Darren Rowse on the Intersection of Blogging and Digital Commerce

We know about the power of content marketing to build audiences, inform what products and services to develop, and ultimately connect the two together. And whether you call it blogging or not, text remains a cornerstone of the online content mix.

Darren Rowse is one of my favorite people. He’s been an inspiration, a business partner, and remains a good friend. At Digital Photography School, he’s built what amounts to a case study in digital commerce and community — and it brings in 7-figures in revenue as well.

Nothing happens overnight, even when it may seem that way. In today’s show, Darren and I discuss the long road and constant evolution that brought us both business success, powered by blogging and digital products and services.

In this 31-minute episode Darren Rowse and I discuss:

  • The state of blogging in 2015
  • The long-term power of evergreen content
  • Why Darren is getting into podcasting
  • How a hobby became a multimillion dollar business
  • The evolution of a digital commerce community
  • How ebooks and online courses drive revenue
  • Smart market research for creating digital products

The Show Notes

Darren Rowse on the Intersection of Blogging and Digital Commerce

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at RainmakerPlatform.com.

Brian Clark: Everyone, welcome to another episode of New Rainmaker. I am your host Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Copyblogger Media.

Today, my extra special co-host, and my revolving co-host chair, is a gentleman who I’m quite fond of. He’s been an inspiration for me in a lot of ways to even begin this crazy journey that began in 2006. He’s a friend. He’s been a business partner. He’s an all-around great guy, Mr. Darren Rowse.

Let’s go ahead and ask. Darren, how is it in the morning over there in Melbourne, because it’s nighttime here in the States?

Darren Rowse: Yeah, Monday morning here, so I thank you for a Sunday night podcast from your side of things. Well, we’re heading into winter. We’re in winter. It’s the school holidays day one today, so it’s gray and noisy here, although I just sent the kids out for an hour.

Brian Clark: I’m actually awake more on Sunday night than Monday morning, so I figured it was not too bad. It is winter in Australia. I just dropped my kids off at summer camp. It’s just completely opposite experience, but more of the same in many ways.

Brian Clark: All right, so you’re up to a lot of stuff, which always makes for a good podcast because we have plenty to talk about. One thing that I want to kick around with you, because it has been, for me, nine and a half years — I can’t believe that — that I started Copyblogger in January of 2006. Some people may get or know, but Copyblogger was a play on, or a complement of another term that had been established fairly recently back in those days. That was ProBlogger, which of course many people know you as ProBlogger. You’re that guy. Wait, did you start in 2005 or before?

Darren Rowse: ProBlogger was September 2004.

Brian Clark: That’s amazing. We’re working on 11 years for you for that site.

Darren Rowse: Yeah, it’s hard to believe. I think I started blogging in 2002, so it’s coming up on 13 years now.

Brian Clark: It’s been all right to you, though, right?

Darren Rowse: Yeah, it’s just changed my life.

Brian Clark: Radically. All of us, right?

Darren Rowse: Radically.

Brian Clark: I’m curious, because it has been a decade or so, what do you call the state of blogging today? When I put the spin on it with Copyblogger, that was basically just saying, “Hey, this is a way to look at it that’s a little different in that you sell products and services instead of advertising.” Now that’s known as content marketing.

The world has changed amazingly from back in the day when we were trying to convince kumbaya bloggers that it was okay to make money, which you took on, head on. Then I came along and said, “Let’s sell stuff.” A few people thought I was evil to say that. Now, you look at today, and it’s not like we live on the same planet. Blogging’s still relevant even though not everyone uses that term I suppose.

The State of Blogging in 2015

Darren Rowse: I guess that’s the main thing that I usually talk about. A lot of people are still doing it, but they may not even call it that or even know they’re doing it. But it’s still central to a lot of businesses today. I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. There’s certainly a whole heap of other things you can be doing with your time now as well. I guess it makes sense to look at it as part of a mix rather than just the only thing you do these days.

Brian Clark: It is odd. As a medium, the Internet was text heavy right from the beginning. That’s what search engines could see. That’s what people could produce. The people that were drawn, as creators or producers as opposed to consumers, were a lot of writers.

Now, obviously, video is huge, just like offline. Audio is huge, which we’ll talk about in just a bit. More people consume content visually or auditorily than we’ve got readers in the world. Yet, it persists. The whole idea of being able to repurpose audio, or even start with text and then go visual with it, that’s been a major theme that I’ve seen really come on strong — the whole idea of making your content really work for you.

The Long-Term Power of Evergreen Content

Darren Rowse: Yeah, for me, I heard Tim Ferriss speak recently. His argument is that long-form evergreen content is still probably the best investment that you can make for a business today in terms of building your platform and growing rates. I think that extends across the different channels, whether it be video, audio, or text. That’s certainly been my story. Long-form evergreen is what I spend 99 percent of my time trying to create.

Brian Clark: That’s what got me here. I remember when I started blogging and broke some of the, not your rules necessarily, but the Scobles and the other old-guard type, Steve Rubel, you know, those guys — 250 words max. Blog every day. It’s your personal opinions — so I wrote 1000-word evergreen educational articles. To me, that was where the value was at. Both of us differentiated and succeeded with that type of content, and it’s still incredibly valuable.

Darren Rowse: It pays off over and over. A lot of the content that I created in 2004 on ProBlogger is still the best-read content on ProBlogger today — 11 years later. It’s forced me to go back and update it. The same on Digital Photography School. To this day, I guarantee you that there’s 10 articles right now that are in the top 20 articles being read on Google Analytics, and they’re old, long-form evergreen content. That two or three hours I put into creating that post 11 years ago is paying off today many times over.

Brian Clark: That’s amazing. I always say that building an audience is an unfair advantage as long as you continue to serve them. You just continue to reap the rewards. The content that you created in the first place to get the audience is bringing you new audience. That may be the truly unfair part, but in a good way — a fantastic way if you’re a long-term thinker, I would suppose.

I do want to talk about Digital Photography School. You know how fond I am of that business. A lot of people know that’s kind of your main gig. A lot of people just know you for ProBlogger. It’s interesting. I do want to touch on that.

Speaking of audio, you’ve stopped your holdout against podcasting. It’s 2015, and Darren says, “Yeah I think it’s ripe now to go ahead and launch a podcast.” Tell us a little bit about that. Why’d you pull the trigger?

Why Darren Is Getting into Podcasting

Darren Rowse: There’s probably two or three reasons that all come together. One, I became a fairly avid podcast listener myself. That all happened because I started to take walks in the afternoons. I was bored on my walks, but I had to start exercising. That was a part of a whole health kick for me. I filled up that time with podcasts. It just dawned on me — like it’s probably dawned on millions of people before me — how effective they are, how personal they are, and how fantastic they are for bringing about change in people.

A lot of the podcasts I’ve listened to have been more health-related. They’ve really inspired and motivated me to make huge changes in my own health journey. As I’m listening to them, I’m thinking, “I could do this.” That’s what I’m all about. I’m all about bringing change in people’s life. What more effective and personal way to do it than to speak one on one, in some ways, to them through auditory? That’s been the big part.

The other part is my first love with communications has always been speaking and presenting. Podcasting is just doing that into a microphone. It gives me an opportunity to exercise those passions for communication that I had only really been able to do two or three times a year when I get to travel and speak at conferences. They’re the big parts. There’s also been a little bit of a nagging from a few friends as well, who all have said, “You know you really should start a podcast. It’s been four years since they’ve taken off.”

Brian Clark: And you’ve got that great accent, Darren. You’ve got to factor that in. I know you take it for granted, but the rest of the world is like, “Wow, he sounds really cool.”

Darren Rowse: I’m not sure about that.

Brian Clark: Oh, no, trust me. That’s what everyone says behind your back. But yeah, it, it is. It’s so personal. You touched on portability and on-demand. The ability to do something else without looking at a screen. This is a personal thing, but I am just over staring at screens. We’ve been doing this for a long time. They talk about the Millennials being digital natives. Some of us, we’re older, but we fit that profile because, for whatever reason, we gravitated toward online.

Audio to me has been somewhat liberating in my quest to keep my phone tucked away somewhere, not looking at it constantly. I love to go for walks and hikes as well. I’m a reader, but I’ve become an audio consumer as well because it just makes so much sense.

Tell us a little bit about the new podcast and where we can find it. We’ll make sure to put a link in the show notes, but let us know what it is and what it’s about.

Darren Rowse: It’s simply called ProBlogger. You can search in iTunes, or I’ve added it to Stitcher and all those other directories. It’s gradually being approved across a lot of those. In many ways, it’s taking a lot of the ideas and content that we’ve got on ProBlogger, the blog, and putting it into more of a discussion format and a presentation as such. It’s kicking off with my 31 Days to Build a Better Blog series, which has been participated in by 30-40,000 people over the years and turned into an ebook. Really taking those challenges every day is a little bit of teaching and little challenge that you can go away and do on your blog.

So it’s daily for the first 31 days, starting Wednesday of this week. By the time this podcast is live, I presume it will be live. After that, I’m not really sure. It’ll at least be weekly after the first month, possibly couple times a week depending on how inspired I am by podcasting. So far, it’s been just amazing. I’ve loved the producing of it. Not so much the editing. I think I might get someone to help me with that. The producing of it and the creation of it has been something that’s just given me heaps of energy.

Brian Clark: Absolutely. I’ve been watching on Twitter, and I went over to iTunes and left a review and all that. It’s cool because your existing audience is excited — even though I think perhaps your crowd is similar to ours in that they’re predominantly readers. They’d like to scan an article and figure out if they want to dive in deeper. Sometimes, those types of people are not a fan of audio because it’s not the right context for them.

Your existing audience is coming along. They’re your base. They’re your catalysts. They get you rolling in iTunes and get you that great start in New and Noteworthy, which is really cool, that you’ll see over the next two months.

But the real cool thing is that you’re going to reach people that may have never heard of you because it is in audio, and that may be their dominant consumption preference. Was that a big part of your decision, or is that more just a nice thing to have?

Darren Rowse: It probably wasn’t a major motivation for me, but it’s certainly something of, in talking to plenty of people who have podcasted before, that’s been their story. I’m interested to see that. In fact, I got an email this morning from someone who fit that category. I wasn’t even meaning to have this launched by today — iTunes put it in so quickly. It took 12 hours to get approved. It got found, and then I thought, “I better share it on Twitter.” It’s already found one new reader, which is amazingly quick for me. That’ll be something I’ll get to measure over the next few days particularly.

Brian Clark: It is fairly fascinating. It’s an audience expansion technique, even if you’re not thinking about it. We preach, again, relying too much on someone else’s property, but iTunes as an audio search engine can be hugely beneficial. Of course, you’ve still got home base, which is point number one of any good blogging strategy. Well, best of wishes with the new show. I know it’s going to be fantastic. The series itself that you’ve been doing for years, it’s 31 days for it?

Darren Rowse: Yeah, 31 Days to Build a Better Blog.

Brian Clark: I remember when you first launched that. I thought it was brilliant. It’s become an institution at this point. You do it over and over. There’s always new people coming in, and some people actually want to revisit the whole process.

Darren Rowse: Yeah, a lot of the people who bought the book do it on a monthly or bimonthly basis. It’s about creating habits. In my first episode — great bloggers are action takers — they’re also the actions I take that are normal, small things, so a lot of the 31 things are things that you can build into your daily or weekly rhythm of blogging that can bring a lot of life to what you do.

Brian Clark: Cool. Let’s shift gears just a little bit. I’m correct, I assume, in that Digital Photography School is still the bulk of your business?

Darren Rowse: Yeah, it’s about 10 times bigger than ProBlogger to this day.

Brian Clark: Do you still find people that are somewhat surprised that they don’t realize that ProBlogger’s not the main jewel in the crown?

Darren Rowse: Always, always. Then again, I always come across people who go, “I just discovered ProBlogger, what’s this other thing?” It goes both ways. I get a lot of, “My wife reads Digital Photography School, and I never realized it was the same person.”

Brian Clark: To me, it’s just a great business period. It’s admirable and amazing what you’ve built over there. The thing that gets me about it, the old business opportunity style, Internet marketers, always had the same pitch: “Turn your hobby or passion into a business. It’s easy. We’ll show you how for $97.” A lot of people got burnt by that because it’s not that simple. Yes, it can be done, but that’s what you did.

You weren’t even a professional photographer. This was your passion. This was your hobby. Now, this is a formidable business that continues to grow year after year after year. Take us back a little bit, and give us the history. I still love hearing this story, so I’m sure everyone else will.

How a Hobby Became a Multimillion Dollar Business

Darren Rowse: My first commercial blog was a photography blog. That was a reviews blog. It was on a horrible domain. I made so many mistakes with it, but it still got to the point where I was bringing in a full-time living from blogging. The thing I didn’t enjoy about that blog was that it was very much a reader’s come for one day, they research which camera they buy, and then they never come back again, or at least don’t come back for three years until they buy their next camera.

I always wanted to have something that had an ongoing relationship with those readers and that aligned more with my passion. My passion is taking photos rather than just talking about cameras. It was very much about, “Let’s take the model from ProBlogger, which is teaching people how to do something, and apply it to photography.”

I started Digital Photography School, I think it was 2005. It originally was me answering the questions that my friends used to ask me about how to use these digital cameras they had. I really took the frequently asked questions — What’s this aperture thing? What’s shutter speed? Really basic things, how to hold a camera — and just wrote what I knew about those topics. It was probably two or three articles a week on a horrible, free template.

There was no StudioPress or anything like that back then. Got it out there. It very quickly took off. A few readers came across from ProBlogger. A few readers came across from the other photography blog that I had already started. That was probably enough to seed it out there. It grew from there. It became a daily exercise for me. Then, gradually, over time, went to two times a day as well in the early days.

Gradually, over time, I began to monetize it, largely through advertising to start with. That certainly transitioned around the same time that I created the 31 Days to Build a Better Blog ebook. I wrote an ebook for that blog as well, which was really just re-purposing the content on the blog and putting it into a more logically ordered, up-to-date ebook.

Brian Clark: It’s interesting that — I’m sure at the beginning, it was more of a blog feel to it — but if you go to Digital Photography School today, again this link is in the show notes as well, but it’s Digital-Photography-School.com, but separated by hyphens between the words.

Darren Rowse: Right, because that’s catchy.

Brian Clark: Those were a different time, Darren. You can’t say it’s not keyword rich, right? If you look at it today, there’s nothing about this that says ‘blog.’ This is a hard-core entertainment, no, not entertainment, educational center — tips and tutorials, cameras and equipment, post production, and then you get down to books, courses, and forums. This is a destination for the digital photography hobbyist, or beyond actually. I know you guys have various levels of sophistication that you cater to. That’s a natural evolution, I suppose.

Much like when we changed the Copyblogger home page away from the normal blog format. Everyone had a conniption, but it was a business. You had to evolve in line with the business, not staying true to some sort of blog philosophy, right? How much did that play into the evolution of DPS?

The Evolution of a Digital Commerce Community

Darren Rowse: It’s just chalk and cheese in some ways. Our readership could care less whether it looks like a blog or not. That’s the beauty of it. If I change ProBlogger, I get a lot of feedback about, “It’s not a blog anymore.”

Brian Clark: That’s such a generous term.

Darren Rowse: I always say, Digital Photography School readers are real readers, and ProBlogger readers are largely bloggers. They’re a different kettle of fish in many ways. It was definitely an evolution, though. Like I said, I started out very much on focusing on beginners, two or three tips a week. Now, it’s become a lot more sophisticated in terms of our publishing rhythms, promotion, and the whole production of what we’re creating now. A lot of people come to a blog like DPS and think, “That’s what I need to create,” but you can’t start there. You’ve got to start somewhere simpler.

Brian Clark: That is such an excellent point. Often, I’ll be talking about a certain strategy or tactic and then use Copyblogger as an example, but then I have to say, “Hold on! Don’t look at it the way it is now. Look at it the way it was and how we got here,” because that’s year after year after year of, as you mentioned, evolving blog content into higher value content — whether that be a PDF ebook, a free ebook, a paid ebook, or a course, whatever the case may be. That’s the, I won’t say luxury, but it’s the benefit of consistency and putting in the time. You’ve developed these assets that, all of a sudden, you’ve got something that the beginner doesn’t have, yet we were all beginners at one point.

Darren Rowse: That’s right. For us, we’ve taught our readers how to go beyond being beginners. Then it forced us to create intermediate content and then more advanced content as well, and to expand the topics from just being how to take photos to how to process those photos. We’ve really focused on, “Where are the bulk of our readers now, and where do we want them to be next?” By identifying that change we’re trying to bring, it forces us to expand and make the site more sophisticated in terms of the kind of content and the way we deliver that content as well. It’s definitely been a journey, but that journey’s very much based upon where we’re trying to take our readers.

Brian Clark: It’s interesting. A couple years ago, if I remember correctly, it was ebooks that were the paid products that you offered. Now, you’re offering a selection of courses — little bit higher price tag, a little more intensive value — is that fairly recent?

How Ebooks and Online Courses Drive Revenue

Darren Rowse: Yeah.

Brian Clark: Okay. Tell us a little bit how you took that step.

Darren Rowse: Ebooks have always done really well for us. We’ve always been open to the idea of doing a course, but we wanted to see whether our readers would go there. One of the ways we’d been monitoring it is through affiliate promotions. Every year at Christmas and in the middle of the year, we do a seasonal promotion. At Christmas, it’s 12 days of Christmas. We promote a different deal every day, and they’re a mix of our products as well as other people’s products. We do the same thing in the middle of the year. In fact, it starts in two day’s time.

That’s partly a money-making exercise, but it’s also a testing exercise where we test different products we’re promoting of other people’s. Partly to make money, but also to see is this format relevant to our audience. So we’ve promoted courses probably for five or six years now at Christmas time.

Last year, the courses took off. That was a signal to us — we need to start getting into courses as well. We created our first course the start of this year. It did well, not as well as ebooks, but it was certainly enough that we thought there was a growing market there for us. We’ve just commissioned two more, and they’re in development at the moment.

We also noticed this year, presets, Lightroom presets. Little plugins for Lightroom and Photoshop have worked well, so we’re working on our first preset collection, too. The same thing happened last year when we promoted some printable stuff. Last year, we created printables. So, very much using affiliate promotions to test what we should publish next.

Smart Market Research for Creating Digital Products

Brian Clark: That is such an excellent point. I want to go ahead and point it out again even though you said it twice. That is so important. Some people think of affiliate marketing as a way to make money — and it is. It can be very lucrative. Some people, that’s their entire model. For me, I always used it to see what people would buy. That informs your product development strategy in a way that goes well beyond pray and guess, and hope for the best.

We talk about, in the startup world, minimum viable product and everything — well, selling someone else’s product to your audience and them buying it, you’re missing out on acquiring a customer, which is huge.

But if you’re finding that your type of people buy that type of thing, that is incredibly valuable information. Please take that away with you today and think about it. I know a lot of you are working on developing, specifically, digital products and services, but you don’t know exactly what’s going to work. Well, that is a very, very effective way to go about it because what someone will actually open up their wallet and pull out a credit card for is better market research than any survey, any questionnaire, any amount of listening, observation whatsoever. Darren, thanks for that.

Darren Rowse: Can I just make one more point on that?

Brian Clark: Yes, please do.

Darren Rowse: There’s two other things we’ve learned from this. One, it’s the type of products, or courses or ebooks or printables. Two, it’s the topic. We’re testing products on a whole heap of topics. The other one is, who’s producing those products? They can become potential collaborators. We have another site called SnapnDeals, which is where we do two or three affiliate promotions a week. They’re all photography related. It’s been interesting. Of those deals and the affiliate stuff that we do, the people who we’re promoting, if they take off, that’s also another hint for us. Some of those have turned into ebook authors or course producers or presets producers as well.

Brian Clark: Cool.

Darren Rowse: It’s just great on all kinds of levels.

Brian Clark: The collaboration angle is also gold. Being able to figure out, “Hey, looks like we can make some money together in a more meaningful way than just affiliate and merchant,” that kind of thing.

Darren Rowse: Yeah, we’ve certainly. With the presets, for instance, we promoted a guy’s presets. He had created a great product, so we were like, “Well, can you create one of those for us? We know if it’ll have our name on it as well as being a great product, it’ll sell even more to our audience.”

Brian Clark: Yes. Absolutely. I wanted to close with your advice for starting or would-be digital entrepreneurs. I think you gave some, but can you pull something else here to close this off?

Why the Success of Digital Entrepreneurs Depends the Ability to Change People’s Lives

Darren Rowse: I’ve spoken about this quite a bit lately. You’ve got to do something that’s meaningful for your audience. I know people have said that for years, “Do something that changes people’s lives.” It’s just so true. I’ve seen it with what you’ve built. You’ve literally changed people’s lives in giving them tools and teaching to build businesses. When you do that, they’re just so grateful for it. I see that on ProBlogger and Digital Photography School all the time.

People who, if you change their life in some way, you give them something that they didn’t have before, then they not only buy from you, but they tell others about you as well. Very much that’s been our focus across both of the businesses that we have. Change people’s lives. Do something meaningful to them. Do something that matters. Out of that emerges all kinds of opportunity.

Brian Clark: Yeah, it may seem trite or flowery, but if it’s just about money, there’s a good chance you’re just not going to make it. It can’t just be that. When you’re thinking about money, you’re thinking about yourself. The people who make the most money are thinking about the other people more — or most fanatically. Excellent advice.

Darren, I’m going to let you carry on with your Monday morning. I guess I should probably wind down so that my Monday morning has something productive about it. I want to thank you again for joining us. Do look for the podcast, everyone. That’s ProBlogger podcast on iTunes. I’m sure there’s going to be a mention on ProBlogger I hope this week as well. Of course, ProBlogger.net. Are you still doing the ProBlogger.com community?

Darren Rowse: That’s just changing at the moment. In fact, I just saw the new front page, which is coming along. The front page has become more of a portal. The community, we ended it about three or four months ago, but there’s new stuff coming there, too. If you go to ProBlogger.com, you’ll find all the different properties now.

Brian Clark: Cool. Then also Digital Photography School. Check that out if you have any interest whatsoever in photography. Also, though, if you just have an interest in seeing a very fantastically run, community-oriented, but highly profitable business, Darren does it right.

Darren, thanks so much for joining us.

Darren Rowse: Thanks, Brian.

Brian Clark: All right, everyone, we will see you next week. Take care.