Why “Product First” is the Better Way to Build a Profitable Audience

Note from Caleb: This essay is by Nathan Barry, who wrote a post here last year about pricing which has gone on to become one of the most popular posts ever.

Here he argues that building a product before an audience is the best way to jumpstart earning a living online. Take it away Nathan. 


The typical path to monetizing a blog looks something like this:

1. Write until someone starts paying attention.
2. Write more until that one person turns into dozens and hundreds.
3. Keep writing and teaching until you have thousands of rabid fans.
4. Launch an ebook or other product so that you can finally make a living from your hard work.

This is the audience-first method of building a blog and many people have done it. It does work and can be very successful, but it’s not my favorite approach — especially if someday you want to make a living from your blog.

My approach

If I had to start over completely from scratch—without the audience I’ve built—I would plan my first product before I had a single reader. Whether an ebook, a training course, or a SaaS application, I would figure that out first.

That’s (almost) exactly what I did for my first book: I announced The App Design Handbook to 0 email subscribers and just 100 RSS subscribers. After the announcement, subscriptions took off. My book landing page collected lots of email addresses, my blog posts got shared more, and people started paying attention to my design advice.

It took me two months to build an email list from nothing up to almost 800 subscribers—all of whom signed up to hear about my book when it came out. That list turned into just over $12,000 in sales on launch day!

That’s the part of my story most people know, because that’s the exciting part. But there is a lot more that doesn’t come up in podcast interviews.

The year before

My blog didn’t start in July 2012 when I announced my book to almost no readers. Instead it started a full year earlier when I started writing semi-regularly. I wrote about anything that was interesting to me. That ranged from web design to productivity, online security to business advice. My content was random and unfocused, and my subscribers didn’t grow. I struggled really hard to get my first 100 RSS subscribers. It. Took. Forever.

And it turns out RSS subscribers aren’t worth much. Email marketing is where everything’s at.

Write with purpose

I think the biggest problem over that first year is that I didn’t have a purpose or goal in my writing. I wrote about anything I found interesting. Add to that a random publishing schedule and I don’t blame anyone for not subscribing.

Once I was working on a product I knew exactly what to write about. I was writing content for app designers and developers. Content that I hoped would show I knew what I was talking about and could help them design better apps. Content that I hoped would help sell my book.

The random meaningless content disappeared. It was replaced by focused content and a publishing schedule. All because I was counting down the days to a product launch and needed to build that pre-launch list.

Subscribing with intent

I think you could start a blog being purposeful about a specific topic and build an audience around them. That’s great—you’ll be much better off than I was and will probably not waste an entire year like I did.

But that doesn’t take into account the intent of your subscribers. Let’s say I write a great tutorial about designing iPhone apps and follow it up with an email opt-in form that says “Sign up to my newsletter for more posts.” That will get me some subscribers, but compare that to what I actually did.

Each one of my posts ended with: “If you’d like to learn more about designing iOS applications, I’m writing a book to teach you exactly that. Sign up below to hear more about the book and get a discount when it is released.”

I’m not sure which call to action would convert better in the short term, but I am certain which would drive more sales. In the first example subscribers are just signing up to get more free content. They don’t know about an upcoming product so they certainly don’t already intend to buy it.

In the second example it says there will be a product, sign up if you want to buy it. That helps filter the list from people who want free content, to those who are willing to pay to learn valuable skills. The second group have the right intent if you are building a business: they intend to give you money.

That’s exactly why my relatively small list of 800 people was able to drive over $12,000 in sales in just 24 hours. Because they all signed up with the intent of learning more about a product they were considering purchasing. Not just getting more information for free.

Do you want an audience that just reads your work for free? Or do you want subscribers who are eager and willing to pay you for your expertise?

Expertise

Let’s talk about expertise for a minute. Anyone can write online, so it’s hard to know who to trust and who to ignore. When I first started my blog I had been designing for over 6 years and lead the design team at a software startup. Even though I was very good—maybe even an expert—at design, I don’t think that came across to my readers. I was just a designer who wrote about any random topic.

But once I announced the book, everything changed. Now I was writing a book about app design, so I must know what I am talking about. Getting guest posts was easier, subscription rates increased, and it was much easier to reach out to other designers.

With so many new blogs started every day, just having a blog doesn’t give you any credibility. But having built a product, or especially having written a book, gives you instant credibility. In my experience that credibility makes it so much easier to build an audience.

The mistake

Now, I’m not saying that you should build the product and then grow an audience around it. That’s an almost sure way to fail. Instead you should plan the product—not build it—and start building an audience that is a good fit for that product.

The mistake is that people come up with an idea for a product (a book, an iPhone app, a SaaS app, etc), launch it, and then try to find an audience. That’s not at all what I am saying. You do just enough product planning up front to identify a target audience and then build both at the same time. Talk to the potential audience and try to get them to preorder, get their feedback on specific features, and find out what pain points they have.

Perhaps the difference is subtle, but it’s important that you neither build a product without an audience or build an audience and force a product on them.

If I had to start over

If I started from scratch I would plan my product first, then start teaching content that the right audience for my product will find helpful. I’d work closely with that audience to shape the product into something they will buy. Then when it comes time to launch I would have an audience that was ready and eager to buy.

Which approach have you taken? Would you do it differently if you could do it over again?


Getting this process right can be tricky, but it is critical to a successful launch. To help I wrote out a free email course (much longer than I can cover in a blog post) on Mastering Product Launches. You can sign up for the free course here.

Get the free guide to defining your audience
  • http://www.fanextra.com Tom Ross

    Great article Nathan, and some very solid points. I think much of this is the reason why launches are so successful for audience growth. Credibility, focus and subscriptions with intent.

    I’m currently working to reshape some of our content specifically with potential customers in mind. I want to give them great content that is a natural stepping stone to our membership area, not just great content for the sake of it. I’ll definitely be taking some pointers from this article as I move forward. Thanks!

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      Glad it was helpful. It’s so much better when you write to specific customers rather than to the internet in general.

  • http://www.gringosabroad.com/ Bryan Haines

    This is a great point. We have a site that is four years old this month.

    We have a solid readership, great search traffic and solid earnings – but no product. I was waiting until we had a readership, now it is hard to find the time to create one. Working just 2 days a week means time is kind of limited. Yesterday we spent the afternoon brainstorming our first product – so excited!

    If we were doing this over again, I would have created a product years ago.

    Bryan

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      The great thing is that so long as those people are all subscribers (you do have an email list, right?) you won’t lose that effort. It may not be the ideal way, but it certainly isn’t wasted effort.

      Good luck!

  • http://www.talktherapybiz.com Linda Esposito

    Hey Nathan–

    Not a bad launch day! I agree that creating products gives you a certain cache and credibility. I see way too many people online struggling with product creation, or ideas. Which is odd because most people who decide to start an online biz in the first place do so with the intention of selling products…

    I consider myself fortunate in the sense that when I started out, I had Naomi Dunford’s voice in my head: “Just get the first product out there. It’s gonna be sh*t, but just get it done, already!”

    It’s a huge psychological hurdle to overcome, for sure. But creating a product first, or shortly thereafter, gives a sense of purpose, fire, and motivation to build something when nobody’s reading your blog…

    Best of luck on your Mastering Product Launches course!

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      I also feel that a product gives a something concrete to work towards. Rather than “I’ll write till I have an audience” without much of a definition.

  • http://www.courseitmatters.se Ella

    So great to hear! So many keeps saying the opposite, that you need to focus on traffic/newsletters, an audience before the product. And that never felt quite right to me.
    This on the other hand hits home.

    Thank you!

  • http://asailorslullaby.com Joseph

    Great advice. I just joined fizzle.co this month and am looking at ideas a lot differently thanks to you I have so many ideas and have fizzled many times but with your help I know I can get on track my current problem is focus.

  • http://epiclifepursuit.com/ Jason

    Hi Nathan, marvelous idea to be shared to all of us, especially me. I am still struggling to strive on my blog and always lost tracks. You mentioned that you are not focus in the beginning of your blog, i am totally like you. Ain’t easy to focus with the blog’s contents and keep up with the schedule when I still have to juggle with 9-5 drudgery works. Thanks for your idea anyway!

  • http://affordablewealth.net Moses Kerub

    Nathan, seeing it was your post I already knew it would be great, and you haven’t failed me.
    After thinking and reading many posts about this subject (several of them here at Think Traffic), there was never an absolute right route.

    Until today.

    Keep up the great work!

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      Thanks, that’s very kind. There are PLENTY of stories of people doing audience first and being very successful. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just think if you want to shortcut the process, you go product first.

    • http://affordablewealth.net Moses Kerub

      Yes of course, there are success stories of people choosing each route, but there was no consensus about any. And your strategy seems just right, it’s the bit of both world in the perfect order.

  • http://carolinefrenette.com Caroline Frenette Intuitive Leadership Coach

    Wow. This post was tremendously helpful and it confirmed that I need to (stop procrastinating) write my book if I wanna grow my reach & my business at this point.

    Thank you, this was extremely valuable.

  • http://www.runyogathrive.com/ P.J. Murphy

    Thanks for this post Nathan.

    I have to say that this is really an eye opener for me. I’ve had what I consider decent product ideas, but I’ve always put them off thinking that I should wait until I reach some magic number of subscribers before doing anything about them.

    Fine tuning some of those ideas and moving into the planning stage sounds like the best course of action for me because I’m in the same boat you were. My blog is close to a year old and I’m also on a random publishing schedule and if I’m being honest, my topics are all over the map. Honing my product ideas and focusing on them should help a lot.

    Thanks again for sharing this strategy with us – real eye-opening stuff!

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      Pick an idea and turn it into a product. You won’t regret it.

  • http://losefatforgood.com clare @ lose fat for good

    Hi Nathan,

    This post has come at an excellent time!! I have just designed all my new site pages (with the help of the excellent Tom Ross who also commented here!) and its being coded right now – the lovely new designs.

    I laughed out loud at your first paragraph as that was actually my plan – write a shitload and hope it sticks and my subscriber base grows. Definitely need to make things more targetted and think about a product sooner rather than later.

    Thanks for kicking me up the ass!! Best wishes, Clare :-)

  • http://www.linkremovalexpert.net Chris

    Great points Nathan, I’m in the beginning stages of doing exactly what you are talking about. I got a site going on the topic I want to talk about but I’ve been wondering how long should I wait till I start creating my first product. Turns out now is always better than later.

    It’s also interesting how you incorporate your email at the end of each post and qualify those people on those who just want free content and those who are willing to pay for your product.

    On question I have is how do you structure your opt in once you’ve released the ebook? I’d be interested to see what changes.

    I plan to follow a very similar strategy. Thanks for all the info and advice.

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      After an ebook comes out (i.e. The App Design Handbook) I change most opt ins to give out a sample chapter and then slowly educate with a drip course about designing better iPhone apps. That course then gradually sells them on the book.

      More about that here: http://nathanbarry.com/ongoing-sales/

  • http://www.HobbytoHOT.com/ Bonnie Andrews {Hobby to HOT!}

    Nathan, love this post and I couldn’t agree more. Starting something with a product in mind, whether it’s a new blog or an editorial calendar for your existing blog is the most productive, profitable way to go. Thanks for the great write up! {sharing it everywhere…}

  • http://spencerortega.com Spencer Ortega

    I’m in aimless writing mode right now. The pain point for me is finding a “thing” to commit to. I’m way too interested in too many things.

  • http://upliftedliving.com Meg Sylvia

    This is really interesting, Nathan. I like how you clarified that this is not about creating an entire product and launching it, hoping that people will magically arrive, but rather releasing info about the fact that you are GOING to be releasing it.

    I’m working on creating a 30 Day Productivity challenge (following the advice of Corbett and Natalie Sisson’s posts!) and I think this would be a great strategy for pre-release.

  • http://www.einsteinssecret.net/ Deborah Owen

    Nathan, I am so glad that you wrote this. So many people talk about building the audience, and then having the audience help you build the product almost in real time. Honestly, since I work full time while I try to build my business, I don’t have the time to “launch” a product that is nothing more than an outline, and then build it week by week based on those who bought it. I love your idea of putting out a landing page first to build the audience for a specific product, letting them know that it is coming. I think I will do that for my new product, which, by the way, is about how, although somewhere along the way many people have lost the joy of learning, if you combine specific, efficient study skills with a certain mindset, you can return to that joyful state of learning again!

    I’m looking for an audience that is a good fit for that product (parents of homeschoolers or kids who need a leg up, adults in transition…)

  • http://www.earlyparenthoodsupport.com Jessica Michaelson (@DrJessica)

    Very cool to hear you advocating a position. The 3 C’s do a wonderful job of teaching us the pros and cons of audience 1st/product 1st. I’ve been doing audience for a year, and now and all about the products…thanks for the motivation and inspiration, Nathan!

  • http://raymondduke.com Raymond Duke | Copywriter

    My process is similar to yours.

    1 – Come up with a product or service. All you need is the idea. Describe what it is in 1-3 sentences.

    2 – Find the audience for this product/service… i.e., where do they hang out? What groups/blogs/networks/communities?

    3 – Research the audience. The biggest chunk time. What makes the people in these communities happy – and what pisses them off? These emotional responses are what will trigger sales. Additionally, look for all the valuable “how to” discussions. These are the things the audience wants to know. Lastly, the language. The words, phrases, slang, etc.

    4 – Write the sales material. Yes, write the sales material before making the product or starting the service. Write the sales material based on the wants – not the needs – of the audience. People never actually buy things based on needs if you think about it. Writing the sales material first lets you focus on the wants of your audience, instead of trying to “adapt” your message to whatever your product is.

    5 – Start the product or service. You don’t need to finish it. Make it be enough that you have something to sell. If it’s a course, sell it over time. If it’s a product, make it minimal. You want to do this so you can get feedback, and make changes based on a very important aspect: what people want.

    6 – Launch. It doesn’t have to be a big launch. A stealth under the radar launch is best – one that is targeted specifically at the audience you researched. It’s so easy to do this today with targeted advertising, and basically the internet in general. You could show what you’ve done to highly influential people in your audience, too.

    Disclaimer: This process isn’t foolproof. It won’t always work. But this process keeps you from doing too much work that ends up in the trash bin. If something doesn’t work right, examine your previous steps. Maybe you missed a key want” of your audience. Make sure to do a review of the steps before giving up – there could be one thing that puts your product/service on track. If it’s a complete bomb, refund your existing customers and apologize.

    There are a lot of other things you can do in addition to this. Like launch a trial or start people on the product for free without telling them they’ll have to pay in x number of days. This gets people into what you made without them thinking about money. You could even send a survey asking how much they would pay for it, and then charge based on the responses.

    Some people might call this process “growth hacking”, but it’s not. It’s direct marketing. It’s been used for decades. “Growth Slacking” is just a new term that Gen Y/X likes to use. It’s catchy, and it takes a jab at old school marketers that a lot of people consider to be slimy and manipulative.

    Anyway. Nice post!

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      I really like this. Though I would say you should try to get preorders one on one before you build the product or write sales copy. You get amazing feedback when you ask someone directly for money.

    • http://raymondduke.com Raymond Duke | Copywriter

      Very true. This is just a general template. As you use it and get experience you can make it work better.

  • http://robbongoogleplus.com Robb Dunewood

    I have admit that, after reading the title and the first paragraph of this post, what I thought you were saying was, “Build a product, launch it, then worry about traffic”…

    I am glad I kept reading because, not only is that not what you are saying, you even made the point that doing this way is a sure way to fail.

    I think the key point you make here is about writing with purpose. You spent the first year of your blog “in the wilderness”, so to speak, but, when you decided to write a book and started posting to your blog with purpose, things kind of took off. You, of course, announced that you were writing a book, but, your content became more focused and you showcased your expertise in the area that your book was about.

    Oh, and, your closing to each post was absolutely brilliant… I think that I will A/B test a similar opt-in on a project I am currently working on.

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      Yep, that’s exactly right. Though another benefit is that your early subscribers are more likely to give you money if they signed up to hear more about a product.

  • http://www.plusengineer.com Eyram Sotome

    Nathan, I usually just read ThinkTraffic posts as they come into my inbox.

    But, today is the first time I’m commenting because I appreciate this information SO much. It was the answer to all my questions in one go about product creation.

    You should always build your product with your community because the community will buy what you made for them. If it is tailored for them (through what you’ve proved to them to be correct in the past), they will support your efforts to give them quality information.

    Would you recommend building it as the community starts to trust you or when you have a big enough community? It’s in-between the lines but still essential to know.

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      I would start building (and selling) the product as you build your community. The point of this article was to not build an entire audience first.

  • http://energymatch.ca/ Ekaterina Ramirez

    Very good thinking, Nathan! This is exactly what I needed to read today.

  • http://www.lifeisorganized.com Mridu Parikh

    Perfect timing as I’ve just started planning a product and launch for February 2014. This makes so much sense! Thank you!

  • http://falconerwebmarketing.com Aaron Baldassare

    Thank you so much for sharing your story, Nathan. This is very cool of you.

    One small thing I would add is that your first product is YOu. More to the point, it is a single ability you bring to the table that people are willing to pay for.

    Why just one ability? Because it is hard to be known as the best at X, who also does that other thing Y. Like you, I used to write about whatever I felt like. Fail. Then I got a little more sophisticated, and I would throw out topics to see what worked best. But I got better information about what people want from simple research and OTHER PEOPLE’s blogs. Fail.

    Finally I decided to focus on ONE thing, on ONE person and build something really simple. Like a simple course based on a series of blog posts. And if it doesn’t work out, at least I’ll have something that I made. Even though I haven’t launched any products or courses, just outlining one and focusing on that has increased the quality of my blog. BIG WIN. So far.

    My process is a little different than Raymond Duke’s in that I focus on the people who already like me and the questions they are already asking me:

    1) Pick ONE of your best skills
    2) Pick ONE way you can use that skill to respond to a problem someone has already asked you for help with
    3) Start offering to help other people with it
    4) If it gets a good response, start selling it
    5) If you can sell it, you can build a business (and a blog and an audience) around it, using the techniques the guys here at ThinkTraffic and Fizzle.co (HEY GUYS!) know so well.

    Great stuff here.

    • http://nathanbarry.com Nathan Barry

      I love this idea. Well done!

  • http://www.MemberStartup.com Chris Palmer

    This really hit home with me today. I’ve been writing a lot of content recently, doing some good work. All along I have it in mind to build my first product, and the only question I’ve had is “when”.

    Funny, I wrote down on a notepad last week how I need to plan out the product- not make it, just plan it. And then that’s exactly what you confirmed.

    I’ve made products before, and already run a successful online business. So really it’s just a matter of ‘when’. I have all the other nuts and bolts figured out.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.linkedinprofilemastery.com Matt

    Great idea but it really takes knowing what your target market wants. You had a product that can make an immediate impact that people were in demand for. However some may have to take the blog and email newsletter approach particularly with something that may not be established yet.

  • http://www.frictionlessliving.net Carl

    Brilliant post! Really clear cut and insightful. I wish I had read this at the start of my blogging journey.

    I would have taken a similar route to the one proposed in hindsight and focused more of my writing. I think I was guilty of trying to be a jack of all trades and spreading my content fairly wide (which I still fight a little with lots of interests).

    Fantastic work Nathan!

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  • http://rusticartistry.com Carole @ Rustic Artistry

    Great post. I’m curious about how much of an ebook’s content ends up getting published in the blog posts leading up to its release date. I keep thinking of the “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free” analogy. By the time you’ve published a year of blog posts about your topic how do you ensure there’s enough new content to warrant purchasing the ebook?

  • http://www.freelancefromscratch.com Karen Martínez P.

    Awesome post, Nathan!

    I’ve been thinking about launching an ebook since I created my blog, but I’m not sure how to implement your strategy because I had the same doubt Carole expressed.

    What if I promote something I am now easily giving away (blog content)? I would love to know how you handled that.

    • Ken

      This is really easy, Karen and Carole…

      1 – Brainstorm the subject matter and topics you think should be covered by your product
      2 – Edit/filter this list until you have two lists comprising: (a) topics to include in your product; (b) stuff to throw out
      3 – List (b) is what you should write about on your blog

      The idea is that you write on topics that are complementary to your product, stuff that is related to it but which is not covered in the product.

      This way, your blog/email posts don’t cover the same ground as your product. Where there is an overlap, it will not be in anything like the same level of detail as that described in your product.

      This way you are proving to your audience that you are an expert but you’re not giving away the crown jewels – just a few sparkly gems to keep the interest.

      Ken

  • Jeff

    This is great stuff and a very educational post. I look forward to implementing these ideas!

  • http://lucychenfineart.com Lucy Chen

    This is really interesting, Nathan.

    As an figurative artist, I always have products, and I’ve just launched my website and blog 3 months ago. Without the launch plan you mentioned. I’m yet to be profitable though :)

  • http://www.up2unique.com Kathy Bourque

    Thank you for this. I am struggling with “drilling down”, “finding my niche”, whatever you want to name it. Most of it is because of my bright shiny object syndrome! I think if I work on a product, even a small one, it will help me focus:0) Oh wait, I just had another stellar idea…

  • Rashida B

    Nathan, thank you for such a great and confirming read. I was taking a course about six weeks ago when the idea came to me to write a book first. Like you when I finished writing my five pillar posts for the blog launch they were random and unfocused, and I scratched the launch. I don’t have a whole bunch of time to write and write and pray, that someone digs my blog — but I am committed to my topic and was hoping there was another way.

    First I read this post by Michael Hyatt “Why You Should Do It for the Money (and Stop Feeling Guilty About It)” and now this. I started working on my book earlier this month, since then coming up with ideas for posts and even tweets and Facebook updates have been a cinch.

    Thank you for the confirmation that I’m not completely crazy pants!

  • http://www.notanotherrat.com Jackson Anderson

    This was great Nathan!

    Really amazing insight and obviously proof as well by your 12k launch day!

    What I really liked about this was how it took 12 months of uncertainty and “throw it up and see what sticks” and changed your whole writing style which I believe when it comes to your blog you want it to have as much purpose as possible!

    Makes the whole content creation aspect 1000 times more fun and interesting!

    Thanks again!

    Cheers

  • http://www.drivenmotivation.com/ Kevin Bond

    Awesome stuff! In fact I’m going to be doing this as well! Thank you for this awesome post guys! :D

  • http://www.drivenmotivation.com/ Kevin Bond

    Update: I did this, and it has increased my subscription rate from about about 5%, (I just started my blog) to 15% :D

    • Corbett Barr

      That’s awesome Kevin, congrats! Thanks for reporting back here.

      • http://www.drivenmotivation.com/ Kevin Bond

        Yeah anytime! You guys are seriously amazing, in the past few days I have nearly tripled my subscriber base. Thanks a bunch :)

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Which Comes First: Audience or Product?

In my first couple of startups, I built things in the traditional order: product first, then audience. With Think Traffic, I started blogging first, then figured out which products and services to deliver to the audience that gathered here.

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