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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.

8 Tips To Launch Successful Challenges at Your Blog

This guest post is by Celestine Chua of The Personal Excellence Blog.

Earlier this year, I launched a challenge called 30 Days To Live a Better Life (30DLBL) on my blog. This is a 30-day challenge where participants complete one task a day, for 30 days in the month, that will help them live a better life. When I created 30DLBL, it was breath of fresh air—I’d not seen any such personal development challenges around at the time, and it was fun to do something different rather than just write articles every week. I was very excited about my challenge, and thought I’d probably get about 100 people joining in, or 200 people max.

I was proven wrong. The minute the post went live, there were already a handful of participants. By the end of the day, there were over 100 participants. The number slowly exploded to 200, 300, 500, 800 … to over 1,200 excited participants all over the world, all ready to transform their lives in the next 30 days! Not only that, but people were tweeting about 30DLBL, blogging about it, sharing it on Facebook, and telling all their friends about it. Some readers even specially created new blogs just to blog about their 30DLBL experience. Needless to say, the response totally blew me away!

The 30-day challenge was extremely successful, and many participants’ lives changed in unimaginable ways that month. Many of them rediscovered themselves on a whole new level, set new goals, and created new plans for their future. It was so successful that I later launched a guidebook and a workbook on the upgraded version of 30DLBL. The book sold over 200 copies in less than two weeks of launch, and last month I did a second run of the challenge, with many more runs planned in the future.

Some bloggers have also been inspired by the success of 30DLBL and are launching their own 30/31-day challenges, and it’s great to see them getting down to engage their communities.

Why run a challenge?

First off, you might wonder, why run a challenge? There are four key reasons:

  1. Create a breath of fresh air: At that time I launched the challenge, I’d already been running The Personal Excellence Blog for about 1.5 years. After 1.5 years of writing article after article, I wanted to have a 30-day challenge as a breath of fresh air, as Darren did with his challenge, 31 Days To Build a Better Blog. The challenge was designed to complement what I write at the site. It was very much welcomed by the readers.
  2. Help readers apply what you teach: Even while we may be writing down the most important insights in our articles, it’s a whole different thing altogether to apply that advice to real life. Some readers may not fully comprehend what you’re writing, while some readers may not know how to apply your insights. A challenge helps them take action.
  3. Engage readers: A challenge lets readers become involved. It makes them feel like they’re a part of your site. Launching 30DLBL helped me get up close and personal with my readers in a completely new way. At the end of the 30 days, I’d developed a very close bond with many of my readers.
  4. Form a community: With the launch of 30DLBL, I saw the first signs of a true community forming around my blog—a community where readers interact with each other, care for one another, and really help each other grow. This made me very excited about what’s ahead.

Eight tips for running a successful challenge

Here, I’ll share with you eight tips to help you run a successful challenge on your blog.

1. Evaluate the role of a challenge in your blog

Some bloggers may prefer to write articles, which is totally fine. Challenges are not necessarily for everyone. Figure out whether you do want to run challenges as part of your blog, and how regularly you want to do them. It can be a once-in-a-while project—for example, Darren runs 31DBBB at Problogger about once every few years. Or it can be a regular affair, which is what I’m planning for my blog.

I love interacting with my readers, getting up close and personal with them, and growing side-by-side with them, and I see a challenge as the perfect platform for me to know them better. Last month I finished a second run of 30DLBL with great success, and it’s now part of my plan to have three 30DLBL challenges every year. On the other hand, I launched a new 21 Days To a Healthier Me challenge in January ’11, where people all around the world get together to live a healthier life for 21 days. I’m planning more new challenges in the months ahead, to get more readers to join in and participate. Through these challenges, I’ve gotten to know my readers on a much personal level than I had previously with just writing articles.

2. Ensure you have a sizable reader base

Before you kick off a challenge, you’ve to ensure that you have a sizable reader base. The last thing you want to do is to have a challenge that no one’s participating in! Bear in mind that there’ll always be dropouts throughout the challenge, so if you have 100 people signing up, you might very well end up with only ten people towards the last week, and that will pull down the momentum. So the more participants you can get starting the challenge on Day 1, the better.

When I kicked off 30DLBL, I had almost 10,000 subscribers. I believe you’re good to go if you have at least 5,000 active subscribers, though I’ve seen people launch challenges with only 500 subscribers and they went well. In those cases,  the outreach was smaller by comparison, and the community, while small, was tight-knit.

3. Offer a tangible, compelling benefit

Your challenge should have a tangible, compelling benefit that draws people to participate. Since people have to dedicate time to the challenge, the benefit has to be something attractive. For 30DLBL, the benefit is about living a better life, and that’s something which was very compelling to many. After all, as growth-oriented people, we’re always looking for ways to grow and improve our lives.

Your challenge should be relevant to the topic of your site. It’s going to be quite strange if your blog’s about cooking and you run a challenge that’s on making money! Since I run a personal development blog, 30DLBL was a great complement to what I’d been writing at the blog. It was a great way to reinforce the ideas and concepts I’ve been sharing since the blog started.

Besides it being a direct complement, your benefit can be a subset of your site’s offering. Think about what your site is about, then brainstorm on the various sub categories that fall under the theme of your site. Are there any noteworthy topics worth starting a challenge on? The Live a Healthier Life in 21 Days challenge I just ran this month has been a great success. While some may think that health and personal development are unrelated, it works as healthy living is part of living a better life. People who are interested in personal development are the same people who want to pay attention to their health and fitness too.

4. Allow enough time for people to join

I posted the announcement post for 30DLBL five days before it started, which provided enough lead time for people to find out about the challenge, share with their friends, and join in. At the same time, I think it would have been better if I posted it earlier. Overall, one week should be more than enough time for you to promote the challenge and spread the word.

5. Set a proper duration: 30 days, 21 days—whatever suits

It’s up to you to design your challenge the way you want. I recommend making it a daily challenge, since it’ll be easier to follow. Duration-wise, I recommend 30 or 31 days (where participants can dedicate a whole month to it), or 21 days if you think 30 days is too long. 30DLBL was, of course, 30 days long, whereas my healthy living challenge was 21 days long. Anything longer than one month will be too long—participants will be likely to lose steam before it finishes.

6. Create channels for participants to engage with one another

A successful challenge is one that allows the participants to interact with one another—not just to interact with you. Establish channels for them to engage with one another. With 30DLBL, I initiated a twitter hashtag of #30DLBL, so that participants can connect with one another. I also created a new forum, with a sub-forum dedicated to the challenge so readers could have their own space to interact with one another. This approach worked very well. Participants used these platforms to give each other support and encouragement, and at the end of the process, many new friendships and bonds had been formed. Many of them added each other on Facebook afterward, and stayed in touch through the forums and Facebook.

7. Make your challenge tasks easy to follow

If you make your challenge tasks daily (which I recommend), you want to make them easy to follow. Don’t set tasks which take a week to complete. If your challenge is too tough, your readers may get discouraged and give up mid-way. This will defeat the whole purpose of the challenge to begin with! Make the tasks easy to process—break them up into mini-steps and spell everything out in layman’s terms.

For example, when I first ran 30DLBL, there were several tasks that made the participants feel discouraged, because they couldn’t finish them on time. Subsequently, they kept putting off the tasks and eventually disappeared off the radar. Hence, in my upgraded version of 30DLBL, I revised the tasks such that they could be completed in 30 minutes to one hour, if the person made an effort to do so.

8. Be in tune with your participants’ needs

Your participants are the backbone of your challenge, so stay in tune with their progress every step of the way. Observe what’s happening at ground level. If there’s something going awry, step in to help out. Throughout 30DLBL, my site received over a thousand comments from readers. I read through as many comments as I could and replied to all the questions that they asked. I also made a point of responding to as many participant comments as possible, so that they would be encouraged to share more. This created a tightly-knit community around my challenge.

I also noticed after four or five days in the challenge, some participants were falling behind. Hence, I introduced a three-day break after the first week, so the participants who were falling behind could catch up. It was very much welcomed and many participants were able to regroup themselves and get back into the challenge after that.

Moving forward

Challenges can be resource-intensive, but they definitely pay off. Your readers become more engaged, you help to make a positive difference in their lives, and you can build a community for your site. It’s up to you whether you want to create one, and what you want it to be about.

For me, running 30DLBL has been an extremely rewarding experience, and it’s not going to end there. I’ve planned a series of new challenges which I look forward to completing with my readers. Have you ever run, or considered creating, a challenge for your blog? Tell us about it in the comments.

Celestine writes at The Personal Excellence Blog on how to achieve excellence and live your best life. Check out the life changing 30DLBL program and live a better life in the next 30 days. Get free ebooks 101 Things To Do Before You Die and 300 Inspiring Quotes of All Time now by signing up for her free newsletter.

Fundraise $1000 with Your Blog in 3 Days

This guest post is by Eric Kim of Erickimphotography.com.

When I first got into blogging about street photography, I told myself that I wasn’t going to sell out to the man, and that I would keep my blog as ad-free as I could. The reason I decided this was to keep it more of a passion and a hobby, rather than a job. I enjoyed writing my blog posts for my audience, as well as engaging them with questions while even getting some people to write guest posts for me.

Eric with the workshop team (author's own image)

One day, one of my blog posts, titled “101 Things I Learned About Street Photography”, went viral and brought 3,000 visitors to my blog in one day (I averaged about 100 visitors a day at that time). Then, a photography workshop director in Beirut, Lebanon, emailed me to ask me to teach a street photography workshop.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic and very excited about the trip. However, there was a problem. I didn’t have the $1100 at the time to afford a round-trip ticket to Beirut. The organization holding the workshop was able to fund my lodging and expenses, but not my flight.

When all hope seemed lost, my girlfriend suggested that I reach out to the community on my blog and try to fundraise for my air ticket. I thought it would be nearly impossible to fundraise the necessary funds for my trip, but I thought it would be worth a try.

Fast-forward three days. I had $1100 in my Paypal account for a round-trip ticket to Beirut to teach my street photography workshop. I ended up having the trip of a lifetime, meeting some of the most cordial and amazing people, and taking inspirational photos as well.

Now, perhaps you’re not looking to finance a trip to boost your career. Maybe you want to raise funds for a charity or cause that’s important to you. Or perhaps you want to be able to donate money to a specific appeal. Using your blog to raise funds for a cause you care about is a very fulfilling, enjoyable thing to do. Here’s how I did it.

1. Have a personal connection with your community

Well before I started fundraising for this trip, I had a very strong and personal connection with my community. On my Facebook fan page, I regularly ask for my audience’s input and opinions about certain issues, and try my best to address everybody by his or her first name. Not only that, but I also try my best to reply to every single comment I get on my blog personally.

I genuinely believe in human generosity and kindness. People want other people to achieve their dreams. When I asked people to donate, I asked them to help be a part of achieving my dream—which was to go to Beirut. Also, the fact that my mission was not selfish, but sprang from my wanting to spread my love of street photography to other places, helped tremendously.

2. Chart your progress

Whenever I got a donation, I charted my progress on my blog. I made a percentage bar in Photoshop, and would update it every time somebody donated to my cause, helping me get closer and closer to that 100% mark. This way, I relied on game mechanics to spark action; people wanted to see me reach that 100% mark and had a reason to donate. Making the experience much more visual helps out tremendously.

3. Use various social media platforms

When I was asking for donations, I accessed all of my social media platforms. This included Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and my blog. Being able to effectively leverage each platform helped me reach different audiences, all of which believed in my cause. Only utilizing one social media platform is selling yourself short, as kindness is very wide-spread on the Internet.

4. Thank your donors personally

Once somebody donated to my cause, I gave him or her a heart-felt and personal response, thanking them for their generosity. This way the person who donated to your cause feels great in helping you, and motivated to spread the word. Which goes to my next point…

5. Ask others to spread the word

It never hurts to ask other people to support your cause. Simple things such as updating their statuses on Facebook or sending out tweets truly helps out a lot. Imagine if you had 100 fans, and each of them updated their Facebook statuses, asking for their contacts to help. Now let’s also assume that the average person has around 200 friends on Facebook. That means that your message is being broadcast to at least an audience of 2000, which can continue to ripple outwards if other people believe in your cause as well.

6. Make a video

When I asked my donors to support my cause, I recorded a video, uploaded it to YouTube, and spread it far and wide. Why use a video rather than just writing? Well, when you record a video, people can truly see the face behind the computer—the person they will be donating to. Also, in hearing you ask for support in real life, people feel more secure donating to you, as they know you aren’t some random scammer on the Internet. Show your spirit, personality, and charisma. It truly goes a long way.

7. Have a “donor list”

People love to be honored, and to see their names in public places. Think about all the famous memorials you have been to, which have the names of donors embedded into the bricks that make the memorial. I did the same with my blog. Whenever somebody donated to my cause, I wrote their name in a “donors list” which was proudly displayed at the front of my homepage. Importantly, I made sure not to display how much money they each donated, as I saw that to be a bit too intrusive.

8. Have a minimum suggested donation

Most people love donating to causes, but aren’t sure how much to donate (which prevents them from donating altogether). For my campaign, I asked for a minimum donation of $5. I did end up getting many donations worth $5, but surprisingly enough, the majority of people who donated either gave $20 or $25. If you set a minimum suggested donation, people will know what the standard will be, and will even donate more if they truly believe in your cause.

9. Go big

During my fundraising campaign, I was able to net $300 in donations in the first two days via Paypal. However, what really got me over to Lebanon was a $800 donation from a Swedish street photographer named Thomas Leuthard. He heard about my cause through Twitter, and after seeing my passion and how badly I wanted this trip, he offered to sponsor the remainder of my trip. He also told me that he was looking for some adventure as well, and asked me if he could accompany me to the workshop.

He actually ended up being the guest speaker for my street photography workshop, and after meeting in person overseas, we made a strong friendship and relationship.

10. Share your experiences

People who donated to your cause love to see the fruits of their labor. When you come back from your trip, share your experiences! I took many photos of the people of Beirut, Lebanon, and shared them in this post. Not only that, but I also shared the slides from the workshop that I did for free—for those who wanted to attend but couldn’t.

Have you ever used your blog to raise funds? How did you do it, and what tips can you share?

Eric Kim is a street photographer based in Los Angeles. He shoots, blogs, and tweets about everything street photography. You can check out his work on his blog, and also connect with him on Facebook.

Buying and Selling Blogs with Strong Personal Brands

This guest post is by Andrew Knibbe of Flippa.

The responses to my last post raised the crucial issue of selling a blog that’s built around a strong personal brand.

Mark Wolfinger wrote, “When I write a blog, it’s my passion that the readers see. It’s my writing style and knowledge. Buy an existing blog and the blog’s voice changes immediately. How can you keep loyal readers who loved the previous voice?”

This is of course a key consideration in buying or selling a personally branded blog. It’s true that the strength of some personal brands may make a blog unsaleable, but that doesn’t need to be the case.

The blog as a business

In response to Mark’s comment, the Blog Tyrant pointed out, “Mark you read ProBlogger and hardly any of the posts are by Darren nowadays.”

This reminds me of that old saying that if you want to have a saleable business, you have to be able to step back at some point and work on it, rather than in it.

This seems to be the approach that Darren has taken with ProBlogger. He’s spent years building a strong personal brand, and building a blog that revolves around that. By establishing ProBlogger as a leading light in the niche, he’s able to attract some of the best bloggers and source high-quality content for the site, and that’s let him step back from the blog to work on aspects like product development.

We can guess that he’s now spending time he used to spend writing blog posts preparing courses, writing ebooks, and coming up with new concepts.

But the things that make ProBlogger what it is remain here, even if Darren’s time and presence on the blog has decreased from what it was when he started all those years ago. There’s a large and loyal community, a strong brand, an enormous, high-quality content inventory, and  a raft of happy advertisers, affiliates, and so on. So if ProBlogger was for sale, you can see that it would have a lot to offer a potential buyer.

Getting personal

What if this site was called DarrenRowse.net, rather than ProBlogger.net? Sure, that might reduce the overall sale price of the site, but it certainly wouldn’t make it unsaleable. As a potential buyer, you might choose to move it to a new domain, but if you were smart, and Darren was a caring seller, you’d probably negotiate a handover arrangement whereby you as the new site owner could be introduced to the ProBlogger readers and community.

Before you agreed to buy the site, you’d probably assess the alternative domains you could use, and you might buy one—possibly one like, say, ProBlogger, which talks about the niche more than a personality—as you bought the site. Perhaps you’d also secure Twitter and Facebook accounts with the same brand, or negotiate with the owner to transfer the existing account’s ownership with the blog.

During the handover period, you might undertake a gradual rebranding of the site and announce to users that its location was changing. Rather than switching off DarrenRowse.net the day your turned on the ProBlogger domain, you might have the two running in tandem, with a redirect attached to the personal domain, for a while.

Buying (or selling) an existing blog isn’t like buying a used car: it doesn’t need to be a take-it-or-leave-it situation. As the buyer, you can request any assistance you need to transfer the blog safely to your ownership, complete with its full complement of readers. If the seller cares about the community he or she has built up, they’ll hopefully be pretty happy to negotiate this kind of thing among the terms of the sale.

Finding opportunities on a personal blog

Another response to Mark’s comment on the article came from Alex, who wrote, “buying a blog which already has a small reader base and some articles can save you quite a bit of time, otherwise you’d need to “get the ball rolling” yourself, which is the hardest part of blogging, IMO.”

Mark replied, “It’s funny. I find writing to be the very easy part. And I have a decent number of readers (24,000 monthly unique). It’s the monetizing that’s difficult for me.”

These comments really show the variation that exists in the blog trading space—people buy and sell blogs for all sorts of reasons, and a blog that has real potential for one buyer will hold little appeal for another.

Take Mark’s comment, for example. It sounds like he’s built up a great content inventory, and a loyal, committed readership—but he has difficulty monetizing blogs. Alex says he finds the initial stages of starting a blog the biggest challenge, but perhaps he’s the type to easily spot monetization opportunities and do something about them. The fact that Mark’s been unable to monetize his blog presents an opportunity: if he wanted to, he might sell the blog to someone like Alex, who had monetization skills. After all, strong community and great content are valuable assets.

Mark comments that his unique style and personality are what readers come to his blog for. That’s great, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that, if he wanted to sell the blog, he couldn’t.

Firstly, he’d be choosy about the buyers he considered, looking for someone who knew his site and understood what it was about—he might well find that among the interested buyers were some of his site’s current users. He’d look for a potential buyer who had an appealing writing style that he felt would really engage his readers. Perhaps he’d invite them to write some guest posts so that he could see how his readers responded to the potential buyer, and to help that person build a profile among the readership in advance.

If the sale went ahead, he’d make a personal announcement to his readers, perhaps via email to subscribers as well as in a post on the blog itself. He might also recommend a handover period to help the transition go smoothly, and keep readers as loyal to the blog—and the new owner—as possible.

Personal brands can add an extra dimension to the buying and selling of blogs, but they don’t have to be a problem. A buyer might be able to find a personally branded blog that doesn’t have a strong personal style (we’ve all seen them online)—another opportunity for the astute buyer who knows what they have to offer.

Have you ever though about buying or selling a blog with a personal brand? What other concerns would you have about the process?

Andrew Knibbe is the Marketing Manager at Flippa, the #1 marketplace for buying and selling websites. He blogs at the Flippa blog. Follow him @flippa.

How to Optimize Your Sales Funnel for Success

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!

As online marketers, we often devote a large amount of time to finding ways to attract eyeballs to our online assets. We put such effort into simply get the readers there that we allow the rest to take care of itself. Money will flow, Ferraris will be purchased, and we can all retire nice and young…

Then we discover the concept of sales funnels.

You may already know what a sales funnel is, but if you don’t, let me quickly describe it for you.

A sales funnel is a simple map of your lead-to-sale process.

  1. Let’s imagine you start with 1,000 leads (visitors to your web site).
  2. 100 might click on a sales page link for of one of your products.
  3. 50 might click your Order Now button and enter your shopping cart.
  4. Ten complete the checkout process and buy the product.

So your sales funnel starts and 1,000 and ends in ten sales—that’s a 1% conversion.

That’s a bare-bones view of a sales funnel, but as you can see it takes four steps, not one, to increase the amount of sales your site delivers. If we put all our attention on attracting new visitors, we’re essentially forgetting 75% of the puzzle—and we’ve all done that.

But that’s not where online marketers go wrong!

It’s not hard to sell people the idea of the sales funnel—it’s simple to understand and easy to quantify. It’s also been around for a long time. Offline sales professionals have been using it for decades.

The problem with the sales funnel is that in the offline world it’s a simple and straightforward methodology, but in the online world, it’s not.

The image below is a quick process map I prepared for a Managing Director of a large retail operation, who’s focusing heavily on online strategy.

As you can see, that organization’s sales funnel is a lot more complicated than the simple four-step process I mentioned above. There are some key points I want to highlight in this map:

  • Seven different types of traffic that visit the site.
  • There are multiple behaviors that we need to analyse: what pages visitors view, how long they stay, the navigational path, and their user profiles (locations, browsers, etc.).
  • There’s a connection outcome, as well as a buy outcome.
  • A visitor can become a customer in a range of ways.

Now my idea of a funnel resembles something I use to fill my car with oil, and this looks nothing like it. This depiction reminds me more of the tubes game I play on my iPhone. In even more bad news, I made this process map in five minutes. The reality is that this business’s online sales funnel is probably twice as complicated!

The key to sales funnel success

The key to creating a more successful sales funnel is: step away from the keyboard. While I work in an office, I actually have a whiteboard in my house. I actually use it, and it’s better than any online tool I’ve seen for laying out the bare bones of a real, live sales funnel.

I start by detailing every single way people can enter the funnel, identifying where they have come from, what their persona is, and where they’re at in the purchase cycle.

Then, I identify every activity that someone can undertake on the site: read some content, read some more content, subscribe to a newsletter, view a social media profile, buy something, or exit the site.

Finally I detail the measures I can put on each activity: time on page, entry path, exit path, and so on.

Then I start connecting the dots and putting together all the different pathways a visitor can take thought my funnel. The key here is not to change anything about your site yet.

Putting theory into practice

Once the funnel is mapped, and the measures are in place, I start collating reports at every step. What I’m trying to do here is understand how my funnel works in practice, not in theory.

Try this on your blog. Once you’ve collated enough information to start making decisions, I guarantee there will be obvious points of failure in your process, and they’re likely to arise in two main areas:

  1. a page that does a great job at encouraging a secondary behaviour (that is, rather than keeping someone in the sales funnel)
  2. a page that fundamentally fails to move a customer to the next step in the funnel.

Initially, you’ll probably feel like there is a lot to do, so you’ll need to prioritize the changes you want to make. Focus on the areas that are costing you the most sales (which might actually be at the bottom end of your funnel).
With time, effort, and focus, you could see huge improvements in the performance of your site, without your having to attract one new visitor to your site. Sounds good to me!

Have you tweaked your sales funnel recently? What changes have worked best for you?

Stay tuned from most 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. Questions? Suggestions? Email him.

October and November Earnings Breakdown

Over the last few months I’ve been showing breakdowns of my earnings in an attempt to give some insight into the diversity of income streams available to bloggers, as well as showing how earnings can vary from month to month. Earnings come from my work on a number of sites including ProBlogger and Digital Photography School.

Following are the breakdowns for October and November.
Screen shot 2010-12-10 at 2.19.58 PM.png Screen shot 2010-12-10 at 2.20.09 PM.png

The split changes a little from month to month based upon a variety of factors. For example, in October, affiliate income went up by quite a margin as I did a couple of larger promotions on my photography blog. In November, ebook sales rose quite well because I did a promotion with affiliates on the ProBlogger ebooks. Similarly, Amazon affiliate income and AdSense have both increased in the last couple of months, as tends to happen when we move towards the holidays.

To get a sense of how the revenues have tracked over the last few months, here’s a different visualization that shows how each area has performed (click for a larger picture).

Screen shot 2010-12-10 at 2.22.03 PM.png

Now that we have seven months of data, I hope that it’s clear how things can vary from month to month depending upon the season, special events, and promotions that you might run.

Looking forward, I’m predicting December to be quite a good month in terms of AdSense and Amazon, thanks to holiday shopping. I’m also running a fairly larger promotion in December on dPS with some affiliate pushes, so I’m hoping that that income stream will spike quite a bit also.

Looking further ahead, I’m hoping to see the red ebook line increase with some good spikes in the new year, as I have several ebooks currently in different stages of production for dPS.

How Changing My Intentions Made Me Money

This guest post is by Roman from how this website makes money.

Two years ago I stumbled across the concept of blogging for money.  Instantly it hit me as the perfect thing: sit behind a computer, design a site, write, be my own boss, work from home, what could be better? I knew nothing about traffic, SEO, backlinks, Pagerank, or keywords.  I knew nothing about how to make money with a website.  So what did I do next?  I registered the domain name howthiswebsitemakesmoney.

Looking back all I can do is laugh at my arrogance.  Like thousands before me and thousands who will come after me, my first attempt at blogging was a site about making money online.

Two years later, I know how to start a site, I know how to write content, I know about SEO, I know about backlinks, I know how to add advertisements … but I still do not know how to make good money online.  The site makes dimes a day, not dollars.

The site has been two years of disappointment.  Two  years of waking up in the morning and seeing the same green egg in AdSense.  Two years of waiting for a four-digit affiliate check with my name on it.  Two years of working without pay.  Two years of scratching my head.

So I asked for advice, and every time the reply was the same: create a site about something else. Create a site about what you know and what you enjoy.  Do not create a site with the intent to make money, create a site with the intent to help people by doing something you enjoy doing.

What happened when I changed my intent

Six months ago I created a new site.  This time my intent was pure pleasure.

I live in Prague and I love it here.  So I made a little site about how great Prague is and what people should do when they come for a visit.  It was built in a month.  In a gust of activity I designed the site and wrote the content.

It was so easy.   I did not agonize over what to write about.  The content flowed effortlessly from my head to the keyboard.  I did not have to take long walks with the dog or waste water standing dazed in the shower coming up with new ideas.  I just sat down at the computer and wrote about what I know.  It was so easy I actually looked forward to it.

As an afterthought, I created a simple page where people can order a real postcard from Prague.  Visitors select a picture of Prague and fill out a form indicating what they want written on the postcard.  After they hit the Submit button I get the request by email.  I grab a postcard and, like an ancient scribe long before computers, lick the tip of the pen and write.  After pounding a Prague stamp on the postcard I toss it into the mailbox on my way to work. I charge $4.00 for this five minutes of work.

I created this site with no aspirations of becoming rich, no day dreams of shaking hands with Oprah, no imagined scenes of telling my employer to find some other donkey to kick around. I created the website because it was easy for me to do and I enjoyed it. I made it because I needed a break from my ‘real’ website. I expected nothing to happen.

Again, I was wrong.

My hand is ink blue from all the postcards I have written.

I wrote a postcard from a son playing a trick on his mother: “Hi, Mom!  Sorry for not calling in last few days.  But I am in Prague with friends.  Having a great time and the beer is sooo cheap.  Say hi to Dad.”

I have written postcards to countries all over the world.  Some of them in languages other then English—I have no idea what I am writing. Fortunately, the order form does not allow Chinese characters!

I get emails from people thanking me for the information they found on the site, thanking me for the postcard, asking for more information.

I feel like I am making the world a better place.  I made a website about something I know about and am interested in and people are thanking me. Emotionally it is a soft, warm, fuzzy ball.

And yes, I am making money.

Intend to enjoy and you might make money

I learned a lot about making money online not from my site about making money, but from licking postage stamps.

New arrivals to the make-money-online scene go through the same initiation—they start out with the intent to make money, then fail to make more then a pile of pennies.  For some it means the end and they quit, but for others this brutal introduction teaches them that their intent needs to change.

Of course, making money is about traffic, clicks, affiliates, backlinks SEO, but it’s also about finding something you enjoy doing.  If your intent is only to make money the odds are stacked against you: you will probably quit.  But if your intent is to do something you enjoy then you will keep moving forward until one day, you will be surprised to find that you are making money.

What’s your intent?

Roman intends to figure out how this website makes money.  He has been trying to do that for two long years, so when he needs a break and do something fun he goes onto his other website to send a real postcard to his mother who misses him very much.

Top 5 Affiliate Sales Techniques

This guest post is by the team at E-junkie.com.

Working with so many merchants and affiliates gives us a great opportunity to see what different bloggers are trying to do to generate sales of affiliate products, and over time we’ve noticed that some strategies work much better than others.

These are the top five affiliate sales techniques we’ve seen work time and time again.

1. Only promote products you’re willing to stand behind 100%.

We had one incident on our site where someone bought something from a third party, didn’t like it, and got so mad that they launched a Denial of Service attack on us!

It’s very common for us to receive emails from people who buy stuff from our merchants but get mad at us for allowing people to sell what they see as substandard products. Initially we used to tell them that this is akin to writing to Bill Gates complaining that someone who made budgeting software using Excel didn’t do a good job, but now if we get too many complaints we just get rid of the product.

We have a certain brand that gets attached to whatever is being sold using our platform, and if a product is bad, people view us negatively, even though we have nothing to do with it.

The same applies to your blog.

Your customers will see very little difference between your products and the affiliate products you sell. They’ll blame you if they don’t like the affiliate product. Only promote products you really love, and are willing to back 100%—or your readers will lose their faith in you.

2. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

The range of products that our merchants sell never ceases to amaze me. Recently we featured a seller whose product is poo-shaped pillows! No, that’s not a typo: these pillows are colored and shaped like poo.

You never know what will work until you try it out—many times you’ll think about something, assume it won’t work, and move on to something else. Yet the Internet makes experimentation so cheap and so easily measurable that you should give all your ideas some time before you drop them. You never know what will bring you the next million!

3. Reviews work much better for affiliate sales than buttons, widgets, or advertisements.

In Darren’s 31 Days to a Better Blog book, the exercise for Day 28 is writing a review post that includes an affiliate link.

We’ve seen this approach work much better, as far as conversions are concerned, than advertisements, widgets, or buttons on your website. You may drive a lot more traffic to your sales page using buttons, but contextual links in reviews have much better conversion rates.

4. Think of your customer service as your product.

If we see a merchant who offers first-rate customer service, we know that they’re going to be big. There’s so much commoditization in so many industries that it becomes difficult for customers to choose between products, and for merchants to be heard. Great customer service is something that easily cuts through this clutter.

Sometimes people will buy your product just because they know that you will pick up their call or answer their emails. When you put customer service on the same pedestal as your core product, you will see an attitude shift in the way you deal with your customers, and also the way they see you.

5. Don’t lose your customer at the last step.

One of our core mantras is to make our product as easy to use as possible, and we see a lot of other successful merchants do that too.

There are two key ways of doing this: simplify your product, and provide as much detailed documentation as you can on how to use it.

While there are limits to simplifying the product, you can always provide a great amount of detail on how to use your product, or how to become your affiliate.

Leo Babauta’s step-by-step directions on what to do when you want to join Zen Habits as an affiliate are a great example of what I’m talking about.

A user can walk through that whole process without any confusion, and providing such great detail can vastly improve your conversion rates. You really don’t want to lose your customer at the last step just because your instructions weren’t clear. It’s so hard to get people’s attention, and convince them to try your product. Don’t let them fail to sign up just because they can’t understand the directions on your site—that’s the last thing you want to happen.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out any of this stuff—it all makes so sense when you think about it.
The reason why affiliates and merchants fail to follow this advice isn’t because it’s hard to figure, but because execution is difficult. Doing the right thing, day in and day out, over and over for years, is what makes the difference between generating a six-figure income online, and the rest of the blogosphere.

Keep these best practices in mind—but also focus on executing them as much as you can. What tips can you add to this list?

E-junkie.com is a hosted shopping cart and digital service that lets you sell just about anything on your website, blog or social network. Our mission is to lower the barrier of entry in online selling. Our blog is about small business, e-commerce, self publishing and all the awesomeness in them. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook or Subscribe with us for all the action.