Learning From Successful Blogs – Strobist

Learning from others is a far more pleasurable experience than learning from your own mistakes. People in all fields observe other successful practitioners and model (copy!) their best habits, incorporating the things that work into their own behaviour. In this post I am going to take a look at one of my favourite blogs, Strobist.

This blog came from nowhere to be, in my opinion, the best blog for photographers on the web. Even the blogger, David Hobby, was taken aback by how popular it became. The blog is about flash photography. A niche of a niche. Income is mainly from affiliate links and a donation button.

Why does it work so well?

Go take a look then see if you agree with my assessments.

First I will point out what I don’t think works so well.


  1. Lame “blogspot” URL – where is the strobist domain? Not a way to build a brand with longevity, eventually subscribers and web visitors will need to be educated to a new URL and RSS feed that can’t be taken down or held for ransom …
  2. Plain black theme. In some ways it works well, and apparently ugly works for adsense, but for me (and we will cover this more later in the post), David needs to be branding his blog and himself with a little more polish.
  3. Using Flickr for community. This has pros and cons but while we are talking about cons
  • It sends community interaction away to yet another non-branded domain
  • David loses some control of the system
  • Flickr isn’t the best for discussion features

What Works

It’s hard to be too critical because really I think the blog is great. Here’s why

  1. Niche Focus – David focuses on one small subject and really works it. He is the “Off-camera-flash-guy“. Do you own your niche?
  2. Authority – He is an expert, he knows his stuff, and it shows in his tips and example pictures. The blog oozes authority.
  3. Content – 99% of what you see on the blog was written by David based on his own experience. Very little reference to other blogs/sites and when he does it is top notch stuff. No padding, no filler, all good nourishing information.
  4. Message – Between the lines there is a not-so-hidden message, “you can do this too”. He hasn’t set up the past masters on a pedestal, everything is oriented around showing how you and I, humble beginners with meagre budgets, can turn out top notch results.
  5. Community – He has worked hard to build a community, using Flickr as the platform. While I don’t like Flickrs discussion features in this case it works well because
    1. Photographers use and like flickr
    2. He can leverage Flickr features for his bootcamp tasks
    3. It’s another viral route for bringing in more readers

For revenue I am sure he has a rosy future. Right now people are very willing to support the blog through affiliate purchases (I have personally bought a few hundred dollars worth of gear through his links .. well, tried to, but that’s another story). He isn’t settling for that though, just like we advise anyone with the knowledge to do he is selling his expertise in the form of workshops.

Future Ideas

If I was him I would be doing the workshops, packaging up the workshop content into DVD, downloadable videos, ebooks, audio. The works. As someone with very little opportunity to see him in person but a need for his knowledge, a reasonably priced digital course would be well received. He has the name, the knowledge and the means. (Although it appears he hasn’t much in the way of time, oops).

The workshops and other product extensions are the reason I think he might consider proper branding, a domain, decent blog template, recognisable colour and design elements. This branding work could be taken through his enlarged product base to give recognisability, authority and reassuring consistency.


So, what have you learned? Have a good think how you can apply some of these lessons. Disagree with my assessment? Let me know in the comments!

25 thoughts on “Learning From Successful Blogs – Strobist

  1. At this stage I’m trying to get to terms with blogging and best practises. I’m struggling but I think I’ll get there. I agree with most of what you said Chris, and while I think research into this topic (which I’m doing 24/7) is very important, I’m starting to think that I should maybe put research to practise. If one start off making bad mistakes, how detrimental is this to your future polularity?

  2. To be fair, Master Garrett, this is more of an “assignment.”

    Any competing will be between you and the site’s other readers…

  3. Oh My God, David has challenged me to a photography contest, heh. That is what I get for criticising someone outside their own field of expertise. Consider the tables turned!

  4. From an online marketing standpoint these are the exact things I tell companies looking to get into the online experience. It is obvious that this is not a full time job for Strobist and he is doing it more for the hobby for it than the six figure income. If he wants to take the income to the next level these are great tips.

    The above comment about the fact that a nice looking blog has the appearance of wanting to sell you something is an interesting observation. I’d like to hear more about design and how perception can make or break a visitor.

  5. Brett, most research focuses on using high contrast. The thing is for tired eyes too much contrast can make it hard going so its good to knock the contrast down a notch. You will notice we do not have pure white background and pure black text. Black as a background can work but also be over-powering, we are more familiar in the real world with reading off a white background so even if they were equal in legibility white is a more comfortable page colour.

  6. See, this is why Strobist is such a great blog, David is a top bloke! I’m glad he took it so well, he could have torn me a new one, heh.

  7. Katiebird, I read your comment and thought to myself, Uh Oh I’ve got a blog with a black background too!

    I’ve been thinking about changing the content area to a charcoal grey color but that’s besides the point.

    Has anyone come across research on users likes or dislikes for various colors with blogs specifically and possibly also websites?

    My personal guess is that its more about the proper color contrasting the background, but there might be some colors that make other people run for the hills and click away, click away . . .

    ps I’ve been avoiding the domain name debate 😉

  8. An excellent example of a Niche niche blog. Well done.

    Blogger…not a bad place to host if you’re thinking you may run into bandwidth issues…ie not designing your site for growth.

    I bumped into that on my first community CMS (Mambo) site. In the forums, the discussions got hot and heavy. The not-for-profit community site exceeded bandwith caps and we had to pass the hat to expand.

    Lesson learned, and the next one I start in that way, will likely start on Blogger or some such until I can properly scope the audience.

  9. I never ever read blogs with black backgrounds. They make my eyes hurt and I have to think too hard just to do the mechanics of reading.

    So, I can’t tell you how effective the site is. I’ve gone in 3 times (every time I read the comments here) to take another look. And each time BAM I’m gone before I even think about it.

    But, that’s probably just me.

  10. I give away my valuable advice for free 🙂

    And yes, I am a professional tester. Somebody hiring?

  11. Good point Markus, you should be a professional tester!

    *Maybe* his archive “problem” will work in his favour if/when he publishes an ebook …

  12. Why is everybody only discussing the domain subject?

    That blog is sharp. It’s focused, throws out excellent content, seems to have a good community, shows excellent and interesting examples and it has a great name.

    And his writing structure is great and easy to read. An immediate add to my BlogBridge photography guide.

    The main problem he has is the archive. Because he is not using keywords or categories it is very hard to get an overview about specific subjects. Full text search is no real help for that. he knows his niche but he doesn’t know how to make all that valuable content transparent.

    As strobist is about transferring knowledge some thoughts should go into knowledge management.

    And yes, he should move 🙂

  13. Branding has always been an important part of online marketing and domains have always been a part of that. Why do you think “something.com” is so in demand? $10 a month buys server space and a domain but there are other more important aspects to the blog in question than the url, let’s agree to disagree.

  14. Where is the market research that shows people care about domain names. What research I have seen shows most people that do not bookmark sites use a search engine such as Google to find the site they are looking for. with the address bar acting as a search tool, it is very easy to just put in the name of the site or key words associated with the site. Also $10 might buy you a domain name but it does not buy you server space.

  15. Hmmm, first, I have to agree with bill’s comment. I build my blog over blogspot, and I have to say that people really don’t mind about the name of the url, what they’ll remember is the name of the site, and trust me, anyone that visits me at least once will remember the name of my blog forever. A blogspot domain is not really hard to remember..

    I did register my domain name in the case I feel like changing to a dedicated hosting solution.. (Which I want to do soon), but I was able to build a blog that went from 0 to 1000 hits in the first 3 months, and then from 1000 to 500k uniques in the following 7 months. Do people mind the fact that I’m on blogspot? I don’t think so. Would I have known more success on a dedicated hosting solution associated to a domain name? Maybe..

    I have to admit that if people want to attract potential advertisers, having a blogspot url will not help showing the seriousness of your project. All kinds of things can go wrong when you’re using a free host. You can’t do backups, you have some limited controls over your settings and sometimes, your content (or your blog) can just suddently dissapear without any apparent reasons (I was eaten by the blogspot spambot once, it took 4 days for the folks at google to put me back online. It’s not supposed to happen ever again, but hey, who knows?)

    ’nuff said, time to go to bed

  16. spot on about a blogspot domain being lame. It’s not snobbery but smart business/branding sense to have your own domain.

    If you can’t be bothered to spend the $10 a year on a domain how am I supposed to take buying info products or a workshop seriously.

    He seems to have everything going for him there – just needs a bit of polish, imho.

    The black has got to go, though. It contrasts badly with the quality photos he has there. There’s nothing like a clean, lots of white space design that actually draws more attention to the photos.

  17. Blogspot in its own right is not the problem. I agree with your assessment that Blogspot works very well and will be around for quite awhile. But for someone trying to build a successful blog that has its own “brand” really needs to have their own domain. If you don’t have your own domain, you don’t have any control over what happens to your blog. Blogspot could completely change their terms of service tomorrow, and there is nothing you could do about it. The same thing applies to WordPress, LiveJournal, etc.

    The longer you wait to move to your own domain the worse off you are. Your readers have to update their bookmarks/RSS feeds, and you have to reestablish your ranking with the search engines.

    Getting your own domain is relatively cheap, and if you see any future in your blog, it is worth every penny.

  18. As I said, flickr suits photographers well and is another route to attracting readers. If he wants to stay as just blogging then he certainly could stay with it as it is, I think though he does want to pursue the workshops and maybe the other ideas and I predict more success with a more polished approach.

    I predict he will want to sell info products directly, he will have a lot easier time of it with his own domain and a really nice usable interface rather than trying to hack blogger.

  19. Blogs that work do not need to be pretty. As you said the interesting here is the knowledge. Of course he could attract more customers with a nice looking theme, and maybe a beatifull and easy to remember domain name, leave Flickr and use some other tool to buil his community.
    These are great advices to most of bloggers… But as you said he is talking to a nich of a niche. And the people who go there probably feel confortable with this kind of tips and advices model. If they see a nice domain name well designed they can think “this guy wants to sell me something…”.
    If they find the hobby blog on blogspot they say: “Nice! The stuff he is talking about costs $$ in Amazon! Maybe I will pick one, start playing with this tool, and support the dude!”.
    I think he would need to study well his audience before taking a ANY major step, like quiting Flickr or blogger/blogspot…

  20. My comments about the URLs and revenue are mainly based around my perception of what I perceive his goals to be. He shows ads, he uses affiliate links (well) and is running workshops – he isn’t doing this JUST for the love of the topic.

  21. Success is not always measured by how much income a blog generates. The vast majority of blogs I read and find of value are “non-profit” or done for the love of the topic.

  22. your condemnation of blogspot URLs as lame is pure snobbery in many ways. Blogspot works very well and will be around for quite awhile.

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