From blog to brand: Mauricio Freitas (Geekzone)

For over a decade, Mauricio Freitas and his team have created a formidable online abode for tech junkies called Geekzone. Dedicated to the latest trends in the tech industry, the content-rich site has garnered an impressive readership not only in New Zealand but also further afield.

While the site has been something of a success story since the early days, Freitas has not allowed it to stagnate into obsolescence. He consistently introduces new features that serve to consolidate the utility-driven foundation upon which the site was first built, and this approach, when combined with a commitment to relevant and original content, has allowed the site to flourish in a highly competitive niche.

How/when did you start Geekzone? (How did you come up with the idea?)

Geekzone started back in 2003, while I was still working for a Wellington-based system integrator. Initially it was a kind of blog only where I could post cool things I found around the Internet. Back then there weren’t big tech blogs like today and most of my audience was actually US-based. Since then our local audience has matured, the need for local exchange of ideas increased and we turned into a forum, a social thing.

We have a good community, with people who frequently meet IRL (in real life) in social occasions or as business partners. Our moderators (volunteers who make sure the forum remains “a family show”), know each other pretty well and, even though we are based in different cities (Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington), we get together at special occasions (weddings, birthdays, conference trips) – sometimes having members of the community joining in.

It is also great that we have high industry participation. Most of the medium and large telcos/ISPs have presence in the forums, and there are some IT players and manufacturers as well. Sometimes we see a new discussion about a product or service and a couple of hours later we see someone from the mentioned company showing up and interacting.

Do have some readership stats?

We serve about 300,000 unique visitors a month, with around 500,000 visits. About 55 percent of those visits are New Zealand-based audience with 100 percent more page views than our overseas visitors.

How has it changed since the early days?

We keep adding new features in the forums, things like Friends, Private Mail (PM), +1 votes, post reporting, etc. We look at how things perform and sometimes remove a feature or add another.

In essence, what changed was the focus to New Zealand problems and solutions.

How do you go about financing your site? Do you make enough to live off your website?

We basically run display advertising, supported with some sponsorship initiatives such as the TelecomTech blog (http://www.geekzone.co.nz/TelecomTech), which is a way of getting cool new gadgets in the hands of our readers. We basically search our database for people with a specific profile and give them first dibs on new consumer devices they can use – and keep afterwards.

I left my work with this IT company in 2006 and we lived off the website for eight years until now, when I decided to go back to a full-time job. This time I joined the marketing people instead of the technical team …

What type of advertising works best for your site?

It depends on the message. The sponsored blog is pretty good because it’s clearly something real – real people using devices in real life situations. But sometimes the good old display ads work as well. For example, we have a couple of telcos “sponsoring” their subforums on Geekzone. We also have a smartphone manufacturer sponsoring a device forum. Basically, instead of seeing five ads per page, visitors to these sponsored forum pages see only one ad – and those impressions belong 100 percent to the sponsor. This gives a huge CTR compared to standard advertising. Mind you it’s not a page takeover like we see on some media sites, but a single banner. Much better for the eyes…

Do you collaborate with any other websites? (Does collaboration help to drive your site forward?)

Sometimes. For example, Geekzone Jobs is a subdomain where we list only openings in the IT sector, all sourced from Trade Me Jobs. We also have Geekzone Prices, which is a price comparison subdomain in collaboration with PriceMe. And we syndicate stories from Bill Bennett’s Digitl.

Has anyone ever offered to buy your site? Would you mind sharing some stories. What is the most you’ve ever been offered?

Asked if I wanted to sell? Yes, a few. A few years back, I had people contacting me left and right about a potential offer from a media company, but I never heard from the company themselves. Made an offer? No, never got one.

Have you got any funny stories about running a site in New Zealand?

There are funny stories and sad stories. Funny (to me) is receiving a legal letter from a well-known local company because one of our users had a red avatar with the words “The Whare House.” Or the number of emails I receive every month from people with a message such as “Hi, my account # is in arrears can I make a small payment now?” or “Hi, I asked for broadband installation order # with your company but the service is not working.” The number of credit card numbers received is incredible. These are people who probably find us by searching and instead of going to the company’s website decides to contact the first result displayed in Google.

Sad was finding out someone leaked a company’s confidential information in our forums, only to be let go after being caught in an internal investigation.

Regarding this story: we do receive quite a few requests from companies about people (mainly those who sound like employees hiding behind pseudonyms) posting secrets, but we have a canned “sorry, we can’t disclose this information as it would be a breach of the Privacy Act” reply that we send back.

What advice would you give to newbies wanting to make it in the online industry?

It is not an easy industry. Publishing is a lot different from anything else. You have to have a good plan, and make sure you know how the market works when it comes to advertising, agencies, contacts and so on. It’s easy to get caught on the “hosting is almost free, let’s do it” idea. When you get big, it’s not free anymore. And it’s a full-time job to get things going.

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