Discover more from What Works
Making the Content Math Work
A few thoughts on the practical implications of content marketing's quid pro quo and making a living with digital media
For a fairly philosophical take on that issue, I was pleasantly surprised at the response from readers. Many people appreciated how I "named" the misgivings they had and provided some context for understanding those misgivings better. And hey, that's what I do!
But I didn't tackle the practical component:
How the hell do you make any money if you're not writing content with the intent to attract and convert buyers?
Truthfully, I've been beating this drum for the last three-plus years, first in coaching conversations and then later in written explainers.
So, I’m going to divert slightly from the usual tone of this newsletter to dig into the nuts and bolts of making content math work.
And yes, there will be some math—but it’s mostly a metaphor.
There's a significant and pervasive misunderstanding about the relationship between content, offers, and scale that leads many people to spend copious amounts of time on activities that are getting them nowhere fast. In light of my article on content marketing's quid pro quo, I thought it was a good time to revisit one of the pieces I refer folks to most often.
In May 2021, I wrote an article called "How 'Building an Audience' Is Different From 'Finding Clients'—And Why It Matters." You can read the original here. At first, I thought I'd just revise and update that piece. But then my thoughts veered into the specific context that I write in today—that is, Substack and low-priced subscription models. So what follows draws on my original post, but most of it is freshly conceived.
Since joining Substack and hanging out on Notes, I've witnessed more people talking about the size of their audiences. Writers celebrate subscriber milestones, talk about growth strategy, and discuss how platform changes might impact how new readers find them. Part of that is the platform—the bestseller icons and visible subscriber counts create the appearance of credibility and influence. But another part of it is that many writers on Substack want to make this a full-time job or at least a decent-paying part-time job.2
Audience size certainly plays a role in making the job of “independent writer” possible.
Maybe what I'm noticing is that the business models on this platform are more homogenous than anywhere else I've ever hung out online. Again, that's driven by the platform itself (and not in a bad way!). People start a Substack newsletter for many reasons—but one of them is virtually frictionless subscriptions and micropayments that are directly related to writing. That means that most of us here are operating a (nominally) subscription business. You write. People read. And a small segment of your list becomes paying subscribers.
What I love about this model is that it doesn't involve content marketing.
It's not an information business! It's a reader-supported media business—which might also be helped along with ads or book sales. But the content itself is the product, so you don't really need content marketing to make the model work.
The problem with a subscription model is that it generally requires a scale that's out of reach for people…
…who don't have access to a large audience—whether that's an existing email list, a social media account, a following through traditional media, etc.—or the time to build one from zero. And I don't know if you've noticed, but building an audience from scratch nowadays is really hard.
I've been publishing online since 2009. My audience today (hello!) for this newsletter is about 8600 people. There are currently 150 premium subscribers. That's less than 2% of my total audience. And honestly? That's surpassed my initial expectations! A team member at Substack told me that they like to see a 5-10% conversion rate to paid subscriptions. So clearly, I'm underperforming that metric overall. But in terms of new subscriptions (which are often people more familiar with the Substack ecosystem), my paid subscription rate is right in that ballpark—if not a little better. And I’m thrilled.
Now, even if 5% of folks had upgraded to premium immediately after I switched over to Substack, I'd still be making less than $3000 per month (430 subscribers x $7 per month - fees). That's nothing to sneeze at! But it's not a full-time job, either. And that's fine. I've never been good at selling low-ticket offers and didn't expect this here newsletter to pay my bills.
[Insert obligatory call to action to subscribe…]
So what pays my bills instead?
First and foremost, the podcast production agency I run with my husband, Sean. That business generates enough to pay our bills, as well as a few other people, so our time commitment is (relatively) minimal. It's a predictable model, too. We have long-term relationships with podcast clients who pay us each month for full-service production. Even when we have some "churn," as we've had this year, we don't have to panic.
The other wonderful thing about this model is that it doesn't require much in the way of marketing. Yes, we initially leveraged my existing podcast and audience to let people know what we were offering. But our lead generation has largely been oblique—people come to us because either they like my podcast (which isn't about podcasting) or they get referred by an existing client or contact.
I've created content that lives on our website. In fact, I recently wrote a post about podcast stats that has some relevance to this piece. But largely, those articles serve to demonstrate our expertise for people who are already interested or as resources for our existing clients. I don't promote those articles, I rarely link out to them, and—despite some half-hearted early attempts—I never built any sort of sales funnel around that content.
Recently, I've been offering more direct ways to work with me, too. As I cautiously start to rebuild after a few very bad years, I'm offering strategy sessions and teaching some. So that also pays the bills.
I know that if I link to strategy sessions or workshops often enough, there will be plenty of interest to generate a minimum income for me. That allows me to (mostly) keep my editorial choices and my marketing choices separate. I don't have to think about whether the article I wrote is going generate a desire for what I'm selling. I don't have to plan campaigns that highlight pain points and demonstrate solutions.
I know how to "launch." I know how to build funnels. And I just don't want to do it.
I don't have to because I've been around for long enough and have a large enough audience (again, hello!) that I can put my focus on doing the work I really love—and just do some money-making on the side. Now, that is not to say that I think you need to "put in your time" before you, too, can have a cushy job writing a newsletter and making a podcast for the online business equivalent of minimum wage.
What I mean is that I take stock of the variables in what passes for my business model and figure out how I'm going to make the content math work. If I don't want to get super strategic with my marketing efforts, that's fine—but I need to make offers that hit my financial baseline at low conversion rates. If I'd rather spend my time writing than networking, that's fine—but I need to make offers that appeal to my existing audience.
But if you haven't been making a living online for close to 15 years or don't have a second company you let your husband worry about, your variables likely look very different from mine.
Maybe 1,000 people subscribe to your newsletter (either on Substack or via an email marketing service provider). For a lower ticket offer (say a monthly $10 subscription or a $100 workshop), you might see a conversion rate of about 3%—about 30 people. Again, that's not nothing, but it's probably not paying your rent. But let's say you're a coach or consultant. Your offer is significantly more expensive (say a $1500 program or $5000 package). Maybe .5% of your list wants to buy. Just 5 people. But that adds up—$7500 or $25k, respectively.
A tiny conversion rate can actually pay much more than a higher conversion rate.
To be clear, I’m talking about a business model that revolves around content but also offers a service or program that a small percentage of content consumers want to buy. If your model doesn’t revolve around content, you’re likely to see a much higher overall conversion rate because your “audience” isn’t an audience at all—it’s a sales pipeline.
Now, maybe you're thinking, 'Well, I don't have anywhere near 1,000 subscribers.' Understandable! When we're looking at an audience of less than 1000 people, I stop thinking about "audience" altogether. And, instead...
I start thinking about finding clients.
The problem is that online marketers have conflated "building an audience" with "finding clients" for the last decade or so. Those activities are not the same. The accepted "wisdom" of online marketing is that building an audience and finding clients (or customers) are one and the same—make content, build audience, sell, buy a Lambo.
It’s not that building an audience to eventually get some customers doesn’t work. It’s that there are far faster, less energy-intensive ways to find customers.
There are some businesses for which having an audience is critical. But there are far more (and generally more profitable businesses, too) that have no audience. They might not even have what many have come to believe marketing looks like in the 2020s.
The reason is this:
The ways you find 10 people, or 100 people, or 1,000 people who want what you're offering are very different.
If you needed to find 10 people who were interested in, for instance, your podcast production services, how would you find those people? Sure, you could write a bunch of content, hope that people find it, and reach out to hire you. You could post about podcasting every day on social media. Good luck with that. The far easier and faster way to find those 10 clients is to email your network, let them know what you're doing and who you're looking to work with—and ask for referrals. I literally did this a few weeks ago.
It takes some emotional fortitude and a willingness to pursue a few dead ends. But you'll get there. And it'll feel great when you do.
If you need to find 100 or 1,000 people to make your business model work, hopefully, you already have an audience to sell to. Or, have plenty of time to build one. But what you can't count on is 15% or 25% of your audience buying. If you want to sell to 100 people, you probably need to make an offer to at least 1000 people. If you want to sell to 1,000 people, you probably need an audience of more than 100,000.
Your mileage may vary. I know there are plenty of Substack newsletters that have 1,000 paying subscribers with fewer than 100,000 overall subscribers. And I credit the Substack ecosystem for making that possible.
Another key variable to consider is how you want to spend your time.
I am desperate to spend my time writing, podcasting, and researching. It's how I spend most of my time. To do that, I need to make a few trade-offs—one of them is, for now, not making as much money as I used to. Another trade-off is that I need to make a few strategic offers that cover my bills without overburdening my social bandwidth or tolerance for marketing and sales.
Designing a business model is all about these kinds of trade-offs. You decide on your must-haves and your nice-to-haves so that you can adjust the I-don't-really-cares to make it work. Your product, pricing, growth, sales, and operations all have to work together. There needs to be a logic to it—both how the business is run and how those variables relate to your needs.
Inherent to the logic of a business model that leverages content as marketing, sales, product, or all of the above is very low conversion rates. There will always be 85%, 90%, even 99% of people who follow you, engage with your content, and value what you offer who will not buy from you. That's not a poor reflection on you, your audience, or your content. That's just the math of it.
So either you grow your audience to the point where that's sustainable based on the kind of offer you want to make. Or, you make the kind of offer that makes that percentage sustainable for the kind of audience you have. You can certainly work to shift the balance over time. But you'll have far fewer headaches if you focus on one or the other strategy first.
This is Not Advice is a perk for premium subscribers. I considered putting half of this post behind the paywall since it’s related to that column but decided to keep it freely available for the time being. If you like the slightly more practical stuff, please consider upgrading!
My guess is that viewing Substack as a potential job with real pay is more common than seeing, say, Instagram as a potential job. "Writer" is more normalized as an occupation than "influencer."