Hi Darren, thanks very much for spending a little time with us talking about your site, GateWorld.net.
Perhaps you can begin by telling us a little about yourself?
My name is Darren Sumner. I am going on 32, and currently attending graduate school in New Jersey. I studied religion and journalism at Seattle Pacific University, and then went on to work for eight years at Big Idea Productions, the creators of the “VeggieTales” children’s animated video series. I’m now doing theological studies while maintaining my Web sites as a home business, and occasionally doing some freelance work in the Internet marketing area.
I have always been a big, big fan of science fiction. I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, and now I dabble in just about everything out there. That’s where my Web sites, GateWorld.net and SciFiStream.com, come from.
Where did you get the idea for GateWorld?
GateWorld was born in 1999 out of my love for science fiction in general, and for the TV series Stargate SG-1 in particular. There weren’t a lot of Stargate fan sites online at the time, so I saw a definite area to fill. The site was originally a glorified episode guide, and I steadily added news coverage for the franchise, a discussion forum, and other sections.
Was this your first site?
No, my first major site was actually “The Ultimate VeggieTales Web Site,” which I created in college to support the series and to teach myself HTML. It was successful enough that I got kicked off the school’s free Web space, and later off of the hosting service that I paid for. It was getting too much traffic.
I’ve created several sites, of varying levels of success, over the years. GateWorld.net is by far the most successful and enduring.
I noticed you have a whole host of sites, everything from Bionic Woman to Smallville. How have you decided which shows to “follow”? Do you wait to see how popular they are before committing time and resources?
This has been a big challenge since I spun off SciFiStream.com from GateWorld last summer. Originally I had created these sub-sites based simply on what I was watching and enjoying. But the goal of the new site is to offer very broad coverage of science fiction on television, so I wanted to have something for the major series that were premiering in the fall – in addition to current series that have fan bases, such as Doctor Who.
Of the approximately half-dozen sci-fi shows that were to premiere, I put big hopes in Bionic Woman and created a site for it months before the premiere. I had another two on deck to get dedicated sites after they premiered, if it looked like they were going to survive. Unfortunately Bionic Woman turned out to be a big disappointment, and the writer’s strike has thrown every new show into question.
So in the future, I would like SciFi Stream to offer news coverage for virtually every show that is out there. I’ll create a dedicated sub-site only for those shows that I enjoy following, or for which I can find a fan to help out, and which doesn’t get cancelled quickly. Moonlight and Journeyman were next up; I think the former will happen, but things don’t look good for Journeyman’s renewal right now.
Has the current writers strike affected your traffic? If so how?
As I said, the strike has definitely affected our decisions regarding which shows to cover. We’re in a holding pattern, with the rest of the TV industry, awaiting the fate of a lot of shows once the strike is over.
There has not been a big impact in traffic yet. It’s certainly easier to launch a new site like SciFi Stream when new episodes are airing and weekly interest is up. But much of that site’s traffic continues to be fed by GateWorld, which covers a franchise that is still airing new episodes.
So how long has GateWorld been live?
GateWorld.net celebrated its eighth birthday in October 2007 … though in its early days it went by the name “STARGUIDE.”
Is this your primary job or do you also work elsewhere?
I am currently a full-time student. GateWorld started as a hobby, but it is currently my primary means of income now that I have said goodbye to the 9-to-5 world and returned to school. The site’s success is keeping us afloat during these years of study, and it is entirely possible that I could make it a full-time job in the future.
Do you do all the writing for GateWorld site yourself?
For the first several years, yes. But as the site continued to grow and expand, it soon became clear that I needed other people in order for the site to be all that it could be. David Read joined GateWorld in 2004, and has been an invaluable contributor over the past eight years – so much so that he is now the site’s co-editor. We’ve also had various news writers, episode summary writers and dialogue transcribers, editorialists, and others contribute to the site over the years.
So how many people in total does it require to run your site?
We currently have three regulars contributing editorial content to the main site, one graphic genius, one server administrator, and about eight forum moderators.
Tell us a little about staffing for a site like yours. Do you have salaried employees or are they volunteers? How do you find and retain committed people?
Technically everyone who works on the site is a volunteer. Currently one of them is regularly paid, on a freelance basis. We do our best to let the others know how much we appreciate and value what they do for the site with things like Christmas bonuses, and perks like being able to interview their favorite actors on our behalf when they attend fan conventions.
The Stargate fan base is busting with enthusiastic and talented people. Finding and keeping people committed to the success of our site is actually very challenging, however. I have found that the best people are those who aggressively seek me out and prove that they can create good content. When we post an official “Help Wanted” job description and interview a dozen candidates, those people have not stuck around as long. So the last time we wanted to find someone, I made an informal comment on our forum about it. Just as I’d hoped, I had two or three good people pick up on it and start e-mailing me. I suppose the trick is to make them come to you!
How long have you used SiteMeter?
We’ve used SiteMeter for as long as I can remember – I would guess at least five or six years. Bouncing around from host to host, server to server, made it impossible to get consistent traffic statistics. SiteMeter was a great solution, and I’ve ended up using it dozens of times on just about every site I have ever created.
Can you think of a particular instance where SiteMeter has helped you?
I reference SiteMeter almost every day, to monitor whether traffic that day has hit above, below, or right at our daily average. SiteMeter taught me that our traffic spiked on certain days of the week, and was significantly lower over the weekend. When we talked about launching a daily Stargate video channel last fall, one of my goals was to level the day-to-day traffic. With new content on the site guaranteed every single day, I hoped that the weekends would catch up with weekdays, and weekdays would even out rather than fluctuating quite as much.
From the very first week of our video channel, SiteMeter is demonstrating that those goals are being met. The daily content has kept our traffic very even over all seven days of the week.
I am always interested in knowing what it was like during the first few months. What was your level of experience? How did you go about learning what was required to get going initially?
I had created a few fan sites over the three years previous to GateWorld’s launch, and at the time was working 40 hours per week doing pretty much the same thing. So, in terms of experience, I was in a pretty good position to make a go of it. After all, it was just going to be a little hobby fan site! What’s the big deal?
It has been a constant learning process since then, expanding my knowledge of scripting, layout, emerging Web technologies, etc. as we went along and decided to add a new feature to the site.
From the first days of working on your site to today what is the primary difference?
The site has been around for so long that it is actually difficult to remember what the daily upkeep was like eight years ago. I worked on it in my spare evenings, writing news stories and character bios and tweaking HTML code. Now the site not only has multiple hands to keep it up, but it runs from a content management system, so I am able to be much more hands-off with the code and focus on content development.
Because we have expanded the site into so many new areas over the years – episode summaries and exhaustive plot analysis, a searchable encyclopedia, transcripts, reviews, spoilers, news coverage, sections for books, video games, and other tie-ins, and starting in 2008 a daily video channel – it takes a lot more work to maintain it at its current level.
And now, how much time do you think you spend on your site on average a day?
Since I am a full-time student and have two young kids, I’m currently at one to two hours per day as an average for daily maintenance. Knowing that I was entering this new phase of life, I worked very hard throughout 2006 to prepare for it, relaunching the site with a content management system that allows GateWorld’s co-editor and other contributors to publish material directly, without any involvement from me.
Then there are those days (or weekends) where I can set aside a chunk of time to build out a new feature or do some catch-up on existing sections, write a longer editorial piece, etc. On those occasions I can easily spend eight hours or more on the site.
So what has been the most rewarding part of owning your own website?
As I mentioned, running a site based on a television series makes the show all that much more enjoyable. I don’t just enjoy Stargate for an hour each week; between the Web site maintenance, involvement in the online fan community, etc., I live and breath Stargate. It’s also great to have our site widely recognized, appreciated, and supported by the fan community that we serve, and also by the creators of the show.
Have you had any interesting experiences with stars or studios since getting into this? Any offers to appear on the show?
When the site was about four years old and had established itself among fans, I got into contact with MGM, the studio that owns the Stargate franchise. At first I did a bit of freelance writing for their own site, which (with a little nudging from the Stargate producers, who liked our site) eventually turned into an invitation to visit the set and interview the cast and producers.
I made my first trip on behalf of MGM and GateWorld equally, while Stargate SG-1 was filming its eighth season premiere and Stargate Atlantis was filming its second episode on their brand new sets, before the spin-off had premiered. The producers invited us back strictly for GateWorld a year later, and David and I have been going each spring since. On set, at conventions, and over the phone throughout the rest of the year, the casts and production studio have been incredibly welcoming and supportive. We consider many of them friends.
No offers to appear on the show yet, but some directors have been known to grab reporters on set and put them in a shot! I’m holding out for a grisly death as Military Officer #6. The writers do occasionally name a character after a fan, and rumor has it that Colonel Marshall Sumner (played by The X-Files’s Robert Patrick) in Atlantis’s first episode is my namesake. And he, at least, got a grisly death scene.
What do you think is biggest challenge you face in running a site like yours?
It is very challenging to keep up with the weekly updates and new content production. We are still behind on a lot of sections, notably episode summaries and analysis. The show will air new episodes for several months in a row, during which we just have our noses to the grindstone trying to keep up with the new material that airs every week. When the break comes and reruns start up, I actually breathe a sigh of relief and try to do some catch-up work. But it seems like it’s never long enough, and before you know it we’re back into another three months of new episodes.
Spoilers also present a significant issue. GateWorld has always been a fan site that is independent of the studio, but the studio also supports us with access to set. In publishing things like spoilers, breaking news, and occasionally even critical reviews, we are always walking a fine line with our relationship with the studio that produces the show.
For those of us not familiar with the term “Spoilers” what does that mean?
Ah, spoilers – the joy of many fans and the bane of the television writer. Spoilers are details on storylines and plot developments for episodes that are in production but have not aired yet. Pretty much every TV series suffers from them to one degree or another, whether it is hints about a dead character’s return or descriptions of entire scenes.
For those who are deeply committed to a show’s unfolding mythology, it arguably adds to their enjoyment of the overall show. But watching an episode when you know something about what is coming does alter the way that you enjoy it.
From a financial perspective how is the site doing? Are you staying above water?
The site managed to pay its bills early on, and thanks to some kind generosity especially from our host, it survived long enough to grow past the point where most sites die because they are too big for shared hosting, but still has revenue that is too small to be able to afford a dedicated server. Now the site is in the black, and this little hobby has recently incorporated.
Financially speaking, what methods have you found to be the most effective?
We make money from advertising and product sales referrals. Our advertising is managed by Gorilla Nation, the leader in our category. We also have some inventory left for Google Adsense, which does pretty well as a back-up.
On the sales side, we’ve been an Amazon affiliate for many years. There is a nice steady stream of sales for Stargate-related items, but the big check comes from the annual DVD releases. We’re able to sell (or refer) several hundred units in preorders. We are also exploring the possibility of launching our own online retail venture.
What are your goals for the site?
This year we are launching a daily video channel, which will be a major new content element for GateWorld. We also hope to launch an online store, a Stargate Toys section, and relaunch our fan fiction section. And, of course, it’s a regular challenge to keep up with the show in our episode guide and encyclopedia!
GateWorld Forum has grown to more than 30,000 registered members, and that community remains a huge part of what GateWorld is about.
To people just getting started what piece of advice would you give them?
Anyone who is willing to put in some hard work and who has the ability to write and think creatively can create a successful Web site. When I started, a certain level of technical knowledge was also required – but now there are so many tools (Joomla, Wordpress, etc.) that a Web site creator doesn’t even need to know HTML. The hardest part is coming up with an idea, a subject for your site, and finding the niche that your site can fill in that community.
The site needs some original content and creatively thinking. Content is king – and content has to be good, and original, not taken from other sites. Think like one of your users, and create a site that you would find valuable to bookmark, with material they can’t find somewhere else.