“Tell me the niche you’re publishing in now, and I’ll show you someone who is selling the same basic content and likely making more money than you … That’s the simple solution to making money with content that has been around for centuries, and it’s still going strong. If you want to make money with content, charge for it.”
One common obstacle to earning a steady income online is the belief that you don’t have anything valuable to offer in exchange for money. I know this, because I used to believe it myself. But I was dead wrong. You may be too.
What follows is a personal story that I hope will not only educate and inspire you, but will also help shatter this limiting belief so you can start earning more money from your efforts to make a difference in the world.
How I Used Content Marketing to Build an Online Business
You may know I once owned a company named Solostream, which I launched in June 2006 as a blog design and consulting company. After a few months in business, I created several WordPress templates (themes) that people could simply download and install on their WordPress blog or website.
Initially, I offered my themes for free. This was – and still is – a common tactic used by WordPress developers to get more traffic and backlinks to their website, as well as build their brand within the WordPress community. Consequently, there are tens of thousands of free WordPress themes out there in the world.
This is a form of content marketing, and it’s much like what you do when you add content to your blog or website. You publish free content, such as an article, tutorial, video, ebook, special report, podcast, etc. The idea, of course, is to make it valuable and interesting enough that people will not only consume it, but also share it, link to it and start to recognize you as an authority in your niche.
For me, this approach paid off well. By the middle of 2007, several thousand people were downloading my free themes each month, and Solostream had developed a decent brand within the WordPress community.
Further, with thousands of sites using my themes, most of which included a link back to the Solostream site, I earned top rankings on Google for some prime keywords like "blog design" and "wordpress themes."
Back in 2007, a Google search for "blog design" had Solostream near the top of the listings. Often it was the #1 listing. As a result, I found myself in a position where I could pick and choose my projects, and I turned down much more work than I accepted.
Occasionally, I strained my shoulder while trying to pat myself on the back for the seemingly brilliant moves I’d made to put myself in that sort of position. Okay, not really, but I was pretty happy about the situation.
The Dark Side of Free Content
Still, for me, there was one big problem with this approach. Often, when people downloaded my free themes, they’d come back to me and request free technical support. They’d want me to teach them things like how to customize the theme in some way or maybe even how to use WordPress itself.
At first, I was happy to help where I could, but as more people downloaded my themes, free support started to consume more of my time. So much that it interfered with paid client work.
When I occasionally declined to provide free support, or didn’t provide it in a timely manner, some people actually got mad and complained. I don’t know about you, but frankly, I don’t tolerate that very well (I’m getting better at it though).
From Free Products to $20,000 Per Month (In Three Months)
Something had to give, so I decided to start selling my themes, even though I had serious doubts about whether they’d sell or not. My doubts stemmed from the fact that – at the time – hardly anyone was selling WordPress themes.
Also, as I said earlier, there were tens of thousands of free themes available, and it wasn’t like my themes were the best ones out there. In my opinion, they were slightly above average at best.
This was the real kicker though. To me, it hardly seemed reasonable that people would suddenly start paying for products that I’d been giving away for over a year.
Still, I reasoned that if people wanted me to provide support, I was justified in charging for the themes. The worst that could happen was my doubts would be confirmed, and no one would buy my themes. But at least I’d cut down on the number of people who wanted free support, which would allow me to refocus all my energy on paying clients.
This turned out to be the best decision I ever made with Solostream.
I don’t remember the exact number, but in September 2007, several thousand people downloaded my themes for free. The following month, I slapped a price tag on those very same themes, and much to my surprise, people bought them.
When the end of month came, and I tallied the final numbers, I’d sold nearly 100 themes and earned close to $5000. The following month, I sold even more themes and earned close to $6000. Then I created a new magazine-style theme that became quite popular, and by the end of the year, sales were approaching $20,000 per month.
To shorten the story, I sold Solostream in September 2008, and the company is still doing very well selling premium WordPress themes. This is true despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of free and premium themes available, with more and more flooding the market every day.
In retrospect, it seems a pretty remarkable story. I offer it not to brag or to impress you, but to share a lesson that can change your life if you take it to heart and act accordingly.
It’s Not Your Job to Decide if People Will Buy Your Product or Not
As a business owner, your job is to create solutions for people’s problems, do it to the best of your ability and offer those solutions in exchange for money. You may believe there are better or less expensive solutions available elsewhere, but again, that’s not up to you to decide.
When it comes to deciding the merit or value of your products, you’re best served to leave that up to the marketplace – your prospective customers. Sure, you want to make your products as valuable and useful as possible and present them in a way that demonstrates their value, but beyond that, it’s out of your hands.
What if There’s Too Much Competition for Your Product Idea?
The other day, I bought a cup of coffee from the 7-Eleven convenience store where I stopped for gas. Just across the street is a Dunkin Donuts with much better coffee. Still, I bought my coffee from 7-Eleven.
Why would anyone buy a product when they know they can get a more superior or less expensive version of the product elsewhere? One reason is because it’s more convenient. It’s right in front of them, and they don’t have to exert any extra effort to get it.
With the increasing demands on our time, energy and attention nowadays, accessibility and convenience are mighty valuable.
When Dunkin Donuts moved in across the street a few years back, the 7-Eleven folks didn’t stop selling coffee. They just kept putting it out there, and people kept buying it. Keep that in mind the next time you think there’s too much competition for your product idea to ever be profitable.
And let’s not forget the “know, like and trust” factor. All things being equal, people will buy a competing product from the person or company they know, like and trust the most. This assumes, of course, the product fulfills a want, need or desire they have.
How do you think great bands like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith have remained popular all these years (Mick Jaggar is nearly 70)? Because they have thousands and thousands of loyal fans who know, like and trust them.
Maybe you have a few fans yourself – people who read your blog or subscribe to your email newsletter. If so, I’d be willing to bet some of them would be happy to buy a product from you if it could make their life better in some way. If you don’t have many fans yet, maybe it’s time to get on that with some good, solid content marketing of your own.
What if Your Product is a Flop?
Look at it this way. If you create a product, and offer it to the world, what’s the worst that can happen? Maybe no one will buy it, or if they do buy it, maybe they’ll ask for a refund. So what? You got some product creation experience and learned some valuable information about the needs of your market. Lick your wounds, issue the refund and create your next product. That’s what a successful business does.
For example, have you ever heard of the Apple Newton? It was an early version of the PDA and one of Apple’s many failed products in the 1990′s. Although it hung around a few years, it was eventually blown out of the water by the Palm Pilot.
Today, Apple is the most valuable company in the world. Why is that? Because they didn’t let a few failed products stop them. They took their lumps, learned their lessons and went on to create some of the most revolutionary and sought-after products on the planet.
Let Me Reiterate, In Case You Didn’t Get it the First Time
Again, as a for-profit business owner, your job is to create solutions that can potentially make a difference in someone’s life, and offer those solutions in exchange for money. If you offer the right solutions to the right people, some will pay you for them and some won’t. As Brian Clark says in the opening quote, if you want to make money with content, charge for it. You may be as surprised with your results as I was with mine.
No, you don’t have to be sleazy. No, you don’t have to be manipulative. You don’t have to be unethical in any way. That’s not what real business is about anyway. It’s about providing solutions that make a difference in peoples’ lives.
In the final analysis, a belief is just a belief. The only thing we know for certain is this: maybe you have something to offer that’s worth paying for, and maybe you don’t. You probably do, but until you actually put something out there, you’ll never know for sure.
I took the risk, and it paid off.
How about you? Are you willing to give it a try too?