When I started teaching people how to build blogs that could potentially make money, I faced a difficult challenge.
How can I teach people to pick the right blog topic or niche?
It’s the hardest decision to make and the place where everything can wrong right at the beginning.
No one gets this 100% right from day one, but as long as you are heading in the right direction you can adjust as you move.
However if you get the fundamentals wrong from the start, you will spend a lot of time and hard work creating something that will never succeed, no matter how much adjusting you do along the way.
How I Taught Topic Selection
When I created Blog Mastermind, my course to teach people how to build a profitable blog, the early lessons that focused on topic selection where heavily influenced by my previous experience as an entrepreneur.
I started to tighten up how I taught topic selection as the years went by, as this video demonstrates –
Those experiences taught me that passion was the most important ingredient behind the success of a project.
Every business I have ever come up with has its roots in my own interests and ideas, and that includes both the successful and not so successful projects.
My first successful website came about purely from my passion for playing and competing in Magic: The Gathering tournaments as a teenaged boy.
I wasn’t passionate about proofreading, but my proofreading business was something I was passionate about because it followed the many-to-many business model, something I was very keen to build on.
This blog was created as an experiment to tell stories from being an entrepreneur, a subject I enjoy immensely.
As I have connected with more successful bloggers, every single big success seems to come from someone who has their heart set on a passion or changing something about their lives.
Mitch Wilson loves college football.
Alborz Fallah loves cars.
Will Hamilton loves tennis.
Fran Kerr had to solve her acne problem.
Pat Flynn had to pass an exam.
Sean Gallagher loves electronic music.
David Risley loves computers.
These are just a sample of people I have interviewed over the years.
There are countless more examples online of people who have started with a passion for a subject or to change something in their life, which have grown into fully functional, stable, long term income producing businesses.
But Wait, What About Market Research?
If you go to business to school and study how the corporate world determines whether to create a new product, you will learn all about the different market research steps.
They don’t just think of an idea, manufacture the product and put it on the shelf to sell it, no, they have formalised processes and checklists based on proven formulas to help increase the chance of success.
Note that only increases the CHANCE of success, it doesn’t guarantee it by any means.
Companies can draw upon survey and statistical data, they can conduct focus groups or even test in smaller markets before entering big ones (Australia is sometimes a test market for products before they are launched in America because we have similar demographics).
Most of these steps are either not possible or not realistic on a large scale for a new blogger, seller of information, an commerce store owner or software start-up. However we certainly have options when it comes to conducting our own research.
The most common advice for market research suggested to anyone who wants to start an online business, is to conduct keyword research.
Keyword research is fantastic because it can show you the words people use to find things, the demand for those things based on how many people search for them and the competition faced to get in front of that audience.
Here’s the thing though… I’ve never used keyword research before starting a new project.
Now I might actually be foolish, and I have enough failed projects to point as evidence of that, but I have successful projects too.
So what’s going on here, what really matters?
Do we simply need to look at our passions to find subjects to focus on, or should we look at keywords, or both?
The Rise Of Keyword Research
Let me state the obvious.
The internet is more crowded than it used to be.
The result is a need for more specificity when launching a business online.
Gone are the days when you can take educated guesses and see what happens, unless you have time and money to waste. You can’t just assume other people like what you like and that’s enough for a business.
(Or is it…?)
As a result, there is greater emphasis on keyword research. Everyone talks about the need to know where the search traffic is before doing anything. You need to write articles that target the right keywords or you will fail.
That’s true, but the problem with this kind of thinking is that it makes keyword research the defining factor, and it shouldn’t be.
Keyword research is a technique that tells you how people use Google and other search engines. It’s great for numbers and words, but it starts to become less reliable when you look at those intangible human characteristics, like emotion, motivation and psychology.
Keyword research is a narrow view of the internet and of people in general.
Search engines after all are merely tools to connect one person with the work of other people. They don’t actually define why the work exists in the first place or why another person has an interest in it. They react to these things and attempt to connect the two groups who share the common interest.
What Is Market Research Really About?
The true essence of market research is gathering as much intelligence about your target customer to understand why they do what they do.
If you could enter the persona, the framework, of your target audience, including all the drives, emotions, hang-ups, capabilities, limiting beliefs and variables that they focus on when making every decision in their life, you would become the ultimate marketer.
Of course this level of intimate knowledge is impossible, unless you believe in God, who apparently knows everything about us. God is one heck of a marketer after all.
Since we don’t have all knowledge, we turn to tools to help us learn about other people.
Keyword research is one tool that shows us an interpretation of human behaviour on the internet, but there is a much better one.
The best tool to learn about other human beings is YOU.
The more direct contact and communication with other people you have, and the more personal experience of their behaviours given certain conditions, the closer you will be to understanding what drives them.
This is why I never needed keyword research when I started my businesses.
I was a passionate Magic card game player. I knew what motivated me. I spent many a weekend surround by other Magic players and I immersed myself in the online community of Magic players as it grew.
As a result, I had some pretty solid research on what drives a Magic player. It was what drove me to create my website in the first place.
Before launching my proofreading business I experienced many group assignments as part of my university studies.
My groups often contained international students, who struggled to write academic English, since English was not their first language. I experienced this first hand when attempting to weave together one of my team member’s English into our group report.
As a result of this and understanding what situation the international student was in (eager to impress their parents with good grades to justify them spending all that money to send them to Australia), I saw a human need and went after it with an online business.
This blog was an expression of my drive as an entrepreneur, and continues to be so. I know what entrepreneurs face and how they think because I was one for seven years by the time I started EJ. I’ve lived the problems and the motivations of entrepreneurs, and interview and network with them all the time. This is a group of people I intimately understand.
Of course none of my projects were guaranteed to work even if I knew what problems people faced. I had the advantage of understanding the needs and I could see an angle that lead to profits, but without actually creating something and putting it in front of these people, I would not know if my ideas worked.
Hence market research for me has always been about following these two steps:
- Learn as much about the people and the problem as you can, especially the emotions involved, and then formulate a business model to solve it.
- Test that model on real people.
I’d much rather build something and put it in front of people to see if it works, because then I can gather much more tangible feedback.
Don’t Confuse Traffic Analysis For Topic Selection
Here’s an important point: Keyword research is just a traffic technique.
It can be a component of topic selection when you are analysing traffic potential, but it’s one of many different traffic techniques you can apply.
If you understand your audience, which as I stated is the true key to topic/niche selection, you will have many options when it comes to finding traffic.
All you need to ask is…
Where do my people hang out?
I found my Magic card game customers in newsgroups and forums, at events, and through word of mouth. I participated in the online communities and created content that people shared. Then I captured their attention by offering a place to trade cards online via my own forum, which they came back to on a regular basis.
My proofreading business started out primarily through one advertising technique. I put up posters on university campuses. A 100% offline method of marketing for a 100% online business. Later search engine traffic and keywords became equally important, but posters remained one of the top two ways people found my service.
For a trip down memory lane, here is a video I did six years ago to explain how I did poster advertising –
This blog you are reading now benefited immensely from Google traffic, but during the entire first year I never once looked at keywords. I spent my time connecting with other bloggers and creating content that helped the blogging community. My articles were linked to and naturally I was rewarded with search traffic, but there was never a coordinated strategy behind this.
With each project I went to where the audience already was and put myself in front of them. Before I could do this, I had to know what drives them.
When you know what people want and where they hang out, all you need to do is offer something of value to them, using a communication medium they understand.
There’s a process I am outlining here that you need to see clearly -
- Understand the psychology first
- Find out where that psychology is experienced or expressed and go there
- Finally, use the right words or message to match that psychology, delivered in the medium appropriate for the venue
There is one thing I haven’t included in all of this, which is passion.
How exactly does what you personally care about come into the picture, if it does at all?
Does Your Passion Matter?
I was raised an only child.
That sort of upbringing tends to result in a very “me” focused universe, especially when you are very young.
As I grew into an adult I came to realise that understanding other people’s motivations is more important than dwelling only on what I wanted.
In fact, if I spent more time on what other people wanted, I was more likely to get what I wanted eventually.
I’ve used this insight in every business I have ever started by combining a unique dichotomy. Let me explain…
I start selfishly. I look at what I want and what I want to spend my time doing.
I then see how I can make what I care about into something of value for other people, to solve other people’s needs, and of course make money from it somehow too.
This is not unique to me of course, we all look inward first, even if the outward expression of an inward need is to help others.
This is why I believe every topic or niche selection decision must begin with YOU first.
Hence, I still consider passion the most important ingredient if you want your blog or business to succeed.
You must look inwardly, then see if the outward expression of your interest can work given the process I outlined earlier in this article.
This is vital because if you don’t have a selfish drive at the heart of what you are doing, you won’t stick to it long enough. Without some kind of personal reward mechanism, motivation wanes quickly.
Here is a really key point: Exploring your passion by involving other people combines the two most important ingredients to success –
1. What you care about, and,
2. Learning what other people care about.
The best market research comes from experimenting with your target audience. Intimate knowledge come from intimate experience.
Start with your passions, create something, then give it to other people and see how they react.
If you get a good reaction, build on it, if you get a bad reaction ask people why. If you get no reaction, then create something else until you get a reaction.
Start With Your Passion
This article has been a long winded way of stating a fact:
Your success online begins and ends with your passion.
Without passion you won’t do the work to learn about your audience and see what they want.
If you don’t discover what drives your audience, you won’t have an audience.
Once you discover what they want, you can create based on your assumptions about them.
Next you can take your creation and go to where your audience hangs out and see if they like it.
If they do, you keep building, if they don’t, you go back through these steps until you find something they want.
This is a process of discovery to learn about what you want and what your audience wants, how those two things can intersect and culminate in a mutually beneficial and profitable relationship.
Keyword research is one tool to assess parts of this process. It can provide you with empirical data to back up your assumptions, from which you can then test.
However, keyword research cannot provide you with the answer to what topic you should choose. Only interacting with other human beings and giving them something can lead to an answer to that question.
Hopefully, especially for you not-so-analytical people, that comes as some relief.
Remember as always, it’s a journey and a process, which you will never master perfectly.
The most important attitude to have is that of an explorer. The more questions you ask, the more answers you find, the greater your awareness becomes.
Greater awareness gives you clarity to make better decisions, and that’s ultimately the most important thing to strive for as a human being. Continuous improvement, or your own personal Kaizen.