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