Around two weeks ago, after over a year of blood sweat and coding, we finally launched Internet Tycoon, a community, an online learning resource and a set of tools for people with an interest in buying, selling and growing websites, apps and software.
This post is about the nuts and bolts of building a community, what tools we used and what marketing insights we discovered from our split tests.Even if you never intend to build a member site this should still be a useful resource on building an information based web business in general.
For a short while, you can take a look inside Internet Tycoon as part of a seven day unlimited access trial using this link here.
(Estimated Reading Time for this post is around four minutes, so if you need to you can download a PDF version for your Kindle or Ipad here)
First a little background
About two years ago I was fortunate enough to bump into Kenny Goodman. In case you haven’t already heard of Kenny, he’s an online entrepreneur who specialises in lead generation and owns sites in the finance sector, but also has a range of other interests including the legendary domaining tool DomainFace.
We instantly hit it off (and if this is all starting to sound a little Broke Back Mountain, bare (bear?!) with me). Like myself, Kenny’s just a regular guy who tried several entrepreneurial pursuits before realising what worked for him. He appreciates the value of working not for work’s sake, but to have a better quality of life. With a shared interest in buying and growing online business, we started working together on a project he had already started called Internet Tycoon.
Apart from realising just how difficult it can be to build a member site, that last few months on this project has taught us some practical and tactical lessons on how to build a Membership based community. I’m far from being the expert, just one community in, but the amount we’ve learnt will hopefully save you time, inspire you, or just give you something on topic to read whilst you should really be working.
There are so many niches out there that could benefit from the style of community we’ve built with Internet Tycoon, based around the idea of information, community and tools. Niches like Tennis Coaching and Makeup have already been covered, but if you’re looking for a longer play than the adsense authority site (and a much more profitable one), then this could be it.
1. Do something different and change the format
When I joined Kenny he already had some content together and originally we planned to drip feed modules on a weekly basis. Neither of us were really happy with the product as it stood – it was ok, but personally I don’t do something that I consider ok. We like to put everything we’ve got into something to make sure the content, design and execution gives us a clear advantage over any me-too products that inevitably appear after you launch.
We sat down and brainstormed what was missing, as in if we had to do this from scratch what would we need to get us to the point where we are at today. Kenny coined it with the idea that to be proficient at many things you need three aspects
a) Information – the practical side of things, in this case everything from mini books on preparing a site for sale, through to videos on due diligence through to interviews with people like James Schramko who make a serious income from operating a portfolio of successful sites.
b) Tools – tools aren’t necessary to succeed, but the right tools and knowing how to use them will save you time, and ultimately increase your chances of succeeding before you run out of time, money or patience. In our case, we included both FlipFilter and Deal Trojan – a new tool to manage the process of finding sites not yet listed for sale.
c) Community – sometimes all the information in the world can’t help you make a decision or solve a specific problem. This is where having people who you can ask questions about a specific issue comes in handy. For Internet Tycoon, we also included a marketplace where members can recommend good services that they trust and buy or sell sites and domains before they’ve been listed.
By adding a little more to the community, you ultimately give more value to every member involved and that should be the backbone by which every decision about the community is made – does this add value for members.
By standing out and ‘caring your ass off’, you’ll also begin to build a barrier against competition that will inevitably appear should you start to do well.
2. Choose your platform wisely
Putting all this together to work as one was the part which we seriously underestimated. Here’s what we eventually (after many wrong turns!) settled on.
a) The member site uses WordPress for ease of use, and is secured using Wishlist Member (WLM). There were other wordpress member site plugins available including Magic Members and aMember which came a close second and third, but nothing matched the versatility and support of WLM.
There was also the other option of using an all-in-one package like Kajabi, Market Pro Max or Optimise Press, all of which I’d recommend, but couldn’t use because of the custom integration I needed to make with FlipFilter and Deal Trojan.
If I had to do this all again without those tools, I’d probably have used Market Pro Max as the owner / developer is almost obsessive over making the product the best he can, and it seems to be packed with features that some of the other options overlook.
b) The community would centre around a forum model for exchanging information, so we would need something that worked in WordPress and used the same users database table, so we could secure it using WLM.
Eventually we settled on SimplePress which is what we use now, but in hindsight I really wish that I hadn’t.
Having installed the initial free version (4.5) it was slow, buggy and bloated but then I was told to upgrade to v5. What they failed to make clear was that the new version was missing almost every feature needed to make the forum functional, including the ability to send pms, a WYSIWYG editor or an admin toolbar and you had to pay $35 for two months access to plugins to do the same.
I really don’t have an issue paying $35 for forum software and V5 is a lot quicker and not so bloated, but it leaves a bitter taste being hijacked for the money. Needless to say, I wouldn’t recommend SimplePress.
d) We settled on iDevAffiliate for the affiliate side of things which is ideal if you want to host your own program.
e) We used Mailchimp to store email addresses and deliver content like the seven day training plan. I prefer mailchimp as it’s more flexible than Aweber over things like manual signups.
f) Our support desk is provided by desk.com – an awesome support desk solution from the people who made Salesforce.
I’d be lying if I said it all worked together smoothly first time, but after a little wrangling it did work!
We hired a developer on Elance to help create a custom WordPress theme based on a design I had in Photoshop, to showcase the content. It was really important to have something which looked different to anything else out there. This included being able to split our content into posts, html documents, audio, video and PDF and have the page behave different accordingly.
For anyone who hasn’t done it before, outsourcing development of custom themes is surprisingly easy and quite cheap to do.
3. Keep creating awesome content
The standard approach of drip feeding content works well in some cases and will probably be easier to execute, but in addition to wanting to have something that’s constantly changing, always up to date and more in-depth than any other course, we decided against this.
We didn’t really have a content plan, so ended up with a lot of content which needed organising first and then filled the gaps later on. We opted against putting everything in module 1, 2, 3 format as people would be joining with different experiences, goals and skill sets, and decided to lay the content out so people could choose what they wanted to learn and when.
Even right at the start, we can confidently say we have more content than many courses will ever have period, and this is just the beginning for what we would like to do. Every week we add more and it becomes like a savings account, where the time we put in now in creating good stuff will ultimately increase the community’s value as it grows.
People will join based on your sales page, but stick around if the content is good so it’s vital to do everything you can to avoid fillers and only publish good material that you’ve cared about creating.
4. Reduce information overload
According to an interview I heard with a member site specialist’, one of the key reasons for people leaving a community shortly after joining is information overload. There’s so much to do, people tend to procrastinate, and are unable to take full advantage of the material because they haven’t yet gone through the foundation stuff. As more content appears, this all creates information overload which leads to guilt about not using it which leads to cancellations.
We figured away to reduce this was to create a mini course called the seven day plan.
The idea behind the plan is to fast track anyone up to speed with how the industry works and be at a level where they would be confident to buy or sell their first site. It was crucial to offer this within the seven day trial period, as we wanted people to go away feeling like they gained something valuable, even if they didn’t go on to become a full member. This would ultimately mean good word of mouth and more members long term.
The seven day plan has had good feedback from people new to the niche and even people more established who just needed to fill gaps in their knowledge. If you can create an easy way for members to get the best out of your information, you will ultimately be rewarded with high retention rates.
5. Bring in outside help
Both myself and Kenny have areas we know well, but we’re not specialists in everything. Our long term plan for the community is to bring in specialists to teach a wider range of subject areas for things like Building a wordpress site or driving traffic to purchases through media buys that will appear alongside our own content over the coming months.
There’s always likely to be areas of your niche that could benefit from specialist input, and bringing this on board will increase the scope of the material you cover without spreading the ‘value’ too thinly.
6. Offer tools for a competitive edge
All member sites offer information in one form or another, but very few offer tools to make the process easier. We wanted to offer killer tools to make things which we teach much easier or quicker to execute, on the logic that most people have a limited amount of time to see something become successful mostly due to pressures from family, work or other business commitments.
By reducing the amount of time our members need to spend on mundane tasks, we can increase the amount of time they spend working on the things that count (the things which can’t be automated) and felt offering good tools we use ourselves was the best way about it. Internet Tycoon comes with unlimited memberships to FlipFilter and a new tool Deal Trojan (born out of a need to speed up and semi automate the process of buying sites which aren’t advertised as being for sale).
Creating Deal Trojan was a business in itself and took around three months. Based on keywords, it will search google and create a shortlist of sites that you would be interested in buying. It will then go away and
- Find an estimate for that site’s traffic, check its age, page rank, backlink profile and give you third party data like MozRank or the number of keywords it has in the top twenty
- Sort all your selection into a table for you to shortlist and keep notes on each site
- Manage the process of finding the contact details for the owner, either on the site or via the WHOIS record
- Allow you to create and personalise templates for making contact and communicating with the owner
- Manage all your replies, tagging the right emails to right sites
- Scan all the site that you’re looking at to find which ones have the most hidden potential like lucrative keywords on page 2 of Google.
In short, it takes a really manual process and speeds it all up removing the bits that usually bore people into quitting.
Any niche can benefit from member’s tools or apps, and the idea doesn’t have to be complex. Anything which makes a member’s goal easier or quicker to achieve is a bonus and can be as simple as a Calorie Tracker for a dieting site or an Email Reminder system for a productivity one.
Most apps can be outsourced fairly cheaply on Elance or oDesk, providing you can describe how it should work.
7. Test the life out of everything
We started planning the launch almost six months before we actually did. Our first dilemma was the launch strategy. We had several options to choose and both of us had used all of them at some point over the last few years, but it was tricky deciding on which strategy to employ.
Conventional wisdom circa 2009, said a ‘launch’ was the best way to go and by that I mean the classic ‘launch formula’ style of:
- creating a story and an event around it (e.g. “I have this huge tax bill to pay so here’s an offer …”)
- five days of emails sending people to a page with free content
- slipping a sales pitch in there somewhere, usually on day four or five
- making a one-time limited offer then closing the course to new members after the seven day launch period had ended to maintain that exclusivity.
This is a formula which relies on basic marketing principles and psychology – multiple exposure (the emails) to create familiarity, law of reciprocation (giving away good stuff for free) and exclusivity (closing the course after a few days so people felt compelled to purchase). It’s kind of like the long sales letter turned sideways and delivered by video over several days, and is the kind of process facilitated by member software like Kajabi, (which I believe is part owned by launch guru Andy Jenkins.)
I have no doubt this is an effective if not devastating way of launching, but something didn’t sit right in using this specifically for Internet Tycoon;
We didn’t like the idea of closing the course after seven days, or creating a story that was anything but “we’ve created a course because we have good information and tools“. This also became the start of a massive internal struggle in doing what I personally would like to see as a buyer, versus doing what would get the greatest results as the two didn’t always match up.
Our weekly meetings at the office were filled with debate on how we should be promoting the project. After deciding the launch process wasn’t right for us we settled on three options
1) A short sales page (similar to Flipfilter) which stated little about the product and left people to find out by signing up first.
2) A long sales page which detailed everything about the product. With so much going on in there, this was about to be a seriously long sales page
3) A webinar which stated why we created the course and explained the benefits more in depth than 1 or 2.
Having tested each, we found:
The long sales page approach with a video won (for now at least as we’re still testing), with the webinar coming last in terms of conversions.
A few years back, every internet marketer worth their weight in email newsletters raved about the power of webinars, but I think they’ve come to an end in terms of their effectiveness in this particular market. People are now sceptical, probably thanks to too many bad webinars, which are 80% sell and 20% teach rather than the other way around.
The fact the long sales page approach worked well was a shock to me and proves the importance of never going with an assumption. Personally, I’d always prefer a really short page that cuts to the chase over one which doesn’t, but I guess with so much going on in Internet Tycoon, people wanted to know more about it first and the long sales page approach does that.
I think had this been another market like alternative medicine, or organic gardening for example, then the webinar might have won as it’s still a new concept in that market and people are probably less sceptical.
Back to present day
Internet Tycoon is about two weeks old at the time this post is published. I never anticipated it would grow as quickly as it has nor would it receive the positive feedback that we’ve had to date.
We’re currently working on live Q and A sessions, and editing a new batch of interviews and tutorials to go live over the next few weeks. We’ve built a business that’s profitable before the end of its first month trading, and works by helping people achieve their own financial goals which is like a huge win win for us.
Creating a basic member site is easy and providing you already have some content shouldn’t take you longer than a couple weeks. Creating something that will grow to be a market leader however is much more difficult, but worth every minute you put in, especially if you enjoy the subject area that you cover.
Take a look at what we’ve done over at www.internettycoon.com. Remember, if you would like to take a look inside as part of a seven day unlimited access trial you can use this link here for a short time.