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Blog Business Model 3: Sell Electronic Products

This is the third post in our series on Blog Business Models.

On Digital Photography School, we currently sell nine ebooks on different aspects of photography. When you look at the blog now, it looks as if it was built to sell products, but it wasn’t.

dPS ebooks

A couple of dPS ebooks

The site is five years old now. I remember brainstorming potential ways of monetizing early on, and I’m pretty sure that products were on the list. I didn’t have specific ideas on what ebooks those might be, but I knew there was potential with an educational site to go in that direction. (Other niches might have been tougher to develop products for.)

My strategy for the first two years on dPS was to build the audience, and if I could cover my costs, which were very low, with some advertising, then that would be a bonus.

So I had advertising and affiliate marketing on the blog before I developed the products. I was mainly using AdSense on dPS, as an easy way to make money while I built the audience.

Preparing for products

From the beginning I knew I was building the blog as a platform for monetization—building audience and building community, which are such a big part of selling products. If you can get a community feel on your blog then your readers become advocates for you, both to each other, and beyond your blog.

The other way I used the blog was to test product ideas. So after two years of writing, I had a fair suspicion of what might work. I knew my audience, what they were commenting on, and what questions they were asking.

The blog itself was almost a bit of a research tool, as was the social network that surrounded it. I used the social network to research things like what type of information did people read, and what formats did they use.

On the blog I did a little of research around pricing—I did a survey about what people were buying (books, magazines, and so on) and I got a sense from that as to what people were regularly spending their money on. A lot of photographers buy UK photography magazines which are about $15. That gave me a hint as to what sort of price I could expect for my ebooks.

And of course the blog and the social networks gave me ideas about products that actually would help people.

Challenges of a product strategy

I’ve faced a couple of pretty major hurdles in developing a product strategy on dPS.

Firstly, I’m not a pro photographer—I’m more of an enthusiastic amateur—so it’s always a challenge to put together material at a level that’s going to help people. While my knowledge might be beyond what a normal camera owner’s is, I’m not confident about it as the basis for an ebook!

So the challenge has been to develop partnerships with pros to write the products. That whole process of partnerships is a challenge, as is finding a model that’s a win-win between myself and the author. Then there’s the task of maintaining that business, and managing the day-to-day logistics of that—profit sharing and so on.

The key for me is the team I’ve built around the product strategy. We outsource our design and editing, as well as the writing of the ebooks. So a lot of energy has gone into drawing that team together and getting them working together well.

One of the other big challenges is trying to build a platform to sell the products—choosing shopping carts and so on. I’m really not a technical person so I spent a lot of time researching the options for delivering the products and collecting payments.

If you don’t have the skills yourself, it’s important to find the right people—people who are passionate and can deliver the product content you need.

Building the business

The key to building a paying customer base around dPS has been email: we use the blog to get people on our email list.

If we were relying on people reading the blog posts, or subscribing via RSS and Twitter and so on, we’d be much smaller than we are—and significantly less effective in selling.

The vast majority of our sales come when we send an email, not from when we put up a blog post or Tweet or Facebook. It’s the email address. We’re more about email marketing than we are about anything else, so the email address is the big key.

Our email strategy is pretty straightforward—we send a weekly newsletter, which is like an RRS feed in an email. And when we launch a product, subscribers receive a series of weekly emails over four weeks. Each of those emails does a different type of thing—announces some aspect of the launch, reminds people of product features or special offers, and so on.

Really, though, the success of that strategy rests on the quality of our products.

Quality information is also really important. Our ebooks are longer and deeper than many of the other photography ebooks around. We do charge a little bit more for them, but we get a lot of feedback that the quality is really good. So we emphasize that.

We also take our time publishing them—each ebook takes four to six months to write and publish, which is significantly longer than what a lot of others are doing in this space.

Quality also plays into the design. We put a lot of emphasis on getting the design right—our ebooks are far beyond a Word document converted into a PDF. We really invest money into that, because we feel it’s important.

The other aspect that’s crucial to the growth of the site—and product sales—is the work we put into the launch process.

Our first launch was a ten-day launch; now we’re doing four-week launches and thinking about how we can really build the momentum over that time.

How can we build the launch into an event? How can we tell the story of the ebook and showcase it in a way that’s not “hypey” but builds anticipation and highlights what customer needs it will help with?

The creative process doesn’t stop once we’ve written or designed the ebook. That’s just the beginning: once you’ve got the product, it’s about creative selling.

These days, for us, the marketing starts before we even write a word. We’re always thinking, what need is this fulfilling? How would we sell it? And that informs how we work with the writers as well—we’re always trying to get the authors thinking about selling the content, rather than just writing it.

In terms of new challenges that will help us grow the business, I’m now looking at new ways to keep the sales momentum going after an ebook’s launch.

I’m thinking hard about the long-tail opportunities that surround products like educational ebooks, and how I can create a stronger, longer sales life for each product.

One thing I’m looking at is developing channels that will allow us to resell the materials we’ve already developed over a longer time period. Basically, I want to leverage the wealth of already-developed content by looking for new channels through which to sell it.

Just starting out?

If you’re just starting out with a product model, I think it’s critical that you know your readers and the needs that they have. Then, you can develop products that really are taking those felt needs and solving thproblems.

Some of the ebooks we’ve published have done better than others, and they’re the ones that solved a really felt need. The ones that don’t sell as well were products that we felt might be useful to people, but our readers didn’t feel those needs.

So it’s about getting to know your readers as much as possible.

Are you building a product strategy around your blog? How’s it going? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. John says:

    I am certainly trying to figure out a product strategy that would work for me. I’ve been attempting to put together an eBook for my site, but feel the best I can come up with is barely good enough to give away as email bait, let alone sell.

    Getting partnerships seems unlikely with a smaller reader base and outsourcing is far too expensive for the same reason.

    Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that I just need to continue to build readers, loyal ones, and by the time I get to where I can successfully sell something I’ll hopefully have a product ready to launch.

    At least that’s the plan as of now – but it’s just me behind the curtain here not a team :)

  2. Darren,

    Thank you for such a great post. I am building my email list at this point and working on ideas for ebooks. I have not created a launch plan and this is something that I will think about and prepare before I get ready to sell my ebook. I have a couple of questions:

    What have you found to be a good length for the ebooks that you sell?
    What have you found to be a good price point? Are you able to charge more for specialize book then general books?

    Thanks,
    Jenn

  3. For one of my blogs, I did it the other way around; I created the product then when it became obvious that my buyers needed community, I created a blog then a facebook group.

    I have been blogging for almost 5 years and I the strange thing is that the eBook I created was not even in the niche I’d been blogging, which was why I needed to create a separate blog for it. Now I’m gradually building community and using it as a testing ground also.

    I have email lists for both blogs and even though I try to treat them the same, I’ve discovered that I get a better response from the list that actually bought something – that’s the second blog. I gave away a free report in the first one and engaging the readers there is hard work…well, harder than with the other list at any rate.

    Thanks for this post. I really took away some great stuff from it.

  4. OrangAkaun says:

    I haven’t start selling any product in my blog and looking forward to do so when the time comes. This blog post have open my mind for a broader ways to think. Thank you and I hope that there will be more and more details about this coming.

  5. Hi Darren, thank you for a great post.
    It is good to say another blogger coming out with the truth, email is better for selling than Facebook and Twitter, so much has been said about social media being great for businesses, but in reality they are good for traffic and informing people of a new post but email is still far superior for a real connection and selling.

    Cheers
    Andi

  6. Rich says:

    My Blog is the hub of my information product business that all other aspects are connected to; I use it for lead capturing, letting my readers get to know me and thus building trust, positioning myself as an authority within my niche, promoting products and market research.

  7. Alberto says:

    This is exactly what I am thinking about these days.
    On my blog, I already have to contributing photographers and I am considering proposing them to write something and publish on my blog.
    However I don’t know how to configure the agreement. What percentage should I take?

  8. Curtis Penner says:

    I’d be VERY interested to learn more about how you structure your partnerships with the authors. I’m looking at a similar arrangement but have not figured out a fair form of compensation and profit sharing.

    For instance, how do you make the authors feel comfortable that you’re not holding back profits from them? How do you share information? Do you put a time limit on their “share”?

    Any elaboration on this would be greatly appreciated.

  9. Clare says:

    Darren this is an EXCELLENT post – thanks so much. I’m starting out here wanting to build my email list, write ebooks, do affiliate marketing etc!
    It’s always incredibly useful reading posts from others already doing it and I am detailing my progress on my blog, hoping to inspire other people and help them, too. I think its brilliant to ASK your site visitors what they want. It’s so obvious, yet how many people do it?! Hardly any!! I hope to use this strategy with the sites I build. Thanks so much again, I bookmarked this post and shared with some of my friends on email too :-)

  10. Blog plays an important role.Even companies have the blogs to attract customers and it is used in other areas also.