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Gnome Stew Is Three Years Old! The State of the Stew, Year Three (Opinions Wanted!)

Posted By Martin Ralya On May 12, 2011 @ 1:01 am In Gnome Gnews | 14 Comments

Today is the Stew’s third anniversary! We launched on May 12, 2008, with almost the same lineup of gnomes but a whooole lot fewer readers, articles, comments, and subscribers.

It’s been a fun three years, and we hope you’re having as much fun reading the Stew as we are publishing articles here. We just crossed article number 900, and we’re on our way to 1,000!

The real news today is our third anniversary contest, though: Guess how old the gnomes are, in days, and win a $103 Amazon.com gift certificate!

But if you like stats, by all means pull up a chair and check out our 2010-2011 numbers — and, if you’re so inclined, help us solve a problem at the same time.

I do these state of the Stew articles twice a year, on our anniversary and around New Year’s Eve, and if nothing else they’re a good record of how things are going here in the stew pot.

Year Three: The Year of Masks

Our second year was the year of Eureka, Gnome Stew’s first book, which has gone on to sell over 1,100 copies in less than a year. Year three has been the year of Masks, our second book, which we announced in March.

Like Eureka, Masks is a system-neutral GMing resource — a book of 1,000 NPCs usable with any roleplaying game — and like Eureka, when the dust settles it will have taken us close to a year to produce it. We are, in two words that would make a great name for a punk band, anal motherfuckers.

Notoriously tight-lipped anal motherfuckers, actually (which sounds more like some kind of detestable ska band), because we don’t talk much about our books until they’re nearly done. Masks is nearly done, and it’s been a hell of a ride. Watching Eureka sell well in every venue, and reading reactions from GMs and reviewers, has been a hell of a ride as well.

We have another Masks preview right around the corner — the cover — followed by an announcement shortly after that (the author of our foreword). Then we’ll start in on previews of the actual text of the book, likely sometime in June. Stay tuned!

Also the Year of Other Cool Things

The Stew in other languages: Thanks to the efforts of some very cool fans of the Stew, you can now read our ramblings in other languages: Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.

The year of a million: Gnome Stew had its on millionth unique visitor earlier this year — a million people visited this blog in less than three years! That’s amazing to me.

Our new server: We moved the Stew to its own server, upgrading from shared webhosting that was essentially free to a $34/month virtual private server (VPS). That gave us us dedicated RAM and resources and made the site much faster and more responsive for our readers. It’s been totally worth it.

Amazon linkage: We also started partnering with Amazon, and we asked our readers to click the link in the sidebar before making Amazon purchases — a simple way to support the site and help pay for our server without costing you a dime. We’ve earned about $129 this way since January, or about $32/month — the perfect amount to cover server costs! We appreciate everyone who has supported the site this way — thank you!

Look, Ma, Numbers!

Year three site traffic:

Year three RSS/email subscribers:

  • 2,120+ registered members, 25% growth (5/09: 1,100+, 5/10: 1,700+)
  • 3,700+ RSS and email subscribers, 17% growth (5/09: 2,100+, 5/10: 3,175
  • Nearly 181,000 unique visitors and over 351,000 total visits, a 10% drop and a 9% drop, respectively (5/09: 188,000/316,000, 5/10: 210,000/387,000)
  • …of those 181,000, 51% visited more than once, a 4% gain (Google changed how this is tracked, so these are percentages now: 5/09: 41%, 5/10: 47%)
  • 644,000 pageviews, a 9% drop (5/09: 619,000, 5/10: 708,000)
  • The gnomes have posted over 900 articles (5/09: 400, 5/10: 650)
  • …which have attracted over 12,000 comments (5/09: 5,200, 5/10: 8,900)

This is the first year where we saw drops in several stats, which is a bit disheartening.

We gained members (up 25%, which is awesome — but compared to 55% growth from year one to year two, less awesome) and subscribers (up 17%, but hasn’t moved in awhile), and repeat visitors went up by 4%, but we lost ground everywhere else: a 10% drop in visitors, down 9% in visits, a 9% drop in pageviews, and fewer comments (3,100 vs. 3,700 in year two).

I’m not a stats or numbers guy, but here’s what I see in that picture: I see a site that’s hit a plateau, doesn’t seem as fresh anymore, and which has coalesced around a core group of members without much new growth in the past year. I think that having fewer visitors and pageviews but more repeat visits backs that up, as does the rate of growth in new members.

But I also see a site that’s thriving: We won a silver ENnie award for Best Blog thanks to your support, and we published a book that’s been received better, and sold better, than we could have imagined. Those are awesome things for any site, and hell, even our smaller stats for year three would make many sites envious. I’m also particularly proud of our readers and your comments, 12,000 strong and featuring virtually zero bullshit — that signal:noise ratio is as strong as ever.

Stepping back another few paces, I see a site that’s had to fight for its authors attention more in the past year than in prior years. Publishing Masks, which has been time-consuming, has also coincided with a general increase in real-life-busyness among the gnomes, a combination that shows up pretty clearly (to me) in our site stats.

I’d like to cross the plateau and get Gnome Stew back to growing, and climbing, in year four!

What Are We Doing Wrong?

I feel a bit funny ringing in our anniversary — a damned cool milestone that we’re thrilled to have achieved — with what’s frankly kind of a downer article, but the numbers don’t lie and I’m not one to avoid the writing on the wall: I think Gnome Stew is doing something wrong.

Why? Because if we weren’t, we’d have seen growth across the board in year three. Maybe not the explosive growth we saw in our second year, but growth. Or am I just tired, overworked, and overthinking this? (If so, tell me!)

With that in mind, I’d like to ask you, our readers, two questions: 1) What’s the Stew doing wrong?, and 2) What can we do better?

Thank you!

I never miss a chance to say thank you to our readers, and there are few better opportunities than a third anniversary: THANK YOU! You really do rock, and we value each and every visitor, commenter, and subscriber. We write this site for you, and for GMs everywhere, and you’re why we keep at it.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Gnome Stew Is Three Years Old! The State of the Stew, Year Three (Opinions Wanted!)"

#1 Comment By MonsterMike On May 12, 2011 @ 7:36 am

I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong – I think you had rapid growth the first few years as people heard about you, and now the growth is flattening off because you are approaching saturation of your market.

Here’s a question to ponder: How many English-speaking people regularly play tabletop RPGs today? Of those, how many regularly GM? And of those, how many create their own original content and are interested in learning how to GM *well*? It seems that this small group of folks (probably under a million) are your core audience of regular readers. You can’t keep climbing toward that limit at 50% growth.

With that said, what can you do to improve? The Stew is always tasty, but you might want to consider accepting articles from your readers on a limited basis (i.e. screened, edited, and accepted by your core staff) to broaden the perspective and hit on new topics. My $0.02.

#2 Comment By Rafe On May 12, 2011 @ 9:07 am

Your stats might be affected by the facebook Gnome Stew page. If people are reading and commenting there, you’re “splitting the vote,” so to speak. Frankly, those updates should direct readers here and not to a copied article hosted on facebook.

I find it annoying to try to click on a new article when I see one posted via facebook update only to still be on facebook. Then I have to jump here, click on the article, etc. Yeah, it ain’t much… but it doesn’t take much to dissuade someone from viewing (it’s dissuaded me, and I’m a “regular” of sorts). It would also pooch your main site stats.

So, just a thought: stop posting the articles on facebook. Rather, have the article header hyperlink bring readers from there to http://www.gnomestew.com directly.

#3 Comment By Trace On May 12, 2011 @ 9:40 am

I will answer your two points, with brutal honesty, as is my way. Know that it comes out of respect.

1.) What are you doing wrong? Ever since you guys started writing the books, which are great, mind you, the site has suffered. There is no longer a new article every day, sometimes for three or four days. And then, many of those are not up to the caliber of usefulness that many of the earlier articles were.

2.) What can you do to fix it? Don’t let the site suffer while you are writing the books. The site is what made the books sell in the first place. Do not let your flagship project falter for the love of spin-off projects. Devote the time back to the site: daily, good, deep articles. That is why people come here. When those wane, so do the visits.

That being said, I love you guys, and I always look forward to your content.

#4 Comment By Sarlax On May 12, 2011 @ 9:45 am

I’ll echo Rafe’s remarks about Facebook, but I’ll start with my own experience.

First, I’ve become much busier in the last year, and that means less time for everything I’d like to be doing (I can only write this now because a professor is late). More broadly, and this is pure speculation, but with an economy that tanked, people have been dealing with bigger things – and also not spending as much on new games.

Following that pure speculation, my second point, also speculative: You don’t get a lot of readers on a game sight without lots of activity in the gaming market. What I mean is that unless publishers are cranking out new products, there’s less buzz, and, for the Stew, less demand from GMs who might be looking for advice about how to use a new product. Even though I’ve been busy, I still tried to find time to use the WoTC message boards. However, after the release of Essentials, there simply haven’t been many gaming products released for D&D, and the message boards there have become less active.

Gnome Stew, without a big product line, will probably depend on the activity of other publishers to stay active. If there aren’t new games, people don’t need gaming help as much. I’d consider more articles along the lines of GM-centered product reviews. It might train readers to come to the site more for “news” about games, and stay for the GMing advice.

Third, I feel like there have been some gaps in new articles recently. I glanced back through the April archive and see a couple spots where there weren’t new articles at all for days and even a week. When a site has daily updates, I check it every day. If it doesn’t, then I drop off. I don’t use RSS feeds, so I rely on actual visits to see what’s up.

Fourth, following the above, the site is by its nature aimed at a limited audience, and the numbers might simply reflect that. Something new draws a small crowd, and that crowd tells its friends. Word of mouth will draw some people, but not everyone. Eventually, some fraction of the old users will drop off, but you’re not likely to see any new users who already passed on the site. I expect the peak, plateau, and drop off to be standard for any site. I think the only way to change that would be to grow the audience with new kinds of topics.

Fifth, there are some things going on with the site itself. Returning to Rafe’s point: Publishing in two locations doesn’t seem like it’s going to keep people here. Facebook also have a kind of culture that discourages me from “serious” participation: I wouldn’t write something like this on Facebook, because I have this lurking feeling that FB is for quick, one or two sentence thoughts on something, but not a lot of material on a topic. Finally, since no one seems to post for Gnome Stew on Facebook, whenever I look at FB for Gnome Stew material, I see a “dead” topic, not generating any activity from the readers.

Sixth, I think this site ought to be mobile friendly. I don’t know how the host works, but for a site that’s only about the text, I should be able to read it on an Android or iPhone without bending over backwards. Most of my free time now is for 60 minutes a day on the train, where I can read a dozen NY Times articles, but where I currently can’t read Gnome Stew comfortably. I’d love to see a mobile view for the site that allowed posting so I could stay in touch more easily.

Seventh, despite what I previously said about FB, it might help to have FB or Google integration. It’s becoming increasingly common for sites, rather than requiring a new user account, to permit new users to interact with it through their existing Facebook or Google accounts. I think eliminating the little barriers – like making a new user name – would encourage people to stick around.

#5 Comment By Sarlax On May 12, 2011 @ 9:48 am

Another note on the numbers: Contests probably inflate the users. I’d guess you have a lot of drive-by traffic, but readers don’t have to register – but if you announce, say, a $103 contest, I’d expect a lot of new registrations without an actual increase in participation.

#6 Comment By lomythica On May 12, 2011 @ 10:21 am

Hi guys! Congrats on three years!

I have been reading for about a year and a half and have immensely enjoyed it. To answer the question of why stats are down, I would concur with others that the divided focus is a big contributor. It is a safe bet that less content will equate to frpewer visitors and comments.

You could consider making the book sells a larger part of your criteria when you grade success. Perhaps that might bolster your view. Otherwise, more articles are a necessity. Have you considered a ‘Gnome-in-training’ program? Get some fresh blood doing some guest articles, and helping to dill the time gaps. Of course you don’t want crap, so it can’t be an Orc or a dwarf, but I bet that you could find some willing gnomes who are on the up-n-up perfecting their brand of stew.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the varied perspective of the Veteran Gnomes. But if the vets do not hqve time to post as often, and you don’t want to drop stats, you will need to bring in the next gen of contributors, or maybe even celeb contributors.

My $2.22

#7 Comment By davethegame On May 12, 2011 @ 10:32 am

Congrats on the blogiversary guys- can’t believe it’s been that long already.

If it makes you feel any better, we’ve flatlined a bit too. Our evergreen stuff has tended to do a lot better than anything new, with some occasional big bumps, so I’ve thought about ways to refresh old content and bring it back- would love to see you guys do the same for my own reading.

BTW, I said it back then and I’ll say it again now: I hate having to login to leave comments :) It may seem trivial, but spread out across all the blogs I read, it’s enough to keep me from commenting most of the time.

#8 Comment By drow On May 12, 2011 @ 10:51 am

there’s a facebook thing? fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuu

#9 Comment By philipstephen On May 12, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

I think in general, you guys and your website and all the articles are brilliant…

If you want my two cents, the only thing that occasionally puts me off is a few articles with particularly harsh language…

I can handle the phrase “anal motherfuckers” but I could see how it may drive some people away that would otherwise enjoy the resources you have to offer…

I can’t think of a specific example of harsher language… but I can recall a few times being put off by some of the more crass humour in some articles.

Other than that… sheer brilliance! keep up the good work!

#10 Comment By Tomcollective On May 12, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

Congrats on the third year! I was fortunate enough to find this site just as I was starting up a campaign. It had been years since I ran a game, much less a campaign. This site proved to be a treasure trove of advice. Thanks for helping to make a great experience for me and my players!

That all said, I’ll throw in my two cents:

- The articles I have found most helpful have been very nuts and bolts, and very specific with what aspect of the hobby they cover. Any stuff that answers direct issues with running a game has all been totally awesome. I suspect this is what built your numbers up in the first place, because other blogs just don’t address the practical aspects of running a game the way you guys do. Looking at the home page right now, these are the articles I found most helpful:

- RPG Background Music
- Epic Campaign part 3
- Front Load encounters
- Hard and Soft scenes

These are the articles I did not find helpful, and why:

- Cigar Box (Interesting, but doesn’t serve my needs.)
- Never Promised you a Presitge Class (Editorial Piece. Doesn’t help me make my games any better.)
- Gaming Legacy (Gaming Philosophy, essentially. Again, doesn’t help me at my table.)
- Change the Genre (An ok idea, but the article itself seemed a little half baked.)

All of the articles are well written. But I think Gnome Stew does its best work when it fills a need. You guys are, essentially, providing a service for GMs. That’s what drove me to visit, and that’s why I return. I can talk about prestige classes over beers or during a lull in the game, but I visit Gnome Stew looking for help or ideas! If I would make any request, it would be to stick with the nuts and bolts stuff.

That said, I also think you guys may have reached the point where you may want to think of ways to innovate and/or expand. What does that mean? Well, someone else mentioned a line of books. But that isn’t the only thing. Personally, I think that facebook and social networking sites are still important places to be. While it is true that it may prevent truly accurate statistics, the visibility and accessibility are important. Particularly if this site isn’t phone friendly yet (I wouldn’t know, I have a crappy phone), the ability to read an article on facebook only helps your cause. But more importantly, expansion and innovation are what will keep the site relevant. And that comes down to one question: what other ways can we serve, reach, or create a growing community of GMs? Personally, I would’ve LOVED for someone to write a book about writing adventures. NOT campaigns. NOT “story seeds”. NOT macro anything. Adventures. The beginning, middle, and end of a session. It frankly amazes me that in the decades this hobby has existed, almost no one has done this. (It is worth noting that you guys have already written on this extensively, which is yet another reason why I continue to visit this site. And to me, this is what SHOULD be in the DMG. NOT that cart before the horse campaign stuff. I’m telling you, if you collected all your adventure writing stuff into a single tome, a lot of green GMs would sing your praises.)

But expansion/innovation means other things, too. You may want to think about staffing, or interns, guest writers, courting industry bigwigs for aforementioned guest writing (you already have the reputation to do so), or dedicating your team into just bloggers and just product developers, or even expanding the team itself. This isn’t a garage band anymore. It’s a publication.

A mighty fine problem to have, if you ask me. :-) Congrats again and keep up the good work!

#11 Comment By recursive.faults On May 12, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

I’ll weigh in too!

Let me say that of all the internet this is one of 3 sites I check daily. I love it, so don’t think you’ve failed. Think you can improve.

The gnomes are diverse and great. They often write compelling articles to prompt a GM to think about their game in new ways. However, I feel there are a couple of things that could be done to bolster readers.

First, readers don’t know you or how often you run, or anything else. When you get right down to it, you could be a bunch of people who never game at all and are writing interesting and plausible ideas. I love what you guys write, but a lot of it can leave the reader with a reaction of, “Thats easy for you to say!”

So what can you do about that? Well, I know you have a suggestion pot, but I rarely see posts that are obviously linked to it. Being more obvious about the suggestions you write on would build a better sense of activeness and community. That will usually attract people. Second, Patrick Benson stuck his neck out and ran a game for total strangers. He put his money where his mouth is. Is that even a feasible idea? Probably not, but again it does provide the gnomes with better experience and it does ground the gnomes as GMs who are real people.

Second, I think a lot of GMs get focused on small details of their games or systems of choice. GnomeStew misses those people completely. Again, I like what’s here, but a lot of it can be vague, lofty, or irrelevant to a lot of readers. As a personal example, I’ve never felt that background music is helpful, and despite seeing numerous articles, none have ever done much more than provide me more with playlists for the music I will never play. Obviously that’s a generalization, but I feel a lot of the articles are too.

More to the point, I would say that the articles could stand be a lot narrower in scope. Articles on how to plan a single gangbuster encounter. Making one single NPC brilliant, pushing one system in a direction that was never intended, and so on. Also, I would consider writing system specific articles. I know this seems to be contrary to what normal GM advice should be, but it could be the missing link.

After all the general and good GM advice is over, sometimes all you’re left with is a rulebook and questions.

Anyway, I love this site and what you guys do. I’m so happy I’ve found it and I’m excited every day there is something new.

#12 Comment By Razjah On May 12, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

Happy three years gnomes!

To improve:
More Posts
I think the gnomes should post more. I know this has been said but please post more articles. I know that coming up with new GM advice every day is difficult, but there are 10 gnomes and not seeing an article on a weekday is something that hurts people checking every day.

Columns
Having certain topic on a day of the week would be cool. Many site I frequent for other geek hobbies have different collums people can read and they always update on a certain day. The newest magic design article-Mark Rosewater writes it, it goes up every monday. Perhaps having every Tuesday dedicated to making fights cooler, Wednesday about NPCs, Thursday about treasure. This would help people know when to check in and give a bit more strucure to the site. It can seem to be a bit “thoughts of GM X who posted today- tune in tomorrow for thoughts of GM Y tomorrow”

Unified Update Time
Is there a way to make every article go live at a certain time everyday? I try to check this before class each morning- if there is no early update I miss the article until the next day. Articles are always updated at 12am est or something would be awesome. Then if no article goes up then, the readers don’t need to worry about checking in later.

#13 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 12, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

Thank you VERY much for the suggestions, the brutal honesty, and the meaningful feedback. This is why I love our readers!

We pumped out close to a hundred emails on our internal mailing list about this topic today, and combined with your suggestions we have a lot of ideas to consider. Enough that we’re not quite sure where to start, but that’s a solvable problem.

Keep the suggestions coming!

#14 Comment By DNAphil On May 15, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

Hello all… I just wanted you to know that i have just taken every suggestion you have made, and put them into a single Google Docs spreadsheet with all the suggestions that we have been making internally, and they are all getting used in a Gnome Discussion we are having about ways to improve the Stew.

Looking now at the sheet, there are a few things that were said here and internally that are going to be the first things we address, and there have been a number of other great suggestions made here, that were not mentioned internally, so you are adding great ideas to the pot.

Thank you all for the support and the great advice. We are here because you are reading us, and today we are here listening to you.

Thanks again.


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