This guest post is by Janelle Allen of The Grand Life.
In September 2012, I launched my latest online venture, The Grand Life, where I interview creative professionals and entrepreneurs, and quickly realized that I had a lot to learn about building a successful interview site.
Although there are a few resources on interviewing, what I really needed was to chat with other interviewers who were willing to share their strategies and thoughts on generating traffic, converting subscribers and attracting revenue.
Fortunately, I secured interviews with the founders of three different sites, each with varying levels of success: Shelia Butler of Successful Women Talk, Tim Jahn, co-founder of Entrepreneurs Unpluggd, and David Siteman Garland of The Rise to the Top.
Each of these individuals shared tons of insight and helpful tips, which I now share with you.
A little background
Can you give us a quick intro about your site and it’s mission?
SB: The premise behind Successful Women Talk is to interview successful women and share their stories. About two years ago I started following some of people like Andrew Warner, David Siteman Garland, and I thought, “You know what? I needed a mentor and I didn’t have one. What better mentor for a woman than to have another successful woman that’s walked that path before her?” I just wanted to give someone else the idea—to show them that you can do it.
TJ: At Entrepreneurs Unpluggd our goal is to help early stage entrepreneurs move forward with their business idea or whatever it is they’re working on. Entrepreneurs Unpluggd provides advice and resources to help solve the problems that new entrepreneurs, and those thinking about taking the leap, experience in the early stages.
DSG: We work with online entrepreneurs. I call them mediapreneurs. A lot of times they’re creating some kind of media related to their business: a web show, a blog, a book. Some kind of form like that. We deal with a lot of experts and people that have a passion that they’re looking to turn into an online business—that’s really the types of people that come hang out with us.
When did you launch your site?
SB: I started the show in March (2012), so it’s a relatively new site.
TJ: We launched the site portion in the Spring or Summer of 2011, but we started with events in the beginning of 2011.
DSG: I started in 2008. When I started it was a different approach from a lot of people because my site started out as a local website. So 2008 and 2009, it was really for local entrepreneurs in St. Louis, Missouri, where I’m from.
Strategies for growing your site
How much traffic do you currently generate per month?
SB: I’m at around 1000 unique visitors each month.
TJ: I don’t know the numbers offhand. Right now our numbers aren’t anything huge. So that’s a goal going forward.
DSG: Our onsite traffic is somewhere around 100,000 to 125,000 unique visitors a month.
What are your top traffic sources?
SB: Organic is still my number one, then Facebook and then probably Stumbleupon or Pinterest; but Facebook and organic traffic are the biggest ones.
TJ: Twitter is the highest.
DSG: Google is number one, Facebook is number two.
What strategies did you use to attract readers when you started out?
SB: I had previously built a website and I knew I wanted to optimize the site for SEO as much as possible. I wanted the site to be clean; I wanted an opt-in option and to do video because it’s another way to market yourself. So those strategies and also trying to be different by interviewing women. I’m slowly but organically putting myself out there. I have Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. That’s been my strategy: putting it there and trying to be as SEO friendly as possible.
TJ: We focused on three things: Producing really good content. Everybody says that, but to us that means we produce videos for our events. We also have the interviews that I used to do.
And we also like to produce really good written content. So when it comes to a blog post, whether it’s one of our team members writing it or it’s a guest post, it needs to fit certain criteria and be useful in our eyes to be considered good, quality content.
Also, we’re constantly working on ways to promote our content in a higher way. We’ve been focusing on social media, in addition to constantly tweaking our email newsletter.
DSG: I’m one of those who likes to share everything transparently—everything that I’ve tried, attempted, worked, failed … whatever. When I started it was a different approach from a lot of people because my site started out as a local website. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have people elsewhere, but my focus was local interviews with interesting entrepreneurs. So I went on a local tirade to try to get people’s attention. Besides using social media channels and things like that, I made sure that I networked with all the major media sources in St. Louis at the time. St. Louis Business Journal and Small Business Monthly of St. Louis, St. Louis Magazine and Alive Magazine, radio, TV—anything local that would listen to me.
I was doing TV interviews and radio interviews. And honestly the way that I did it was no magic formula: I just emailed people or called them up [and said], “I’m 24. I’m starting this show. We’re interviewing entrepreneurs. Here’s the website. The mission is that I’m trying to encourage young entrepreneurship in the city.” And that led to a lot of early traffic. That was, believe it or not, one of the first of many, many strategies that I used to get it off the ground.
What have you learned from some of the strategies that you’ve used? Are there any unsuccessful strategies that you would advise people to avoid?
SB: I think the biggest thing is not to focus on the number of followers you have, but the quality with those followers and how much engagement you truly have with them.
At first I would beat myself up because I didn’t have ten thousand Twitter followers. But it doesn’t really matter because I’ve found that the people who love what I do continue to respond, continue to comment, continue to watch and continue to spread my stuff. I think that you need to put more value in the few quality people that you have and when you do that you gain traction.
I also started putting themes around my content each week, with the interviews I’d do. I think that helps because then I’d also link to articles that were related to my theme of the week or the person that I’m interviewing. Just trying to be more strategic about it.
TJ: What I’d recommend other people to work on is to figure out which channels apply to their audience. You mentioned things you shouldn’t do: a while back we were promoting to sites where our audience wasn’t hanging out, so it was pointless for us to take the time to share our content there. So take the time to figure out which sites are actually worth your time and have an audience that will actually be reading your content.
DSG: A thing that worked really well was we did live events. We did 85 live events in two years in St. Louis. Not big ones, but getting 30 entrepreneurs together for dinner and discussions or Rise Lunch, as we called it. These little branding opportunities were great because it gave people the touch and feel of the brand.
I think that if I were to start again from scratch, I don’t think I would focus as much on the local as I did in the beginning. I would focus on [building] critical relationships with other influencers in the space, which has always been a success strategy and that’s part of interviewing. I would do more book reviews on video and give credit to authors, for example. I would do more ways that you can connect with people. That’s really the best way anything spreads, not asking people, “Can you promote this for me?” It’s better to ask “How can I promote and help other people?”
Another thing that I want to emphasize is that I’ve always been obsessed with the design of the site. I love a high-end design. I’m not talking about spending millions of dollars here, but spending time and money and effort to really get that brand down. Everyone says content is king. I agree, but it’s really about what it looks like and how it makes people feel and your connection with a person and the audience.
How has your site evolved over time and how have the changes impacted your growth?
DSG: When I started, I didn’t know who it was for. I was going for young but I didn’t know the demographic that was going to happen. The way that I learned to evolve it was just from doing the interviews. I would interview people and think “That guy wasn’t that cool. I’m not feeling this.” So slowly, I would narrow and narrow [my target audience] down over time and I think that’s one of the keys to success. I’m not afraid to say “We’re going in this direction,” even though it may piss some people off.
Here’s the funny mistake that happened too: first [the focus] was entrepreneurship, then it naturally evolved to online entrepreneurship and where it’s at today is what I call mediapreneurship or lifestyle entrepreneurship. Between the shift from online to mediapreneurship, I knew something was missing. So a shift that I made very quickly was to go more broad and interview successful people in all types of industries. I did that—and honestly, I love those interviews—but it was off-brand. I knew something had to change but I should have gone narrow, not broad.
Then I figured it out and realized I was right about needing to change, but wrong on the direction. When I went narrow, that’s when I really started honing in on the topic and the types of people who were tuning in. That’s when it went to the next level in terms of everything: revenue, business model, traffic, community buyers–everything went in the right direction once we went that way.
Strategies for converting readers to subscribers
How many email subscribers do you currently have?
SB: I just looked and I have about 175 email subscribers right now. It’s a start. But it was more than what I thought, so I got really excited!
TJ: We have a little over 5000 or so. That’s something we’re always thinking about. We’ve found that people who are on the email newsletter are the most engaged and into what we’re doing.
DSG: One of my fun mistakes early on was to not focus solely on email. Now on my site you won’t find social media buttons or anything. We push everything through email. If I had done that when I started, we’d be doing this interview from my yacht.
Our email subscribers right now are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000, and going up exponentially each month. By the end of next year, it could be close to 100k.
What strategies do you use to convert people to subscribers?
SB: I try to have a really clean site and focus on my opt-in box [locations]. At the bottom of every post, I have an opt-in. I also included a “free updates” page and I’ve gotten quite a bit of subscribers from that.
I’ve also started asking people to share, which is something that we as women have a hard time with: asking for things. I just launched my podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, so I put a Facebook post up asking people to subscribe. So, I’m going to ask and I think asking is really important.
TJ: We’ve played with different calls to action on our site. At the moment we have a welcome mat, which is a full page that you see when you first come to our site. If you’ve never been to our site before, you’ll see it and it will encourage you to sign up. It doesn’t force you (there’s a Skip this button), but it works very well.
There are some sites that implement that technique on only the home page, but we implement it on every page. We also have calls to action at the bottom of every post and at the top of every page.
DSG: First and foremost, you will notice if you go to my site—boom—right at the top there’s an email signup. I’m a big believer in using your real estate well. There’s also an email signup on every page and some of the hidden pages that people don’t use, but they should, like the About page. A couple other ways I do it: it’s always under every episode and I always verbally say it in each episode.
Another thing is that once you start putting things for sale and you start getting some really awesome customers, they start spreading the word. You end up with more word of mouth conversion when you start charging people for things. It’s a good thing.
Have there been changes or events that spiked your conversion rate or has it been slow growth?
SB: I think I’m too new to say. So far it’s been slow growth. But I have interviewed some well-known people lately and I get more followers from that. I’ve noticed that if I interview someone with a bigger following, if they share it, that makes a big difference.
TJ: The welcome mat definitely made a huge difference in terms of conversion rate.
DSG: Here’s a little lesson that definitely increased email subscribers: I used to say “Hey guys, you like this … you want more … blah, blah. Join The Rise VIP list and you’ll have more.” Now here’s where it gets interesting! I realized that’s annoying because people could be on another site, or they might be on iTunes or listening to it on Stitcher Radio. They’re going to look below and say, “What are you talking about?” So what I did was very simple: I just made a URL to therisetothetop.com/vip. The URL is just a sign up for the email list. So on episodes or anything that I’m doing where I’m talking or doing an interview, I just say go to rise/vip, where you’ll hear about new shows, etc. As long as they remember that URL, you don’t have to be as concerned about where people are watching or listening.
Another thing that helped was I changed from sending out a very generic automatic email when shows went up. It was an RSS autoresponder that went out whenever there was a new post. I completely changed that. Now I do a straight-up email like it’s coming from a friend. I send every single one myself and I get more emails back from people now. I include something funny about my day or weekend or whatever. That was a huge shift. It sounds small, but what ends up happening is people share that email. They’re like, “This is funny. Have you seen this? You should check it out.”
Strategies for building revenue
Are you currently able to fully support yourself financially from your site?
SB: I am not, but it is a goal. I do have another business, so I do a couple of things. I have gotten several consulting clients from the site.
TJ: It’s definitely something we want to make regular revenue from, and we are but we’re not making full-time revenue.
DSG: Absolutely. I just hired my dad who is a full-time employee.
How much annual revenue do you generate on your site?
DSG: We can’t release it fully but I can tell you that it’s over $300,000.
What revenue models did you use for your show when you started out and what lessons did you learn?
TJ: Sponsors and events. [In the future], we’re going to experiment with different ways of doing sponsors, maybe sponsored content or some sort of interactive content between the sponsor and our community, which only works if you have the right sponsors. The sponsors we seek and will continue to seek are those who have products and services for our community.
My co-founder and I are very data driven. We like to make decisions based on the data, so we pay close attention to which types of posts work and what kind of content works. When I say “work,” what it really boils down to is what your goals are. If your goal is to make money, there’s no point in doing anything that’s not going to make you money.
It only makes sense to do things that support your goals, right? So start experimenting with things. Try list posts. They traditionally work well in our industry, so try it and if it does well, try another one. If it doesn’t, try a different type of post until you start to build data on what works. We did videos for a long time. My interviews were about twenty minutes long. We’re going to experiment with cutting up the videos to see which lengths work. Will people respond to a five minute video versus a fifteen minute video? If so, then we’re going to make five minute videos.
DSG: When I was starting out it was all based on local ads and sponsorships and I learned that local ads and sponsorships suck. It kept me afloat, so I can’t rip it, but it’s not a sustainable model, because if you’re going to do advertisements and sponsorships, you’re now in the media mindset versus being an educator.
When you’re in the media mindset, it’s all about volume. You have to get more people in; you have to do more shows; you have to get more advertisements, but there’s a cap on how far you can go with that, especially if you’re in a niche. The more niche the better; however, you have a smaller potential audience. So, when you do sponsorships the challenge is that your revenue is controlled by someone else. If they wake up on the wrong side of the bed, if they’re going out of business, if they get bored and move on to something else–that could be a massive revenue hit to you if you don’t control it.
I still have sponsorships and advertising, but I can tell you that it’s not a sustainable business by itself. It just isn’t. You’re going to end up having pressure to grow more audience when that may not be the best way to go about it.
Let’s put it this way: I have made six figures from my first online product launch with an audience of less than 500 people who bought it. The reason is because I get all the revenue. I created it and it’s $495 dollars. If I went to a sponsor and said: “We’ve got 500 awesome people. Do you want to sponsor this?” They’d say no.
That was a huge shift because my goal at the beginning was that I was going to grow this and have sponsorships and that was the model. I can’t remember the moment when I had the awakening, but I think when I started learning more from other people I realized that my business model was flawed. Not in terms of revenue, but for long-term growth and potential. Now, I see us as a show and products and online events–which have been hugely successful—and we’re also going to move into having a membership component as well. It’s going to be a multi-faceted approach.
I think the number one takeaway is that people think that they’re just going to do a show and have these sponsors and advertising come in and sprinkle you with happiness. It just doesn’t happen. Once you get into that creation mindset and begin to charge people, I think that’s where it’s at.
When it comes to hosting an internet radio show or having a site that focuses on interviewing people, what are two or three key lessons that people should absolutely do when starting out, in terms of successfully growing an audience?
SB: I think the best thing is that you’ve got to be authentic. I’ll give you a good example: I almost didn’t start a talk show because of my Southern (American) accent. I was really embarrassed by it and I thought that people would think I was uneducated or whatever the stereotype is, but I get the most positive compliments about my accent than anything. So be yourself and don’t be afraid to go out there and try something new.
Secondly, having a good look, design and brand is important.
Thirdly, be consistent. Sometimes it’s hard to post when you say you will. Even though I have a small following, they are a dedicated following and they expect something to happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I think being consistent is huge.
TJ: First, don’t do what doesn’t work. The argument there is that if I’m just starting out, I don’t know what doesn’t work. Well, that brings me to my second point: do it and iterate as quickly as possible.
We’re constantly iterating. It’s not always something big, sometimes it’s small tweaks. Go out there and just start doing it. You’re going to make mistakes and screw up and figure things out but that’s when you’re going to start building data to figure out what works and what doesn’t. That’s when you’ll be able to begin only doing things that work, because you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. You’re never going to get to that point if you don’t start.
My co-founder and I, when we want to do something, we just do it. We don’t sit down and think about it for a week and have a big meeting, we just do it. We get on chat and say “Should we do this? What’s the data?” If it doesn’t work, we learn that pretty quickly.
DSG: First thing: You have to spend some time and a little dough on the brand. One of the biggest secrets to getting people to say yes is that you actually look like you know what you’re doing.
Second, is not to start with the top of the mountain. Don’t try to reach out to A-lister type people because you’ll get pissed when they don’t respond. Start with people you know, people you can practice on. Build up your portfolio a little bit before you start reaching out to [A-list] people.
Third tip: When you start reaching out to people that are bigger, the best time to get someone is when they’re promoting something. A book is the best possible thing because the publishers pressure everyone to go promote their book. When people have something to promote, they become much more likely to be interviewed.
Bonus tip: I’ve done hundreds of interviews and I’ve never once asked someone to promote my interview. I know people that do it and they like to send a link and say “Please promote this,” but I like to come from a place that’s more about gratitude. When I interview someone, after the interview is up, I send a link, thank them and that’s it. Good things will happen from that.
Every time someone sends me a link and says “Can you promote this?” I don’t want to do it. Interestingly, anytime someone sends it to me and doesn’t tell me to promote it, I promote it. You don’t want to make people think that you only did the interview because you want them to send it out. You want to throw a party for the guest. It should be fun and easy.
What is one piece of advice that may be unconventional or that we just don’t usually hear that you would recommend people follow?
SB: I’ve been told and I’ve read that you can’t be too broad, but when I do interviews outside of my niche, they are sometimes my most popular ones—so try not to be too close-minded and think outside the box. Give people the benefit of the doubt and learn how to pull something out of the interview that speaks to your audience.
DSG: It’s not about bringing in as much traffic as you can. What it’s about is: At some point you’re going to start to get a little bit of love. You might have two fans, but you’re going to get a little bit of love. A comment. An email. A Facebook like; something like that. These early adopters become your superfans—take care of them. What do I mean? Respond to them. I respond to everything that I possibly can, even now. This engagement builds fans that spread the word for you.
Let me give you an example: a lady named Debbie. I didn’t know Debbie but she was having issues subscribing and she sent me an email saying “I want to subscribe but I can’t figure it out.” So, very simply, I went in and subscribed her and sent her an email saying “Hey, Debbie. I’m so excited to have you in and I want to apologize for the problems. It’s all set. You’re in!” I got the warmest, kindest email back, thanking me. I just did this because I wanted to help her, but you wouldn’t believe the amount of stuff that Debbie has spread for this show since then. She’s our number one fan. She spreads everything. She buys everything. She attends everything. When I hosted a live event one time, she couldn’t make it so she sent a bottle of wine. People often wonder how you create these kinds of super fans; it’s by treating them as individuals.
Building a successful interviewing site takes more than just finding interesting people. You have to combine savvy interviewing skills with technical know-how and strategic marketing. Hopefully the strategies shared in this article will help you build a successful site. If you’re new to interviewing or thinking about starting, there are a few resources you should check out, namely Andrew Warner’s How to Interview Your Heroes guide and David Siteman Garland’s Create Awesome Interviews training videos.
Beyond that, I can only suggest you follow the advice you’ve read here: set clear goals, don’t be afraid to change directions, honor your fans and, above all, just start.
Do you do interviews for your blog? Share your own tips and advice with us in the comments.
Janelle Allen is the founder and author of The Grand Life, where she interviews creative entrepreneurs about creativity, freedom and work, with a focus on telling stories about work that matters. Learn more about her here and connect with her via Twitter.