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Bacterial Marketing

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Yesterday I was talking to an expert about making money on the internet. Specifically, I've really enjoyed creating different kinds of content -- ebooks, micro-sites, blogs, movies, apps -- mixing them up in various ways, sharing them with others, and picking up a buck or two in the process. Nothing mind-blowing -- maybe 500-900 dollars a month? My question was: without turning into a scammer, was it possible to actually pay my monthly bills, maybe move up another 10 or 20x from where I am now, just having fun creating various kinds of content and sharing it?

The first thing he said blew me away I was already ahead of 99% of the other people online. I guess sometimes when you live and work out in the sticks you have no idea how you stack up with others. But there is an entire culture of people who chase around the latest E-Harmony promotions and try to trick folks into signing up for them. I think they make ten or twenty bucks a pop, which can really add up. Most of those folks fail, or get in trouble. In addition, there is another huge amount of people who want to make money online, but aren't really in love with creating stuff. So they make a few things, look at it for a month or three, then give up. Things aren't moving along quickly enough for them, so it's time to move on. The I-want-it-now society.

Then he told me that if I want to help people more (and consequently make more money) I should find out more about the intent of people visiting my site. We selected one site that my wife and I did three years ago (it looks sucky, yes, but cut me some slack: it was one of the first sites I created) -- paycheck-stub.com. Why were people visiting? I told him over 40% of visits were from people looking for an example of a paycheck -- we get visits for some form of "paycheck stub sample" where folks are browsing pictures on Google and want to find out more. Five thousand people a month come by the site. Over two-thousand are looking for pictures of paycheck stubs and pop over to our site (where many are provided)

We spoke for an hour, and it was the both informative and frustrating. The key question for folks doing stuff online is always this: why are people visiting you? Because if you know that, you can adapt your site to help them out better. Put in more stuff they like, take out things they don't like. This is true for any kind of content you create -- movies, blogs, corporate sites, whatever.

But finding that out is a piece of work, as I am discovering. Are people looking to complete their own paychecks online? Do they want to make fake paycheck stubs so they can scam their way into a loan? Perhaps are they making loans? Somebody presents a paycheck stub and they're browsing images to see if the stub they have is legitimate? Why would traffic source from an image search? Do they want accounting advice? Advice with their accounting program? Maybe to physically post an image of a paycheck stub? Average Joe Internet User is probably thinking "Who cares?!? Probably just somebody randomly clicking around on Google"

But Average Joe Internet user isn't really trying to help anybody, so to them discussion about what's in the mind of some anonymous guy clicking an image is of absolutely no value -- some people think that to even think along these lines is to somehow want to manipulate people. To me, each little electronic event related to something I've created in an important piece of the puzzle about how to help people. There's always something I can do to help, to continue the conversation, and I should always be looking for it -- not just giving up, and not just focusing on money.

Of course, you can kick around these "what-ifs" all day, and it drove me nuts. The key part is taking all of that speculation and making something actionable out of it. So today I think I am going to make 3 or 4 buttons for the most popular page, all with what I think they want: "create your own fake paychecks", "free online paycheck accounting system", "how to verify a paycheck stub", "hundreds of images of paycheck stubs", etc. Each statement will be something I could provide (or help provide). Here's the key point: don't do anything but make a button and hook it into Google Analytics. Come back in a week or a month or a year and see who pushed what. Presto-chango, now (hopefully) I know more about why people are visiting.

The part that I don't think most folks understand is how slow all of this happens, at least from my perspective. Yes, you can make money creating stuff and trying to help people, but it ain't video games. Prepare to take a few years. Prepare for a lot of experiments like the one above that may or may not do anything useful. As Rob Walling was telling me the other day: when you create things, you're never really done. You're always tweaking and poking here and there.

My friend online was more direct: "Yes Daniel," he said, "you can make 10 or even 100 times what you are currently making. What you'll find is that just 3 or 4 small changes can have a 10x impact on the value you provide and the income you recieve"

But what 3 or 4 small changes! There are 10 billion small changes I could make -- it could take from now until the end of time to try them all.

"That's why your existing sites that have thousands of hits a month are important," he said, "With those numbers, you can ask them"

So this is how the whole thing works: you make a statement about what people might like: a bookstore for hackers, a place for folks who had a doc tell them they have something called "neuropathy in feet" but have no idea what that means, a little app that lets people keep track of lists of stuff for free, an e-book about agile implementation, a bunch of recipes about how to make hamburger casseroles. I could go on. And yes, I'm plugging. To me, this is modern art: taking programming, graphic design, words, videos, games, and all sorts of other things and creatively and uniquely creating something that wasn't there before. You are an artist. You make an artistic statement.

Each of these little things you create may or may not resonate with folks. If they do -- and it might take a lot of time for them to find it on their own or you might have to go out and ask people to visit -- then your traffic numbers go up. Once your numbers rise, you have enough "customers" to start having this funky "conversation with the buttons and such I was referring to. We look at hundreds of graphs. We put in polls. We move things around. Take out adsense. Put in maps. Et cetera. Each little piece of data, from the first idea until the day you die, is hopefully part of a more and more detailed conversation you are having with people about what they want and how you can help them.

Everybody loves the word "viral". You make a video, you get featured on TechCrunch, you are covered by CNN, you get a shout out from pg, etc. Suddenly you are "the man". You have been "discovered". You knew you were a superstar all along. You were just waiting for your ship to come in. Everybody wants to be a Zuckerberg. It's all viral, all the time.

But real growth is bacterial. It takes time. I started a Facebook list for folks who like my blog and one for folks who want to hear what's going on with hn-books. There was one person who liked it (me). Then two. Then I pinged all my friends. Then I put the feed you see in the sidebar. Then there were twenty. Then forty.

It was easy to think that this freaking shit is taking forever! But that's the way it all works. One day I will have 1000 fans on my blog page and my hn-books page. When that happens, as long as I continue to learn more and more about how to help them, not only will those people get a tiny bit of value, by adding up that minuscule bit of value thousands of time I'll make money helping them. And while I'm growing by one or two people a day now, when it gets to 1000, it'll be 10 or 20 people a week. All hail the power of exponential growth. Viral marketing guys guess at what's cool, nail it, and a million people visit. A million people that don't know them and will be clicking on some other viral thing tomorrow. Bacterial marketing guys do a little bit, talk to folks who like it, do a little bit more, taking years to learn about people and how they can help them. Each little bit building on the piece before it. Inch by inch.

Don't spend your time worrying about viral marketing. You probably wouldn't know what to do with a million people if they visited you anyway. instead, worry about one guy at a time. Why's he there? What did he like? What would he like to see more of? Have one great conversation and make one great relationship. Then see if you can do that with two people. Then five. Then ten. Then twenty.

At some point, after a really long time, you have a million people who love you and you're helping out an awesome number of folks.

And you know what? That's when they'll say you were an "overnight success"

I have some buttons to make.

I know nothing about biology, so if you're looking to this essay to gain any insight in biology, you're looking the wrong place. I use the term "bacterial marketing" simply in juxtapose to "viral marketing"

pretty girl

If you click this image,
rabid weasels will claw out of your nose

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This page contains a single entry by DanielBMarkham published on April 7, 2011 11:00 AM.

Female Form Enhances Ad Results -- Followup was the previous entry in this blog.

You're too Wordy. You Write too Much is the next entry in this blog.

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Information you might find handy
(other sites I have worked on)

Recently I created a list of books that hackers recommend to each other -- what are the books super hackers use to help guide them form their own startups and make millions? hn-books might be a site you'd like to check out.
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