Note: This interview was originally published in July 2006. Drew eventually went on to run (unsuccessfully) for governor of his native Kentucky in 2015.
We’re just going to come right out and say it: Fark.com is our favorite Web site. We love it not only because of the offbeat, guy-oriented news and snarky commentary — but also because of its sheer genius as a business.
Fark.com is basically a one-man media operation — powered by the freely submitted contributions of its readers — that today delivers more than 1.7 million page views on weekdays and close to 90 million ad impressions per month.
Is there any other online media outlet — mainstream or otherwise — that is that efficient? We doubt it.
Drew Curtis founded Fark in 1999 and is still its only employee. Here are Drew’s thoughts on his success, the future of media and advertising, naked women, and other topics.
MO: Since we started writing Media Orchard 16 months ago, we’ve been fortunate to receive links from some popular blogs and Web sites. But none have held a candle to Fark in driving traffic to our site. What’s your secret?
Drew: Hell if I know. What’s interesting is that our audience is so diverse that most of the readers won’t click on a given link. We’re not solely tech or solely politics.
MO: When you visit Fark, it’s almost like you’re walking into a party where everyone knows each other. Why do you think Fark has evolved into the thriving, creative community it is — instead of simply a weird-news portal for guys?
Drew: Again, I have no idea. Man, I’m not very helpful. It’s certainly not something we did on purpose. Fark started out as my personal fooling-around website. Although now that I think about it, that part hasn’t changed, but the readership has grown. I tell folks the only thing I’ll take credit for is that I didn’t fuck it up.
MO: We read that a few years ago, someone offered you $40,000 for Fark. We guess you’re glad you turned that offer down. Based on traffic, what would you estimate the site is worth today?
Drew: I have no clue. We rarely get any offers. I think the reason for that is people think it would be easy to replicate Fark. While what we’re doing isn’t exactly complicated, I think there are some pretty subtle but significant differences that make Fark work. No idea what they are, though.
It’s the difference between process and execution. The analogy would be that it’s not very hard to make a hamburger either, but good luck outselling McDonalds. For that matter anyone can cook a steak but good luck taking on a Grade A Prime steakhouse. I particularly like the restaurant analogy because it also applies to Fark’s content. Some media folks have said that Fark doesn’t have any content because we’re just linking to other sites. That’s like saying restaurants don’t add any value to the equation because they don’t grow the food. We’re taking existing material and reformatting it into a new product. Christ, that sounds like corpo-speak. I need more beer.
Selling Fark isn’t really worth thinking about. I don’t know if I could sell for any amount of money. I like knowing what’s going on in the world and always having something to talk about. My worst nightmare would be a legitimate offer.
MO: Describe the trajectory of your traffic growth. How is 2006 compared to 2005, for example? Is growth slowing at all or are you still picking up steam?
Drew: Still steady growth. It’s not exponential anymore but it really couldn’t be given the size we are now. I also don’t think Fark appeals to everyone. For one thing you have to be fairly intelligent AND have a sophomoric sense of humor.
We recently added tabbed pages, mainly to address the fact that not everyone gives a shit if Britney Spears goes for a walk or there’s a good catch at the Yankees/Red Sox game. When we first launched them, they didn’t get hardly any traffic — the TotalFarkers jokingly referred to them as the Tab Ghettos. Nowadays they’re all going up a thousand or so pageviews every day single day, seriously. The Entertainment tab in particular is super-popular; at the rate it’s going it’ll start competing with the main page as far as overall draw. Politics is heating up as well, mainly because it’s probably the only place on the Internet where you can actually find a balance of spin.
The jury is still out on the voting tab, although I still like it. It’s our little addition to the bullshit web 2.0 concept. Rather than letting everyone vote on articles we just let TotalFarkers do it, ostensibily because they read more articles and care a lot more about the site. Solves the spamming problem too, since you have to pay Fark money to vote.
The whole concept of Web 2.0 is great if you have a small dedicated group of loyal readers (TotalFarkers). The problem is it doesn’t scale because the vast majority of people are goddamn idiots. In general, voting sites are great ways to generate traffic but they suck at putting out a quality product. I’m a huge huge fan of youtube for example but let’s face it, 99.99% of the stuff on there is utter crap (but the other .01% is really amazingly good).
I don’t care what anyone says, the masses are morons. You can’t count on them to pick good stuff. Just check out Network TV to see what the masses want for entertainment. It all sucks. Don’t even get me started on how they vote for elected officials. There’s certainly a place for that kind of thing but it’s not on Fark. Just watch, Web 3.0 will be something called Good Editing.
MO: What kind of advertising works best on your site — and for what types of companies or products?
Drew: Our advertising trends are feast or famine. We either have the best click-through rates or the worst depending on the ad. Ads that work are weird ads, like the guys that ran the ads for cowabduction.com a few months back. That particular campaign set records on Fark. Ads that don’t work are the ads we all know are BS, like smack the monkey to win $10k or click to get a free iPod. Farkers are savvy; they already know about this crap and won’t go there.
The whole advertising industry confuses me sometimes. Advertisers for some reason really, really want to buy ads that annoy the shit out of the consumer. They want to buy ads that block you from seeing content, that shout at you when you hit the page, that stay on the computer desktop when you leave the site. You know why ads on the right sidebar get better clickthrough rates? Because people are trying to scroll down with their mouse and miss the damn bar, accidentally generating a click. Most popup ad clicks are generated by people missing the X to close the thing out.
What value is that kind of click to an advertiser? I can’t figure out why they want this. Surely they don’t want the added stigma of annoyance tacked onto their brand. Remember X10? Yeah. Assholes. Maybe I’m crazy but I think advertisers should concentrate on enticing the customer with either good product, good ad campaign, or better yet, both. When we have those types of ads on Fark, they go gangbusters.
MO: Describe some of the ways you’re extending the Fark brand. Are you hosting events? Have you partnered — or considered partnering — with the Maxims of the world? We noticed that Break.com is doing something with Stuff. What are some ideas you’re exploring?
Drew: We’ve been talking with Maxim, FHM, and Playboy about doing some joint things, as well as two of the four major TV networks. And Readers Digest, believe it or not. That sounds pretty funny to me, too, but I’m betting that about 100% of Readers Digest’s audience doesn’t know what Fark is. They probably don’t know what the Internet is either, but I figure what the hell.
We’re actually going to launch something cool with Maxim/Dennis Publishing in about a month or so, or as soon as my hangover clears up, whichever takes longer. We’re open to pretty much anything, so if anyone reads this and is in a position to do something feel free to hit us.
We’re not interested in doing a TV show but we’d love to do a segment on a TV show if that makes any sense. CNN was marginally interested for a time but I think they concluded that the higher-ups would never let us get away with what we’d need to do to be successful.
MO: We noticed Fark has sponsored links now. When did you begin adding those, and how are they doing on click-through compared to the non-sponsored links?
Drew: I don’t actually remember when we added those. They do pretty good click-through-wise, mainly because we have a pretty rigorous approval process. I reject probably 95% or more of the suggested sponsored links, and in the past have even refunded money to some websites because we can’t find anything worth linking to even as a sponsored link. The links have to be something at least reasonably good, otherwise 1) their site will get flamed into the ground (and rightly so) and 2) it will hurt future clicks on future sponsored links. I try to make sure they’re at least marginally interesting for both the readers’ and the advertisers’ sakes.
MO: How many link submissions are you receiving a day now, and how many make the main page? When did you launch TotalFark, and how many subs do you have to that service? Has it been as popular as you expected?
Drew: We get about 2,000 submissions a day. We put about 100 to the main page every day and usually 20-30 or so on each tab subpage. We launched TotalFark in February of 2003, there are a couple thousand TotalFarkers now. I have no idea what I was expecting as far as popularity, at the time it was impossible to get any kind of advertising so the main thrust was to help the site try to pay for itself. Nowadays we have OK advertising, so I can spend all the TotalFark money on beer and general farting around.
MO: Speaking of link submissions, any idea how many submissions you get from employees at mainstream media outlets? We’ve heard that it’s not uncommon for journalists to send you links to their stories on newspaper or magazine Web sites in order to boost their readership.
Drew: I’d say at least 30% of all submissions are sent in by mainstream media outlets themselves. It could be as high as 50%. I haven’t done any studies, mind you, but it’s a lot more than people would think.
The best part is seeing the taglines they sometimes send in, because once in awhile they’ll be so outrageous I do a double-take. Those guys sent in THAT tagline? Holy Christ.
MO: In general, do you have any advice for traditional news Web sites that are envious of what you’ve been able to achieve?>
Drew: Not really, but there is something I’ve been wondering.
One unique thing about Internet advertising is that it’s trackable. You can tell how many people saw an ad, how many clicked on it, how many sales were generated from it and so on.
Traditional media has rough stats like circulation or ratings, but no real way for advertisers to gauge effectiveness. They’ll tell you that advertising in newspaper, on radio, or on TV performs well, but there’s no way to know for sure. They tell you that most people who see your ad and act on it won’t tell you, so don’t be worried if no one says they sought out your business because of your ad.
Back in my ISP days, we had a guy come by trying to sell us newspaper advertising. He said that if we bought an ad in the paper, 100,000 people would see it and 4% of them would probably buy. We didn’t know any better so we bought the ad, and got no signups.
Here’s the thing: an ad may be circulating on mainstream media, but no one really knows if it’s being seen, and if it’s being seen if it’s being ignored or not. If I buy an ad on page A5 of the local paper, even though it got sent out to 100,000 people we don’t really know if anyone saw it.
With the Internet, however, we do know if anyone saw it. We know if anyone acted on it and if anyone bought something.
Mainstream media has been making a big deal about shifting their assets online of late. This is probably the only way they’ll survive. Newspaper subscribership is going down because their audience is literally dying off, young people don’t read physical newspapers anymore. Same with radio and TV, kids are spending more time online than anywhere else. So it makes sense to move all this stuff online. So far, though, the revenues from online properties haven’t been anything amazing compared to old-school advertising.
Previously, mainstream media could charge insane rates because they could basically lie to you and make up how effective advertising was. Now we know exactly how effective it is, and advertisers buy accordingly.
Mainstream media’s ad sales guys are now caught in the lie. They used to sell on a perceived effectiveness which was super-inflated hype based only vaguely in reality. Now they sell on a measured effectiveness that is far, far less than the lie they were previously able to sell.
For example, newspaper advertising is sold based on circulation. They price based on how much money per thousand people reading the paper, say $50 per thousand individuals. Both the sales agent and the client have no idea if all those people ever see the ad. However, implicit in the sales agreement is the assertion that the entire circulation, let’s say 100,000 people, will see your ad.
Internet advertising works the same way, with one major difference. They price based on how much money per thousand ADS SERVED. That means that the ad stays in rotation until the ad actually reaches 100,000 people. You don’t sell ads based on total hypothetical audience, you sell them based on actual impressions served. And that’s just pay-per-impression.
Google Adsense is pay-per-click, which is like saying that it’s based on how many of the 100,000 people actually physically walk into your store regardless of whether they buy anything.
Going back to our newspaper example, I can’t cite any studies but I would suspect that the actual impressions served (in this case, the number of times the paper ad is actually viewed) from print media are nowhere close to actual circulation. Probably not even close to 10% of actual circulation. Someone else can look that figure up, though; I’m too lazy.
I don’t know about you, but I change the channel when commercials come on the radio, and I hit the can or go make food during TV commercials. Or, as of late, just skip them entirely via the DVR. Those ad impressions are not being served to me.
The implication here is that because of ad tracking, mainstream media will NOT be able to generate similar revenue from Internet properties as opposed to traditional media properties. Not even close, as it turns out.
Could it be the case that Internet advertising will ALWAYS generate less income than traditional advertising because now we can measure effective it really is? What are the ramifications of this for the mainstream media giants? My personal opinion is they better get used to operating on a fraction of current revenue in the future.
I feel like I should wrap this up with a dick joke but nothing springs to mind.
MO: How much of your time does Fark require in a typical day? We assume it’s your full-time gig? What about the guys who help you — are they full-time, part-time, or volunteers?
Drew: It depends. It’s a very flexible schedule, so I can take time off to do whatever, provided I’m not away for more than a few hours. However, when I don’t leave to go do anything, it takes all the time I have. Fark is essentially my full-time thing. Everyone else involved are volunteers for the most part, mainly because there isn’t enough work to do to warrant a full-time position.
MO: How would you describe the demographic breakdown of your community, in terms of age and gender? Are there any geographic characteristics? Political? Other?
As for politics, there’s a general impression for some reason that Farkers are more liberal than not. Most recently this guy said something to that effect: http://donsurber.blogspot.com/2006/06/fark-first-read-later.html
The last survey we did said Farkers’ politics was a near-perfect bell curve balance of left and right. Some Farkers speculate that the reason it might seem like there are fewer Bush supporters these days is that his approval rating is hovering around 30%. Therefore, 70% of Farkers would disapprove of Bush, but this would not necessarily make that 70% all liberal.
I get enough complaints saying our article selection is too conservative to where I’m not worried. An industrious Farker about a month ago ran some stats on Fark’s political threads. He found that 26% of political articles leaned toward liberals, 24% leaned toward conservatives, and 50% were either neutral or made fun of both sides. So there you go.
The weirdest bit on the demographics is age. Under 18: 1.7%. 19-25: 26%. I don’t think that Fark appeals to young kids either, but 1.7% under 18 is so low it’s nearly unheard of. No big deal, though.
Additionally, 3% of Farkers appear to not have any gender. No idea what that’s all about. They probably constitute mostly Florida voters if I had to guess (not being able to figure out where the radio buttons are to answer the question).
MO: Even though Fark skews male and you have links to pictures of nude women on the site, you’re careful not to let things get too explicit. Why is that? Is that based on feedback or how did you come to that decision?>
Drew: We actually don’t have links to nude women on the site anymore, we moved that off to Foobies.com. We had advertisers using boobies links as an excuse not to advertise on Fark. Even though if you check your local sports page you’ll see strip club ads, or your phone book, or your local radio station, or billboards in most major U.S. cities. Just like all those examples, we just pointed to places to find boobies, we didn’t actually host the pictures. But whatever.
Like most men, I’m a big fan of naked women. Lots of women seem to enjoy being naked as well. However, when it comes to porn, I’ve read a bunch of studies on women who are in porn, and those don’t seem to turn out so well. Most of them have been sexually abused at best; it goes downhill from there. Whenever I see porn that’s all I can think about. Kind of ruins it for me.
I’m also not a big fan of spreading. It’s about the female form for me, not an anatomy lesson. I don’t need to be able to see her tonsils from the wrong end, it doesn’t do anything for me.
MO: When you see the empire that Joe Francis has built from making Girls Gone Wild videos, or see Amanda Congdon going Hollywood, do you think there may be an opportunity to leverage Fark into grander things? What are your dreams for Fark?
Drew: There probably is an opportunity to make Fark into something much bigger, but I’m fortunate in that I have had previous bad business experience. I did the empire-building thing once, it sucks.
Money is not the end-all be-all goal of life. It’s about improving your life experience. I don’t mean this in a spiritual or whacko sense or anything. For example, we could probably go out and get venture capital no problem. For what? You don’t get to pocket that money.
Furthermore, I’d have to start taking orders from people. Most people are under the impression that if you have a minority shareholder you can pretty much ignore them, but that is not the case. You’re still accountable, and if they want something done, they can start dragging their feet or pressing you on missing administrative stuff like not having shareholder meetings or not getting quarterly results out in a timely manner. What a huge pain in the ass that is. I’m not interested, been there done that. I really don’t like having to explain my decisions to morons just because they’re shareholders. So the solution is not to have any.
While Fark isn’t making anywhere near as much money as it could be, my life is awesome. I stay at home all day with my son (and soon to be two sons in September. He’s not splitting in half or anything there’s another one on the way). My job is a lot of fun; I don’t report to anyone. Because I’m home all day I can go out with friends most evenings. I don’t have to get up early if I don’t want to, I don’t have to ask for time off.
I live in Kentucky where life is relaxed and the scenery is beautiful. No one depends on me doing a good job so that they can continue to be employed and make mortgage payments. Even with just one minority shareholder most of these things go away. It’s not worth it.
This is why my worst nightmare is getting a reasonable offer for Fark. People say “but then you’d have enough money to do whatever you want.” To which I respond: what if you were already doing the one thing you really wanted to do, and accepting a buyout meant you couldn’t do it anymore?
Problem is, I have a family so I can’t make that decision in a complete vacuum. Here’s hoping it never comes.
Photo Credit: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid