Learning How to Sell Out at South by Southwest

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Jack Plunkett / AP

Festival attendees take photos of the Friskies Tasty Treasures "Big Cheeses of the Internet" sculpture at the Internet Is Serious Business party in Austin

Like many of the two dozen or so people who were standing in line for free Shiner Bock beer on Austin's 6th Street, I am a "creator." That means not only that I have a blog but also that I am too broke to pay for my own beer. And like many people who went to South by Southwest, the annual 10-day music-and-media fest that took place last week, I was hoping the gathering would help me figure out a way to "monetize" my blog — at least enough for beer money.

Monetizing is the core obsession of South by Southwest Interactive (SxSWi), as much as eyeing celebrities and eating breakfast tacos. And as easy as those two are — my first morning in Austin I walked into Torchy's Tacos just as Francis Ford Coppola was walking out — the money thing is harder to figure out. There are a lot of us creators who brought our iPhone chargers and ironic T-shirts to Austin in hopes of finding someone — a venture capitalist, a corporate marketer, perhaps a lonely widow with a vast oil inheritance — who could lead us to greener pastures. But there was little consensus among the bloggers, content farmers, Tumblr vixens and other minor badge holders at SxSWi about the right way to sell out. Wealthy patrons? Banner ads? Donations? Product sales? Paid links? Content that marketers pay you to write? A book based on your blog?

The blog I was there to sell (out) is called DadWagon. I run it with two other journalists in New York City who, like me, have young kids and a touch of logorrhea. It's a side project, but we feed it faithfully, usually contributing three or four times a day. After 18 months of doing it simply for the pure squee of self-expression — racking up a million page views in the process — we are ready to think about racking up some money.

It is fashionable at SxSWi to slag the panels as being overlong or unhelpful. But I found a few useful technologies in those long conference-room sessions. There was Flattr, which offers a way for readers to voluntarily "show love"; it's akin to a Facebook "like" button, but Flattr users who click on the button are committing at least a little bit of cash to you as a sign of their appreciation. Or Skimlinks, which automatically turns certain words on your site into links to e-retailers. For example, if a reader commented (as sometimes happens) that I should stick my head in an oven, the word oven would automatically link to an online dealer of kitchen appliances. And we would get paid an average of 6 or 7 cents each time someone then clicked the link — thereby perhaps making the death threat a little easier to swallow.

More helpful still were the less formal gatherings called "core conversations," particularly the one at a Sheraton meeting room called "Are We Not Men? Reaching New American Dads." In this context, of course, "reaching" meant "selling things to," and the room was full of advertising folks. The session was led by Craig Heimbuch, whose ManoftheHouse.com is a highly readable and servicey man magazine that is part of Procter and Gamble's marketing arm. Not surprisingly, Heimbuch is quite good at marketer speak, and he had the crowd nodding thoughtfully at one question in particular: Does your ad agency "speak dad"?

We never did reach a consensus definition of dad speak — do you lure them with the standard beer-and-gear talk, or is that an off-putting stereotype of men's interests? — but I think I know what it means to speak dad on our blog. Sometimes it means being confessional and dewy, but other times it means dropping baroque streams of profanity: DadWagon as Deadwood. And that, said my friend Jason Avant, presents a whole different challenge if we're looking for some of that ad money. His site DadCentric is, like ours, an independent group blog. And they do their part not to gloss over the rough language that a 4 a.m. bottle feeding might inspire. "Ads won't get you anywhere," he told me later over beers. "What you need is a brand that's not afraid of what you have to say."

Since this was SxSWi, though, I needed to talk to some celebrities, at least of the business world. Guy Kawasaki, the famed entrepreneur-guru, was signing copies of his new book Enchantment at a country-and-western party thrown by Laura Mayes, a mom-blogging maven who is hosting a more focused money-and-mom meetup called Mom 2.0 in New Orleans next month. Kawasaki's prognosis for DadWagon was grim. "There's only one Dooce," he said, invoking the online name of Heather Armstrong, galactic leader in mom-blogging, whose traffic dwarfs anything we'll ever see. "The bottom line is no one is going to sponsor you ahead of traffic."

I also spoke with Jimmy Treybig, the founder of Tandem Computers and one of the stars of the venture capital documentary Something Ventured. He was a bit more sanguine. "You can get there," he told me, "but you gotta have engagement." His suggestion: open a forum on our blog, get readers to contribute, provide information on products and services.

The problem is that sounds kind of exhausting. Because as much as blogging allows writers to get in touch with themselves, Treybig has a point. You're not going to make money until you learn how to get in touch with your readers as well. And that would require us to stop being wallflowers and dive into the broader community of fathers, perhaps with a product we're selling – something that would require real outreach and effort.

The last movie I saw at SxSW left me with some hope. Morgan Spurlock's The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is basically the film version of my own quest at SxSW: it's a documentary about trying to get big brands to sponsor a documentary. For a film that is that meta, it's actually quite fun to watch, in part because Spurlock, as he did in Super Size Me, shows just how much commitment his task requires. The film is one ceaseless binge of cold calling, hard pitching, glad-handing and soul searching.

But in the end, Spurlock emerges victorious: he gets $1.5 million in financing from a handful of brands — POM Wonderful, JetBlue, Mini Cooper, Sheetz and others — that weren't afraid, as my friend Jason put it, of what he had to say. I don't know that I can replicate his success, but when it's time for me to start dialing for DadWagon dollars, at least I know which companies to call first.