Five Forces to Digital Revenue Success

We sat down with Rob Ristagno, author of “A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors”. Rob and his team have spent the past three years working directly with dozens of publishers to define the five forces to digital revenue success. The book is packed with case-studies, strategies, and step-by-step instructions on how to implement these five forces in your publishing organization.

Plus we’re thrilled to announce that he’s offering a free audiobook version of his title to Niched Out! subscribers. Just go here and use promo code NICHE. Special Offer for Niched Out Subscribers 

Why is it so important to identify and cater to your “whales”?

“Have you ever heard the story about the capture of bank robber Willie Sutton? When he was finally nabbed, someone asked him, “Why did you rob the banks?” his reply was… “Because that’s where the money is”

Your whales are where the money is.

They are your most engaged and enthusiastic audience members. The top 10% or so. They read, comment on, and share just about everything you put out there. If they ever met someone from your publication, they would treat them like a celebrity.

Research has proven that success comes from listening carefully to your whales and then delivering on their specific wants and needs. Whales are more likely to buy, provide honest feedback, are less price sensitive, and provide amazing word of mouth.

As you diversify away from an ad-based model to one with reader revenue streams (like memberships), the key is you don’t need a large percentage of your traffic to convert for you to make a lot of money. Doing some math with average subscription pricing and typical digital advertising CPMs, you would need more than twenty-four thousand visitors to generate the same ad revenue as what you would get from just one paying member. That’s why the title of the book is A Member Is Worth a Thousand Visitors (I considered calling it A Member Is Worth 24,000 Visitors … but that would have been too clunky).”

What are the differences between a paywall/subscription/membership model? What works best? Why?

“A paywall is just technology; a subscription is just a business model. Companies who slap up a paywall on their same old website are following the “Field of Dreams” approach — they built it, and they hope subscribers will come.

Unfortunately, unlike in the film, it’s rare for subscribers to flock to this product.

A Membership goes a level deeper.

Creating a membership means that you are creating a community around your content, that you are understanding and meeting your audience’s needs with information, inspiration, and interaction.

Members have a stronger emotional connection to your brand than subscribers do. For example, I’m a Netflix subscriber, but I’m a member of the Museum of Fine Arts. There’s a big difference in the relationship between customer and company.

Customers feel proud to support services that bestow membership, like the Museum of Fine Arts, and that kind of pride isn’t attached to a subscription service like Netflix. PBS supporters feel this same kind of pride: it feels to them like their membership makes this great content possible and makes them part of a community of supporters.

A membership sends a clear message: You are important. You are a member. You can brag about your membership. I’m excited to tell people, “Hey if you ever want to go to the museum, I can take you.”

What do you think niche publishers are most afraid of? 

“The most common concern I hear is, “Will Google ding me if I create a membership, thus choking off traffic?” The answer is no — for two reasons.

First, as of October 2017, Google now crawls behind the paywall if you put the right code on your site. Second, we recommend you still give your most popular SEO content away for free to build trust and nurture leads down the conversion funnel.

I’d also add that having a successful membership program opens up the opportunity for new, unique business development discussions with sponsors and business partners. I’m sure your advertisers would be very interested in reaching a group of enthusiasts that are so excited about what you have to say that they pay you to read your content. It’s like you have a magnet for the most qualified consumers or businesses in your niche!”

What’s important for media companies to focus on right now? 

“Here are five quick tips based on the five forces:
1. Focus on your Whales. Go out TODAY and interview 5 of your whales to learn more about their wants and needs.

2. Be Conversion-Oriented. Here’s the #1 thing to increase your online conversion rate: make sure your site passes the five second rule. That is, within 5 seconds, I should be able to tell who you are targeting (i.e., who are your whales), what problem you solve for them, and why you’re better than anyone else (i.e., the free stuff on YouTube)

3. Upsell. Don’t stop at memberships! Keep talking to your whales and figure out what premium offerings you can offer. It’s 6-7 times easier to sell to an existing customer – take advantage of that phenomenon.

4. Measure and Experiment. Have a dashboard that displays the 5 to 9 most important metrics to your business (traffic, email sign ups, free trial sign ups, free trial conversions, annual renewals, etc.). Look at this daily. Treat your dashboard like a smoke detector. When something is off, investigate. Devise a few potential solutions and A/B test into the optimal remedy for your audience.

5.Create Bandwidth. Let’s face it, there’s not enough time in the day to do new stuff. The most successful publishers use “guerrilla tactics” to launch new initiatives. Publishers who use external partners, freelancers, software vendors, outsourcing firms, etc. to test an idea have more success. They can minimize the risk and investment, and take things in-house once there is a proven success.”

There are two types of publishers.

“In the end, there are two types of publishers. The first kind of publisher is scared of the future – they are holding on for dear life to the old tactics that worked in the past: print ad sales, newsstand, direct mail, “circulation” departments, etc. Unfortunately we know how this story ends – these publishers cut costs until they hit bone, then the company ends up closing its doors or getting acquired for pennies on the dollar.

The second kind of publisher recognizes the world has changed and so must the business. They may not have all the answers, so they look outside the publishing industry and their company for new pieces of information, new partners, and new tools that can help them devise and implement a digital strategy that leverages the strengths and assets they do have.

If you’re the second kind of publisher, the practical information in A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors will guide you to the next level.”


Rob Ristagno is the CEO and Founder of The Sterling Woods Group, a firm that builds new revenue streams for media companies and publishers. He is an expert in direct monetization of content. Prior to creating The Sterling Woods Group, Rob served as a senior executive for several niche media and e-commerce companies. He most recently was the Chief Operating Officer of America’s Test Kitchen, considered to be the gold standard in the niche media world for building diversified – and often digital – revenue streams.


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