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Cover image for Widget — Grant Report #2 (Final)
Widget

Widget — Grant Report #2 (Final)

Sam
Editor, widgetmag.com. Writer/podcast, workitpod.com. Web dev.
・11 min read

Screenshot of widgetmag.com

Project Update

(For our interim report, click here.)

Now that our grant period has officially concluded at ‘widget HQ’ (basically the UN for funny comedy posts), we can say it was an unequivocal success. Well, okay: some equivving.

There were hiccups, surprises, challenges – and not all of them were we prepared to recover from without missing a beat. But, as we’ll lay out, we hope you’ll agree we did an admirable job at rolling with the punches, delivering some really dynamite content, and completed our grant in a way you might call ~95% literally as-pitched and 100% in the spirit of it.

Here’s some high level bullets, and we’ll link to documentation that gets more granular (for those interested):

Wins

  • We greenlit 130 posts from a diverse cohort of contributors. (Some earlier, anonymous demographic stats about whom are here; we’ll tabulate final stats ASAP.)
  • Our traffic increased from 1.5k (July-December, 2020) to 13.7k (January-June, 2021), an increase of about 800%; our MailChimp list grew from 0 to over 470.
  • We went through 5 drafts and 2 outside readers in the development of an open-source equity guideline for web publishers (GitHub – if you are that rare thing, a comedy editor who forks). We welcome feedback and, being the nature of the project, hope other sites can use this as a basis for their own work promoting equitable publishing. This also led to us releasing two free classes, itself an equity/accessibility effort.
  • We commissioned 26 podcast readings from our contributors to punctuate our sketch comedy show, Work It.
  • We have released the first 2 full-colour, 100+-page (in total) comedy magazines of our pieces, in lieu of the print zines that we had planned in those days before we knew the full extent of the pandemic. (Found on the first two theme pages, linked here.)
  • We arranged partnerships for 5 of our 6 months, 3 with comedy publishers – Hard Times, Flexx, Functionally Dead – 1 with a labour organizing group – People’s Labour Project – and 1 with a magazine by incarcerated individuals – Cell Count by PASAN – during which we featured the contributors or members of these organizations.
  • Unrelated to the grant itself, though perhaps GftW boosted our bona fides, our podcast Work It joined the Harbinger Media Network a Canadian network of left-leaning podcasts with some of our nation’s finest left-wing commentators and content-creators.
  • Finally – here’s the granular part – we completed a 19-part series of posts called ‘Website DIY’ going topic-by-topic on some of the things we have learned in the course of this grant and/or in the course of doing the site more generally. We won’t repeat the topic list, but that doesn’t mean we won’t screengrab it:

Screenshot from widgetmag.com

Draws &/Or Losses

We have a post that goes into this in some greater detail, but in general:

  • Boy, did we underestimate the workload. We doubled our in-kind donated time in our final budget. One of our editors was doing this just about as an (unpaid) full-time job on top of freelance work. While the other was doing her best, which gets us to the other point:
  • We didn’t realize our plan sort of assumed everything would go without surprises or setbacks. We didn’t plan for one of our editors to have a sudden death in the family and trip back home. Or a work promotion (and increasing work load) not too far removed from that. Or for one of our publishing partners to also suffer a death in their family and need an indefinite extension on turning around their pieces.
  • And then there's a raft of less significant things, nevertheless challenging in the aggregate: contributors ghosting, or not replying to emails, etc.
  • These challenges mean some of our content will be published following the official end of our grant period: a couple dozen podcast episodes and about 20 posts have been commissioned and should have been released in the previous 6 months, but will release steadily over the next couple or so instead as we cross our t’s on all outstanding materials.

Progress on objectives

Widget (formerly Spooky), set out to a) bootstrap a silly and left-leaning humour site; b) be a leading web publisher with regard to equity and inclusivity; c) be a leading web publisher with regard to ethical, anti-exploitative business models.

Objective A

Like we said above, this has been a huge success in terms of the content and the traffic. We’ve published (or will have published by the time the few outstanding drafts are in) 130 humour pieces by a diverse cohort of writers, some experienced, some early in their careers. Our traffic skyrocketed. We had two pieces featured in the influential “Newsletter of Humorous Writing.”

Where it wasn’t successful is if you define bootstrap as ‘become financially viable’ – Coil subscriptions are the only form of monetization we pushed and we ended up with subscribers in the single-digits (and revenue around ~$100 or so – total, that is; not monthly).

Shortly, we’re going to send out a questionnaire to our readers and contributors to find out what a broke version of Widget might look like until such a time as we’re able to bring in some cash again. Clearly we missed the mark somewhere here: poor messaging, poor incentives, poor value proposition. So hopefully we can find a way to maintain the site with a skeletal overhead, grow our list, and look for the next opportunity.

Objective B

We completed and published a comprehensive and open-source equity guideline for (web) publishers, reviewed by 2 external readers and following 5 internal drafts. We had wanted and planned for 2 additional readers on top of this but couldn’t ultimately get them confirmed.

Our consultant who led the development of this project identified that one way of promoting equity is to provide free training, and surrendered a portion of her budget to license two free humour writing classes. Again, a third was planned and budgeted, but were unable to pin the instructor down in time.

Finally, a small thing, but we shared some additional posts about tools we use to manage accessibility on our site among our ‘website DIY’ posts.

Objective C

This was unsuccessful in many ways that run bigger than ourselves. On a recent podcast, the creator of the open-source social network Planetary talked about just how difficult it is to fund social networks with a social good mission, and how difficult it is to achieve anything in the way of network effects against the Valley’s juggernauts. We have a Mastodon account – it has 0 followers. You can see from our analytics nearly all our traffic comes from, of course, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

I suppose we could do like, off the top of my head, Basecamp or maybe even Tesla (IIRC) and boycott those channels once we had reached a critical mass of support and could afford to, but right now? Hardly anyone knows we exist. It would be a beautiful luxury.

So, I don’t know what a viable version of this project looks like: we could ensure our hosting is climate neutral, and not on AWS. If we could move the community we do have elsewhere, like a web forum or Discord (or Element) channel, maybe we could get off those nefarious social media platforms and trust word of mouth to help us grow.

But on the other hand, we also want our writers’s material to reach the biggest audience possible. Do we do the deal with devil and exist on Facebook since there are a lack of credible alternatives for up-and-coming sites? Do we congratulate ourselves for feeling reluctant about this? I don’t know. Hopefully smarter people than us work on this issue.

Key activities

Activity A: Producing Coil-monetized humour content

Our primary activity was to produce Coil-monetized humour content. This has mostly come together as planned. We proposed: “We are budgeting to produce 156 humour pieces (132 funded; 24 in-kind by the Editor) and 24 podcasts (hosted in-kind by the Editor, and featuring funded appearances from our contributors as guests) during the six-month project phase.”

Right now, we have published 108 of these pieces. Another 20 are waiting as drafts to be reviewed, having coming in later than planned (just due to scheduling conflicts, other arrangements not working out or, like we said, the ‘life happens’ obstacles that weren’t part of the plan). All outstanding posts will be published in the coming weeks.

We left the in-kind posts after only 8. They weren’t moving the needle at all, and we saw no utility in investing more time in them, given our overruns in labour elsewhere.

The 24 podcast readings have been commissioned, many of them have been submitted, but the majority of these will also be released in the coming weeks due to these same time-management challenges.

Activity B

We promised we would publish blog posts about running the site and about web monetization: “We will create 24 blog posts addressing the ‘meta’ of running a web- monetised, WordPress comedy site – these will be resources for the web monetisation and Coil communities, regarding emergent best practices as we identify them in our use case.”

In this case, we exceeded targets: We had published 8 posts about web monetization at the time of our interim report. In the second half of our grant, we published another 19 posts looking at 19 different aspects of things we’ve learned during this grant and in running the site. We hope, by sorting them by topics, it makes it easy for editors to pick and choose and hopefully learn something to make their lives easier.

We had wanted to do Twitch streams with other editors and, though we pursued this idea in Slack channels with other editors of sites much like ours, we just haven’t been able to secure the time commitments of other editors. There is a lot of goodwill in the community, but people are also busy and focused on their projects and it’s been a challenge trying to get buy-in for collaborative, community projects. (Which y’all, I’m guessing, are getting a taste of with community calls and so on. It can be hard to herd us cats.)

Activity C

Our third activity is the creation of open-source equity guidelines: “As described, we will deliver an open-sourced set of equity guidelines to promote diversity in (humour) publishing on the Web.”

We’re repeating ourselves now, but this went quite well: You can read “Objective B” above for the rundown (though why did I say ‘Objective B’ but ‘Activity C’ – what the hell was I thinking?!?!)

Communications and marketing

We won’t repeat promotional efforts described in our interim report, though some of them were quite good sources of traffic.

If you really want a breakdown of how our promotional efforts led to traffic and things we could have done better, we have posts about our “analytics & traffic” and our “(thoughts on/wishlist for) audience growth”.

The biggest lesson was, we saw some traffic spikes from posts ending up in influencer or niche groups on FB and Reddit, e.g., but also speculated this was unlikely to lead to ‘sticky’ readership, so we might have budgeted more time/money for community building with audiences we think would be more likely to convert to subscribers next time.

Lastly, in our interim report we linked to our first full-colour magazine, a freebie we want given away to the widest audience possible. Our second (68-page, holy moly!!) magazine is available at https://widgetmag.com/themes/food-travel/, with the remaining 4 to follow in the coming couple months once the last posts are done.

What’s next?

As discussed, the immediate priority is publishing all the outstanding (couple dozen) pieces of content that we weren’t able to get out the door on schedule, but are all in various parts of the production cycle.

We will be sending out a questionnaire to ask our readers and contributors for feedback on the project and what they’d like to see from us next and will take that seriously under advisement. We’ll need to determine how we can deliver sustainable entertainment and value, with basically no revenue and a fraction of time that we put into these 6-months. Fingers crossed there’s an intersecting point between all these priorities.

Depending on those responses, we may look at new monetization streams, as well as slashing our costs. (We calculated the site would cost us about $5k a year at this rate if we don’t bring in any money. That can’t continue! So we may move our tech-stack to something more optimized and cost efficient.)

What community support would benefit your project?

Just read, enjoy, and most definitely share if you like any of the material! Check out the equity guidelines if you run a web magazine and see if you can use any bits and pieces! And hop on the newsletter and/or our (corporate) social channels where we will remain active as we try to figure out what’s next.

Additional comments

Thank you so much to the GftW team and the web monetization community for this opportunity. We hope we have created something of value, for humour fans and writers first and foremost, sure, but also for people who just like seeing ambitious projects and find some small part of it they can find a lesson in.

Relevant links/resources (optional)

Discussion (2)

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chrislarry profile image
Chris Lawrence

This is fabulous work. You and the team that did the equity guidelines should consider doing a GftW skill share: Apply here: docs.google.com/forms/d/1RXg5M-Yor...

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scallemang profile image
Sam Author

Great idea. I'll check in with our collaborator on that. She's slightly 'offline' recently, but I'll see if it's doable.