed just months after their launch.

When I first started seeking investment for Shiny back in 2005 I was constantly told I was wasting my time and that the business would never be worth more than a couple of hundred thousand pounds. Ok, so content was rather unfashionable with VCs back then, and what they told me only served to strengthen my resolve to make Shiny successful, but in retrospect I do think that many of the VCs had quite an accurate take on the difficulties facing any developing independent media companies in the UK.

So three years and lot of water under the bridge later here is my take on why I think the US explosion of new media companies hasn’t been repeated over here.

1 Limited number of UK online eyeballs – The obvious reason why UK new media companies haven’t achieved the same success as their US counterparts is down to economies of scale. US sites have at least five times more readers to aim at and that counts for an awful lot when most online advertising is still based around a CPM model (advertisers pay a between 50p-£20 depending on the campaign per thousand people who see their ad). What makes it even trickier is that most UK advertisers for obvious reasons only want their ads to be seen by UK readers. For most UK blogs and established websites Britons count for between 30-50% of their readership, the rest is from the US and other English language speaking countries. It is possible to monetise non-UK ad inventory but it is generally at much lower rates than the UK inventory. The difficulty for most UK blogs and websites is that they simply don’t have enough UK readers to interest ad agencies and brands, so they are left to monetise even their UK traffic using ads that have very low CPMs.

Perhaps an obvious tactic is to forget about the UK completely. Maybe there is something in the fact that two of the five best read blogs to emanate from the UK – Mashable and Coolest Gadgets – are focussed on a worldwide (in the main, US) audience.

2 Lack of imagination in the ad industry – Shiny has been very successful at attracting blue chip brand advertising (Marks and Spencer, Nokia, Dyson, BMW are among the high profile brands who have advertised on its sites). However it has been a long and slow process convincing agencies and brands to advertise on blogs. In reality it should be simple. The readers of the bigger British blogs (if Shiny and other groups like Glam are to be believed) tend to be young, affluent, educated and spend much more time online than they do imbibing other media. However many brands and their agency planers have chosen to play it safe and will work with established media brands or mega portals like MSN, even when the ads themselves will be seen by a less focussed and often an inappropriate audience. There are signs that this is changing, but the lack of brand advertising on sites like Hecklerspray and Unreality TV really is baffling.

3 Lack of UK media entrepreneurs – As someone who wasn’t involved in a start up in the first web boom largely because I spent all my working hours writing about it for magazines and newspapers, I can understand why there are so few media entrepreneurs in the UK. Many of the smarter journalists are way too busy to develop their own start up and there are very few entrepreneurs outside the media who have the capacity to develop media properties. Ironically many of the most successful, blogs and websites in the UK have been developed by freelance journalists who have worked on their sites in addition to writing for others, and in many instances rival media. This is ideal for slowly building an audience, but the emphasis is on the word slowly.

4 Lack of VC support – As a rule European VCs don’t tend to be too interested in media unless it is supported by a technological innovation. Other than Shiny I can’t think of a single online editorially based media play in the UK that has attracted any sizable investment in the last few years. Before Shiny it was Magicalia Publishing and that was many years ago.

Conversely organisations like Next New Networks , the closest US equivalent of Shiny, has several VCs on its board and has so far attracted over $23m in funding. Established US media has also worked with independent new media companies too. NBC has equity in Sugar Publishing, another Shiny rival, while The Discovery Channel acquired Treehugger the leading green blog.

5 Too much competition – Several commentators have suggested that the explosion in successful blogs occurred largely because Americans distrust established media and see it as being in the pockets of big business. I can’t really comment on the US, but I do know that this isn’t the case in the UK. On the surface Britons appear to be fairly loyal to their newspaper and magazine brands. There have been many examples of offline brands that have been a disaster when launched online, but there are some significant successes now too. Existing media companies have much larger budgets than independents and are now starting a serious land grab in building up their online properties. Just check how often you see a UK media company using a Google Adword. However the independents have in many instances a first mover advantage and often a keener understanding of how to work the web to market a site which has kept them one step ahead of big brands.

6 The omnipotent BBC – At the risk of sounding like a stuck record the existence of the BBC and its hugely impressive range of online services does make life even more tricky for the independents. Going back to point one there is only a certain number of UK web surfers and as the BBC hoovers up a large percentage of them the slice of the cake for the independents is even smaller. Secondly, the BBC’s reluctance to link to British blogs and smaller independent media organisations, while at the same time endlessly plugging established media groups (Five Live is one long plug for mainstream media brands) makes life even more difficult.

On a very basic level, if the BBC didn’t have its huge online football offering, then it is very likely that Shiny’s footy blog, whoateallthepies.tv, which is one of the most read football blogs in the world, would be significantly larger. What is even more galling for the founders of Shiny and other indie media groups is that they personally pay a small amount in the guise of the licence fee to fund what in reality are rival sites.

Were the BBC to take a more enlightened view of British independent and social media it could do a lot to encourage young talent to develop UK media properties thereby greatly enriching British media.


On the surface this probably reads like a fairly negative post. It isn’t meant to be.

I do think that British independent new media companies can develop businesses, Shiny is proof of that as are Trusted Reviews, The Register and Digital Spy, but they have to be so much smarter and work so much harder than their rivals in mainstream media. I think online video will provide an opportunity for UK companies to compete on a worldwide stage, however they will need access to fairly sizable funds to do this.

Finally it is worth adding that the economic downturn might actually provide some interesting opportunities for UK bloggers. Several of the most successful indie websites date from around 2002/2003, a time when mainstream media was pulling out of the web after the dot com crash. It is possible that 2009 will go down as the year in which the third wave of indie media started gaining momentum. Here’s hoping.

  • Paddy

    The only Shiny blog I subscribe to is TechDigest – and only just in case it has something that isn’t on Gizmodo (US or UK), Engadget or CrunchGear. The content of Tech Digest just isn’t at the same level. For a while I subscribed to their football blog Who Ate All The Pies and their Liverpool FC one Liverpool Pies, but not for very long – the content really was pathetic, and the opinions offered were of the sort of standard you might here over a few beers in the pub. Whatever disadvantages UK blogs face, the lack of quality at Shiny can’t be helping them.

  • Andrew

    Hi Ashley,

    You failed to mention in your article that the Shiny blogs had more flash based advertising than any other blog network that I view. In fact, most of the comments I have encounted relating to the Shiny blogs were to this effect.

    The flash based advertising (up to 7 animated flash adverts on a single page) not only made the blogs unpleasing to look at but they also bloated the sites so much that it pretty much made them unusable (both speed wise and page load wise). Add to this, the RSS feeds which have adverts on most of the posts along with mediafed links which are down quite a bit of the time, and you are starting to see a recipe for disaster.

    Shiny used to be amazing, in fact, the best quality blogs I read… however they lost their way when they moved from the mantra of “content is of upmost importance” to “how much advertising revenue can we make”, and with this, they lost their loyal readership.


  • TomV

    Good to read this on a blog.

  • jklondon

    never read a shiny blog … just tried whoateallthepies.tv …rubblish, the layout presentation and most importantly the content.

  • http://pocket-lint.co.uk Stuart

    As the owner of Pocket-lint I think one of the biggest problems I’ve had over the past 5 years is getting PR companies to change their attitudes into understanding that the internet is just as good a place to be seen as magazines and newspapers.

    What makes this frustrating is that for the most part I have a bigger readership than all the magazines in the UK in my sector and most of their websites, yet the “Play it safe” mentality normally prevails.

    The attitudes are changing with a good majority of agencies waking up to the fact that just because we don’t have an office doesn’t mean we aren’t a professional outfit. But there is not a week that goes by where I don’t have to question a PR company as to why they’ve decided that it wasn’t a good idea to talk to us first. The normal response? “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”

    Until companies start to take independent publishers like myself seriously and not just think Blogging is yet another buzz word to throw into a presentation I feel that the situation is unlikely to change any time soon.

  • http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/2008/08/blog-publishing-in-the-uk-why-it-failed/ Blog publishing failure in UK - are the BBC to blame? | Tom Watson MP

    […] in the States but failed miserably in the UK. One of the reason given is the omnipotence of the BBC. Other reason given are lack of venture capital support, poor imagination and too few punters. […]

  • http://www.theredrocket.co.uk/blog/?p=113 » What is the problem with UK blogs? The Red Rocket: Altogether now, “reach for the sky”

    […] Norris, the founder of Shiny Media, is today’s guest author for Tech Crunch and is ruminating on why the UK lags behind the States when it comes to monetizing the blog […]

  • http://www.dailyack.com/ Alasdair Allan

    Content is the thing, and shiny doesn’t have it. I read over 250 feeds, none of them are part of Shiny. Sorry, but their content just isn’t very compelling.

    He’s complaining that if the BBC didn’t publish better content for free then his ad-supported content would get pageviews. Doesn’t that mean he should make better content? After all people still watch ITV because it has different (better?) content than the BBC, maybe Shiny should take a leaf out of their book?

  • http://blog.luziaresearch.com Al

    I have only come across shiny when looking at incoming links to one of our sites – they reprinted a press release we did – verbatim. I went to look at the sites and thought they must be part of a spam network and were gaming google in some clever way because the site was full of adverts and what looked like spam.

  • Carol Williams

    I was a fan of Shiny blogs, until the horrendous flash advertising overload started crashing my browser half the time. Now I avoid all Shiny blogs as I simply can’t be bothered to wait for all the advertising to load before I can read two brief sentences of news.

  • Dave Nicholls

    I used to read TechDigest but stopped over a year ago. I’d posted a comment containing a correction to a review and went back a couple of hours later to find the review updated and my comment removed. Comments deserve more respect than that so I never went back.

  • http://chris@shinymedia.com shinychris

    I agree with a lot of the points that Stuart makes. But just to set the record straight that Shiny was never set up to capitalise on the buzz around ‘blogging’, it just happened to use a blogging platform/ethos to deliver high quality content because we thought it was an effective means of reaching our audience – and so it proved. I strongly refute the suggestion that our content isn’t as good as it used to be. In fact I think it is much better than when we couldn’t afford to pay/train decent quality writers. We now have 10 full time journalists and around 40 freelances who are all highly skilled at writing and, increasingly, presenting to camera. Regarding design, I think there is sadly always a trade off between the user experience (ie the reader) and the commercial reality. We don’t have the luxury of the BBC in supporting endless amounts of content at the tax payer’s expense. As a blog network we face issues around having a high number of uniques but lower page impressions per unique which means that we have to put quite a few ads on the page. Over time, as the market matures and advertisers realise the value/size of our audience I think we will see the number of ads per page fall and the user experience improve. Finally, just to make it clear that blog publishing hasn’t failed as your headline states. Shiny continues to go from strength, both in terms of traffic and revenue which have grown substantially in the last 12 months since taking investment from Bright Station Ventures. Chris Price, MD, Shiny Media

  • http://www.t3.com Katherine Hannaford

    In reply to Stuart, who claims “just because we don’t have an office doesn’t mean we aren’t a professional outfit. But there is not a week that goes by where I don’t have to question a PR company as to why they’ve decided that it wasn’t a good idea to talk to us first. ”

    Perhaps it has something to do with the constant breaking of embargoes, lack of outgoing links to the real source, and blatant plagiarism undertaken by your writers (from both press releases, and other sites)?

    To wit, here’s a post on Pocket-Lint – http://www.pocket-lint.co.uk/news/news.phtml/16266/17290/O2-MMS-text-photo-controversy.phtml

    And a post on PC Pro, which Pocket-Lint linked to as a source (for once) – http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/213597/o2-plugs-mms-picture-leak.html

    Now, have a look at the mirrored phrases –

    Pocketlint – ‘after it was revealed that photos sent by MMS can be found using just a simple Google search’

    PC Pro – ‘after it was revealed that photos sent by MMS could be found with a simple Google search.’

    Pocketlint – ‘images can be accessed using a simple InURL search on Google.’

    PC Pro – ‘library of photos could be accessed using a simple InURL search on Google.’

    Pocketlint – ‘The problem was highlighted on dozens of blogs, news websites and even O2 messageboards over the weekend.’

    PC Pro – ‘The problem was highlighted on dozens of blogs, news websites and even O2 messageboards over the weekend.’

    Pocketlint – ‘O2 eventually decided to take the nuclear option and take down the website viewing service.’

    PC Pro – ‘O2 eventually decided to take the nuclear option and take down the website viewing service’

    Pocketlint – ‘Now anyone attempting to view the leaked images is met with an Apache server error message.’

    PC Pro – ‘Now anyone attempting to view the leaked images is met with an Apache server error message.’

    Are you telling me that this is the way to gain the respect you believe blogging, or indeed online publishing deserves, Stuart? The amount of conversations I, along with other journalists, have had with PRs about your publication make it clear to me that the reason you’re not getting “taken seriously” is because you’re breaking all the rules, and giving blogs and online publications a bad name.

    Disclaimer: I used to work at Shiny Media until two months ago when I moved to T3.com, and Pocket-Lint is one of my online rivals for traffic.

  • http://renaissancechambara.jp Ged Carroll

    Another problem is that you are competing against high quality US content. About 75 per cent of the sites in my news reader are from the US or international publishers rather than the UK.

    All readers aren’t created equal, a well defined high value demographic that has smaller overall unique users would represent a good proposition to marketers, particularly on PPC adverts. Its no use having a million readers if they are all part of the nations underclass and would only appeal to JD Sports, debt consolidation companies and lawyers specialising in legal aid.

  • Becca

    I used to read Catwalk Queen and ShinyShiny (which used to be my favourite) and even Hippy SHopper…I liked them when they first started. Then the advertising got to be too much. The content seemed like regurgitated press releases. It didn’t seem fun anymore. It was a great idea and a couple of years ago it was really cool.

    Why don’t you guys care more about your design and your content? Where is the creativity? I am just really disapointed now with them. I’d rather read Sugar even tho they barely have any UK sites.

  • http://paulfwalsh.com/blog Paul Walsh

    Point 6 is absolutely true. The BBC continues to hamper innovation in the startup world.

    I do think there’s a lack of appreciation and experience amongst most PRs when it comes to online, not just the new way in which we converse with the consumer. Note that I didn’t say ‘all’ of them. Clearly there are some PRs who are good at what they do, but like old media, there’s a massive lag and it’s time they caught up.

  • http://blog.luziaresearch.com Al

    Katie who is the Editorial Director from Shiny has asked me provide the verbatim PR post – which I can’t do. Upon checking up as I should have done before making the comment – the actual post was not verbatim.

    The verbatim issues came in that the same post was then posted on 4 or 5 different blogs verbatim – this is what made me think it was a spam network of some sort.

    Sorry for accusing Shiny of verbatim posting press releases – that was not at all true.

  • http://davepress.net/2008/08/13/bookmarks-for-august-13th-from-1143-to-1143/ Bookmarks for August 13th from 11:43 to 11:43 | DavePress

    […] Taking the shine off: Why blog publishing failed in the UK – Interesting article on TechCrunch UK about the failure of independant blog networks to succeed in the UK […]

  • Iain

    The design/ads/usability is the major drawback. Looking at the way any shiny site is put together, its clear that they don’t have a clue about online media. It seems from Ashley’s comments that they were trying to align themselves too much with mainstream media, but at the end of the day you’re a website, nothing more. They need to pay the same attention that the rest of the industry pays to areas such as usability, user loyalty, SEO, accessibility, ad placement, market research. New media in the uk has never been stronger and its one of the only industries that hasn’t been hit by the recession.

    Chris, as for the ads, “having a high number of uniques but lower page impressions per unique” this isn’t common to blogs, this is common to sites that don’t work, caused because the users hitting one page then leaving without venturing past the initial landing page. Less ads would lead to more impressions, more loyalty, which would lead to more overall banner impressions, its a clear case of chicken before egg.

    Bottom line, the issues are not industry related, these issues are limited to a company that doesn’t have a clearly defined strategy trying to survive in an industry that it doesn’t understand.

  • http://andymerrett.co.uk Andy Merrett

    I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt (of not trolling) because everyone is entitled to their personal preferences about what constitutes good content etc., but here are my thoughts on “Let’s Bash Shiny” Day

    @Paddy: TechDigest can’t be all that bad all the time because we do get pickups *from* some of the sites you read – guess that’s when they “miss” things eh?

    @Al: The concrete example, rather than a blanket statement about verbatim press release copied from “one of your sites” when Shiny Media publishes thousands of articles each month, would be useful. I’m sure it has happened. If it doesn’t compel you, that’s fine, we can’t cater to everyone.

    @Becca: I take some offence (though not much, as I have better things to spend my energy on) at being labelled as someone who “regurgitates press releases’. (compare: Katherine’s comment). For your information, I spend a significant proportion of each day writing articles. Yes, a number of them are based on press releases (show me any journalist who doesn’t use them) but I do inject commentary, opinion, and context. Maybe not for everyone, but I have connections who are happy to read and interact with Shiny blogs.

    @Dave Nicholls: Again, one example does not a rule make. We work very hard to engage with those leaving comments, as it’s (IMO) an important part of any blog. If you felt you weren’t treated with respect, then I’m sorry. I hope it was more an oversight than an intentional desire to offend.

    Disclaimer: I am a freelancer writing for three of Shiny Media’s technology blogs.

  • Kate Etherton

    It’s an interesting and slightly disappointing post from Stuart. I don’t whole heartedly disagree either, but having worked in PR himself he should know better the workings of a PR agency and the daily struggle they have mediating between in-house people who want one thing, and are under a lot of internal pressure, and people like himself who expect another.

    People love to see their name, company and product in print and it’s only recently, despite banging on for what feels like my entire career, that companies appreciate the reach of online media – and this has only really been highlighted through their use of SEO. Sad but true. So I wouldn’t beat the agency up too much here, you’d be surprised how much goes on behind the scenes that you’re not exposed to, fighting the corner of the online publication (be that blog or otherwise). Although if you’ve ever worked in PR it shouldn’t come as such a surprise.

  • http://andymerrett.co.uk Andy Merrett

    @Al: your second comment came in as I was posting my long retort. Pleased that’s cleared up.

    Additional disclaimer: These are my thoughts as someone working with the company, and not necessarily the viewpoints of the Directors of Shiny Media.

  • http://www.shinymedia.com Katie Lee

    The impression this piece gives is that we set Shiny Media up purely as a company that we wanted to flog to the highest bidder as soon as we possibly could. That certainly wasn’t my motivation – I wanted to create online magazines that were funny, well-writen, interesting and a world away from women’s magazines (and some other print media). I think we’ve achieved that (and I’m sorry that not all the commenters feel the same) and created a great portfolio of really great sites.

    I know it makes for a better story, but the headline and intro you’ve tacked onto this piece is depressingly British. Three journalists set up their own publishing company with no initial investment, attrack Blue Chip advertising and investment, become respected in the industry (we haven’t had a problem being taken seriously by PRs for a while now, but it took time and patience) and continue to go from strength to strength, and yet somehow we’re a failure?

    @Al: We never copy and paste in press releases – unless there’s a good reason for it (eg to highlight how ridiculous they are) – and I’ve contacted you in the hopes that he’ll direct me to the post so I can address it.

    @Dave Nicholls We also usually respond to commenters (unless the comment is rude or aggressive in tone) and I’m sorry if that didn’t happen this time.

  • http://www.broadstuff.com alan p

    Sadly for Shiny, content is still king. The content got worse as the ads proliferated. Also, there is always an 800 lb Gorilla in a sector, whether its Google, Microsoft, or the BBC. C’est la vie. And they are all offset funding themselves in the digital media sector, so there’s no real difference in BBC’s status.

    However, to the bigger issues – there is truth in the points that US outfits are being funded/bought and UK ones are not, and that Ad agencies are being very cautious. Thus, even if one was a “Better than Shiny” its not clear their fate would be much different.

  • http://www.thisfrenchlife.com/ Craig McGinty

    Thanks for that Ashley, very interesting to read of your experiences.

    An area that I’ve seen few blogs, big or small, investigate is alternative income streams such as affiliates – and I don’t just mean the odd banner ad.

    I’ve been dipping my toe into it myself, but it is interesting to think that most successful affiliates struggle to create content, whilst most content creators struggle to draw in any income.

    Maybe the two need to talk together more.

blog comments powered by Disqus