I got back from my vacation at 3am this morning so I am just trying to get through the day without falling asleep, but in the meantime I have an awesome guest post for you from one of my best online friends, Greg Ciotti. Enjoy!
Recently, as more and more smart folks have pointed out that Google is quite a bit different right now than in 2-3 years past, I find myself increasingly interested in niche sites.
Considering that I am already the full-time marketing guy at Help Scout, a B2B software startup, and the sole author of a blog approaching 30,000 newsletter subscribers, you could say that I don’t have much time left for many side projects on my lazy Sunday afternoons.
Anything I do spend time on, therefore, needs to produce a great return on time invested.
You might be surprised to hear that niche sites (or “authority sites” if you prefer a grander scale) are actually a great way to supplement your freelance (or full-time) income, as long as you avoid a few common mistakes that I think everyone has made at some point in their career.
From where I’m sitting, the single biggest issue is the confusion between keyword/traffic volume and purchase intent — in other words, the all too real fact that not all traffic is created equal.
This problem is typically alleviated by building a site focused on a single, profitable hobby.
Hobbies work well for niche sites for a variety of reasons, which I’m going to outline below.
What Makes Hobby Sites Work?
Hobbies, by definition, are activities that people are interested enough in to spend money on, with very little expected in return other than entertainment.
Unlike many other keywords out there, hobbies attract people with the inclination to buy and browse products. This makes hobby sets that are set up in a blog / eCommerce hybrid style perfect picks for an affiliate site.
Some of my favorite folks in SEO tend to miss this bit of advice. I’ve seen people recommend certain keywords because of the volume and low-competition, but the plan to make money is often left up to methods I don’t like (ads and making crappy information products).
With hobbies, however, you can sell quality goods and services as an affiliate and help people pick up the best product for them, and help newbies get started with an interesting side activity; no spammy Clickbank products necessary.
Qualifying a Hobby
While most of us recognize that a great hobby will be one with an irrationally passionate audience who are head over heels in love with the activity, the analysis cannot end there.
The key to finding a profitable hobby is to identify an activity that limits user participation to those with an abundance of discretionary income.
In other words, picking out activities that contain far more “buying” hobbyists over onlookers and “info seekers”, who are the equivalent of a window shoppers in the online world. In this regard, I find that it is better to target activities that interest post-college adults and baby-boomers.
I also need to warn you about your new arch-enemy should you be interested in building hobby sites: geeks and nerds.
As a guy that loves his video games (my Super Nintendo is still hooked up), you will likely never see me building a website about video games.
It fails as a profitable hobby for a number of reasons, but the #1 reason is that it is a space dominated by geeks and nerds.
Allow me to count the ways why I wouldn’t start a gaming site:
- Geeks and nerds know how to set up websites. Since that’s the case, they are the most likely to take their irrational passion online, which is why it’s nearly impossible to compete with the endless amount of gaming, tech, and other geeky hobby websites that have existed for 10+ years.
- For gaming specifically, while adults do play video games, the target market is too crowded with young people who don’t have enough discretionary income. It is for this reason why so many games are pirated: broke high school kids don’t want to pay for things, so they won’t.
- Purchase intent for video games isn’t as direct as many other hobbies. That is, gamers are often window shoppers, and while they might read a gaming related site for reviews and news, they generally already know how to use Amazon, so why would they come to your site to buy?
It’s the same reason why you won’t see me trying to promote nearly any marketing products from Clickbank — not only do these products almost always suck, but every WarriorForum dweeb ever has tried setting up a review site for the top sellers, padding them in the search results with 10,000 shady backlinks.
Non-internet hobbies, non-business hobbies, and non-geeky hobbies are often wide open for this very reason: despite their passionate following offline, there are fewer people with the skills (or the motivation) to set up a site around these interests.
How to Find a Great Hobby
Besides browsing Wikipedia’s giant list of hobbies (just remember who linked you ;)), one of the best ways to find interesting hobbies online is through a method I call “thread fishing.”
A “thread” is simply another term for a topic on a message board. Using mult-interest sites like Reddit and Quora, I’ve searched, browsed, and noted a huge number of interesting hobbies. The best part is that the responses often contain vote talleys, so many of these threads will show you a common pattern of which hobbies are actually popular, all before you do any keyword research.
Take, for instance, this thread on Reddit’s AskWomen page, which asks the ladies about what hobbies they are really emotionally invested in.
You won’t find any typical marketing nonsense here, just genuine, interesting hobbies outside of the tech/geek space that could more amazing websites. Here are just a few I found interesting:
- Rock climbing (the gear is expensive)
- Pole dancing (get ’em!)
- Adult intramural sports (handball, kickball, tennis, etc.)
…and that’s all from one thread, which only asked a small section of a site and only generated responses from women!
You’ll find just as many interesting responses from other threads that ask guys, such as motorcycle maintenance, cigars, and blacksmithing (you should see all the products on Amazon, I was shocked).
Once you’ve compiled a list of some notable topics, it’s time to ask yourself the following questions:
- Are there a wide array of products you can review and discuss?
- Does the hobby lend itself to “higher price, lower volume” purchases?
- Are there affiliate programs with good commissions?
- Are people currently making money? (note: this also means any eCommerce competitors)
- Could you write (or afford to outsource) 50 articles on the topic?
If you can answer yes to these, you’re looking good. To clarify for #4, what I mean is that even if there aren’t any good affiliate examples, if you can find solid eCommerce sites ranking for this hobby (and affiliate programs available via Amazon or other sources), you should still be good to go.
Building a Great Hobby Site for Affiliate Sales
The typical hobby site won’t function as your standard blog (though you can certainly build them on WordPress). While folks like Tom and myself provide valuable ‘how-to’ content with no strings attached, hobby sites can be far more aggressive in pushing products, because hobbyists are actively looking for products to buy.
That said, typical blog posts still work well to break up the pattern and attract attention. Imagine a rock-climbing site with a post about “50 Breath Taking Rock-climbing Photos,” a post that also linked to some of the gear in each picture.
Or how about a post on “30 Creative Woodworking Projects that Will Amaze You”? Again, it’s BuzzFeed style content to supplement your other more affiliate heavy articles.
With a nice mix of your more vanilla blog content and eCommerce style review content, a hobby site will have articles that serve as entry points (interesting posts) and articles that power affiliate sales.
Here are a few other key rules to live and die by for a hobby site:
- Review posts are king: Review posts are a known affiliate tactic, but they are king when it comes to long-tail search for hobby sites. Again, picking a non-geeky topic will do you wonders here. There are thousands of reviews for terms like “BlueHost review”, but how many people do you think are reviewing specific blenders, or types of saws, or glass blowing toolkits?
- Affiliate link photos & use buttons: Buy now buttons are pretty slimy on a blog unless it’s a sales page, but on a hobby site nobody will care. In fact, if they want to buy, it will just make things easier! Also be sure to be photo heavy on a hobby site, as hobbyists love pictures of what they enjoy.
- Comparison posts do really well: Spending the time to scour the web and find the best products for a certain keyword (ie, “best yoga mats”) will serve you†so well on a hobby site. Read tons of reviews and really get a sense of what people love about a product, what faults it may have, and how it compares to other products. After flesh out a couple of these particular products, create a roundup and pick a winner!
- Email still works: Affiliate site or no, list building is still essential. They can also be used to promote holiday sales or hot times of the year (for seasonal hobbies), let alone the fact that you can create direct email campaigns for product comparisons, as mentioned above.
While you may never get to Digital Photography School levels (the lord of all hobby sites) with your niche site, just remember that there are plenty of non-geeky hobbies out there just waiting for a webmaster to create a site worth visiting!
Gregory Ciotti is the marketing strategist at Help Scout, the invisible email management software for online business owners who love taking care of customers. Get more content from Greg on the Help Scout blog.