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Building an online content business – Case Study – Finance Training Course

I had always wondered about these instant blogging millionaire case studies. Guy meets blog, blog meets Google Adsense, bank account meets dollars and every one lives happily ever after. These happy stories with all the twists and turns of a good mission impossible episode were only supplemented and surpassed by publishing and bestselling author case studies. Guy writes book, book becomes a best seller, guy and his family retire in a beach front property in the Keys, Cape Cod, Southern California or a combo of all of the above.

After spending the last twenty years of my life earning a living the hard way, I decided that it was worth it to explore if there was any truth to all these tales of fiction. I had already done the book bit, offline as well as online and wasn’t too happy with the results. The content / Google Adsense combo sounded like a good plan. The downside was limited – what’s the worst that could happen? I would end up working for a living? But the upside was phenomenal. Especially since I teach a course on entrepreneurship to aspiring executive and global MBA students and had the joy of meeting at least one student with stars in his eyes and a fool proof plan in his pocket that would allow him to retire before graduation and commencement if only he had that first round of funding available. In my evil mind, I had to have an evil retort ready for all such future conversations.

  1. Been there, done that, it doesn’t work;
  2. Don’t quit your day job,
  3. The bragging rights are not worth it,
  4. Much better to do it for the moolah.

The online corporate finance training business that we built on a shoe string budget over the last ten months turned out to be great fun and even better education.

To be honest the foundations for this business were laid ten years ago when I first thought that content could be sold online. That was iteration one (1) After my first failure to launch the idea just sat in the background for the next 5 years and simmered. Then in 2005 the book (Blue Screen of Death, Reboot) happened. While it turned out to be the best of possible therapies for my earlier failures, it also taught a number of lessons in iteration two (2).

  1. It is difficult to sell content online,
  2. Even more difficult to sell it in print,
  3. Especially internationally
  4. The logistics are both painful and expensive.

The book was followed by two other attempts to brand and sell research content in print (iteration 3 and 4) and though from a distance the numbers looked attractive, the downturn, the financial meltdown of 2008 and the inherent weaknesses embedded in the print business led to a rude wakeful call and an even choicer selection of expletives.

Early 2010, the question in front of me was can you really build a business that is not built around selling an e-book that teaches you how to get rich selling

  1. Other e-books, written by your or your friends
  2. A Pyramid structured affiliate program
  3. Online seminars and videos priced at a US$ 60,000 value but yours for the asking at a teeny weenie fraction of that price

The answer, Iteration (5) (Learning Corporate Finance), on 22nd February 2010, was just a text dump in WordPress. The fact that it actually attracted any traffic at all was a miracle and a testament to how difficult it is to find good specialized finance content online, the power of Google search and the leverage that the WordPress platform provides to neophytes like me. Iteration (6) in March added Google Adsense and clocked an earth shattering 1.8 dollars in its first month of online advertising. Iteration (7) in September 2010 added an online store for downloading PDF files and Finance Excel templates and hit gold within its first week. Iteration (8) in October coming immediately after the PASHA and Asia Pacific ICT Awards put the comments received from Zafar, Badar, Shahjahan and Jehan Ara to work and improved site presentation and usability. Iteration (9) was a redirection nightmare that we finally recovered from, right in time for us to hit the traffic slump around Christmas and New year holidays. But it also marked the first week that we crossed 8,000 visitors and 20,000 pageviews. Iteration (9) pushed the number of pages per visitor to 3, the average time on site to over 3 minutes and the % of repeat visitors to over 25%. It also helped push the bounce rate down to 65% from 74% in the earlier iterations.

As of its 10th month in the blogsphere, Finance Training Course aka Learning Corporate Finance clocks about 300 unique visitors a day, about US$ 300 a month in content sales, and 30 dollars in advertising revenues. We get about two to three offers a month about advertising on the site ranging from 50 – 100 dollars a month but we haven’t started walking on that road as yet. In terms of hosting, domain and SEO charges the cost of getting all this up and running and working runs at under 35 dollars a month but that is before you add the non-hosting resources and infrastructure. Which is when the numbers turn into a large black red hole.

A handful of instant takeaways and answers before we jump into the process used to create the site and build traffic.

How long did it take to get to US$ 300 dollars a month?

11 months. The first 8 months at about 40 hours a week stolen at late nights and weekends. The last 8 weeks with two resources more or less working full time to get content on the site and tweaking the site presentation and WordPress administration. Counting from the point that the online store went up, 3 months but that is not an appropriate comparison since it would miss out on 8 months of hardcore content generation, posting, linking and other allied SEO related activities.

What part of this site revenue number is advertising?

About 30 dollars a month, the rest is content sales (pdf and excel downloads). The best month we had in advertising was November when we did a concentrated push at one specific segment of customers in North America and crossed 50 dollars. But the site average since advertising and traffic started trending is closer to 30.

Where does your blog traffic come from?

75% from Search Engines, 15% direct, 10% from referrals. The Search Engine traffic comes through about 200 finance and corporate finance related key words on which we rank. We rank on the first page for about a 100 odd key words across related topics and subject areas covered on Finance Training Courses.

What is your page rank?

Zero. Pre-redirection we stood at Page Rank 2. Post redirection, since this is also a new domain acquired in late October, I suspect that we will get our PR somewhere in April. Till then I guess we will stay in sandbox mode. Surprisingly though the PR Zero has not been a handicap in SERP results. For a number of choice Keyword combos we do very well despite our low Page Rank. We rank within the first two pages for both Finance Training Course (the new domain) as well as Learning Corporate Finance (the old tag line)

How many pages of blog content?

About 600 posts and a few hundred comments. Of the 600, 80 pages generate about 60,000 impressions and 3,000 clicks through Google a month accounting for more than half the traffic that finds its way to Finance Training Courses.

What is the monthly growth in blog traffic?

Between 20% – 30% a month. However the last two months have not been representative. First because of the slow down on account of redirection and site down time as we accidently blew it up more frequently than not. Second on account of yearend holidays dip. End of Jan 2011 and end of Feb 2011 would be better benchmarks to answer these questions.

Was blog redirection worth it?

Just in terms of the feedback that I can now get on Google Webmaster, yes. At a sub domain or at a non-root directory I didn’t have the detailed feedback about my top pages, queries, linked domains or site performance. So yes, painful, but yes.

What do you use for a payment gateway?

Google checkout and very happy with it. Wouldn’t recommend anything else and certainly not Paypal.

What was your SEO plan based on and how much money did you spend on it?

There wasn’t really an SEO plan to begin with. I had been given some direction that I used to experiment but our SEO team was a one man, part time, 40 year old, soon to be retired entrepreneur, under the guidance of two primary mentors – Zafar Khan, Badar Khushnood and one more un-named benefactor, working late at nights or early in the morning. That and Googling concepts and tools pointed out by my three mentors and trying to work with them as much as possible.

(To be contined…)