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How to Sell Content in a Free-Content World

    Brock Ferguson

    Much of the general public believes that, because many people download movies, music, and software, nothing online has any value. However, this is far from accurate — people just have different criteria for making their purchases online. In a world that seems to believe everything should be free on the Internet, how can subscription web sites hope to survive?

    In answering this question, I’ll provide 5 tips that will keep your subscription web site profitable. Whether you run an online magazine, a money-making web site, a private community with memberships, or just a web site with unique, in-demand content, you can earn money selling subscriptions to your web site.

    1. Don’t be a salesman, be an expert.

    We’ve all visited those web sites where, every few lines, we’re reminded that we must pay for access to the site. Phrases like "Sign up Today!", "Only $9.99 per month!", and "Purchase a subscription!" are thrown around the web page as the webmaster’s hope of making a sale is made devastatingly clear to the visitor.

    In doing this, the webmaster changes the perceived mission or focus of the web site from the subject of the content (such as cars or business) to him/her making money. If you want to sell content online, you’re going to need to show that you have a solid grasp on your content’s subject matter, and confidence in your web site. It’s more effective to create good content and present it in a clean, clear web site than to confuse visitors by bombarding them with subscription links. In this way, you’ll be seen as an expert and not someone who’s just trying to make a quick buck.

    2. Find a niche market.

    This has been an obvious key to success for many businesses over the years, but it’s so important that I feel it should be repeated here. A niche subject for your web site is one with a relatively small scope. For example, instead of creating a web site that explains "how to make money", you might create a web site that focuses on the topic of "how to make money with open source software."

    This narrows the scope of your site, increases search engine traffic, and gives you a chance to gain a much bigger percentage of the total market sales. If you write on too vague or too broad a topic, people won’t be confident that you will continue to write about things that interest them. Don’t cast a big net in the hope that you will catch a few fish; show that you understand the exact needs of your target market.

    3. Show them that your content is worth buying.

    Every day, I see sites that are trying to sell a product — usually ebooks on how to make money fast (or some other extremely broad topic). The site consists of one page filled with reason after reason why the visitor should buy the product, presented in multi-colored fonts with bullet lists galore. Yet I rarely see a single example or excerpt from the product that I am being sold so fiercely. With all of the competition on the Web, it’s just not realistic to expect to reason someone into buying your product.

    You must give some of your content away for free. Using any one of today’s subscription content management systems, it’s easy to make some content available to members only, while leaving other content open to the public. This allows your visitors to explore your web site as if they were members, while gently being reminded at certain points of the benefits of membership. If you give away some content for free, your content can sell itself.

    4. Search engines are your friends, so be nice to them.

    An added benefit of the business model described in point #3 is that search engines will love your web site. This is important: if your web site can rank high in the search results for your site’s keywords, you’ll receive loads of highly targeted, free traffic. Google and other major search engines have technology built into their page ranking system that can sniff out "empty" web sites, or web sites that only attempt to sell content, yet provide none themselves.

    You can gain a higher rank in the search engine results by making some content freely available, and using a clearly formatted web site. By making some content freely available, you give Google the chance to find your site’s keywords while increasing the likelihood that other web sites will link to you (something Google loves). Also, a clearly formatted web site is quickly understood by search engine spiders, which can "read" your content properly.

    There are certain techniques that you can use to increase your search engine rankings, and these form the basis of the area of search engine optimization (or SEO). However, instead of worrying too much about this stuff, I’d recommend you build your web site using a content management system that uses SEO-friendly defaults. These defaults, combined with your quality content, will result in a web site that’s naturally search engine friendly.

    5. Presentation is key.

    It is true that a web site’s content will sell subscriptions all by itself, but we can’t ignore the fact that a well-designed, user-friendly web site will sell more subscriptions that an ugly web site with the same content. This fact seems to have been forgotten, especially in the subscription web site market. I’m not saying that a web design needs to be flashy or filled with images, but if you expect to sell subscription memberships to your web site, you’re going to need to present a professional image.

    To me, a professional web site means: a nice logo, clear navigation, and a simple layout with proper content flow. A good subscription content management system should include a default web site design that offers these features. This means that, to get started, all you have to do is add content, change the logo, and change the colour scheme.

    You Can Make Money with Subscription-based Content

    Many people felt that the open source movement in software would kill the software industry, but as we’ve seen, the software industry has adapted to the open source movement and created the "software as a service" model. In doing so, the software industry, especially online, is bigger than ever.

    Now, in the paid content arena, people are again saying that it’s impossible to sell content in a world where everything is free. Yes, it’s true that some subscription web sites haven’t transitioned well into the era of free content.

    However, if you understand your site’s visitors and stay in touch with the free content model as these five tips suggest, you could earn thousands of dollars per month with nothing more than a computer and some passion.