by Tara Calishain
When you think of content providers on the Net, you're
probably thinking about the big guys: Ancestry.com. Gale.
The Wall Street Journal. As paid content has nudged its
way into the online consciousness as an acceptable practice,
lots and lots of companies are lining up to offer their
But they're not all big companies. In fact, plenty
of content companies out there don't have hundreds
of employees, don't run commercials on CNBC, and concentrate
only on one niche. A lot of little guys offer big content.
And we can learn some lessons based on what these companies
offer and how they expand into the online information
From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
When you think of online content, you think of serious
things, like genealogy information and Books In
Print. You think of helpful, useful sites. You
tend not to think of a guy renting his chest for your
personal message at only $20 a pop.
Chris Pirillo, Webmaster of Lockergnome [http://www.lockergnome.com] effortlessly
spans the gulf between the sublime and the slightly
ridiculous. Pirillo's online content offerings include
Lockergnome.com, which was started in 1996 and is largely
an advertising-supported network of e-mail newsletters,
and RentMyChest.com, in which he accepts money by PayPal
and writes things on his chest, then takes pictures
of said chest and puts them up on his site. (The kind
of description this site deserves defies the staid
confines of an "Emmerce" column. Please visit the site
yourself if you wish and let the adjectives fly.) The
company itself contains only a couple of full-time
employees most of the team is contract labor.
Pirillo's more traditional content can be found at
which was started in 2002 and sells a variety of e-books
(including a book I co-authored, Poor Richard's
Internet Marketing & Promotions). The books
run the gamut from discussions of weddings to discussions
of Windows. Pirillo sees the extension from Lockergnome
to Gnometomes as one of evolution. "In recent years,
we've had to get creative with our positioning. Hence,
the extension of our brand into e-books (nothing more
than repurposed content from earlier missives)."
Despite the dot-com meltdown, Pirillo does not consider
the Internet naturally hostile to paid content. "Online
ventures have failed for many reasons, primarily because
they adapted to the climate incorrectly. Instead of
embracing their audience, most dot-coms have offended
them beyond salvation. We've introduced several revenue-generating
projects without alienating our supporters. Right now,
we have plans for evolving ancillary projects. My faith
in electronic delivery is pretty strong, so I'd imagine
that's the route we'll continue to take."
There are literally thousands of books published
a year some online, most not. Many of the books
are published by multi-national companies with million-dollar
budgets and lots of marketing. Does Chris Pirillo feel
the pressure of competition from these much larger
entities? "Sometimes," he says. "There's a perceived
value placed on anything a more recognizable name has
to offer. What we have is integrity, experience, and
an active audience. Our brand is still growing, and
it will continue to grow."
One of the things I personally appreciate about Pirillo's
efforts is that he's continually pushing, trying different
things OK, some of them are weird. You might
not find the RentMyChest idea your cup of tea, but
don't miss the idea here: What odd and offbeat things
could you do with your content? What have you not tried
just because "no one else is doing it"?
While Chris Pirillo continues to push the envelope
of content diversity, other content providers find
themselves snugly and happily in one niche. Tim Carter's "Ask
the Builder" concentrates happily on home building
and remodeling content.
AsktheBuilder.com is a home building and remodeling
content Web site launched in 1995. Originally, the
site operated as an advertising supported site, and
as Tim Carter says, "AsktheBuilder.com is still a content
Web site that does e-commerce. It is not an e-commerce
site that has some content."
The site both sells products related to building sample
blueprints, CD-ROMs, and so on as well as original
e-books written by Tim Carter on various aspects of
home building and remodeling. A nationally syndicated
columnist, Carter also has an archive available of
his "Ask the Builder" columns. He has made traditionally
offline endeavors, like the syndicated column and a
radio program, blend in very well with his online site.
Carter still sells some advertising, but he's putting
a lot of his future in more paid content. "My biggest
push now is the expansion of my e-book offerings. I
hope to have 100 titles for sale within the next 30
months. [Currently there are five e-books available.]
E-books are the future. People get accurate, colorful
content that helps them solve their problems instantly."
Unlike Pirillo, Tim Carter doesn't feel like he's
competing with the big guys. "Without sounding pretentious,
I feel I am one of the Big Guys. Search the Internet
and you will look long and hard to find a content site
that has the depth of AsktheBuilder.com. But don't
think that I am going to slack off for a moment. I
realize that competition is as constant and powerful
as gravity. It is there and always trying to pull me
Tim Carter isn't the only syndicated columnist selling
content online. But while he focuses on home building
and remodeling, Randy Cassingham writes newsletters
about news items so unlikely that he had to name his
newsletter, This is True.
This is True is one of the old-timers of online publication,
having started in 1994. The first compilation book
followed in 1995 with the paid upgrade version following
in 1997. This is True now has a free version and a
Despite the fact that the paid version was created
in 1997, Cassingham was prompted to create it by an
advertising crunch. Not the one that existed the
one he foresaw for the future. "I realized that there had to
be a crash in advertising by 1997, the Web was
really growing, and there were plenty of e-mail newsletters
popping up. That created a nearly unlimited supply
of places to advertise, and I knew that the 'supply
and demand' equation looked very bad for ads in the
long run, even though there were plenty of dot-com
'experts' who didn't think so." The paid version of
Cassingham's newsletter is ad-free, a feature he figures
appeals to subscribers.
Though Cassingham's newsletter is very famous on
the Internet, with readers in over 190 countries and
a wide variety of media coverage, that doesn't stop
him looking for more revenue opportunities. His "Get
Out of Hell Free" cards, which arose from a letter
from a reader condemning him after a story about feng
shui, have taken off more than Cassingham expected. "The
cards were designed to merely break even, since it's
more of a viral marketing concept, but people are buying
them in such huge quantities they turned into a profit
center." From cards he went to t-shirts and, within
the first 6 weeks of their introduction, had sold over
The lesson here is that one should always keep one's
eyes out for new opportunities. It doesn't seem a given or
even likely that a newsletter about unlikely
occurrences would lead to "Get Out of Hell Free" t-shirts.
Randy Cassingham seized that opportunity quickly and
it worked out very well for him.
At this point we've looked at content which might
seem traditional even on the Web e-books don't
differ that much from print books except for format
and distribution. A newsletter is a newsletter both
on and offline. So where does the line exist? Can a
game, for example, be content? When it's available
by subscription, I think so. And if you think that
Everquest or gambling sites are the only types of paid
games online, you're a little off base.
CleverMedia has been creating Web-based games using
Shockwave and Flash for over 7 years. Until recently,
the company worked with large clients, who would buy
a license to place a customized version of the game
on their Web site. And, like many sites, they also
had some advertising-supported content.
When the advertising market went south, CleverMedia
tried to sell downloadable games using the "Shareware" approach.
This was modestly successful. More recently, it has
created a new online service. Homepage Arcade [http://www.homepagearcade.com] allows
individuals and small companies to place CleverMedia
games at their own sites. CleverMedia offers more than
60 games this way.
"We charge based on time and number of plays," said
Gary Rosenzweig. "The $99.95 price gets the subscriber
1 year or 10,000 plays, whichever comes first. The
subscriber can place one, some, or all of the games
offered at their site. Some subscribers just want one
game, while others create a whole arcade of games." CleverMedia
manages this offering with two full-timers and a couple
of part-timers who come in on an as-needed basis.
While Rosenzweig seems comfortable with games as
the core of his approach, he feels the need to continue
trying different things to generate revenue. "We definitely
need some direct revenue streams like this one. Without
them, we would not be able to support any new development
at all. We'd be in mothball mode, I guess." At the
same time he doesn't try to anticipate revenue. "We
just decided to create the best product we could and
see what would happen. We felt that the response was
too unpredictable to come up with any realistic expectations
in advance. We have about 100 more games that could
be added to the service. We are also thinking about
adding some customizable games, if we can figure out
how to keep the cost of those games down."
Rosenzweig feels keenly the competition of the "big
guys," but at the same time he realizes that some of
his competition comes from a different quarter (pardon
the video-game pun.) "Some of these big sites offer
their games for free, in return for links and advertising,
usually built into the games. Some large companies
are also offering cheap game licensing. But ... the
'little guys' are actually more of a problem for us.
There are some people that are making games as a hobby
and then licensing them for next-to- nothing or free.
We are offering a more professional and supported product,
but for some sites, these cheap games are 'good enough.'"
Rosenzweig has taken a fairly straightforward concept games and
repurposed it toward a variety of audiences. How could
you repurpose the content with which you work on a
Better Searching Through Better Tools
Games are fun, and newsletters are fun, and e-books
can be both fun and useful. But what about services
that actually help you perform your online activities
more efficiently? Marc Fest's QuickBrowse and OnlineHomeBase.com
are aimed at the online researcher in you.
If you've been doing online research for any length
of time, you may have bumped into QuickBrowse.com,
which allows you to combine multiple Web pages into
single ones for faster viewing. This service launched
in 1999. Its sister site, OnlineHomeBase, launched
in 1992, supports the on-the-fly creation of notes
and reminders and also serves as a collaboration area.
At the moment, QuickBrowse has a subscription fee,
but OnlineHomeBase does not. OnlineHomeBase will convert
to a pay service when frequent users reach a preset
number. Fest doesn't anticipate any complaints. "Users
have started understanding that charging for a site
is a prerequisite for the site to stay up. OHB users
actually send me e-mails saying I should start charging
so that the service does not go away. This reflects
a change in the way Internet users think about for-pay
sites. They used to think they're immoral. Now, if
they appreciate your service, and if there are no free
alternatives, they want you to charge, because they
have learned that you might disappear otherwise."
Fest doesn't feel that he's competing with the larger
content providers "I'm targeting very small
niches" but is always looking to expand.
One of the advantages that Fest has over some of
the other content covered in this collection is that
he offers a research service. If you start to rely
on using QuickBrowse, for example, you're not likely
to quit using it. Further, since Fest's offerings are
so niched, it's not likely that competitors will quickly
come to the fore.
Firm Data Packages
But that can also be the case with content. With "dense" special
content a variety of information gathered into
one package a potential competitor would first
have to match the volume of information available and
then distinguish it from the already-available content.
Anne Holland of Marketing Sherpa focuses on this kind
of "information-dense" content: case studies and marketing
information for corporate marketing professionals.
Despite the fact that Marketing Sherpa does sell
a lot of content in the form of reports, Holland found
that her revenue expectations didn't work out quite
as she'd anticipated. "At first we expected we'd be
90 percent ad-supported and sell a little content product.
Then it reversed. As the ad market gets better, it
will probably even out."
That doesn't mean that she doesn't have a good handle
on current revenue expectations. "We'd go under without
sales revenue. Period. We have specific goals for report
divisions (buyer's guides, how-to reports, individual
articles, etc.) and overall monthly and annual goals. "
Reader response has been very good. Sales started
experimentally in July 2001 and produced substantial
revenues in 2002. Holland finds that she gets almost
immediate feedback from her customers. "If a report
is slightly off target, the sales slump to nothing
immediately. You have to be smack dab on target for
this to work. Really close to your marketplace."
Holland acknowledges that she competes with the "big
guys," but, at the same time, appreciates her small
company flexibility. "As a small company I don't have
the overhead the big guys do, so I can be a bit of
a bottom feeder. They require say $50,000 in sales
to make a project work out, I can get by with say $10,000.
So I can do small niche reports that sell OK that would
not be worth the time of day to the big guys."
"The key," she continued, "is in keeping your quality
high. If your quality is high but you serve just a
niche they wouldn't bother with, then you can win."
The quality key sounds like a good key for everybody
providing content online.
Calishain's Email address is email@example.com.