How To Manage Online Forums and User-Generated Content with Muhammad Chishti of

How To Manage Online Forums and User-Generated Content with Muhammad Chishti of

Today on Ezoic Publisher Profiles, I spoke to Muhammad Chishti, owner and founder of

We discussed how he manages healthy forums on a site with almost entirely user-generated content. And also we talked about his strategies for building a long-lasting digital community around his brand.

Read the full interview transcript below

Allen (00:29):

So one question we want to, we’d like to ask everyone is, you know, how did your journey as a digital publisher begin? You want to touch on a little bit?

Muhammad (00:39):

Yeah. I had a feeling you would ask that and that’s the question most people ask it’s for me, it started when I was 14 years old and I’m 37 now. So 23 years ago, I just started a forum for a hobby that I had, which was of all things, small tractors. I was living in upstate New York at the time. And my parents had just recently bought a place on about five acres. And for people who live in the country, you know, that when you’ve got some acreage and needs a mow, the lawn and, you know, tend to the property. So we were actually looking to buy a tractor and I got on the internet and this was 1997, 98. And there was just very little information about it. So I started a forum and it just was something that stayed in the state in the family, so to speak all over all these years and turned into a business.

Allen (01:25):

Wow. So when did you, did you start the domain, like register it all the way back then in the late nineties, early two thousands or,

Muhammad (01:33):

Yeah, so we, we started with like a, just a free forum and I was also a huge Michael Jordan fan back then. I mean, still am,

Allen (01:43):

I’m a UNC alum so, big Michael Jordan fan as well.

Muhammad (01:48):

I was a member of a, of a Nike sneaker forum and they use this forum platform back then. I think it was called inside the web, which is a strange name for a forum platform, but you could just create a free forum and any topic you wanted and then people could just find it. And so that’s what I did. And it was literally the first day, a bunch of people, like probably 20, 30 people found it. And I guess there were a number of small forums online and back then the internet was very different than it is now. You know, use net was a very popular platform for people to exchange information. And then it started to turn into web forums and forums. We can really pop it over probably a 10 year period. So the first domain registration was probably 98. I think our current domain registered in 99 and I’ve kept it since then.

Allen (02:34):

That is a long time. Yeah, that’s very impressive. You know, I was going to ask you with like your website name and for those who don’t know, it’s it’s tractor buy net dot com and I was an like, did you research your niche? I know a lot of people in the current day, you know, the internet is flooded with, with blogs and websites and people, a lot of times try to be competitive and do do niche research before starting. But it seems like from what you explained to me, that it was more so, like, you saw the fact that, you know, on your, on your family’s farm, you have some acreage and you’re like, you know, there’s no real good resource for this type of information. So you found that kind of gap and then, and then decided to create something. Is that along the correct line? Yeah.

Muhammad (03:20):

Yeah, absolutely. It was just, I mean, on one hand it was a labor of love because I really enjoyed the topic. So I was in there every day, it had nothing to do with a business. I was 14 years old. I had no reason to think that this was ever going to turn into like a monetize mobile platform. And back then there was very, I mean, I don’t know how many forms were making much money back then, but it, it definitely involved like zero research. Let’s put it that way. It was here’s a topic that I kind of want to talk about myself. So I just started a community. And I think back then in the, let’s say late nineties, even into the early to mid two thousands, that’s the way a lot of communities started, which was just, people had an interest, a passion, and they started a forum. And if you, if you were the first forum out there oftentimes, or one of the first forums out there, oftentimes people would find you and let them gain popularity.

Allen (04:12):

Yeah, no for sure. I totally agree. And I, upon, you know, I, I looked into your site and I took some notes and stuff on specific things I want to ask you, especially in regards to the fact that it is a form and there’s lots of user generated content, but before we get into that, I kind of want to get into some of the basic stuff. Like, you know, even back in, I guess, 98 or 99, when you said, when, you know, how long did it see you or how sorry, how long did it take you to start seeing traffic growth?

Muhammad (04:42):

I think by the end of 98, we probably had 20,000 people a month visiting us.

Allen (04:49):

Wow, that’s impressive

Muhammad (04:51):

Quick. So we had that free forum and I w I don’t really think we had traffic stats on it. It was just a platform where we could see the number of messages and somewhere in my files, I’ve got the archives of all those messages. So I could probably dig it up and say, Oh, wow, we were getting 50 messages a day or something. But by the time we started like an actual URL based website and forum, we probably had 10 to 15,000 people a month visiting. And then I think, like I said, by the end of 98, it was probably 20,000. And it just, it grew from there. I think one of the, I tracked it with analytics and I think when Google analytics came out, it was probably like 2001 or something. And I think we were about 75,000 visitors a month back then. So it kind of grew from there. And that had a lot to do with rural America, getting online and getting high-speed access. So specifically a lot of our, a lot of our membership has well, pretty much all of our membership has between one and a hundred acres of property. So those are people that are generally outside of the urban areas. So when, while urban areas got high-speed access back in the, you know, late nineties, even early two thousands, it took a while for rural America to get online.

Allen (06:04):

Yeah. Yeah. It seems like, you know, I was going to ask you kind of like what strategies in the beginning you use to Gregor traffic, but it seems to me that a big piece of that was kind of timing, you know, like you said, rural America getting online and it seemed, it seems like you had some pretty significant growth, even from the very beginning of just identifying that gap and the fact that there was really nothing on the internet at the time with this kind of information for people searching, you know, looking for it. And you kind of capitalized off that it would, would you agree, or is there anything else in terms of you know, basing it off forums? Was there, was there any additional layers to what you were thinking back then when it first started?

Muhammad (06:46):

I was thinking of trying to make the community as valuable as it possibly could. And I think I, back then, I kind of had a motto that it’s a knowledge, a community where people can share knowledge and information about tractors, and it was so straightforward and so simple, but also, I guess there’s probably some strategy that goes into how you organize a forum, how you organize the topics sections. We made a decision, I think in 99 to allow all different types of all different manufacturers of equipment to be discussed. Whereas a lot of forms back then were one specific type. So automotive forums are a great parallel where you wouldn’t be a forum. You wouldn’t be a member or you wouldn’t see popular forums about every single type of car. You would see a, say like a Jeep forum or a Mercedes forum or a Toyota forum. And you still kind of see that today. Whereas with our site, we said, let’s just open it up to all makes and models. So I think that gave us a much broader audience than just a one narrow specific manufacturer, for sure.

Allen (07:49):

And I mean, now we’re in 2020. I know a lot of people in different niches and just in general, people have seen kind of like a hit to traffic hit to revenue. Just con if we’re, if we’re thinking about now compared to where you started, are there any new strategies, things that you’ve adopted over the past, you know, five, 10, 15 years that maybe you weren’t thinking about in the beginning that you’re doing now?

Muhammad (08:16):

Yeah, absolutely. I think that once it became a business and there very early on, it had to kind of, we had to try to force monetization because we had server expenses and Bon Uber expenses were a lot more than they are now. So to get a good, reliable host to manage traffic of millions of pages a month, it was kind of a unique situation where we didn’t, you know, we didn’t really have the revenue to support that server expense. So we had to try to kind of drum up a little bit of revenue back in the back in the early days. But once it became something where manufacturers started to recognize internet advertising, a viable option for them, they start to become a business. And then we eventually got to the point where we were literally, you know, paying the rent, so to speak and said, okay, well now we have to actually look into monetization, look at, you know, how to, you know, turn this into a business.

Muhammad (09:09):

And it wasn’t. And I was gonna, I kind of, before this interview, I was like, well, what questions is Alan gonna ask me? And I was like, of course, I’m going to ask, like, what does it look like back then? What does it look like? Now? The thing is that we’ve been through probably three or four iterations of monetization strategies for websites, right? And so we kind of adjust with the times, because in reality, we have to and that’s part of the reason in part how we found Ezoic. And just actually earlier, this here is because this is a very different landscape for selling advertising online than it was 10 or 15 years ago. So for us, without a doubt, when it comes to content, we have a strategy when it comes to monetization, we have a strategy. They, I try to let them go hand in hand.

Muhammad (09:52):

In reality, the lion’s share of all traffic and revenue has always been forums. So we’ve tried things that have worked and tried things that haven’t worked. Some of the things work temporarily, some of the things work longterm but keeping a core understanding of, Hey, we’re a community, let’s try to keep the community alive, vibrant, you know, useful, friendly, well moderated. And that’s kind of like, I try not to focus too much on, Oh, gee, we had a 10% traffic drop because of this algorithm update. Let’s try to mess around with our, you know, let’s try and mess around with our page titles. Right. so, and that’s kind of a luxury that we have of having so much content and being aligned so long, kind of understand that we’re going to probably survive most of that since we have so much content.

Allen (10:40):

For sure. And yeah. So before this interview, I as well, I, I spent some time on your site and I was trying to think of specific, you know, things that I can ask you. And of course the, the, the biggest thing that I picked up on was the, the presence of forums and how widespread it is across the site, kind of like in every nook and cranny, and I was gonna ask you, like, was it a strategy, but you’ve already kind of answered that. That was, you wanted to build a community. Right. And so it made sense to kind of, to that forums lend, lend itself to that type of what you’re trying to, that trying to achieve that goal. Right. and so like, would you say the majority of the growth and kind of sustained growth is, is due to forums? I do see there are articles as well. Like what do you like, how, what does that mix look like now, at least in the present

Muhammad (11:33):

Right now, our it’s all basically user-generated content. So when I said some of the things we tried that, that worked versus didn’t work, we never wanted to become a platform where we started to make opinions on equipment and became like an editorial. I I’ve thought about a, I didn’t want to ever have to answer to any company and say, well, in order for me to, you know, kind of guarantee my ad contract over here, I have to make a favorable review of something. So that’s why I kind of stayed away from that. And just, you know, not having an opinion on those sorts of editorial issues when it comes, if it products and equipment maybe I would say that’s not necessarily the same concern now as it might’ve been 10, 15 years ago when our revenue model was different. And our, like our revenue sources were split much more heavily weighted towards direct deals.

Muhammad (12:27):

But you mentioned, you know, kind of the strategy of growth. One thing we did about 10 years ago is we kind of, and more than one thing, we attempted a number of offshoot communities of related equipment. So we would survey our members and say, well, what other stuff do you own? And it turns out they all on trucks, most of them own power tools. They own a lot of different things. So we were able to kind of leverage our one community and build or attempt to build other communities. And I say attempt because, and this is the thing about having one successful community. It’s not always something you can just duplicate. We had probably three or four that we tried to build that fizzled out and hard are gone now. And then we had a couple that kind of survived and turned into decent communities themselves. So we have another one for lawn care equipment, so much smaller kind of a more broad audience for people who have lawn mowers and move around a lot. So in that regard, it’s once again the same concept, user-generated content of really nicely prepared forum topic organization, but also keeping it simple.

Allen (13:32):

Yeah, no, and, and like, that’s, that’s something I picked up on, you know, and I, and I wanted to ask you more and get like, kind of into specifics about that in the sense of do you have any like pro tips you could give a publisher who maybe wants to add forms of, to their website or are thinking about maybe building a community and having kind of forums being that foundation?

Muhammad (13:57):

Yeah. I’ve thought about this. And we started a forum this year, actually. So I think, but, but in order to grow forum, you have to have a number of key factors that make it successful. You do have to eventually reach a critical mass of traffic and participation that make it let’s just say thriving, because let’s say Alan, if you started a forum about a topic interests that you have, I don’t know what it is because we haven’t met really before today. Let’s say, hypothetically, somebody has an interest in, you know, fine art, right. You know, landscape photography or something. If you have that interest and you don’t mind every single day logging onto the forum and answering every single post, right. To make sure that if somebody new comes to the community, it kind of has like, there’s a sticking power of, Hey, if I went to this community, I actually got some information. So that’s one important thing that you have to have a kind of either a user or a base of users who are really passionate about the topic. So don’t think that forums are something that you could just look at and say, well, this publisher made a, you know, how was the oldest traffic from a forum? All I have to do is just, you know, buy a license [inaudible] and get a domain name. And, you know, it, that if I can do that, I would have like 500 forums

Allen (15:16):

Right now.

Muhammad (15:18):

So, so basically you have to have that really core user base of passionate users who know and understand the product so that you have that authenticity. Then obviously you have to have a well-managed forum so that if, and when a community has issues like requiring moderation, that you have policies in place and in place that actually keep the community healthy. And obviously lastly, it has to have some sort of monetization platform that makes sense. But above all, you know, I always ask the question, like, where is this traffic going to come from? Right.

Allen (15:51):

I would ask you, so go ahead. Yeah.

Muhammad (15:54):

So if I’m going to start a forum on something and I don’t have a way to get cheap traffic, because user generated content really requires probably cheap traffic, more than any other type of platform, because usually you’ll see, see these, you know, like revenue per thousand visitors a little bit lower because we don’t have like, that really targeted content. We don’t have content that was deliberately prepared for monetization. So we might have, you know, out of 10,000 threads, you know, you might only have a few hundred pages that are really viable. Right? So so that, and I’ve seen other members of like the Zola community who have, who have forums. And sometimes there were discussions about what the monetization looks like. And oftentimes when you have a general interest form, it also depends on the demographics and age and value of the users. Sometimes as the revenues per thousand could be, you know, you know, 10% of the other site, like one site can be, you know, $10 or $2 a thousand and the other can be 25, $20 a thousand.

Muhammad (17:00):

So for that reason, I would say that I wouldn’t look at forums today as something that a publisher should start as a specific business model. I would say that there definitely are, there definitely are pockets here and there where there is a product to discuss. And that was one thing I was gonna mention is that if you have a, an interest that surrounding a product, it’s going to be more valuable than just a general interest. Like I said, with fine art photography, like landscape photography, what’s the product behind that maybe it’s cameras. But if your form is about the cameras, you’re way better off, right? Because the cameras is going to draw all those ads for cameras and camera equipment, which are going to be high CPMs, whereas just who’s actually buying fine art landscape prints. Well, it’s probably not as big as the camera sector.

Muhammad (17:56):

Right. So that would be the case where, and I’ve seen this a number of times where you’ll have a company that has a product and they try to start a forum for that product, but it’s already, maybe been done before. And that’s the other thing I would say about if you were thinking about forums, is that if it’s been done before and it’s been done well before, right. To the tune of a forum, that’s got, say hundreds of thousands of members or millions of posts, chances are, you’re going to be just kind of a dot on the radar aspect that isn’t going to actually, you know, provide a, you know, provide that credit, you know, provide that often authentic audience or, or get that critical mass. But there are plenty of examples of communities these days that have started recently that are thriving. You know, for example, I was thinking about like electric, electric vehicles, like EVs, that was a whole sector that really popped up over the past five years that, you know, 10 years ago, it was probably very, very few people, but now it’s a viable market. So hypothetically, if, you know, a certain manufacturer comes, comes up in the marketplace and has new products that are, people need to discuss well, if that’s, you know, possibly a a you know, opportunity there. Yeah.

Allen (19:14):

And it’s, it’s interesting. You mentioned that about like, Oh, well I have just a general interest. It might not be the best idea to then try to create a form around that because you’re going to be better off if there’s, you know, a product or something that people can then form kind of their own, you know, interactions and things with, which is obviously what you have with tractor by net. And you also mentioned a little earlier on about the importance of having kind of a healthy well-managed forum community. And to, in that vein, you know, like what tips would you give publishers? Like if they have a form that’s, that’s got some traction, you know, you have X number of whatever, monthly visitors and members what are some things to watch out for when you’re, when you’re running forums on a website, maybe things keep an eye on things that could go wrong or have gone wrong. Could you touch on that at all?

Muhammad (20:06):

Sure. There, these days, a lot of websites actually have community interaction. They’ve got comments on their blog posts, right. So even though, yeah, even if you don’t have a forum, you still have community and you still have user-generated content and you probably, depending on the topic if you don’t have a few, this is a very like today’s topics specifically because of the day we’re having this interview election day, politics has kind of become such a big thing that you really have to make a decision early on in your community. Like, how are we going to handle that? And years back, we made the decision that we’re not going to love politics at all. And we kind of kind of completely shut it off. Of course, our users persuaded as the community gets bigger and bigger, they say, well, we want to talk about everything.

Muhammad (20:51):

Cause it’s the know I log onto my phone when I log onto my tablet. And it’s the first website I visit. Well, I want to talk about today’s news kind of thing. So one, one thing I would say is, you know, make a decision about how you’re going to handle off topic stuff. If your community actually grows to that critical mass point, are you going to embrace off topic? Are you going to kind of shoot it off onto its own private section? How, how are we going to, I’m going to make it so that the users remain happy and can participate in the community. But also there’s some sort of, because specifically off-topic and politics can be very fiery these days. So that’s one thing to look out for. We, over the years, I, and our experience with the new communities, we started, it usually revolves around users becoming upset with moderation policy, because if it’s sometimes satire, often I would say satire is lost in text.

Muhammad (21:46):

So you make a comment and maybe a guy who is well natured or a girl who’s well, natured has a very, you know, let’s say a quick quick-witted response to a post. And then somebody else who doesn’t understand, you know, it doesn’t read it that way, winds up getting upset, and then you have to make a decision, you know, are we going to moderate that, you know, you know, hit a friendly reminder if, you know, are we going to be allowed on community moderation? So without a doubt communities, if, if you get to that point where a lot of the users get upset about something, and we see this with large communities, like the SunBrite X, for example, where something might happen in the community, regardless of policy moderation something happened happening that the users aren’t happy with, you really have to have a good understanding of what your core value is as a community and say, well, you know, we are going to take certain policies as, you know, kind of rigid in certain policies as, you know, community evolving policies, right?

Muhammad (22:44):

Like I said, with the politics stuff, you know, or with regards to how people are friendly on the forum. So our moderation today is very different than it was 20 years ago. I will say we have become a lot more lenient. We allow a lot more open discussion. We remove far fewer posts today than we did 20 years ago. So that’s one thing to watch out for another thing to watch out for is kind of, I would say becoming a, you know, revenue obsessed as opposed to content obsessed, right? And opposed to experience obsessed, you know, don’t overload your website with, you know, a bunch of stuff that people have no interest in. Really. And I was going to say that that’s one area where Zoellick big data analytics is extremely valuable, is to see what the users really like, what your visitors really are interacting with, what kind of content they’re finding and what kind of content they are even sharing. I mean, it’s, it’s really a fantastic tool for that. I’m to hear that you

Allen (23:46):

Utilize the tool and it gives you value for sure. And you definitely touched on stuff that I think is, is valuable for publishers who either run forums or want to get into it. And so, but one last thing in, in that form vein that I noticed, and you already touched on a little bit, but I was kind of impressed with it because again, I’ve interacted with, you know, hundreds of publishers since I got hired, probably more with with Ezoic and, you know, you do see a lot of niche sites that are based primarily around like what you said, like your you’d be an editorial or your opinion of a product or something that you will then maybe, you know, Lincoln affiliate link to, and you might make some commission off that. But in going through your site, I saw that a hundred percent.

Allen (24:34):

It seems like if all the reviews are user generated. And to me, I thought of that as like that adds an extra layer of transparency that I feel like you were saying, like, don’t be so revenue focused like that to me is more user experience or content focused because you’re now allowing your community to say, Oh, it’s this, it’s this brand. And this line of tractor that I feel is the best. And like, I’m gonna write a review on it myself. And then someone who might be in the market for one can then go to it and say, Oh, well, this is the highest rated line of tractor in 2020 for this year. I want to check it out. I wanted to kind of ask you, like what went behind that decision? Was it what I just spoke of? Or was there anything else that you caught onto in your, in your publishing journey that made you make that decision?

Muhammad (25:25):

Yeah, we were trying to make more money. No, just kidding. Totally revenue focused on that feature. The thing is that there’s nothing, I dislike more on the internet right now than, than let’s just call it fake reviews or a website that is supposedly an editorial resource on a topic or a product. And all you see is that every single product is linking to an e-commerce retailer. That’s going to get a commission. And what about the products that aren’t sold online and a great, you know, this happens with, with equipment a lot because a lot of the equipment is sold directly through dealers only. So let’s say hypothetically, there’s, there’s a product line that you can buy on Amazon, but then there’s another product line that you can only buy for a local dealer. Well, even though that product that’s sold through a local dealer is generally accepted in industry as one of the best, if not the best brand for that product type.

Muhammad (26:19):

You’re not seeing any reviews online talking about this product simply because there’s no affiliate commission in it for anybody. So my, my thinking is that, well, if you actually provided a, a truly authentic review, and this is kind of where a lot of content creators are on YouTube able to do that, because they’re less focused on the affiliate commissions that are more focused on the channel subscribers. And I think they’re, they’re able to have that more authentic just totally honest review about something. Cause they don’t, they don’t care about, you know, Paige, you know, RBMs whatever worried about let, let, let me build my audience. How do I build it? Great content. So that’s one of the things is that keep in mind that the users will see right through that. And you might get some traffic through your organic search placement, but it’s not going to be traffic that, that lasts and States, right.

Muhammad (27:08):

It’s going to be those single pages with balances and they might even be high RPM, but it’s not something like you’re going to build a community out of that because it’s just going to be like, okay, I saw this page and it’s got, you know, seven items reviewed and it doesn’t even have the one I was considering. Right. So yeah, on our site, we have the user review section and we have no editorial reviews. So it becomes completely honest and authentic, you know, and sometimes, you know, w we do, and back to the question about like things to look out for, we definitely do have a few policies about like, just using the site as a rent board where they just come on and complain about something, because that can kind of skew a product where, you know, if an a great example of this is if you look at certain online like business review platforms, you might find that a company has an unusually high number of complaints, as opposed to good reviews where people only want to go online and review something when they’re complaining.

Muhammad (28:08):

Right. So kind of in order to counteract that we, we did a few kind of, we just call them review campaigns, where we send an email to our mailing list and say, Hey, why don’t you just go review your tracker, tell us what you think about it. And I think people who have that type of equipment, they really enjoy sharing their experiences. And that’s kind of the whole idea of our community is, Hey, share your experience, share your knowledge. And when you need knowledge and experience for yourself, it’ll be there. Right. And it’s, and so in that regard, I’ve, I, I definitely think everything, you know, on our site at this point is designed that way, but moving to the forward, sorry, moving forward into the future, we also want to keep it that way, you know?

Allen (28:50):

Yeah. I agree. And like, just like the way that I would summarize everything you just said, and I think it’s important for publishers to, to really, you know, take a moment and digest everything you said, because it’s one of those things where some people want to get in the game. They’re like, Oh, I want, I want the display ad revenue. I want the affiliate revenue. I want money. And in reality, you know, it works in reverse. You know, you need to build that audience and community first to really get that, you know, unique, you know, you want a relationship with your audience. And then at a certain point you might have a walled garden of people who are tractor owners that someone at some point could then say, Oh, who is the biggest community for tractor owners? And they might reach out to you and say, Hey, Muhammad, I have a great deal for you because you have an authentic relationship with your audience.

Allen (29:35):

And that’s something that, you know, we preach at a Ezoic till we’re blue in the face. Not because we gain anything it, but because we want publishers to understand, like, that’s how you get longevity and you have consistent growth, you know, over the years where you’re just, you don’t have thin content with a few, you know, RPMs and some little bit of revenue, but then you fizzle out, you know? And so I think what you, what you said is very, very important for a lot of people who are maybe starting their publisher journey to, to listen to and learn. So,

Muhammad (30:07):

Yeah, thanks just from experience

Allen (30:11):

For sure. And let’s see, well, going onto the more of the monetization side of things how did you monetize in the past? You know, was it just display, or I know you were saying you had to cover those server costs in the beginning because you had so much traffic so quickly. What did that look like back then? And you know, how do you monetize your website now?

Muhammad (30:33):

So, so back then, as a little bit of pre-story before the site even started, my brother and I had been doing web development for really local companies back in New York, we would just do web development projects on a contract basis. And also our dad had a background in marketing and business. So when it came to basically the monetization side, our, our dad was very much focused on, you know, run, run it like a real business kind of thing. And so when it comes to like the server costs, my brother was really great at managing the backend kind of thing. And that I want to stress that when it comes to building anything, you really do have to identify your team. If you want to be a one, a one kind of like a one man show there, there are definitely so many opportunities to do that.

Muhammad (31:22):

But if you’re talking about being like a career, you know, building a business around publishing online publishing you definitely have a lot of different components to that. Right. You know, I personally don’t have all the knowledge about running the backend, the server, the databases, and all of that. And then on the flip side, maybe a person has those skills, don’t have all those skills to properly monetize. So a lot of sites that I saw even was a member of, you would see where they have a lot of knowledge and expertise to build the site and to build the, you know, maintain the database and all that, but then they don’t know how to monetize. So then they would just like sell out their community or they would, you know, and I don’t mean to like sell it out in a bad way. I mean, like, you know, a liquidation, you know, sell it to another company.

Muhammad (32:06):

So for us, our monetization methods and what I forgot to mention was my dad was also an author that was his career. And he encouraged me to come up with some information products to sell the community. And this was back in gosh, like 99, 2000 or something. So finally I agreed and I wrote a book about tractors and sold it to the community. And that was when I was 17. And that was like our our, our largest revenue generator back then was basically built on how to buy a tractor and how to, you know, evaluate the purchase considerations. So that was probably our largest revenue generator before AdSense came around. And then, so then AdSense came around in like 2003. And like I said, that like allowed us to pay our rent and bare servers basically cover our costs. And then from there, the direct deals started to come and like tractor manufacturers would approach us and say, Hey, we want to try off this internet advertising thing.

Muhammad (33:01):

Let’s run a test campaign with you. So that turned into probably a 15 plus year run of our revenue model being almost probably 90% direct deals. So we don’t have like thousands of direct deals. And I pretty much handled most, if not all of the sales until maybe like 2014, we, you know, we, you know, had like a salesperson working in our office and stuff like that. And then after that, the writing became the writing on the wall was pretty clear that publishers and publishers were going to have to kind of make an adjustment when it came to how they sell their inventory. And I mean, the ad sends model was fantastic for any site that didn’t have direct deals, but we had so many direct deals because we were such a very narrow, specific niche website that we didn’t need the remnant inventory to be sold. And I kind of didn’t want to sell from that nutrient sheet because I didn’t, I didn’t want the clients to be able to like, get access to a bottom page placement for, you know, super low CPMs and say, Oh, we tried your site. We didn’t get clicks or whatever. Right. but that has changed completely programmatic. And now it’s at the point where the direct deals are mostly going away.

Muhammad (35:22):

Okay. Are we value? Sorry. I’m not sure what happened. My screen just froze. And I was like, okay, not sure I checked my wife. I’m like, what’s going on? Well, either way you were saying that, go ahead. Oh, sorry. It might be my connection. Yeah. What was the last thing? What was the last name

Allen (35:40):

You were saying that now the direct deals have mostly gone out the window or it’s like, Oh, it’s becoming smaller than now program with programmatic is what you were saying. That’s what, that’s what you were on before froze. And our, our video person will edit it out. So no worries.

Muhammad (35:56):

Yeah, that’s fine. Yeah. So in the past we had a lot of direct deals, but now those clients are, and their agencies are shifting more towards programmatic. If not exclusively programmatic they’re over the past three or four years, most of those clients are saying, Hey, you know, programmatic is the way to go. And I think that’s an industry-wide movement.

Allen (36:18):

Yeah, no, I definitely agree. Let’s see. How do you measure and evaluate, like what’s worked for your website and what hasn’t.

Muhammad (36:29):

Yeah. So when we’re so kind of, I won’t say one trick pony in a sense, but it’s almost forums are kind of like a one trick pony it’s so it’s, so we always saw an opportunity to do more than just the forums. Right. But that’s when I kind of tried to take a step back and zoom out and say, what is this website about? And kind of our next iteration of redesigning, like our homepage and stuff is going to really focus more on saying this is a community. And that’s what we’re really great at doing and not try to become something that you’re not. And that’s really something that I think all existing websites need to keep, keep in mind is like, how did you get to this point? Is there growth, potential from a traffic standpoint is a growth potential from, you know, community standpoint or content standpoint.

Muhammad (37:15):

But yeah, it’s, you know, some things have worked better than others. And like I said earlier in the call, we had some things that worked for awhile. Like we had the review section on a site at a certain time was probably representing 20% of our traffic, but now it’s probably only 3% of our traffic simply because the website, the technology that we have is not really up to date, you know, the pages aren’t responsive. So our, our basically we need to invest a little bit more in bringing that up to speed, to get a little bit better search placement and get some traffic flowing back to those sections. Email has worked really well for us. We have a pretty decent email list and we communicate with it routinely. So both from a monetization standpoint, being able to sell ads in that newsletter.

Muhammad (38:03):

And those are, those are supposed to be direct deals, but we still have enough direct clients that we can put ads in the newsletter. And then it also works to stimulate traffic and to remind users of popular topics. And sometimes it’s, it surprises me what people are more interested in. Like we’ll, we’ll, we’ll do an email that has certain topics I knew. And I would think, well, this is kind of like, you know, maybe we didn’t invest a whole lot in creating content or gathering content together for this email. And then it performs really well. So, and, and part of that is, you know, great advice would be, you know, become obsessed with data, really like become obsessed, you know, what, what is working? What are people looking for and run with that in a sense.

Allen (38:49):

Yeah, I definitely agree. That’s great advice. Let’s see. What is like one specific thing that you did with tractor buy net that maybe didn’t work or didn’t perform the way you expected it to, if there are any,

Muhammad (39:10):

Let me think. I’m sure there are things I try not to look back on failures though. Really. I try to look at opportunities moving into the future and I, there are, okay. Some things that didn’t work that are gone now where some of the offshoot communities we attempted to create from the site, some of them showed early promise, but I will just say weren’t managed as well as our main community. Part of that would be there’s the resources of being able to, you know, maybe it was me personally, being able to go on the site and every day, make sure the community was active and, and, and alive. It’s very easy for a community to fizzle out because if you don’t have, you know, hundreds of people logging in every day to come to participate, people aren’t necessarily going to say, Oh, let me just post a random thread on tractor, by net for fun.

Muhammad (40:04):

Like, it doesn’t really work that way. Right. probably, and I have the statistics on it, but the vast majority of people are posting replies. They’re not posting threats. So we, we started probably five or six communities that we don’t even have. We just ended up shutting down because they didn’t work. They didn’t, it, we kind of thought maybe that the original growth of the community could be easily, easily replicated, but it turns out it takes a lot more time, a lot more effort than we thought to really build a large community. So those are some of the things that didn’t work in terms of on the site. You know, it, like I said, there, there weren’t any huge decision we made where we said, well, we’re gonna, you know, completely change our, you know, change what we are changing, what we do, and then see see a huge result from that. So I kind of liked the idea of, you know, incremental incremental growth over time, as opposed to try and swing for the fences, hit a home run tomorrow and see overnight, you know, traffic, boom. Like it might work for some sites, but it’s not sustainable. Right.

Allen (41:12):

For sure. And if you could tell your old self, any advice before beginning your publishing journey, I guess, way back in 99 with what you know now, what would you tell yourself?

Muhammad (41:26):

Buy Bitcoin? No,

Speaker 3 (41:29):

The same, it’s like all

Muhammad (41:31):

In on Bitcoin, right. I had

Allen (41:34):

A friend in 2014 who was trying to get me into it and I, in 2014, if I would have listened to him, you know, but

Muhammad (41:40):

Oh, coulda, woulda, shoulda. Yeah. That’s the thing about insight is 2020. Absolutely. I I’m happy with a lot of the things that happened. There isn’t any like major regret with the site. So I would say that there are many opportunities. Like I could go back and say, well, we could have done this and we could have done that. But the advice would simply be to keep looking forward and keep looking at the opportunities of tomorrow instead of the missed opportunities from yesterday, because more so now than ever the internet is filled with opportunity. It’s, it’s our life, right? It’s, we’re literally not having this meeting in person we’re on a zoom call or a Google meeting call. Right. So that’s the main thing is that back then we were talking 99. We weren’t sure that the internet would be what it is today. Right. So the only thing I, you know, there were people who predicted it would fizzle away and it would just be a fad, you know, like CB radio.

Muhammad (42:36):

Right. But there are plenty of opportunities today that you don’t need to worry about what you didn’t do yesterday. You can look to any one of, you know, almost limitless opportunities on the, on the web right now. So in that regard, probably investing more in you know, there, there, there probably were a few things that maybe I didn’t think would be become as big as they are. One of them was you know, probably the specific like content creator platforms like YouTube as a content creator platform. So we probably made one review video back in 2012 or something, and it didn’t really take off. So like it didn’t get all that many views. And we didn’t really commit to video as a creation as like a content creation. And part of it was, we didn’t want to take that role of reviewing the equipment, because like I said, I didn’t want to have to say, well, okay, we’ve got this ad contract with such and such a manufacturer.

Muhammad (43:43):

So we want to favorably reviewed their equipment. So as the website publisher, I felt, we kind of had a little bit of a conflict there to say, well, we want them to remain totally partial, but then we also have these ads running for these manufacturers. So how can pop, how could anybody possibly say we’re impartial? So in that regard, I didn’t feel like we could produce that that, that content authentically. So, but it’s become a lot bigger than I thought it would be. I think that part of it is because everybody’s on their phone every single day, whether you live in the country or if you’re living in the city, you’re using your phone and you’re checking YouTube and you’ve got your, you know, your channels you subscribe to and stuff like that. So with that regard, I mean maybe there could have been an opportunity for us to create a platform for people to create video.

Muhammad (44:31):

You don’t there. But like I said, is it something I would do today moving forward? No, you know, YouTube has got that wrapped up. So you know, it, you know, it’s one of those things where, you know, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it, but absolutely. Yeah. So that’s the main thing is just tell if I were to tell my 17 year old self, I would just be like, have confidence if this community is going to be the best community and this vision is going to actually, you know, turn into a really valuable place for all these users. And don’t, don’t doubt just because maybe there’s a short period of time where it seems like it’s, you know, not growing as fast as you would like it to, you’re not getting that, you know, you know, hand over fist growth because you know what I mean?

Allen (45:16):

You know, Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? Yeah,

Muhammad (45:18):

Exactly. So here we are 20, almost 23 years later with a tractor community that’s still running. I never dreamed it would be. And I’ve told people that I said I never would have expected that from the time I was, what did I say? 14, 14 to 37. I would still be doing the, basically the same job every day for 23 years. Right. It’s it’s yeah. It’s I didn’t expect that. I thought at some point maybe the school of fish of our community might turn, you know, they, maybe they turn and go somewhere else, maybe a different platform. And it’s not that we haven’t seen on the platforms grow like, you know, for example, Reddit, you know, Reddit’s the biggest forum online now, you know, there’s no sub Reddit called R slash tractors that everybody’s at there. You know, we still have a community on our, on our site.

Allen (46:04):

Yeah, no, that’s that’s great. And I think, I think I’m going to leave it with that. You really hit that last question out of the park Muhammad, and I want to say thank you for joining me today and allowing us to, to highlight your journey as a publisher. And yeah, I wish you the best of luck. Then again, you don’t really need it after 23 years, I think, I think you’re in a good place. So there’s tractor buyout. Is there any, do you have any social channels or things where people can keep up with you or anything you want to shout out here?

Muhammad (46:37):

Well, tractor by net, if you own a tractor or you’re interested in a tractor is Google it with, you know, our lawn care site is it’s called lawnmower forum. That’s a fun one. And we have a couple, you know, Facebook pages for those. But, you know, it’s mainly the websites that, you know, we have, so I’m not huge on honestly I’m really not that big on self promotion. I don’t really do interviews like this too often. So fair enough. I figured, I thought I’d ask, you know, if you’re, if you’re interested in attract as good attracted by net, that’d be cool to hear you go. And it’s kind of fun actually. One of my best friends from grade school, I lost, I had moved to a different school and kind of a fun anecdote to share. We were probably 10, 12 years old, 10 or 11 years old.

Muhammad (47:27):

The last time I saw him and then I moved to different school and then it, I think we reconnected on, on Instagram or something. And I saw he had, and this is now, you know, 20 plus years later, he had a picture of himself like, you know, or a video of a tractor or whatever. I’m just like, Hey, go check out my website. He’s like O M G that’s your site. I never, I’m a member of that. So that’s like, that’s cool. And that really happened until recently where people, you know, you would from your like, and it was really cool. It’s like somebody from my childhood was actually a member on my site and we didn’t even know it. That’s awesome. That’s a great thing about the internet, but yeah, I really thanks again for, thanks a lot for having me on, on this I guess channel at this point, and it was a lot of fun to talk to you if you guys want to do it again, it’d be fun probably.

Allen (48:12):

Yeah, absolutely. I’m very, very glad I was able to speak with you today. I hope you have a great rest of your day and we’ll speak soon. Yeah, you too, Alan. Thanks a lot. Take care of mama. Bye. All right, bye.


By Allen Longstreet

Allen is a published author and accomplished digital marketer. The author of two separate novels, Allen is a developing marketer with a deep understanding of the online publishing landscape. Allen currently serves as Ezoic's head of content and works directly with publishers and industry partners to bring emerging news and stories to Ezoic publishers.

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