[Transcript] How One Man’s Passion Created 500,000 Profitable Fans

This is a transcript of Robert Bruce’s Entreproducer interview with Darren Rowse titled How One Man’s Passion Created 500,000 Profitable Fans, from April 11, 2012.

Please note that this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.


Robert Bruce: This is entreproducer.com. I am Robert Bruce and I’m here with Darren Rowse, proprietor of Digital Photography School, to talk about creating content, building an audience and generating revenue. Darren is famous to online publishers for his years of work over at problogger.net, but you might not know that he’s arguably even more influential to a particular audience in the field of photography.

We want to know how he found an initial audience for his photography site, and how he built a
business by shifting and evolving to serve that audience along the way. Darren, thanks for coming by Entreproducer. Are you ready to answer some of these questions about your business at Digital Photography School for us?

Darren Rowse: Absolutely. It’s nice to finally be talking to you. It’s nice to see something new and to be a part of it.

How Darren built a massive, responsive audience from scratch

Robert: Let’s start out for those who may not be familiar with it. Aside from the brilliant obviousness of the name, what is Digital Photography School?

Darren: It’s interesting. I sometimes wish I’d not called it Digital Photography School because I do get people asking for a syllabus, where our campus is, and all kinds of things like that. I get those emails quite regularly.

But really, it started in April of 2006 as a place for me to talk about what I think about all the time, which is photography and what I’m learning with photography. In some ways, it started out as quite a personal blog in that it was me sharing what I know.

It has evolved in the last six years, probably almost to date, that it’s just something that is more of a tutorial-based site. It is very much focused on the how to, although we do review cameras as well. It basically teaches beginners through to intermediate, and even some advanced photographers, different aspects of their photography, ranging from how to use their camera through to how to make money from their photography, reviewing gear and a little bit of postproduction stuff. How to use Photoshop, how to use Lightroom and some of those types of things.

It kind of evolved out of a previous blog I had, which was another photography blog that was more focused upon cameras and reviewing cameras and aggregating reviews of cameras from around the web. That was actually my first full-time blog, that previous one. But I was always frustrated with it because it didn’t build relationships with people. It was very much for people looking to buy a camera, and once they bought that camera they had no reason to come back again. So while it had very good traffic, but it was very transient traffic.

So Digital Photography School is an attempt for me to record what I know, but also to build a community and relationships with readers, which was something I’d always talked about on Problogger as being essential, but it was something I wasn’t really doing effectively on that other blog.

Robert: We will get into that strategy a little bit in a minute, but it seems like, maybe not consciously, a testing ground for everything you talk about at Problogger. Would that be fair to say?

Darren: Yes, I guess I had had a variety of other blogs, which I was earning an income from, but it was my philosophy of blogging had changed a little bit from those first blogs to when I was writing Problogger and I wanted to test out the theory that I had and the hypotheses that I was talking about in a real live situation.

How to start producing content when you don’t have all the answers

Robert: Let’s make no mistake. This Digital Photography School, and as you explained, the early beginnings of what was kind of a personal blog, this is a real passion play for you, right? You love photography, you love the topic, and the community built around it.

Darren: Yes. Ever since I had my first digital SLR as a 16-year-old, 24 years ago, it’s been something that has been a passion for me. Photography, and with the advent of digital cameras, digital photography has been something that I just naturally talk about with my friends, I lie in bed thinking about it. It’s a bit crazy. It’s a bit of an obsession in many ways, and it impacts all areas of my life, including my spending habits. So it was a natural blog to start really.

Robert: So how did you approach your editorial calendar, your original content plan for the site in the beginning? How do you decide where to start when it came to producing content? You didn’t have an audience yet, you didn’t know what people wanted necessarily yet. So how did you begin that process?

Darren: It was an interesting one. I partly didn’t really know what the blog was going to become either, so I was playing I guess. I was testing different types of posts. Originally, I was doing two or three posts a week. It certainly wasn’t daily. I was writing all of the content myself.

As an intermediate photographer, I’ve also done weddings for friends, I’ve not really made a profession, and I didn’t really feel comfortable writing an advanced type of blog, so I focused very much on the beginner.
I guess in the back of my mind I was thinking this blog can grow up, it can mature as my readers mature as we take readers from beginner to intermediate, then we can look for content that will help that audience.

It started with no comments switched on, it’s just “Here’s a tutorial.” “Here’s a how-to.” That was possibly partly out of insecurities of my own and thinking maybe I don’t know as much as I think I do, but it was also partly an experiment to see what would happen, whether people would give feedback in some other way.

I’d always looked at Seth Godin and how he’s had comments switched off, and how people shared, how they reacted to his posts by writing their own. So it was a bit of an experiment. I guess in those early days I was very much focused upon the beginner and producing content that was evergreen, so I was looking at the basics of photography. What is aperture, what is shutter speed, how do you buy a camera, how do you hold a camera? The very basic posts. That was probably 80% of what I was writing. The other 20% was unashamedly “I’ve got to find readers for this thing, so I’m going to write content that will be shared.” At the time, Digg was probably the biggest source of traffic for the site, StumbleUpon. And writing content that other blogs would pick, blogs like Lifehacker, quite often linked to us because we were writing these articles that were perhaps a little less beginner focused and perhaps sometimes a little bit more eye candy or sensational type posts, or big long lists. That type of content.

Robert: So it’s interesting to me what you have called a lack of complete expertise in the beginning. You weren’t an expert photographer or professional photographer necessarily. You routed around that in terms of your content on the site by talking to the beginner, which, of course, is you, the beginner yourself. It seems like a problem that a lot of folks are having when they think about publishing content online. “Well I’m not a professional. I don’t know all the answers.” You’ve found an interesting way to route around that.

Darren: In many ways, that’s what I’ve done on all my blogs, Problogger. This is the same. I’ve always tried to write for people who are just behind me, who are a step behind and tackling the problems I had a year ago or two years ago, and in a way, that then forces me to learn more, which makes me more advanced and I would write slightly more advanced content as well.

Why creating content acts as a powerful product development lab

Robert: Once the audience started showing up and giving you a baseline of both direct and indirect feedback, how did you adapt your content as you moved along? How did you adapt the content plan to serve that audience that was starting to show up?

Darren: Probably the biggest message I got in the first few weeks was where can we react? We want comments; we want to interact with you. So one of the first changes I made was switching comments back on. That lead to us starting a Flickr group and then adding a forum.

So we kind of evolved the site in terms of its structure to be a bit more community-minded, but that also was reflected in the content I was creating as well. I moved from having purely how-to type content to content that was a little bit more discussion-based or interactive.

So we starting running polls, started running debates, started letting readers submit questions for the rest of the audience to answer. We called them community workshops. So some of them would say “I’ve got to photograph a funeral. I’ve never photographed a funeral. How do I do that?” Then others in the community would come around. So that actually became part of our content strategy was to pull in interactive posts.

The other one that we did that was interactive was starting to run homework. So we gave our readers homework every Thursday or Friday night to do over the weekend and then come back and share what they had come up with. Being photography, it’s something people can go away and do, so it’s easy to give people those sort of assignments. The content continued to be very much focused at the beginner, but more interactive and then we began also to survey our readers and be very proactive in finding out what their needs were.

So we, by we I mean I, I constantly say we because we are a ìweî now, but I added a survey to an auto-responder that we had. Part of that survey was finding out the demographics and who was reading the site, but also what their needs were. After a couple of months of signing up for our newsletter you’d get asked what do you want to write about. We literally have 10,000 ideas that have been submitted for posts. So that’s very much shaped our content, but in more recent times the products that we’ve developed as well.

I guess the other part of it was that I began to get people saying “Can I write for you?” That was a big shift as well as allowing guest posts, but also seeking out a small team of paid writers to produce content. That was something that really evolved. I found one, and then I found two, and then I found three, and I think now we’ve got about ten people who submit content at least once a month on a paid basis.

How to adapt your content plan to grow an audience even more

Robert: So this is a really great picture of what we’ve called an agile content idea of moving with the audience as it comes, evolving the nature of your content, and in your case, literally picking up what sounds like nearly endless ideas from the folks that are showing up to this site.

I’ve got a question for you. One thing I think people struggle with in this process is “What do I write?” “How do I create all this content?” Was there ever a time before you switched on those comments again and opened up some of those other channels of communication and feedback, was there a time where you were stalling out early on, or concerned with what way the content might go?

Darren: Not really, because I was always tapping into my own experience and remembering back when I was 16, what were my photos like and what were the problems that I had with them. Simply going to a site like Flickr and looking at the photos people have gives you endless ideas because 99% of those photos are terrible, so there’s always a photo you can pull out and say “Hey, this is how I’d improve it.”

So I think with a how-to site, there are just endless problems that you can tackle. Probably the biggest challenge for me on the site has been three or four years into the site where you begin to have tackled the same problems over and over and you still get asked them.

If you look at photography magazines, for instance, they write the same articles every year. It’s very seasonal. How to do summer photos, how to photograph in the snow, some of those sorts of topics. It’s hard to keep them fresh, but having a group of writers now helps that because you are always getting a different perspective or different experiences.

How Darren’s early revenue model looked

Robert: Let’s take a turn here from content and editorial to revenue. I’d like to ask you what some of your very early thoughts on how to develop revenue for Digital Photography School were.

Darren: It’s interesting because I never started with the idea of revenue in mind. I knew it was a profitable topic in general because I’d had a previous blog on it. It did ok.

I was very much focused, probably for the first two years, on launching it well, so it was content, community and finding readers were probably the three things I did focus on. I just slapped some ads on there. I wish I had a better, more strategic story, but that’s literally what happened. I put AdSense ads, Chitika ads, did a little bit of affiliate marketing through Amazon. Any time I mentioned a camera we would link to it. That was enough, to be honest, in the early days. As the site grew, that revenue grew.

I didn’t do a whole heap of strategizing around it for probably two years. That was my experience. In previous sites, I knew how to optimize ads well. I guess my hope was to find direct sponsors, and after about two years I began to approach different companies to advertise with us with some limited success.

I have the challenge of being in Australia and writing for an American audience, so the sponsors don’t quite know what to do with me because the American departments hear the accent and are put off because they are not allowed to deal with the Australians, and the Australian departments aren’t interested because I don’t have their audience.

Robert: So without naming particular names, is there a type of ad or ad strategy that worked best by far, or was it fairly equal among pay-per-click affiliate stuff and direct sales that you did?

Darren: Probably the ad networks were certainly the best in the early days. Then I did land a few bigger sponsorships, direct sponsorships. We had one fairly large computer company come on board and run a campaign.

That was probably the most exciting for me because they just weren’t interested in putting banners over the site. They wanted to run a competition and interact with the readers, because we had built a community they were very excited and they were willing to pay quadruple because we had that community aspect to the site. That’s something I quite often teach people. If you can build that engagement, that’s great for advertisers.

How to evolve from a revenue model to a product model

Robert: So after this period of advertising you brought out the big guns, so to speak, and I’d like to know how you began to think about replacing the advertising model with the product model that now drives Digital Photography School.

Darren: I never actually replaced it. I still run those ads. A lot of people say “Write off those ad networks” and “You shouldn’t run them because you are giving money away.” They continue to be a great baseline of income for the site. In fact, some months they earn more than anything else.

Particularly in the lead up until Christmas when advertisers go a little crazy bidding against each other, but as I saw the global financial crisis looming and reflected on the advertising industry, I began to get a little worried that that revenue may dry up. As it turns out, it didn’t. It probably increased for us.

I think people will continue to advertise online, so in some ways I didn’t need to be worried, but because I was worried, I started to think about what products we could offer our readers.

Ebooks were probably the starting point for us. I’d previously released an ebook on Problogger, 31 Days to Build a Better Blog, and it had done really well. It was previously written content updated and repackaged.

So I started with that strategy on Digital Photography School until we released our released our first eBook called The Essential Guide for Portrait Photography, which I think Brian Clark actually came up with the title of.

Robert: Sounds about right.

Darren: He said “You’ve got to add the work ‘essential'”. “OK, I’ll do that.” It was going to be the DPS guide, I think.

Robert: Yes, the master of all headlines.

Darren: I probably should go to him for every headline. That’s actually been our biggest selling ebook, even to this day. It was previously produced content that I repackaged.

It got designed, I added a little bit of content to it, I added a number of blog posts to it, but also interviewed a series of professional portrait photographers and added that as a bonus.

I was really up front with readers in saying “This is previously produced content, but it’s a way of us supporting the site.” That was how we sold it. It sold so well that I immediately started thinking about other ebooks. I think we’ve released nine since then.

Robert: That’s for Digital Photography School specifically, nine ebooks?

Darren: Nine ebooks on DPS.

Robert: What percentage of that would you say is previously published content within those ebooks?

Darren: So the next one after that was called Photo Nuts and Bolts, and that had some previously released content, and then since then I don’t think we’ve released anything that has been previously released. They have all been written from scratch. I guess the model I go with is that we partner with writers to do those on a revenue-share kind of basis. I don’t write those ebooks, so they go away and they spend six months, our process is usually around six months from when they pitch us the idea or we pitch them the idea,
to when we publish it.

Robert: So, to be clear, the previously published content into a saleable ebook I think is great. It’s also kind of a testing ground. You can take the best material. Obviously repackaging it, re-editing it, cleaning it up, expanding it like you said, adding to it, and it’s another whole product.

Even for the most devoted people in your audience, it’s going to be new, and of course, it’s another way to support you. But you go from that to completely original ebook content written by outside writers. Highly specialized, I’m guessing. On highly specialized topics?

Darren: Being much more focused, we’ve got a travel photography one, one on color, one on post production, one on photographing kids. They’ve tended to be a bit more focused. Portraits, although we are looking now at doing larger ones on landscapes and some of those bigger topics as well.

Developing your product to evolve with the needs of your audience

Robert: So how do you determine what the next book will be, based on what will be useful and meaningful to your audience? How do you ramp up? You said you get pitches from particular writers, but how do you decide, make that decision, on what to go with and what not?

Darren: It’s partly hunch, partly just keeping an eye on what’s happening in the photography space. At the moment, there’s a lot of talk about street photography. That seems to be big at the moment, so we are considering something around that. But it’s also really based on the survey that I mentioned earlier.

As part of that survey, we identify some topics and ask readers what topics they would like resources written on. So pretty much the top six or seven of those have turned into ebooks.

One of the big topics we found in that survey was how to make money from photography. A lot of people have these great cameras and want to be able to pay them off. So we released an ebook on that. I guess the other aspect is when you produce daily content, you can test those ideas by writing the first chapter, or releasing a section of something that someone has submitted just to see what reaction it gets. You can pick up pretty quickly whether there’s energy for a

Robert: Of course, next versions are fantastic based on that feedback. The digital space is so easy to edit, so easy to add to those for forthcoming versions, right?

Darren: That’s right. We’ve done that on Problogger and DPS, added the updated version, which gives you a fresh bunch of sales as well as people become more interested. It makes the products better as well based on that reader feedback.

Robert: Alright, Darren, last question for you, and that is, where do you see Digital Photography School evolving? Both in content and in revenue, in the coming years?

Darren: It’s a hard question. I don’t plan a whole heap in advance. I’m very much looking for the reaction to what we are doing now and letting it evolve, and that’s really, what has happened. I guess things that we are exploring are looking at more course content, and there’s a lot of ebooks around now, but our readers are wanting to journey with you on a topic over time. So there’s opportunity there.

Niche communities around some of these topics. When we released the kids photography ebook, for instance, one of our thoughts was we really should be releasing a closed community around that for people to share their photos and journey on that to get parents coming together in kind of a more private space.

So there was an opportunity there, which we didn’t act upon in the end, but I think that’s something that we would look a little bit more at as sort of continuity programs around that type of thing. We are also toying with the idea of events, and turning some of those events into digital content as well because photographers love to get together, whether it be for photography walks or training.

There’s a whole heap of different things there. iPad apps and iPhone apps and all kinds of things, but really, what we are doing now is working really well. So it will probably be more of an evolution than anything else.

Why traditional book deals are a distraction Darren’s goals (right now)

Robert: I want to point out, too, this is very interesting to me. Independent web site, an audience that you built from scratch, and these ebooks, in your case, the product that you are selling, these ebooks, you are selling them, unless I am mistaken, only on your site. You’re not leveraging the Amazon or iTunes platform yet, right?

Darren: It’s something that we’ve been asked by our readers to do from time to time. They always want to know where’s the real book and where’s the Kindle, but we’ve just kept them as PDF’s at this point and most of our readers are just using them on those different devices. We’ve been approached by publishers to turn them into real books at times, but it’s never quite been right in terms of the right deal, and it also feels a bit like a distraction from what we do.

Robert: So big-time publishers are a distraction to your goals. I love that.

Darren: We are a small team. We’ve just got to do what we do well.

Robert: Sure. And I think it’s a great lesson. I mean, again, the point being, this is all from an audience that you built, so in a sense, not that you may not do that in the future, but you have this asset that allows you to operate independent of those outer structures for now, or until you choose.

Darren: That’s right. The fact that our audience now is around 5 million readers a month, and that gives us a lot of influence. When we call them to do something, they can push for us in some of those new areas as well. When the time comes for us to do something in real publishing, mainstream publishing, it could be an exciting thing.

Robert: Sure. Well, Darren, where can people find you out there on the internet? Where would you like them to find you?

Darren: I’m probably interacting mostly on Twitter as @problogger. From that being the info link that will push you out to the rest, and Digital Photography School is probably most relevant to this topic. And the Twitter there is @DigitalPS.

Robert: Great. I will have links to that and to the Digital Photography School in this post.

This has been entreproducer.com, thank you for listening.

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Mr. Rowse, thanks for bringing it to us today.

Darren: No problem.