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.
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?
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.
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.