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Should You Use Affiliates to Promote Your Products?

Last week I shared my answer to a common question that many people getting into online product marketing ask: “Should I offer a money-back guarantee?” Today I want to tackle two others:

“Should I start an affiliate program to promote my product?” If so, “how much should I pay affiliates as a commission?”

I had this conversation only yesterday with one blogger who was launching his first ebook. He had decided to set up an affiliate program but was unsure about what percentage to pay. He were leaning towards 10% commissions, mainly because he didn’t want to eat into his profit margins too much. I’ll share the response I gave that blogger here.

But first, let’s take a step back to look at some pros and cons of affiliate programs.

Why an affiliate program could be worthwhile for your product

The main reason that you should consider an affiliate program for your product is simply that it will increase the potential reach that you will have as you promote your product.

Whether your blog is big or small, there’s always room to increase your reach and have your offer seen by more people. Pretty much every topic has other blogs, sites, forums, and individuals interacting on social media. To set up an affiliate program increases the incentive that these sites and individuals have to promote your product.

Of course, not everyone will be motivated by an affiliate commission (some bloggers don’t use them at all), but you will find that some are definitely moved by them and those people could open up a considerably larger audience for you.

Another benefit of affiliate programs is that they help to grow your own list of customers. This benefits you in the here and now with the product you’re promoting at present, but also offers potential for future products.

A new customer that comes in from an affiliate promotion today can turn into a life-long customer if you develop a relationship with them. A $10 sale from an ebook could end up leading to five more $10 sales in the coming year—or it could end up generating a $200 sale if you launch larger products down the track.

Why you might not want to start an affiliate program

I think it’s important to note that having an affiliate program isn’t always the best option for everyone. There are some costs to consider along with the opportunities they open up.

  • Decreased profit: Let’s start with the most obvious cost—affiliate programs eat into your profit margin. When someone recommends your product they do bring in new business, but you share the benefit of that business with them. A $20 ebook sale effectively becomes a $10 sale if you share a 50% commission. For some bloggers this is a stumbling block, and not something that they want to do (I’ll speak more about it below).
  • Time: One of the big hidden costs of an affiliate program is the time that it can take to manage. I’ve not found it to be a huge time commitment, but there are some extra logistical tasks that you might find yourself doing when you introduce affiliates into your strategy. These include paying them (depending upon the system you use), providing them with sales material, motivating them, helping those who have limited technical knowledge to set up links, and so on. You will find that some affiliates need a bit more hand-holding than others—and some can be quite high maintenance!
  • Loss of control: Another hidden cost of affiliate programs is that you lose a little control over the way your product is promoted. Not everyone will promote it in the same way you do. I can think of a number of times when this has been a problem—particularly when affiliates have used hype and built products up to be better than they actually are in order to get sales. In doing so they created false expectations in buyers that the owner of the product had to then manage.

How much should you to pay affiliates?

This is one of the most common questions I’ve been asked on this topic, but of course there are no real wrong or right answers. You’ll want to consider a number of factors:

  1. Price of product: As someone who promotes a variety of products through affiliate programs, I know that it’s not just the percentage commission that I look at, but also the price of the product. For example, 50% of a $5 product is certainly not as attractive as 50% of a $100 product. There may not be a lot you can do about this, but it’ll be a factor for those considering promoting your product.
  2. Size of the untapped market: If you’re just starting out and don’t yet have much of an audience of your own, you might want to consider a higher commission in order to give an incentive to affiliates to work for you to get things going. However, if you have a large audience of people who trust you already, you might not be as reliant upon affiliates to help you make your product successful.
  3. Future product releases: Some people use affiliate programs more as lead generators than anything else. I know of a number of people who actually offer affiliates 100% of sales to give them a big incentive to promote the product. The hope is that, while the affiliate is the only person to make money from the initial promotion, the sales will generate a list of buyers to which the product owner can promote future products.
  4. Tiered commissions: One strategy that some product producers use is to offer bigger affiliates a higher percentage than smaller affiliates. In this way, they increase the incentive for those who have larger audiences.
  5. Physical vs virtual products (and other overheads): Many information products offer affiliates 40-50% commissions. This is in part because there are limited overheads on virtual products. To sell a $20 ebook only really costs me a few cents for hosting and bandwidth, and a small amount in PayPal and shopping cart fees (after the cost of design and so on). On the other hand, a physical product will have a much smaller profit margin. I have one friend who has an online camera store, and he’s only able to offer his affiliates 4% commissions, because his own profit margin isn’t high.
  6. Consider your expenses carefully: Even if you’re selling virtual products, keep all of your expenses in mind. I had an interaction with an ebook seller recently who didn’t realize what the PayPal fees would be on his $5 ebooks. He offered affiliates 60% commissions on the sale price and, once he took out PayPal fees and his design and proofreading costs, he realized he wasn’t really making more than a few cents per ebook.

Why I pay 40% commissions instead of 10%

Let me finish with my answer to the blogger who was going to offer 10% commissions on his ebooks. He was concerned that commissions would eat into his profits, and was struggling to justify why he should really pay more to someone for simply promoting his ebook when he’d done all the work to make it.

I can see where he was coming from, but my philosophy for paying higher commissions on my own products (I pay 40%) is that any new customer that an affiliate brings in is a customer I’d probably never have had otherwise. So earning 60% (or $12 on a $20 ebook) is $12 more than I’d have had in my pocket than if I hadn’t had an affiliate promoting my product.

I also take into account the fact that that person buying my ebook might also buy future products from me (both my own and affiliate promotions that I promote). They may also recommend my products to their friends and may become a regular reader of my blog (and help to increase advertising revenue). So the inital $12 profit could end up being considerably more in time.

Do you have an affiliate program for your products?

I’d love to hear from others who sell products from their blogs. Do you offer an affiliate program? Why, or why not? If you do, what commission level do you pay, and how did you come to that figure?

Personal Blog Monetization Perils and Pitfalls

This guest post is by Brooke Schoenman of Brooke vs. the World.

I write for two blogs that are both travel-themed, yet very different from one another. Brooke vs. the World has been my personal travel blog for the past four years, while WhyGo Australia is more of a travel guide blog which is part of a larger travel network, and focuses on making money. Because of their different natures, I approach the way I write and promote each of these blogs in a different manner.

Brooke vs. the World has been around for a while now, and since I have a bit of clout in the online travel community, it does draw the attention of advertisers and has various avenues of making money. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to come to terms with whether or not I want to take it a step further to a point of it becoming a real money-maker. In considering my options, I’ve realized that this process would involve overcoming several challenges.

Prioritizing commercial topics over personal topics

Most personal bloggers choose to write about topics that only pertain to them, and do it in a way that requires them to talk about themselves. This approach can help build a following of people that truly can relate to you and what you’re doing, but it’s likely that focusing more heavily on broader topics that a more general audience can relate to from time to time will mean you can monetize your blog more successfully. There’s also the need to choose topics that fare better for SEO and purposely cause discussion. In other words, if you monetize your personal blog, you might have to blog about topics that aren’t as near and dear to your heart all the time.

For example, on my personal blog, I’d find it a bit bland to write an article on the “5 Best Budget Hostels in Antigua, Guatemala.” I’d much prefer to talk about my experiences with meeting new people there, perhaps in an article called, “The Amazing Friends I Met in Hostels in Guatemala.” Obviously, the first topic is going to appeal to a larger audience, maybe perform better with the search engines, and produce a better way of introducing affiliate programs with direct calls to action (think: “book your stay now”).

Censoring personal feelings

If you’re like me, you might use a personal blog as a way to vent and share your personal feelings. There’s nothing wrong with that—in fact, it can be a good way to connect with readers. However, if you monetize your blog, times may arise when it is best to not show your deep-down honest feelings—perhaps when you really dislike something. That’s a factor that can change in a blog when it starts to become a business: being openly judgmental can drive some potential advertisers away.

I let my personal feelings about traveling in New Zealand slip out on my blog last year. Sure, there were plenty of reasons why my feelings on the subject were negative, but by not censoring myself, I may have killed any chances of landing a media-related trip to New Zealand, or of working with New Zealand-themed advertisers in the future.

Broadening the horizons

Along with prioritizing commercial topics, the personal blogger looking to monetize their blog may need to broaden their scope. Talking about travel experiences and telling travel tales is one thing, but to gain a larger audience, you may try to provide experiences and tales for more than the countries that you’ve visited yourself. In addition, tackling list-style posts and easy-reading type articles can be a great way to draw in different types of readers. But are they your thing?

I think Darren touches on this point by talking about how his video posts do better when he has both the video and the transcription together. There are simply different kinds of audiences: some are visual (preferring photos or videos); others like to read about it. Some visitors are looking for a personal tale from a travel blog, while others want to know how exactly they can do the same things you did in a step-by-step guide. Each of these visitor types means that you may gain by branching out from your normal style. But personally, I find list posts and how-to guides feel less personal and unique (the majority of the time), and video blogs time-consuming.

Opening it up to others

Although it’s not necessarily essential, opening up a blog to focus more on others (another step in broadening the horizons) is beneficial when it comes to gaining more interest from your audience. You can achieve this by writing interviews, accepting guest posts, and linking more frequently to outside resources. Any way it happens, it will draw more attention to your blog. Yet it is a task that can be difficult to do smoothly if, so far, you’ve been focusing solely on your own story.

Brooke vs. the World, for example, has been a blog about my personal journey; the title pretty much says so. The objective has always been to share my travels, so the thought of adding another voice to the mix through guest posts would seem to break the continuity of what has now been years in the making.

Getting over the fear of selling

If a blog doesn’t start out to make money, it can feel as though the blogger is selling out by changing their focus to monetization later on. I think this is my number one issue with taking my personal blog to the next level—the fear that what I do and say will be only taken at face value, instead of genuinely. So, while I may feel strongly about the benefits of a certain product I’m writing about, I often fear making the initial call to action to achieve the response I’m looking for.

The fact that I struggle with this aspect could be all in my head, or it could be because the selling tone just doesn’t fit in with my personal blog’s voice. I’ve tried several times to write articles that are focused on the sale, but it just sounds out of place and inauthentic. I often worry that people will think that I’m only saying that I like a specific tour or travel product because I’m hoping to make some quick money from the sales.

Getting over the fear of selling yourself

Self-promotion is essential for making yourself stand out in a crowded niche such as travel, yet for many people, it’s not easy to do. You have to be able to tell people why you are interesting to follow and, most importantly, how they can gain from it themselves. Otherwise, you’ll be just another fish in the big Internet sea, swimming around waiting to be discovered.

Part of the process of drawing attention to yourself, however, can feel like bragging. Since most personal blogs have just a person behind them, there’s no business name to hide behind. So selling yourself seems very much like talking yourself up to others, which is what we were raised to think is impolite and annoying. I’m sure there is a fine line here, but I often find myself questioning whether it’s worth the risk of crossing that line.

I generally have no issues doing any of these activities with WhyGo Australia, since it’s a part of my job and I’m backed by a really awesome independent travel company. Overcoming these challenges with my personal blog is another story—and one that I continue to struggle with.

Have any of you felt the same when it comes to trying to make the change from personal blog to money-maker?

Brooke Schoenman is a long-time traveler and full-time travel blogger, originally from America but now in the process of becoming an Australia expat. For travel inspiration, subscribe to her feed at Brooke vs. the World, and for Australia travel tips be sure to bookmark WhyGo Australia.

A Question of Money-back Guarantees and Marketing Your Online Products

_wp-content_uploads_34_gold_guarantee.jpgOver the last 12 months, I’ve continued to shift some of my own online business activities to producing products to sell on my blogs (I wrote about some the process here).

This has been a profitable move for me, but has also been one that has meant making a fairly significant mind shift in the way that I operate. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to describe it as a series of smaller mind shifts.

I’m not alone—in talking to many bloggers who are making a similar transition, I’m seeing a number of questions come up again and again that indicate to me that we’re all having to jump over the same hurdles.

One of those hurdles is money-back guarantees.

I spoke with a blogger just yesterday about this—they shot me an email asking whether they should offer a guarantee on their ebook’s sales page. Their concern was that in offering a virtual product which could not be physically returned people would take advantage of the guarantee: they’d pay for the product, download it, and then ask for a refund to get what would end up being a free ebook.

I remember wondering the same thing when when I created my own sales pages for the first time. Is offering a money-back guarantee on a virtual product simply setting yourself up to be ripped off?

Answering the question of money-back guarantees

Lets start out by saying that you will certainly find that a very small percentage of people will probably take advantage of this refund to get a free product. I’ve been selling ebooks for a couple of years now and in the times I’ve been asked for refunds I’ve certainly suspected a handful of people doing this—but it’s a very very small minority.

Here’s what I’ve seen when it comes to refunds on my own ebooks. In the last two and a half years, I’ve sold around 40,000 ebooks here on ProBlogger and on Digital Photography School. I don’t have an exact figure on how many refunds have been requested and given (we refund 100% with no questions asked), but I would estimate that the number is less than 100—at the most it’d be 150.

The majority of those refunds have been requested for genuine reasons:

  • from readers who thought they were buying a real book, not a downloadable file
  • from readers who felt that the ebooks were too advanced or too easy for them
  • from readers with download problems (e.g. those on dialup)
  • from readers who accidentally brought two books.

You can tell that many of the requests are genuine from the way that the customers approach the refund; you can see for yourself that others are genuine (in that, for example, they didn’t attempt to download the product). Either way, refunded sales make up around a quarter of 1% of my total sales. They’re not very significant.

Also keep in mind that even if someone does request a refund with the intent of getting a free ebook, it doesn’t actually cost you anything more than a moment for you to process a refund. That’s a sale you’d never have had anyway, and if the person actually does read the ebook, they may just become a fan if what you’ve written is worthwhile.

On the flip-side I think offering a money-back guarantee comes with some pluses.

1. A money-back guarantee removes a barrier to purchase

I know for a fact that at least a proportion of my readers buy my ebooks because they know that if they don’t like them, they can get their money back. I regularly receive emails, see tweets, and get comments on posts from readers explicitly saying that they liked the idea of being able to taste and see before being committed to the purchase.

2. A money-back guarantee can help build trust

The web is a place where people are rightly suspicious. Having a money-back guarantee doesn’t automatically make people trust you, but it can help to build trust. Your guarantee is an indication to people that you’re not just after their money, but are interested in providing them with value.

Also, by issuing money back guarantees quickly and without any strings attached, you’re building a relationship with those who do seek them. Of the 100 or so refunds that I’ve given over the last couple of years, I often get emails back from people who are impressed with how easy it was, showing relief that I’m trustworthy, and at times indicating that they’re going to buy another product of mine that’s more appropriate to their needs.

I’ve also had quite angry and unsatisfied customers who emailed with dissatisfaction turned around when I offered to refund their money. I often communicate to readers who complain that I’d rather them be satisfied and happy with my company and not have their money, than have them unhappy and have their $20. I’ve also seen people publicly tweet or leave comments about how my sites are trustworthy because we issued refunds.

Refunds are an opportunity to build trust and goodwill with customers and readers.

3. Money-back guarantees differentiate you from the competition

Not everyone offers a guarantee (at least, not everyone promotes that they do). This provides an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from the competition.

This was illustrated by an email that I received from a reader of dPS recently who told me that they’d bought our new ebook instead of a real, hard-cover book from Amazon because they saw our refund policy and didn’t feel that they’d be able to return a real book to Amazon.

If a person has the choice of two products (virtual or real) and one will give the buyer a refund if they’re not satisfied, it could just be that guarantee that gets that customer over the line.

4. Money-back guarantees drive you to produce value

One of the side-effects of offering a money-back guarantee is that it keeps you accountable to your readers and customers. I remember having this conversation with an author who was in the process of writing an ebook several months ago…

Author: I’m worried about offering a money back guarantee. Won’t that lead to lost sales?

Me: It could, but most people only ask for it if they’re genuinely unhappy with the product.

Author: I guess that means I better make it good!

While I’m sure the author would have done a good job one way or another, he expressed to me six months later, after the ebook was launched, that our short exchange had motivated him to put extra effort into developing his ebook. The threat of lost sales made him more accountable to his potential customers.

Why guarantees are worth it

Summing up, I offer money back guarantees of my info products because:

  • they don’t cost me anything
  • they do lead to higher sales
  • they do help me build trust and relationships with readers
  • I think it’s a good business and ethical way to be
  • they keep me accountable to deliver value to those who buy them.

Ultimately, I want those I interact with online to get value and I’d rather not have their money if they don’t feel that value is delivered.

P.S. There’s another factor to consider: if you’re using PayPal, you’re pretty much forced into giving refunds at times. Buyers can issue a dispute with PayPal within 60 days of a purchase and, in most cases, a refund is granted. I spoke with one ebook seller recently (who’s a lot bigger than me) who said that they couldn’t remember a time when PayPal had sided with them in disputes, and refunds were almost always forced on them by PayPal.

6 Ways to Sell a Website, and 4 Ways Not to Sell One

This guest post is by Mathew Carpenter of Sofa Moolah.

It’s gotten harder and harder to generate a stable income as an affiliate over the past two years. From Facebook’s decidedly anti-affiliate mindset, to the lengthy list of regulations that search engines such as Google have released, generating stable, consistent, and stress-free paid traffic isn’t as simple as it once was. For thousands of affiliates, it’s been a major frustration and a potential business killer.

But alongside the “Google slaps” advertisement disapprovals and the massive flock to second-tier ad networks is a change in the mindset of many affiliates. Instead of focusing on the hustle of direct-response advertising, many successful affiliates and product owners alike are looking to search or socially-powered websites as a source of traffic, a source of sales, and as a source of income.

I’ve been following this same formula—alongside some other online business models—for the past few years, and while it’s far from the cash cow that a giant advertising campaign can be, it’s a form of income that’s significantly more reliable and steady. Advertising and sales checks from blogs and search-powered websites tend to be quite constant—at least more so than the average ad campaign.

Six steps to a successful site sale

These six rules—and four anti-rules—can help you develop and sell your own web properties, to generate a strong and reliable sideline income in addition to your main online venture. Despite the comfort of steady and recurring passive income, it’s often the case that you need short-term cash to fund other websites or advertising projects. In that case, be sure to put these six tips for selling your website into action.

1. Understand your website’s long-term value in advance

The average sales price of a successful website tends to range from six to ten times its profit on a monthly basis. While this can sound fairly hefty—particularly for a website that generates several thousand dollars monthly—it’s really a fraction of the type of value assigned to offline businesses.

Think about Facebook’s current valuation—the ludicrously high $50 billion. Does this reflect the website’s current earnings? No. While the website is profitable by all accounts, it’s far from those levels of profitability. The valuation reflects the website’s long-term value—something that can be applied to your own websites too.

So instead of thinking in terms of short-term revenue for your website and monthly profit, think in terms of your website’s potential for revenue growth over time. If you’re trying to sell a site that’s a real social media hit, for example, or a website with a growing search presence, use this potential as an indicator of its value and price it accordingly.

2. Know your audience, and know how to sell them

The biggest mistake I see being applied to website sales is one that’s repeated in almost all aspects of online marketing: using the same tactics for very different audiences. Just as you’d use different sales tactics to sell a car than you would to sell a bag of candy, you need to use different tactics to sell different types of websites.

Know your audience, and understand how they’re going to respond to your website auction. On one of the bigger marketplaces like Flippa, it’s important to remember that people value revenue data or profit information above anything else. For an independent website investor, information about your website’s potential for growth may be more important.

3. Research successful website sales before listing your own

When asked about how he acquires new skills quickly, productivity guru (and now fitness author) Tim Ferriss explained that it’s best to look at people who have achieved massive success in a short amount of time. It’s a philosophy that can be applied to everything from online marketing to selling your own websites, and it always produces good results.

Instead of going with your gut when deciding on how to present your website for sale, look at other websites that have achieved high sales prices in the past. What information do they disclose? Which sales tactics and pitches do they use to frame the auction? By reverse-engineering sales information from successful website auctions, you can vastly improve the results of your own.

4. Take steps to optimize profits before making a listing.

There’s nothing worse than seeing a website for sale that’s barely been optimized. From blogs that lack even the most basic advertising to affiliate websites that reek of poor conversion testing, if an online property hasn’t been optimized, it’s never going to reach its true value at sale. If your site is on the market without any profit optimization, you’re making a huge (and potentially costly) error.

Test different advertising networks, different ad creatives, and different affiliate offers on your site before you put it up for auction. Test different ad placement, different monetization methods, and a lengthy list of different lead capture strategies. Unoptimized (or poorly optimized) websites can be great deals for buyers, but they’re never a good option for you as the seller.

I’ve optimized many of the websites I’ve sold to increase profits by as much as 415% before making a sale. Small changes, particularly to the wording surrounding your call-to-action text or ad placement, can make a huge difference in the amount of income that your website generates.

5. Use a popular outlet that attracts the right audience

There are hundreds of auction sites out there that allow you to list your website, but only a select few are worth your time. The most popular is Flippa, which, despite its reputation for occasional shady websites, is actually the best option out there. I’ve sold two websites on Flippa for mid four-figure sums recently, one of which achieved an ROI of over four hundred percent.

Don’t, however, confuse a large audience with a good audience. If you own a website in a specific niche, for example, it’s almost always better to appeal to others in your niche directly instead of an all-purpose outlet like Flippa. As I said in step two, it’s important to know the type of people you’re marketing to, not just the amount of potential buyers that you have access to.

6. Minimize “fluff” statistics, and focus on the substance

“Fluff” statistics are, to me, information that’s impressive when explained in an auction, yet utterly meaningless when it comes to your website’s ability to generate income or influence change. The types of statistics I’m talking about are total pageview information—generally information that has no tie to real profitability—or data about how much traffic your website generates in total.

Instead of offering this type of information to potential bidders, highlight your website’s strengths and offer real data to buyers. Talk about how many unique visitors your website gets, your biggest traffic sources, and the value of a visitor to your website. “Fluff” statistics are only worth mentioning in one situation: your website is overvalued and you’re desperate to complete the sale quickly.

How not to sell your website

I’ve mentioned what you should do when selling your website. Now, it’s time to cover some of the most common errors that are made by those auctioning websites. While some of these tactics can help you, particularly if your website isn’t valuable, most will push away the types of buyers you want to attract. Ignore them at your own peril, as they’re definitely techniques to be avoided.

1. Load your auction with worthless data and needless hype.

Nobody cares about your blog’s unique design, its flashy navigation system, and the level of praise it has received from others in your niche. They do care about its potential for generating revenue or, in rare circumstances, its level of influence in its niche. In most cases, it’s best to leave subjective data such as critical praise or “best blog in ___” type feedback off your website’s auction page.

On the same note, don’t load your auction page with fifty-point red headers and sales copy. Look at rule two again—you’re marketing your website to other marketers. Instead of pulling out every last direct response trick in the book, offer information that’s of value to people. It’s very hard to sell to marketers, and it only gets worse when you employ the same tactics that they use on a daily basis.

2. Capitalize on temporary fads, short-term events, and crazes

I see this type of mistake all the time on Flippa. Marketers—typically newbies—buy a domain that is loosely related to the latest celebrity death, put up a generic two-page WordPress site, and think it could be the next big thing. These auctions tend to be loaded with potential-driven sales copy and an overwhelming contempt for their potential customers, all in an effort to make a quick buck.

Here’s what they all have in common: they rarely, if ever, make a decent profit. While the owners of these websites may make a few dollars on the sale, it’s rarely enough to even consider. The best type of website for onward sales is one that’s loaded with long-term potential, not some hyped-up spur-of-the-moment domain name.

3. List your website but make little or no effort to monetize it

The only thing worse than overselling a website, as above, is underselling it by failing to spend any time on monetization. This mistake is constantly be made on Flippa, although unlike many of these errors, which are made by newbies, it’s the professionals that tend to make this one. Always short on time and challenged by other projects, they list websites without even trying to monetize them.

Any signs of profitability—even a Google Adsense block atop your page—are a good thing for lifting your sales price. While websites occasionally sell based on their unrealized potential alone, it’s not at all a common occurrence. Take the time to test your website’s profitability level, and even when it’s not a winner, let people know that it’s at least capable of generating income.

4. Defining your website’s potential without thinking long-term

Browse any auction website and you’ll see descriptions where the merchant has been, shall we say, a little too optimistic about their website’s future. No, it probably won’t become the next Facebook, and no, it probably won’t triple its revenue in two months. While these examples take long-term prediction to its extreme, they’re a good indicator of how a little long-term thinking can help with your sales.

Website aren’t bought to immediately be flipped—at least, not in most cases. For the most part, they are bought as a fairly long-term investment (by online standards). Be upfront and clear about how your website is performing now, but don’t forget to include a description—even quite a salesy description—of how it could perform in the future.

Have you successfully sold a website before? If so, how did it go? Did you break even, lose money, or make a profit on the sale?

Leave your own experiences in the comments and let me know if you’ve got any suggestions on how to sell websites more effectively. I’ve seen plenty of very different techniques do well in this field, and it’s always an interesting to experience how well people are doing with less orthodox tactics.

Mathew Carpenter is an 18-year-old-business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on Sofa Moolah, a website that teaches you how to make money online. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter. Follow Sofa Moolah on Twitter: @sofamoolah.

Let a Launch Buddy Help Boost Your Blog

This post was written by the Web Marketing Ninja—a professional online marketer for a major web brand, who’s sharing his tips undercover here at ProBlogger. Curious? So are we!

While I write blog posts, I don’t really refer to myself as a blogger. I’m just someone who likes sharing my experience to those who want to listen (or read), hoping it will help you in some way. My real passion is in sales and marketing, online and offline, and in all honest.y I’d prefer working with a designer to craft a set of optimized landing pages, or spending an entire morning massaging some email copy, than figuring out how to best communicate the result to the world.

I know that it’s a bit of a contradiction, but I write because I like helping people, and more than that, I like helping people I trust and respect. I don’t get paid for these posts; I post under a veil of secrecy so there’s no impact to my personal brand; and, most importantly, I don’t expect anything in return. And as a result of my willingness to help, I discovered something last week:

When it comes to launches, two heads are so much better than one.

Two heads…

A friend of mine—let’s call him Bob—was preparing to launch his first product of the year: an ebook. He’d reached out a couple of times to get my feedback on things like the title, cover, and interior design. A long time ago, I’d offered to help out where I could, to help him build a framework for his product launches. So as the launch loomed, we caught up one evening and went through the plans. We were able to cover a fair bit of ground in a short period, and we didn’t change the entire approach—just tweaked things here and there.

Instead of describing the what, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the why. Why did this collaboration help shape something good into something better?

  • I was able to take a first-impression viewpoint of the product and promotional messages.
  • I was able to read at the copy as someone who might buy the product, not someone who’s intimately involved in it.
  • I was able to add layers from my own experience to the launch, from a foundation that was already strong.
  • Collaboration on thoughts and ideas resulted in progressive, actionable outcomes.
  • We were able to validate or question each others’ unsubstantiated opinions.
  • We were accountable to actually put things into a documented plan.

I hope the launch goes well for Bob, and that in some way, my contributions will help him achieve his goals.

Break the isolation

One thing I’ve learned from being closer to bloggers than ever before is that while you’re a well-connected group, when it comes to launches, product development, and money, a lot of bloggers work in isolation. I’d like to see that change.

To me, launching a product is a critical step in your blogging journey—one that turns all your hard work into your reward. Having a buddy who not only brings objectivity to your approach, brings fresh ideas so something you’ve been probably obsessing over for months (or years)!

It doesn’t need to be a money thing—it’s a favor thing. You help them, they help you.

Finding a launch buddy

Finding your launch buddy is not about finding the most experienced marketer or product launch expert you can. It’s about finding someone you trust, and are happy to open up to.

All your challenges, your strengths, your weaknesses, all your commercial agreements, targets, traffic, audience, your ability to pay expenses—you need to be able to share them all. You also need to find someone who’ll respect that as the product owner, you get the final say, and someone who, when your opinions differ, will let you both move on quickly.

My anti-technology Mum, given the full picture, would be able to help you more than the best product launch expert in the world if you only gave them half the story.

So if you don’t have one already, for your next launch—or perhaps your first—consider adding a launch buddy to your team. Or have you already used a launch buddy to help perfect and finesse a product launch? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Stay tuned for more posts by the secretive Web Marketing Ninja—a professional online marketer for a major web brand, who’s sharing his tips undercover here at ProBlogger.

Understanding the Difference Between “Want” and “Want to Buy”

This guest post is by Ryan Barton of The Smart Marketing Blog.

As I was sitting at a café over breakfast, the couple nearby flipped through their Sunday paper. As I tend to do, I eavesdropped on their conversation.

“Will you look at that bedding? That’s wonderful!” “Oh my God, I’d die for those shoes.” “I love that movie, and it’s on sale!”

Aside from my habitual eavesdropping problem, the conversation’s simplification of the “want” impulse is vital to your online success.

Buying versus browsing

There’s a significant, actionable difference between admiration and buying intent.

The first is an attraction, a respect, a good feeling. “That car has beautiful lines.” “Wow, a front-facing camera and it supports Flash?” But regardless of all those positive thoughts, admiration lacks a fulfilled need.

The second says, “not only do I admire this service or product, but it’s exactly what I’m looking for.” “My New Year’s resolution was to focus on marketing, so this is perfect!” The product satisfies a real need—not a flighty want.

Earlier this year, Lemon and Raspberry subscribers said they’d absolutely love to win my ebook, Smart Marketing, during Amy‘s New Year’s blog party.

“Ooooh I’d LOVE to win this! I’m always up for some good marketing insight!!,” said one reader. Another agreed, “I would love to read this book. Maybe I can count it as one of the many books I resolve to read this year.”

That’s flattering; really, lots of kind words. Yet, after the contest ended and the book was awarded, some readers suddenly didn’t want the book; or, more accurately, they didn’t want to pay for it.

This is the “want” gap in action—the difference between liking a product and actually wanting to pay for it.

The “want” gap

Amy’s readers may have liked the idea of reading my book, but they didn’t realize a present need for it. It’s a great idea, and it’d be a nice addition to a library, but there wasn’t enough of an internal need to get them to pull out their wallets.

We see the same principle, but to a greater extent, with larger giveaways. Sure, I’ll take the car, the free cruise, the year’s supply of coffee—but I’m not going to pay for it.

Image by Austin Kleon

Friend and artist John T. Unger experienced something similar with a book of poetry he wrote; the “want” gap was later brilliantly illustrated by Austin Kleon.

John’s poems had a real, emotional impact on a reader; the reader admired the author. Yet all the admiration in the world couldn’t compete with the prospect’s lack of buying intent.

Asking the right question

Businesses tend to forecast and allocate advertising monies based on consumer feedback, which is unfortunately more “do you like?” than “will you buy?”

That’s what focus groups have become, haven’t they?

“Do you like this new and improved artisan sandwich? How ‘bout this car? Pretty isn’t it? Would you go on vacation with this airline?”

None of those questions ask, “would you buy?” And that’s the question that makes or breaks most launches.

Understanding this gap and how you can bridge it is your way to converting admiring prospects into paying, satisfied, and loyal customers.

How to bridge the “want” gap and boost sales

What you may not realize is that admiration is a big step forward in closing the sale. The prospect has already indicated they appreciate you and your product, but they don’t think they need it. That doesn’t mean you’re out of luck; you can fix this.

Here are five steps I use to effectively bridge the gap between admiration and convincing a prospect to buy.

1. Establish your authority

Chances are, before reading this article, you’d never heard my name. If you’re launching a product of your own, you may face the same challenge—obscurity.

If I had released my ebook under Darren’s name instead of my own, the sales would’ve been drastically different than my initial figures. Darren’s an established figure in the industry. Over 167,000 subscribers and 19,000 Facebook fans are testament to this. His community buys into his history of success. My own success isn’t global like Darren’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as relevant.

That’s why the endorsement of Hall of Fame speaker and bestselling author, Scott McKain, was so powerful. Scott had a lot ofkind words about my book—and his review told new prospects my book wasn’t a scam, it was real and unique, and they needed it.

That’s the power of word-of-mouth marketing. But it’s leveraging these words that helps you confirm legitimacy and close the sale.

2. Create value

It’s pompous to assume that because you have a product, it’ll be bought. Give prospects a reason to buy. What’s in it for them? Show them value and security in their purchase.

For my own book campaign, my value offering included free quarterly updates. Every quarter, I send my customers an updated digital file that highlights new industry trends and developments. This makes my ebook a living book—it doesn’t gather digital dust, it’s a constant resource.

Plus, it maintains my personal brand awareness among my clientele in a most personal manner.

I also went so far as to include a 100% results-and-satisfaction guarantee with every purchase. Yes, I’m that confident in my content. It works, so why wouldn’t I offer a guarantee?

And as for the prospect, why wouldn’t they buy? There’s absolutely zero risk in making the purchase. If they were apprehensive or worried they’d get burnt, this guarantee eliminates those fears. What’s more, I’ve never had a request for a refund—it’s a guarantee I’ve never been called on.

What type of value-added element can you include in your launch that convinces your prospect that they can’t afford to not buy from you? Can you offer a limited-time price reduction to create a sense of urgency? Or a creative incentive to reward multiple purchases?

3. Put their needs in lights

You launched your product for a reason: you recognized a demand, a need. So don’t be ashamed to tell your audience that you know it. Speak directly to them.

In my case, that meant telling small business owners and first-time entrepreneurs that I understand the daunting challenge they face in marketing themselves. What’s an effective strategy? What offers the greatest ROI? I know the thought of their business failing keeps them up at night. Moreover, I understand that heavy feeling—I’ve been there. And it’s difficult to navigate through new business decisions.

But simply telling prospects you understand their need isn’t enough. You also need to satisfy it. Which brings us to your solution. In my case, I hold the marketing road map to their success.

4. Spell out your solution

For my small business owner audience, it wasn’t enough to say, “Don’t worry about your business failing, I wrote a book on marketing.”

I needed to take a step back and detail the topics I’d covered—targeted marketing, brand differentiation, social media ethics, blogging, and so on—and explain how each topic plays into their success.

Andy Nulman uses the analogy of “virgin contact lenses” as a great way to remove yourself from something you’re deep into, to gain valuable perspective. You, yourself, are in-the-know. You understand what you offer, since you’re the product creator. But for the first-time prospect, you need to say exactly what you do. Assume nothing on their part. Look at your product the way a first-time prospect would, taking nothing for granted.

You’ve highlighted their need, and you’ve detailed exactly what you’re providing. Now, explicitly tell your prospects with confidence, “I am the solution. My product will fix your problem.”

5. Show them what others have

You’re at the mall; you’re hungry. You walk towards the food court, and as you get closer, you begin to smell the variety of foods. “What do I want? What am I in the mood for?” you ask yourself.

And as you arrive at the food court entrance, before you stand 15 different restaurant choices, people with trays of food rushing to and from tables. Your gaze moves across the large room, scanning the signs and lines of each of the restaurant choices. Asian food? Not bad. Pizza place: ghost town. Sandwiches … not really in the mood. But the burger joint is hoppin’.

Without saying a word, every person in each line is telling you their preference—the majority favored the burger over the pizza. And that makes you wonder, what is it about the burger that everybody loves so much? You don’t want to miss out on what the people in the burger line are enjoying. Now, your decision is made: burger it is.

In the digital food court, it’s similar; it’s the online equivalent of, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Show prospects how much your customer base supports you. Show them you’re popular, show them what other customers are buying and how they’re benefiting from it, and force the inactive community to buy in and be part of the “next big thing.”

The hype, the tangible energy in your community, your popularity—they’re all extremely powerful selling tools.

What people want

Your blog, your business, your campaign, your new product—should be less about what you think people want, and more about what your prospects will actually act on. Want to be profitable? Then that’s your focus: what people want.

Save yourself time and money. Understanding this “want” gap and bridging it—conquering it—improves your conversion rate, it motivates you through your new-found success, and it takes your efforts to a competing level.

How have you experienced the “want” gap in your blogging efforts? And how have you bridged it?

Ryan Barton is the author of the “Smart Marketing” eBook and he writes at The Smart Marketing Blog for Small Business Success; you can follow him on Twitter, where he shares entirely too much information. He wrote “Smart Marketing” with the intent that small businesses would glean insightful information and tangible marketing strategies so they too, could compete competitively with industry giants.

December Earnings Breakdown: My Best Month Ever

It’s that time of the month when I take a look over where income has come from in my own business over the preceding month—this time, December.

Let me start with the trending chart (click to enlarge it) that tracks earnings in the total and separate income streams for the last nine months. You’ll see from this that December was a very good month!

income streams 2010

Actually, “very good” is something of an understatement: it was my best month ever, and just under double the income for the previous month.

The increase came from a number of the income streams, and it occurred for two main reasons:

  1. A Christmas promotion on my photography blog: I ran a “12 days of Christmas” promotion on dPS that promoted 11 different products—my own eBooks as well as a series of affiliate promotions. This was the main reason for the leap in the affiliate stream (it’s over ten times higher than the previous month), but it also pushed ebook sales up significantly (double the previous month). I’d be happy to write a post on this promotion in the coming weeks if people are interested?
  2. Holiday shopping: AdSense income always rises at this time of year for me as a result of the Christmas rush (up by about 20%) and Amazon Affiliate earnings also rose (around double the average monthly income from the last year).

Following is the income stream breakdown:

income streams december

Note: ‘Continuity’ refers to membership sites ProBlogger.com and Third Tribe. I did not do any speaking/events in December.

Looking forward, it’s going to be slightly depressing to post January’s figures after this month—affiliate sales, AdSense, and Amazon will of course return to normal after the Christmas promotions (in fact they often are a little lower than average in January). However we’re also looking to launch a new ebook on Digital Photography School next month, so hopefully that stream will be healthy.

How were your December earnings?

How to Create a Membership Program that Rocks

This is a guest post by Mary Jaksch of A-List Blogging Bootcamps.

Many bloggers dream of adding a membership program to their blog. And with good reason. A membership program can create raving fans, will make your blog stand out, and can even create a great revenue stream. But most membership programs fizzle out because the creator made one or more of five critical mistakes in creating and running it.

In the last couple of years I’ve set up two successful membership programs, the A-List Blogger Club, with over 800 paying members, and the free Goodlife ZEN Fitness Challenge, with over 350 members. And I’ve helped quite a few bloggers to plan and set up successful membership programs. I’ve learned what works, and which mistakes to avoid.

Initial questions

Before I share my tips with you, let’s consider a few important questions.

Is creating a membership program really worthwhile?

A membership program is a lot of additional work for a blogger, so it’s important to think carefully before you establish one. The upside is that a membership program boosts a sense of community on your blog, creates goodwill, and can be a great source of income. The downside is that it’s hard work to maintain a membership site. In other words, you have to work your backside off in order to make it a success.

Paid or free?

Whether you want to create a paid or unpaid membership is a decision you need to make before you start. It’s hard to convert a free program to a paid one without losing most of your members. If you are dead keen on starting a free program, make sure you have a plan of how to monetize it in the future. Otherwise, it will become a drag on your time and energy. (You’ll find some suggestions on how to monetize a free program further down).

What’s your offer?

If you want to create a paid membership program, you need to make a crushing offer in order to get people to join. And you need no-brainer benefits in order to get people to stay.

If you start a paid program, just creating a forum isn’t enough. If you offer some kind of training as well, you’re off to a good start. Because people expect information on the Internet to be free, and they don’t want to spend money in order to just bitch and moan about their life on a private forum. But many are willing to pay for new skills.

For example, for membership of the A-list Blogger Club (which Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and I run jointly) we offer free access to any future A-list Blogging Bootcamps, as well as to all the material of past Bootcamps. Members get a monthly interactive masterclass, plus members-only monthly training seminars. All this for an under-the-radar price of $20 a month. Members regularly tell me that we’re giving away too much. True. It’s our intention.

How can you over-deliver?

Take-home tip: offer “too much” for a price that’s “too low”. It’s not enough to have a crushing offer. There are some important pitfalls you need to avoid if you want to create a successful program. I’ve sighed over many new programs that were doomed to fail, just because the blogger made one of the following mistakes.

5 Critical mistakes that can kill your program

Mistake #1: There isn’t enough momentum

You need momentum in order to start a membership program. That is, you need a bunch of people who are ready and eager to join. I reckon that you need at least 50 members in order to make it work. If you have less than that, the program will most likely fizzle out. Nobody likes hanging out in a dead forum where zilch happens.

When Leo and I started the A-List Blogger Club after our first Bootcamp, we started with 45 members. The first month was touch and go because we had barely enough momentum. I used to post on the forum about ten times a day, just to keep the thing alive. Then, as soon as we hit over 100 subscribers, the forum burst into life.

When I created the Fitness Challenge on Goodlife ZEN, Leo Babauta suggested creating a forum so that members could report how they exercise each day. Over one hundred readers had expressed that they wanted to join the Fitness Challenge in comments on my introductory post. So, from day one, I had over 100 members in the program. Now numbers have swelled to over 350 and the forum is a lively place.

Make sure you have at least 50 people who will start your program from day one.

Mistake #2: You start because you think it’s a good idea.

Many bloggers tell me that they want to start a membership program. I applaud the idea in principle. But warn that it’s not you, the blogger, who needs to think it’s a good idea. Your readers or participants need to clamor for an ongoing program. My suggestion is to create something on your blog that creates a buzz – and only then start a program.

Let me give you an example: Project 333—which was started by Courtney Carver of Be More With Less—is the kind of project that’s begging for a membership program. The project is about creating a wardrobe with only 33 items that you can live, work and play in for three months. The project has had a huge buzz on Facebook, and Courtney is now developing the project on her blog. I see that her latest post about the project has over 100 comments. That’s a sure sign of enough momentum for starting a membership program.

Mistake #3: Your program lacks clear benefits.

You need to give prospective members a good reason to join. I’ve seen a lot of limp programs especially in the self-development field that offer this kind of “benefit”: This program is a place where you can share your journey of development. Boring, right?

What’s important here is to think about what aspirations members share. Common aspirations are the glue that holds members together. For example, fans of Project 333 want to experience practical minimalism, the participants of the Goodlife ZEN Fitness Challenge want to get and stay fit, and the members of the A-List Blogger Club want to become better bloggers.

Once you’ve got the handle on the common aspiration, it’s easy to formulate clear benefits. Just make sure you don’t use what copywriter Clayton Makepeace calls “faux benefits”, that is, features masquerading as benefits.

Mistake #4: You let spammers and ranters into your forum

People who join a membership program get hacked off if they read spam comments in the forum. To scan the forum for spam is one of the necessary tasks of maintaining a good program. Make sure that only registered forum users can post. And assemble a group of moderators to help you with the task of keeping your forum clear of spam and rants.

Set the culture of the forum by responding in a friendly, supportive way to comments. Create guidelines and make sure members adhere to them. If you get nasty people in your program, don’t hesitate to give them a warning, and block them if they continue to flaunt your guidelines.

Mistake #5: You pluck a name out of thin air.

I’m often amazed at the names bloggers come up with for their programs. Take a name like “Cut Your Coat”. You might think that “Cut Your Coat” is a dress-making program. Wrong. It’s about self-development—but who would have thought that?

Make sure that the name of your program clearly states what it’s about. The purpose of the program needs to be self-evident. If you need to explain the name, bin it immediately.

How to monetize a membership program

The best way to monetize a free program is to create digital products that are tailor-made for your ‘captive’ audience. For example, I’m in the process of creating ebooks and podcasts about fitness and motivation for the Fitness Challenge at Goodlife ZEN. The key is to create products that can help your members to participate successfully in the program.

If you run a paid membership program, you can create courses or digital products to sell to your members. Survey your members to find out which relevant skills they would like to develop.

How to set up a membership program

Setting up a free membership program is easy. All you need to do is to add a forum to your blog. I use the free WordPress plugin Simple:Press. It may not the best forum software, but it’s easy to install, and it preserves the appearance and branding of your blog.

If you want to set up a paid membership site, I suggest using the WordPress plugin Wishlist Member. It’s a premium plugin and costs $97—but it’s worth it. Wishlist can be adapted to many different program structures. And it’s easy to integrate with payment processors, such as Paypal or 1Shopping Cart, or with email responder services, such as AWeber, or Mailchimp.

So should you create a membership program right away?

Whatever your plans for a membership program may be, don’t be in a hurry to create it—especially if it’s going to be free. Wait until you have enough momentum, as well as a real reason for setting up a program. Then think carefully about the structure you are aiming for. You need to know exactly what you want to offer, and how you are going to deliver it in your program.

Don’t settle for mediocre. Instead, create something of real value. Most of all, be insanely useful. Create something that can change lives.

Over to you—if you’ve run a membership program, what are your tips?

Mary Jaksch has created the Great Fitness Challenge on her blog Goodlife ZEN. She is passionate about blogging and is co-founder of the A-List Blogger Club.

How Your Blog Can Score You Free Travel

This guest post is written by Anthony from The Travel Tart.

When I first started my travel website in 2009, I just wanted to get my travel writing out there, because I was frustrated with the way traditional media worked. Little did I know that having an online presence would lead to opportunities for press trips to all corners of the globe, and I did this from scratch!

Fiji's Coral Coast (image is author's own)In 2010 alone, I went on press trips to Fiji, the United Kingdom and South Africa. I have also recently become partners with a major adventure travel company that will provide more opportunities for press trips in the coming year.

When I talk about press trips, I mean trips where all expenses such as flights, meals, accommodation, and activities are covered. Considering I only started my blog in 2009 with virtually zero knowledge of how the Internet worked, that’s pretty good!

Would you like to use your travel blog to travel the world? This is what I’ve learned from my experiences.

Blogging has advantages over traditional media

Traditional media such as newspapers, radio, and television have a scattergun approach: they broadcast all sorts of information to everyone, but this information isn’t relevant or interesting to all of these eyeballs.

However, being a blogger with an online presence means that one can use multimedia such as writing, photography and video for the website. These media can be used to portray the same story in different ways.

The blog media offer numerous benefits over traditional media:

  • Speed: bloggers can post something about an experience on the day, and start attracting traffic immediately. Traditional media people have to write the story, submit it to an editor, wait for approval, and then have the piece published—a process that can often take weeks or even months
  • Using photography and video footage can show an experience, instead of telling it. Newspapers and magazines can’t do this. For example, try writing about an experience such as bungee jumping off a perfectly stable rock ledge for a 70 metre freefall. This video communicates the experience much more effectively.
  • You can create multiple articles from one trip. I normally do a blogging campaign for these press trips by producing numerous posts, with each one focusing on something different from the trip. The number of posts per trip varies depending on what I experience. As an example, I’ve created 15-20 posts for a two-week press trip, and scheduled these to publish over time.
  • The biggest benefit of being a blogger is that you can attract targeted, long-term Internet traffic that has an indefinite shelf life. For example, if someone is Googling “South African Adventure Travel”, you can be sure they’re specifically looking for information on that topic. Also, because people are specifically searching keywords via search engines, this means the traffic consists of people who are interested in these topics, and are therefore more likely to take notice of the information you provide. It’s laser-focusing for your content!

Now I’m going to assume you already have a travel-related blog, or a blog with a strong focus, so I’m not going to tell you how to write travel posts. Instead, I want to explain the techniques I’ve used to build my profile as a travel blogger with the organizations I’ve approached and had sponsor my trips.

Get started

I sell the above benefits of having an online presence, and promote what I can do for a company or tourist commission—and back it up with evidence.

For example, I’ve turned up to travel exhibitions in my town because there are usually tourism commission and other travel industry stands there. Then I start talking to someone at the stand, as they’re usually a public relations employee. This is how I scored one of my press trips.

Also, I use business cards and hand them out as they’re relatively cheap, and I’ve found they’re a great icebreaker.

On the press trip itself

I’ve often been the only travel blogger for most of the press trips I’ve been on—and that means I can be a writer, photographer, and video production person all at the same time!

However, the trips provide exposure to other travel-related contacts, which expands my network and opens up more opportunities—ironically—in traditional media! I’ve also received great feedback from these guys about how video can capture a travel experience so well.

Be proactive and follow up

I have followed up all of these press trips with a report that details the Internet traffic my reports have attracted, video views achieved, and Google Keyword positions for the organization that paid for my trip. Along with this information I include traffic strategies the organization might like to consider, such as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, Stumbleupon etc.), and so on. This all builds up a body of evidence for my clients, and an even strong track record for me.

Your blog is your advantage

Having an online presence can give you a number of huge advantages over traditional media.

I feel that the biggest advantage is that the Internet is quantifiable. You can provide clients or trip sponsors with traffic statistics, information on where traffic comes from, and even data on how long visitors stay on your site.

Getting on the first press trip is the hardest. But if you can demonstrate a track record of attracting targeted Internet traffic beforehand, your chances of scoring that first one will be much higher. And once you have that track record, you’ll be invited on more press trips! This is how your blog can create opportunities that lead to free travel.

If you’ve managed to score free travel thanks to your blog, what other tips can you add?

Anthony writes about the funny, offbeat and downright weird aspects of world travel today. For more information, you can visit his Facebook Page or sign up for his RSS Feed.