The 4 Pillars Every Online Business Is Built On

Ever thought about launching an online course … or some other digital product or service? Here are the four most important elements you need to put into play.

Whether you’re starting out or a you’re digital commerce veteran, there are some fundamental pieces that need to be in play before you can profitably launch a new product or service.

Free webinar

Brian Clark’s free webinar on online courses will be held on December 12, 2016, at 3:00 PM Eastern Time. You can click here to get signed up.

In this 15-minute episode, I talk about:

  • Two ways to build your audience for your blog or podcast in the early days
  • The right time to get an email list in place
  • How to figure out what you’ll talk about
  • The profitable tension that will be with you for the length of your business
  • How to avoid making expensive mistakes
  • A cool free resource to help you plan a successful launch for your online course

The Show Notes

The 4 Pillars Every Online Business Is Built On

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by StudioPress, the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins. Built on the Genesis Framework, StudioPress delivers state of the art SEO tools, beautiful and fully responsive design, air tight security, instant updates, and much more. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level and see for yourself why more than 190,000 website owners trust StudioPress, go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.

Well hey there, it is excellent to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices — along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone, I’m the Chief Content Officer for Rainmaker Digital. I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always find show notes with additional links and resources by going to Copyblogger.FM, as well as the complete archive for the show.

If you’ve been reading Copyblogger, you might have noticed we’ve been talking a lot about online courses. We’ve been talking a lot about that for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a really awesome business model. Two, Brian Clark has a new course that he’s going to be offering about how to put one together for yourself.

Last week, I wrote a post about my own journey going from a normal employed person to freelance writer, and then to course creator. Some of the bumps and lumps along the way, as well as some of the things that I’ve found useful and helpful. I thought that I would use this podcast to talk about a couple of things that you want to get into place if you’re thinking about launching an online course.

Actually, if you’re thinking about launching any kind of digital business. These all would work for anything from a course to even a coaching program or an e-book — anything along those lines. There are four big components to that, and then we have a very cool free resource that Brian is going to be putting together for you that I’ll let you know about at the end of the episode.

Two Ways to Build Your Audience for Your Blog or Your Podcast in the Early Days

First and foremost, if you are putting any kind of digital business together — or frankly just any kind of business together — you need to pull together an audience. Everything good comes from the audience. That’s whether you’re online, whether you’re offline, whether you’re running a business on the Mars colony of the future. It doesn’t matter what the setting is, nothing gets sold until you’ve pulled together some people who are willing and able to buy. It’s not that complicated.

If you haven’t yet, this is the time to start your blog or to start your podcast — or to start both. You might not know the final topic, and you might not have the final positioning in place. In fact, you probably won’t. The best answers to those questions tend to emerge as you do it, as you work. You want to take your best guess, and you want to start getting your work out there. There’s really no substitute for getting your thoughts, your articulation, what you believe, and how you help people out into the world so you can get feedback and so you can see what you have to offer works in the real world with real people.

Real world time. Harsh reality time. This is going to grow slowly at first, unless you are already famous for something. In 2016 — we’re almost at 2017 — there are two cornerstone strategies or primary strategies that people use to get the ball rolling and get a little bit more momentum. The first is guest posting. In other words, publishing some really good stuff on somebody else’s site. What that does for you — it improves your publisher network, for one thing, because you’re publishing content on somebody’s site. You can choose somebody who has a bigger audience than you do. It actually also works pretty well to place some guest posts on sites that have about the same size audience you do, but different people.

It’s great for your professional networking. Of course it’s going to build your audience, because you have more people you’re getting your ideas and articulations in front of. It’s really cool for developing ideas, because sometimes you’ll place a guest post with an idea that’s a little bit out of the wheelhouse of your primary site. It’s a very cool place to play around with ideas. It does have search engine benefits. I state that last because it’s the least important. It is nice to get high quality real links from another site. That is helpful.

The other primary way people are pulling an audience together around a site that you control — that means your blog or your podcast on your own domain. Even if your podcast is hosted on iTunes, things should be pointing back to a site that you control. The other way people are building traffic is to buy it. Particularly one of the social sites. Particularly on Facebook. Buying traffic is tried and true. This is always a strategy that just depends on how expensive traffic is with your particular venue at that particular moment.

Your main benefit with this is to grow your audience, but you can also do some interesting things, testing some ideas out. You can test headlines, you can test product ideas, content ideas and things like that by buying advertising. I would not spend a trillion dollars on this. But if you have a small discretionary budget that you might be able to throw at it, it’s not a bad investment to make as long as you keep it fairly small and use it to experiment and supplement, rather than trying to base a whole business model on it. At least at the beginning.

My only issue with paid traffic is that the platforms for it tend to be volatile, they change. For a while, AdWords was great, it was fantastic. It was a great way to grow a business. Then they got very expensive and they also got very erratic. They would pull people’s accounts for strange reasons that they couldn’t articulate. Right now Facebook is a great game to play, but again, Facebook can be erratic. They can just decide they don’t like your advertising and pull it overnight. That’s why I say it’s not something you want to build your business on 100%, but it can be great fuel for the fire.

The Right Time to Get an Email List in Place

All right, so that’s the first element that we want to put into play if you’re thinking about creating a digital business, or maybe going in a new direction with a digital business, or launching a new product. The audience is the first thing that needs to be in place. Directly behind that is what we call, “the list.” Normally that’s an email list. In other words, a way for you to communicate with that audience on your own terms. This is not a Facebook page. Why? You can post to Facebook and it’s only going to reach a very modest portion of that audience, and not necessarily a portion that you have selected. Your list is typically your email list. I really recommend starting it as early in the game as you possibly can.

Back in the day when I was trying to start my freelance business before I actually quit my day job — and I mean well before, like a year before — I started an email list. I added a simple autoresponder to it. What that let me do, was it let me capture every drop of attention that I got in those early days. There was one memorable and awesome time when Seth Godin linked to me and I got a ton of traffic. The only reason that traffic really benefited me was that some of those people signed up for my email list. In fact, I’m sure that there are people who signed up for that email list that I still know today, that that’s how we found one another.

Do not try to do it yourself on this. In other words, don’t try to put something together like a home-grown server, or even worse, send it out of Gmail or Outlook. Begin as much as you can as you mean to go on, and that means you want to get a service that handles this for you. A bulk email service. They handle things like managing spam filters and all of that good stuff. When I say, “You need an email list and you want to get it going early,” I’m not talking about buying email addresses, which is, by and large, a really bad idea. I want you to be earning that attention by having a confirmed opt-in list.

In other words, you have something interesting that people want to hear about, and they sign up for your email list in order to hear more about it. We have lots and lots of strategies for you on that if you go to and you look at the free education tab. We have a book on email marketing that will walk you through all the strategies. Even better, that is free. How cool is that?

How to Figure out What You’ll Talk About

All right, so the first thing you need to have in play is you have to have an audience. Then you need a list so you can contact that audience. The third thing that you need to put into play is a topic. What is your business about? What do you help people with? This comes from an intersection of what you’re good at and what the audience cares about. Your topic needs to solve some kind of meaningful problem. This is one where people get really messed up, because they solve the problems they think should be solved. They come up with product ideas or content ideas about what they think people should be learning, or think people should do differently. It’s a great way to waste so much time, money, and energy.

You have to focus on the problems that are meaningful to the audience, not necessarily the problems you think they ought to be solving. This is one of those eternal tensions, because it is about you, and it’s not about you. Those are both 100 percent true. This tension exists as long as you’re in business. You can’t come down on an either/or, or it just doesn’t work. If it’s all about them and it’s not about you at all, things get very generic very quickly. It has to be about who you serve, and then how can you help that audience in a way that’s distinct to you. That’s distinct from other people who might serve a similar role.

Now, you may have a very strong idea before you begin of what topic you’re going to talk about. In my experience, it doesn’t matter how strong your certainty is about what you’re going to talk about, you’re going to find out what you talk about by putting your work out there. By putting blog posts up and putting podcasts up. What you want to do is watch what gets traction. It’s interesting how often that surprises you.

There’s what you think is interesting about you, and then there’s what everybody else thinks is interesting about you. You want to watch what’s going on. You want to watch what people respond to. You also want to watch what seems to be going on in the world around you. I would never tell you to follow trends in a slavish way, but you need to be able to see them as they emerge in order to stay relevant and in order to stay current. It’s not the same thing as just following every single little fad, but you do want to see where things are going and the shape of the environment, so you can respond to it in a meaningful way.

How to Avoid Making Expensive Mistakes

The first element was the audience. The second element was the list. The third element is the topic. The fourth element for you to get something out into the world is actually the offer. It’s the thing you’re going to put out that you’re going to exchange something for. At the beginning actually, you make an offer of something interesting to exchange for people’s email addresses. It could be an email course, it could be an e-book, it could be all kinds of things. Then obviously, at some point, if you are running a business, you make an offer of a product or a service that you get paid for. The most important thing here is to start with small projects. Start with things that are not a massive investment of your time and energy. We talk about this so often on Copyblogger.

E-books are definitely a tried and true initial project. Minimum Viable Product is sometimes a term that -people use. It could be a workshop. It could be a single, live session. It could be a content series — either a paid series or a free series. What you want to do is pay close attention to the questions that those small projects are throwing off. It’s in the questions that you will get the really killer product ideas. It’s in the questions that you will get the idea for a really significant offer that changes other people’s lives. Of course, when you change a lot of other people’s lives, that’s when your business starts to change your life for the better.

That’s it, in a nutshell. In some ways it might seem very basic. However, I will remind you that this is a game, like little league versus major league baseball. What changes isn’t the rules. What changes is the level of execution. Item one is audience. Item two is the list — your communication with that audience, how you talk to them. Number three is the topic, what are you going to talk about. Then, number four is the offer, what can you put in front of that audience that’s compelling, that solves a meaningful problem, and that they will pay you for.

How can you put that offer together in a way that’s a no-brainer for that audience. It has so much value and it’s so relevant to what they care about, that the price that you’re asking is very congruent and feels very natural. That’s how you create a marketable offer. Easy to say, but sometimes not so easy to do.

A Cool Free Resource to Help You Plan a Successful Launch for Your Online Course

I mentioned that we had a cool, free thing for you, and we do, which is Brian Clark is going to be leading a free workshop. A free webinar on digital courses. He is going to get into some of the specifics on how to specifically structure an online course in a way that is profitable and marketable. He’s just going to get into some of those first steps where you’re putting the course together, you’re planning the course in a way that makes it very easy to turn around and put that offer together that is compelling, and that does offer a meaningful transformation to your audience in a way that they find easy to pay for.

That webinar is December 12. It’s at 3:00 p.m., Eastern U.S. time. To the best of my knowledge, there will be a recording, assuming no technical problems happen. If that time of day is a disaster for you, I’m sure that they’re working something out so that you can get a replay. You can go to Copyblogger.FM and pick up a link for that. You can also go to the Copyblogger blog, and any of the posts we ran last week will have links. It’s a nice, big blue button where you can get registered for the free webinar. Again, it’s Wednesday, December 12th.

I’m planning on going. Brian has really interesting insights about how courses work and what makes people buy them. He’s been thinking about it a lot. I had the opportunity to talk with him a little bit about some of his refinement of his thinking about how to structure courses and how to structure the marketability of courses. It’s going to be well worth your time. Hope you’re able to make it.

Even if digital courses are not your thing, hopefully the topics we talked about today will help you with whatever it might be. Whether you’re launching something new, starting something from scratch, or coming up with a different angle on what you’ve already got going. These are always pillars of what makes an offer work. That’s it for today. Thank you, as always, for your time and attention. I’ll catch you next week.