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Founders

Company

MGoBlog

Ann Arbor, MI 48104

Brian Cook

The University of Michigan can claim one of the largest alumni bases in higher education. There are more than 540,000 living alumni residing around the world. Add in the legions of fans of the university’s sports teams across the country and it’s a hard not to underestimate the university’s reach.

Yet MGoBlog, a must-read source for information on U-M athletics, makes some of its best connections with its fans through events in Ann Arbor. Pre-game parties the night before a football Saturday attract a few dozen people, but they are the sort of hardcore fans that help make MGoBlog what it is.

"Those guys are my biggest evangelists," says Brian Cook, founder of MGoBlog. "We grew this site without any marketing whatsoever. I never put a dime into anything. The only marketing I ever did was posting some links on Rivals when I was first starting out. Ever since then the site has grown by word-of-mouth and only by word-of-mouth. Those guys who come out to things are not only guys that I owe because they helped build the site but there also guys I like to talk to. If I can answer a few questions for them they will be even more inclined to talk to their buddies and read the site."

MGoBlog got its start in 2004 as a side project for Cook, a U-M computer engineering graduate and software developer, to vent his fanaticism about all things Michigan sports. It took off. Its unique voice, which this writer once described as "geeky gonzo journalism supercharged with sarcasm and statistics," carved out a niche for Cook to turn this into his full-time job and then begin building a legit online media company. MGoBlog is arguably the largest independent team-specific sports blog in the U.S. while providing paychecks for a core team of three people.

Another key ingredient of the success of MGoMediaEmpire (the blog often puts MGo in front of key words, such as MGoSearch and MGoStore) is striking a careful balance between maintaining a vibrant community of users and commercializing their clicks into revenue. That's not the easiest feat in a time when U-M's athletic director gets pushback from fans for finding new ways to monetize the athletic department. Add in a fan base that doesn't have the best track record of reacting well to change and, well, you get the idea.  

That balance includes MGoCommunity. For instance, the site's message boards (MGoBoard) have a history as centers of conversation among the Michigan faithful, especially younger fans. While the posters use pseudonyms, those names are the foundation of online reputations that rival the importance of their real-life counterparts.

Cook tells the story of a longtime poster who was banned for not playing nice with other MGoBoard users after being warned, put on probation and given numerous second chances. In response, the banned person created a new persona that was only slightly different than his previous pseudonym. Cook banned him again but was struck by the importance the man put on his online persona in MGoCommunity.

"When people become established in a community they are no longer anonymous," Cook says. "They are going by a pseudonym. There is a big difference between those two things."

That sort of strong community adds inelasticity to MGoBlog's product. That helps it commercialize a fan base that places great value on subtle things, like the absence of advertising in Michigan Stadium on football Saturdays. MGoBlog accomplishes that by creating a number of revenue streams. AdSense and other online ad networks bring in quite a bit of money. MGoBlog generates its own advertising from local firms, like Park n Party. It also has its own glossy magazine (Hail To The Victors), merchandises U-M-themed apparel and is becoming an Amazon affiliate. And then there is the donation button for fans of the website.

"That actually brings in a surprising amount of money," Cook says.

Another big part of what makes those revenue streams flow is customer service. While MGoBlog might generate more clicks than major news outlets covering U-M sports or even the athletic department’s website (MGoBlue.com, the inspiration for MGoBlog’s name), Cook's operation is still a small business wandering in the same world as some big institutional giants. That makes customer service even more important.

"The difference isn’t new versus old, it’s small versus big," Cook says. "We are in the same business as anyone who thinks they have something that is better and they are trying to sell to people who don’t know about it."

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