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Jan 29, 2003
Case Study

11% of Article Readers Convert to $14.95 eDoc Buyers at Ask The Builder's Site

SUMMARY: Trying to make money with content online? Hear how Tim Carter of Ask The Builder, formerly an entirely ad-supported site, has launched a profitable eDoc business selling short PDFs to visitors.

He has discovered a few keys to getting more visitors to convert to buyers, including great online copywriting, carefully-placed colorful ads, and offering highly specific short content instead of longer ebooks.

(BTW: You may have heard of Carter back when he was profiled in the best-selling 1998 business book, 'Striking it' Now learn how he kept making money, despite the dot-com bust.)
Editor's note on terminology: We have decided to follow Amazon's example and call anything long and book-like an ebook and anything shorter an edoc. However, since nothing is standardized yet, our interviewee in this Case Study uses the terms "ebook" and "edoc" interchangeably. We decided to stay true to his actual quotes and not change them. You can tell which he means. :-)


In 1998, Tim Carter's online publishing company Ask The Builder was doing so well that he was profiled as the very first chapter in the bestselling business book, 'Striking It'

It was his third career. First he was a custom home builder and remodeling contractor for 20 years, then in 1993 he became a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist offering advice on the subject, and in Sept 1995 launched an ad-supported Web site filled with a searchable database of his archived columns.

"Writers don't make any money, publishers do" he explains. "Now with the Web I could compete evenly with publishers and I could publish to everyone in the world. I was going to make money selling ads the same way the New York Times did. And by god did I make it! I made huge money. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Like everyone else, he was caught out by the crash.

Carter fought the good fight. He put himself into his advertisers' shoes and looked at their ads in every medium (especially print) to see what worked elsewhere. Then he reinvented his ad units, offering colorful professional photos of their products in the middle of stories with hotlinks to related direct response offers.

His ad click rates, which had always been 10 times higher than the national average because his site was so targeted, rose yet again, sometimes as high as 30% CTRs.

Ad sales, however, continued to stagger badly.

"My buyers were getting pressure from above at management meetings where their CEO said, 'This Web stuff doesn't work, look at the dot-com crash.' People were running for cover. They didn't want to go to a meeting and say, 'I just bought Web advertising.'" Even if it did work and work well.

A core group of sponsors were keeping the site alive, and Carter believed ad sales would one day rebound somewhat. In the meantime, he needed a new way to make money with content online.


Back when Carter relied on his syndicated column for income he had not made much. "It's peanuts. What I get paid from an average-sized newspaper would not buy you lunch at a fast food restaurant."

Stealing an idea from another columnist, he started a mail order business by writing a little extra content each week, perhaps a checklist or some more detailed advice on the column's subject, and plugging it to readers as a $3 booklet they could order.

When Carter first launched his site he wanted to fill it up with as much content as possible to maximize sellable pageviews. He had put up all 100 of his $3 booklets for free.

Now, he wondered, could he start selling content using the same idea?

"I was sitting in my office thinking. I get about 150 visitor emails per day. The common theme in all the email is 'Tim I've got a problem, I need help and I need it now.' People can't wait for Fedex to deliver my booklet on how to get their toilet fixed, but if you sell edocs to them, they can get the info seconds later."

Next Carter studied his site's traffic patterns to see which columns were the most popular. He also reviewed search terms visitors used to get to his site and while searching within his site, to spot hot-button words and phrases.

He learned that people were usually searching for something very specific. He figured they probably would not find an offer for a an eBook of everything you need to know about construction enticing, but they might be thrilled to buy a short 20-30-page PDF edocument (A.K.A. edoc or ebooklet) on the particular problem they needed to solve at that moment.

Carter published his first edoc, 'Crown Molding eBook' in May 2002 and since then has published four more.

He used a shopping cart he already had set up on the site, but it could not deliver PDFs as a link to buyers, so he simply has the PDFs sent as an attachment via email. "I was worried about email delivery, but learned if you keep the file size under one meg, you're bullet proof."

To market the edocs, Carter used the same tactics that helped his paying advertisers get high CTRs.

For example, in the middle of an advice column on crown molding, he inserted a colorful photo of himself smiling in a red plaid shirt whilst kneeling next to a large electric saw. The entire photo is clickable, but it also features a hotlink in big fat yellow type, 'Click here and let me solve your crown molding problems!" (Link to sample art below.)

Readers who click next see a page of sales copy with the following 10 elements in this order:

1. A cheerful reassuring headline, "Crown Molding is Easy!" 2. Testimonials from named happy edoc buyers 3. Benefit-laden copy written in a folksy manner ("Is your wife still talking to you?") 4. A bulleted list of contents 5. A big red guarantee "stamp" next to the price 6. Order now button 7. Description of how the edoc is delivered 8. A deep link into the Adobe site to download the viewer (Note: too many sites just link to Adobe's home page) 9. Carter's email address for questions 10. A final Order Now Button

Next they land in Carter's online store, which includes a color photo of some actual crown molding (instead of a faux book cover) and reiterates key sales copy points next to a 'Buy it Now' button.

The store page also includes links to other edocs, checklists and books that Carter sells.


Despite the clunky interface, buyers having to click twice on order buttons (once on the main site and then on the store page) to buy the edocs, Carter's sales have been incredibly heartening.

For example, a stunning 11% of site visitors who viewed the crown molding column in December ended up buying the related eDoc for $14.95. (Yes, the units sold numbers are high enough to be statistically reliable for forecasting purposes.)

Carter tested two different price points in the fall of 2002 ($9.95 and $14.95), and is pleased to reveal that "the 50% price increase did not hurt sales at all. There was no resistance. There's still room above that, I don't know where the ceiling is yet."

Unlike many eretailers, Carter's worst sales days are mid-week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday).

"It starts to build a little on Friday, very heavy Saturday and Sunday and surprisingly high on Monday. I think people get into trouble [fixing up their homes] over the weekend and come into work frustrated, 'By god I'm going to find out how to get that done.'"

At his current rate of sales, Carter expects to gross just under $20,000 per edoc per year from about 5,000-6,000 site visitors per day. His traffic is steady from a combination of newspaper readers who see the URL in his column, and links from no-cost listings in search engines.

"Do the math," he urges. "Imagine my income level at 50 titles! That's serious money. I'm going to spend every waking moment this year writing ebooks."

New titles will continue to be driven by column popularity and search term reports, which Carter reviews weekly. (It is not about what you want to write or publish, it is about what your visitors want more information on.)

He predicts sales will actually rise once he has more titles because buyers will be tempted to purchase more than one at once ("They will cross-sell themselves") which rarely happens now because the available topics are too varied.

Carter's sales are already high enough that he was able to negotiate a 33% discounted rate for his merchant account last week, so now he is paying less to process credit cards.

His advice for other would-be edoc publishers: "Make sure that the content is clear and concise. I can't say enough about adding photos, they make your ebook look like a print magazine, they make you feel good."

"Don't try to make the title too big. When I'm doing is actually writing the chapters and subchapters of what would be a traditional book. But you're not going to get a book called 'Roofing', I'll do an ebook just on how to install flashing."

Crown molding column with offer for edoc in the middle:

Sales page that clicks see for crown molding edoc:

Store page for crown molding edoc:
See Also:

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