In this episode of the Digital Publishing Podcast (which you can also find a transcript of below if audio isn’t your thing), I cover 13 different topics and ideas from a tip on how to keep yourself from creating hideous ebook covers to a great membership site idea for any niche.

The podcast is on iTunes here. It would be awesome if you rated and reviewed the podcast in iTunes. Pretty please. If you’re using something other than iTunes, the podcast’s feed is http://blog.osmosio.com/feed/podcast/.

You can also listen to the episode online by clicking the play button on the player right below this. (If you don’t see the player, click here.) It’s about 23 minutes long. Note that the podcast contains my pick for featured podcast and and digital publishing tool of the week, but I don’t include them in the transcript below.

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DPP004: Hideous eBook Covers, A Membership Site Idea for Any Niche, and 11 More Ideas

Welcome to episode 4 of the Digital Publishing Podcast, which you can find online at DigitalPublishingPodcast.com. I’m Tristan Higbee, recording today in beautiful San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

This show is all about things I see and would like to see in the world of digital publishing, from blogging and ebooks to membership sites and apps. Also covered are things related to internet business and online marketing. Stick around till the end of the podcast and I’ll mention my picks for featured podcast and featured digital publishing tool of the week. This podcast is brand new in its current form and I’d really appreciate it if you went into iTunes and left a review. I’ve got 13 topics to talk about today, so let’s get started.

Topic #1: This is why Alexa ranks don’t matter

Alexa is a service that attempts to rank every website in the world according to how much traffic they get. The higher the site’s Alexa rank, the more traffic it gets. Site #1 is Google, #2 is Facebook, and so it goes down into the many millions.

It’s not uncommon to come across blog posts and articles with instructions on how to lower your Alexa rank. The thing is, Alexa is pretty worthless when you try to compare your site to others. Here’s an example why. The Alexa rank for one of my websites is currently around 280,000. The rank for The Backlight, which is the blog that the Digital Publishing Podcast is part of, is currently around 180,000. But according to the Google Analytics that I have installed on both sites, the one with an Alexa rank of 280,000 actually gets almost twice as much traffic as The Backlight, with its rank of 180,000.

The reason for this lies in how Alexa calculates the rankings. It only tracks visits by people who have the Alexa toolbar installed in their browser. Relatively few internet users have the toolbar installed, but a disproportionate percentage of those who do have it installed are into SEO or internet marketing. Those people obviously tend to visit sites related to SEO and internet marketing fairly often, so the Alexa rank of those websites is disproportionately high.

That’s why my site that is not related to SEO or marketing has a significantly worse Alexa rank than my site that that’s more related to marketing, even though the first site gets significantly more traffic than the second.

The real value in Alexa for website owners is to simply track your own progress. If you were ranked at #2,000,000 last month and now you’re at #1,700,000, that’s great. You know that the general trend for your website’s traffic is a good one.

Topic #2: Getting people to share your website with others

I’ve been blogging for more than 9 years now, and I started my first website back in 1996 or 1997. And I think I’ve FINALLY pinned down the single best way to get other people to share your website or blog.

The key is to make something, for lack of a better phrase, jaw-dropping.

I realize that that’s kind of a stupid phrase but before you roll your eyes and say “Duh,” just hear me out. You hear online “gurus” tell people all the time that the content they create needs to be awesome or epic or whatever. But the words awesome and epic are massively overused. A two-thousand-word review of a pressure cooker is not awesome. It’s not epic. At the end of the day, you’re still talking about a freaking pressure cooker.

So what kinds of things ARE jawdropping? Free stuff, for one. And I’m not just talking about a crappy free PDF report on your blog. Have you noticed how incredibly popular those coupon websites and websites that tell you how to get free stuff are? The reason is that people really, really, really like getting stuff for free. My free Kindle book website (fkb.me) is the easiest website to get traffic to that I’ve ever had. Why? Because everybody loves free stuff! People are actually happy and thrilled to get free books, so they readily like, tweet, and +1 the site.

What other kinds of things are jaw-dropping? Humor sites like Hyperbole and a Half and The Oatmeal come to mind. Those sites are so ridiculously, jaw-droppingly funny that people instinctively want to share them.

Another example? Go check out the videos of Devin Supertramp on YouTube. He’s a guy who makes jaw-dropping videos of people doing amazing things, like jumping from the world’s largest rope swing or wakeboarding in a canal while being towed behind a truck. His videos currently have 120,000,000 total views, and his YouTube channel has more than 600,000 subscribers. His videos are literally jaw-dropping.

These are just some of the niches and hooks that are inherently more sharable, and you can make your life so much easier by building websites around those and other similar principles. When something is jaw-dropping, your first reaction is to share it, and THAT is the holy grail of online content. I speak from experience when I say that it also makes the life of you, the content creator, so much easier.

Topic #3: Hideous ebook covers

As part of running my free Kindle book website, I see literally thousands of ebook covers every week. I’m amazed at how truly hideous the vast majority of them are, and it’s a big reason why self-published books are often seen as sub-standard. A lot of them don’t look even remotely professional. There is one simple question that you HAVE to keep in mind when thinking about a cover for your self-published book:

Is this cover something you would see on a book from Random House or HarperCollins or some other big publisher?

Is that cover with the low-light photo and pixelated text something you’d see from a big publisher? No. Is that cover that consists solely of a photo you took, with no text or anything, something you’d see from a big publisher? No. Is that landscape-oriented screenshot of a PowerPoint slide something you’d see from a real publisher? Definitely not. So please, if you can’t make an ebook cover that looks decent, find someone who can. It will make a HUGE difference to your sales.

Topic #4: Before you buy anything online, part 1

Someone asked me on Twitter the other day if I had any advice for getting discounts on domain name renewals. I have about 40 domain names right now so I do have advice, and it’s something that you should do before you buy anything online. If you’re on a product’s or service’s checkout screen and see a link or a space to enter in a promo code or coupon code, do a Google search and see if you can find a promo code or coupon code for that company. I can easily find one most of the time. I’m amazed at how many people don’t do this. I did this when I bought something last month and found a 30% off code for a product that was $140, so I saved a non-trivial amount amount.

Topic #5: Before you buy anything online, part 2

There’s one more thing you can do to get more bang for your buck, though it applies mostly to digital products that have affiliate programs. Before you buy a digital product, search for the product name with the word “bonus” after it. For some popular products, you’ll find that affiliates for that product have created bonus offers. If you buy the product through that person’s affiliate link and then send them a copy of your confirmation email (or transaction code), you can get their bonus product for free.

I think that offering a bonus like this is something that more affiliate marketers should do. Sometimes you can get something like $20, $30, $50, $100, or a couple hundred dollars or more as an affiliate for a product. So why not create a bonus ebook or course or some other extra incentive to get people to buy through your affiliate link? I see so many people all the time posting their affiliate links to hosting services like HostGator and Bluehost, hoping that someone who needs hosting just happens to stop by their blog then. But if you create an ebook that outlines the most important features and tools of the HostGator control panel, for example, people will remember that and come back to your site when they DO want to buy web hosting.

Topic #6: The power of photo blogging

I currently subscribe to about 50 different blogs, including a few different photo- or image-based blogs. I recently realized something about these photo blogs as I was checking out my Google Reader stats. In Google Reader, which is my RSS reader of choice, it tells you what percentage of the new blog posts of a blog you actually read. For each one of the photo blogs I subscribe to, I read 99% of the new posts. The only reason it’s not at 100% is probably that I unintentionally missed a post.

The read rate of the non-photo blogs I subscribe to is far, far lower, and that made me realize just how powerful photo blogging can be. When I read the headline of a text-heavy blog post, I can figure out pretty quick if I want to open it up and read it or move on to the next article in my queue. I think that a lot of us can figure out what the content of a blog post is going to be like just by reading the title. But with a photo blog (or any blog that is image-centric), you can’t do that. You really do have to open up that email or click on that link to see what it will be like. That’s been my experience, anyway.

I think there should be more photo blogs out there, especially in niches other than traditionally photo-heavy ones like fashion or travel. A daily rock climbing photo blog? Yeah, I’d subscribe to that.

And while on the subject of fashion and photo blogging, one of the photo blogs I subscribe to is called The Sartorialist. The guy behind the blog walks the streets of New York, Paris, Milan, and other cities and takes photos of what people are actually wearing. The funny thing is that I don’t really have any interest in fashion. I have two pairs of jeans and 5 blank t-shirts and that’s all I wear. But the photos themselves are just really interesting. I think that this angle of what people are actually doing or using is another one that could and should be adopted by people in more niches. Going back to rock climbing, you could focus on taking photos of people right as they’re about to start a climb or right as they’re touching back down on the ground after doing a climb. Or you could take portraits of rock climbers or snap photos of the vehicles that some climbers live out of. None of this might sound too interesting to people who have no interest in rock climbing, but as a rock climber I can tell you that seeing any of these would be awesome.

So in other words, not only should there be more niche photo blogs, but there should be more specific niche photo blogs within those broader niches. Instead of a travel photography blog, why not start a blog of street food around the world or beautiful churches in your country?

And finally, even if you don’t have a photo blog and have no desire to start one, I think the principle I talked about earlier regarding the near-100% open rate is still something we can all learn from. What if you put just as much time, effort, and energy into the images you use in your blog posts as you put into writing the blog posts? People might start coming to your blog or clicking on your headlines just to see what images you used. Just something to think about.

Topic #7: Catering to different tastes

I just saw Joel Gascoigne, one of the co-founders of the social sharing app Buffer, tweet a link about a new episode of the Startup Life Show, which is a YouTube show he does with his co-founder Leo Widrich. I briefly looked at their videos but didn’t watch any because, generally speaking, I don’t really like watching videos online. I tweeted at Joel and told him they should turn each episode into a podcast, because I listen to about a billion podcast episodes every week while watching only a handful of videos.

This also jives with something that Georgene from Amazopia.com mentioned in a comment on the blog post for episode #3 of the Digital Publishing Podcast. I had a full transcript of that podcast episode there in the blog post, and Georgene was happy I did. She said that she much prefers reading to listening.

When it’s easy to cater to people’s different media consumption tastes, why not do it? The Buffer guys could easily create a podcast out of their videos. I can easily post a transcription of the podcasts I record. So why not do it and get the attention of those people I would otherwise miss?

Topic #8: The one time I prefer video

Now, I just mentioned that I’m not a fan of watching videos online, but there is one big exception. I love it when there is a short video (like a minute or two long) that describes a product I’m interested in. In the 50-second video describing Evernote, I know exactly what the product is, what it can do, and how I can use it. You can’t really skim through a short product video, but I regularly skim through a product’s sales page. When I skim, there’s a chance I missed an important feature of the product (which could be a big deal from the business’s point of view), but it’s hard to miss a product feature in a video. Plus, marketing language on a sales page can be so obtuse or grandiose that actually seeing what the product does is really helpful.

Topic #9: Good design really matters

I spent some time today looking for blogs that have interviews with expats, or people who live in a country other than where they’re originally from. I found a couple of them, but I was surprised at how just plain ugly they are. The pages are too cluttered, there are AdSense ads everywhere, and the layouts are bad. I didn’t even want to spend any time on those sites, they were so bad.

Good design is huge. If the designs of those blogs I was checking out were better, I would have stuck around and read a bit. But I didn’t. I think that there are a lot of niches that are overwhelmingly populated with really poorly designed websites and blogs. If you can get in there with a blog that looks good and functions well, you’ll have a huge leg up on the other sites in the niche.

Topic #10: Affiliate links and podcasting

I’ve heard several podcasters mention affiliate link URLs during their shows. They’ll say something like, “If you want to learn more about this product, go to mydomain.com/product.” Then when you visit that URL, you’re either redirected to that product’s official page via an affiliate link, or you’re taken to a page on the podcaster’s site that contains several affiliate links to the mentioned product.

This is pretty common and like I said, I’ve heard several podcasters do it. But I was listening to a podcast the other day and heard something different. The podcast is The Paranormal Podcast, hosted by Jim Harold. It’s a fun podcast about all things spooky and strange. Anyway, during one of the podcast’s commercial breaks, there was a clip that said, “Support the shows and save some dough. Do all your Amazon shopping via Jim’s links at JimHarold.com.”

So here’s how Amazon’s affiliate links work. If you click through someone’s Amazon affiliate link and buy ANYTHING on Amazon within 24 hours, the person whose link you clicked on gets a small commission. So I think it’s pretty clever to ask that people go and click through your Amazon link before doing any shopping on Amazon. If people hear it enough times, they’ll be on Amazon and then think, “Oh wait, I should go click through Jim’s link first.” It’s a neat idea, and one that podcasters, bloggers, or anyone else with a website can implement.

Topic #11: Funny categories

I subscribe to a blog called TechDirt. It’s a blog that talks about piracy, intellectual property, freedom of information, and stuff like that. They do something on the blog there that always makes me smile. They tag each post with a humorous category that appears right below the post title, like “from the URLs-we-dig-up department” or “from the privacy-schmivacy,-we’re-trolling department” or “from the ebooks:-where-‘buying’-means-‘renting-for-an-indefinite-period’ department.” It adds a little humor and sense of humanity to what can sometimes be a dry topic.

Topic #12: Entitlement in digital publishing

This is a bit of a rant. Have you heard the huge fuss people have been making over Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm and the fact that not everyone who likes your Facebook page will see your updates unless you pay some money? I’ve heard people both inside and outside of the internet marketing community express outrage over this. George Takei and Mark Cuban are a couple of the more well-known infuriated people that come to mind.

And then the other day I read an article titled Nudity, e-books and censorship: How Apple became Big Brother. The gist of the article was that Apple is deeming some content objectionable and not allowing it in the App Store or in the iBookstore. The author was extremely offended that Apple would dare presume to be a moral filter of content.

I think that these complaints are completely ridiculous. They’re a symptom of our culture of entitlement. These are businesses, not charities. They give us all platforms on which we can sell or market our products. We are under no obligation to use them. If you want to play their game, you have to play by their rules. Is that really so hard to understand?

Are we so used to the entitlement of getting everything for free and being able to do whatever we want that we’re morally wounded and genuinely surprised when companies do what we feel is in their best interest (even though it might actually also in the best interest of the majority of users)? I heard Guy Kawasaki say in an Entrepreneur on Fire interview that this is like going over to someone’s house for dinner and then complaining about how terrible the food is. Well, no one forced you to go over there, and no one is forcing you to eat.

Whatever. I think that the real takeaway for all of this is the danger of relying heavily on publishing platforms that you don’t own. My Tumblr account was suspended a few weeks ago for stupid a reason. Was I unhappy? Sure. But that’s what I get for relying on a free third party publishing platform. Can I really complain about that? Facebook and Apple and Tumblr and Amazon and Google don’t owe you or me or anyone else anything. It’s time to drop the sense of entitlement.

Topic #13: A membership site idea

Membership sites are an interesting thing. It seems like most of us have a lot more trouble coming up with membership site ideas than we do coming up with blog ideas or ebook ideas, but the membership site is pretty much the holy grail of online income. I mean, who doesn’t want a reliable recurring revenue source?

I think the problem that we have is trying to come up with an idea or premise for a site that warrants a month-after-month payment. But I recently ran across an idea for a membership site that can be applied to just about any niche.

I won’t mention the site because it didn’t look like a very good product and I don’t want to give it any recognition or traffic. But the site essentially contained a bunch of separate tutorials that were all based around one central topic. They’re essentially multiple separate-but-still-somewhat-related products under the one roof. The idea is that most people can’t consume all of that information in a month, so they will probably end up subscribing for multiple months. There is also a forum that provides another reason to keep paying month to month, and there might be relatively small amounts of new information added every month.

This type of membership site idea isn’t anything new. It’s used by sites like Udemy and Lynda.com. But it’s something that I only recently recognized for what it was. And I really do think that it can be applied to just about any niche, and I’ll go through a couple examples here.

As I mentioned earlier, I run a free Kindle book website called fkb.me. And I see relatively frequently see some books that are all part of the same series called Prep School. This series is all about disaster preparation and survival and things like that, and there are about ten books in the series. They cover topics like cooking without electricity, making primitive weapons, homebrewing cider, and other things like that. I think that if this series were expanded a bit, it would make a great membership site. Each one of the books could be turned into a different module, complete with multiple videos showing how that thing is done. Each book is essentially turned into its own product under the broader umbrella of the membership site. Throw a forum in there and be willing and eager to answer questions anyone might have, and you’ve got yourself a membership site that people would be willing to pay for on a month-after-month basis.

Let’s go through another example. Let’s say you wanted to create a membership site about travel. You could have one module or sub-product about learning a foreign language, another about travel hacking, another about smart phone photography, another about working overseas, another about long-term travel, another about solo travel, and so on.

Again, this could be applied to so many different niches! And again, this isn’t anything new, but it really got me to rethink what is possible as far as membership site creation goes. You can expect a membership site from me sometime in mid-2013.

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Well, that’s all for this episode of the Digital Publishing Podcast. Be sure to check out DigitalPublishingPodcast.com for show notes and links and additional blog posts there at TheBacklight.com that go beyond what I talk about on the podcast. Since the podcast is so new, I’d really appreciate it if you went into iTunes and rated and reviewed it. Thanks for listening.

As always, I’m on Twitter.