Interview with Dan McCormick, publisher of a subscription website for photographers
A Canadian with a diversified business background, Dan McCormick has taken his love for photography and turned it into a popular membership website for both amateurs and professionals.
In this exclusive Mequoda interview, he provides, among other things, some very sage advice on how to write for your membership.
MEQUODA What did you do before www.photographytips.com?
DMcC Educational background:
- Attended University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, P.E.I. Made the Dean’s List with an 84% grade average and achieved a full-tuition undergraduate scholarship.
- Four years military training with the Royal Canadian Hussars, Montreal. Service included armed security details during the FLQ crisis, vehicle and tank-driving instruction, and chauffeur services for Quebec Command.
- Combat weapons training at the Smith and Wesson Academy. Also specialized security training at Dektor Counterintelligence & Security, and at PSE Consultants.
- Certificates in specialty programs from Pennsylvania State University – Harrisburg campus (Basic Management), University of Georgia at Athens (achieved CSM designation) and MacDonald College of McGill University (Farm Business Management).
- Security guard at the Youth Pavilion during the 1967 World’s Fair – Expo 67.
- Distiller/blender in Scotland for Chivas Brothers Limited. Began in two distilleries in Keith in the Highlands and ended at the company’s head office in Paisley.
- Trained in the European wine business in France (Bordeaux, Beaune and Reims) and also in Italy (Florence and Turin) and in Traban-Trarbach, Germany.
- Annual Reports Project Manager for Seagram’s for a number of years.
- Vice-president of our family company, Garda Security Services Limited, in Montreal and Toronto. Provided protective security for executives and families, corporations, retail stores, alarms and so on.
- Beef cattle raising and breeding, including Angus and such exotic breeds as Gelbvieh, Fleckveih, Chianina, Limousin and Simmental for our family-owned cattle company in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.
- Shopping centre manager for several centres across Canada with Bramalea Limited. Development Coordinator for existing shopping centres and office buildings in Canada, with Bramalea Limited. Director of Shopping Centre Redevelopment, Bramalea Limited.
- General Manager, U.S. Eastern Seaboard for Bramalea Limited, responsible for management and development of several properties in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
- Director of Special Projects for Trilea Centres Inc., at Toronto Head Office.
- Vice-president Development for Ivest Properties Inc.
- Photographer for The Sunshine Press newspaper, Sechelt, B.C.
- Editor of Coastlife newspaper on the Sunshine Coast of B.C.
- Owner-operator of Sunshine Coast Photography in Sechelt, B.C.
- Founder, creator and president of PhotographyTips.com Ltd.
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MEQUODA What best describes your position with www.photographytips.com? Was this website your creation?
DMcC PhotographyTips.com is a labor of love. It’s my personal creation. The website is actually owned by PhotographyTips.com Ltd., of which I am president and sole shareholder. What best describes my position with the website? Slave, I think, or perhaps cheerfully-indentured servant.
MEQUODA How did you come to start www.photographytips.com?
DMcC A wonderful friend, Laurie McConnell, suggested the concept to me. It was she who actually found that the URL “PhotographyTips.com” had not yet been taken. She encouraged me to create the website. Little did I know then that it would be more than four years in development, that I would almost go broke building it, and that it would be among the most-fulfilling realizations of my life.
MEQUODA What’s it all about?
DMcC It’s all about photography — every aspect of it that is imaginable. It doesn’t yet cover every single topic in photography, because that is just about impossible, but we are getting close and striving to be the most complete photography resource on the Internet, for beginners, advanced amateurs and professionals.
MEQUODA Who are your subscribers?
DMcC It is hard to pin down exactly who my website’s subscribers are, but I have good reason to believe that they fall into five broad categories:
- professional photographers who run their own studios in relatively-small to medium-sized communities;
- students and teachers in photography schools and programs;
- moms and dads who want to record their family’s development and who need solid basic photography information;
- advanced amateur photographers who are eager to create their own professional-looking pictures;
MEQUODA What motivated you to launch your site?
DMcC The realization that people needed an easy-to-understand, comprehensive website that provided truly-helpful information about taking pictures. I searched every corner of the Internet, and couldn’t find a friendly, no-nonsense, no-ego, non-commercial, non-self-serving photography website that spoke to its viewers in helpful, clear, concise, thorough language without the added bumpf that so many sources seem to feel is needed.
I knew I had the contacts to make a great website, and that I had the photography knowledge and writing experience to create the best content, and that my website would fill the void.
MEQUODA How long has your site been active and what is your subscription fee structure? What is included with a subscription?
DMcC PhotographyTips.com has been active for just over four years. You don’t need to be a subscriber to view a lot of the site, but you won’t be able to leave with the full picture on any given photography topic without becoming a subscribing member, which you can become for US$4.95 per month by subscribing through PayPal from our website. It’s a painless, easy process, and very quick.
For those who prefer to subscribe without going through PayPal, we offer a six-month subscription for US$27.23 and a one-year subscription for US$49.50 by going through our own secure server. Subscribers get their own personal page, receive discounted prices on purchases of our products, and other benefits.
MEQUODA Now to the technical details. To build your site, what tools did you use, and how long did it take?
DMcC I am not computer technically-oriented, but I can handle this question. There were three components in the PhotographyTips.com technical package — website design, which was magnificently handled by Bad Dog Inc. (see www.baddogdesign.com), artwork (especially mascot creation and integration) by the brilliant Stu McKenzie at Looks Good Creative at www.stuartmckenzie.com, and the engine that powers everything, from WebOnTheFly at www.webonthefly.com, and that allows me to add or delete or edit all content at any time without having to know anything about computers. Dan Miller is the genius there who keeps us afloat and who empowers folks to run their own website without being technically trained.
How long did it take? The real answer is that it took a lifetime, to learn all the information that the site comprises. But, the writing and uploading of that information, along with photo and other illustrations, and design work, took around four years or so.
MEQUODA What software programs or functions handle usernames and passwords, and is access immediate or do you provide access later via e-mail?
DMcC Now you’re getting into that technical realm where I begin to feel a bit unsteady. I really don’t know, technically, how access passwords and usernames are handled. Dan Miller at WebOnTheFly does, though, and that is all that is that I need to know. If Dan knows how it works and he approves of it, then I know it will work well.
Of course, PayPal handles all the technical details of our monthly subscribers, and does a very good job of it, too, I might add. When a new member subscribes through PayPal, their membership is immediate.
But, when someone subscribes through our secure server, it can take up to 24 hours before they become a member and can access the entire website. This is because the process is manual, not automatic like PayPal’s, and requires someone to receive and physically process the order. That someone is usually me — the only one here — and I need a regulation amount of sleep.
New members are actually processed pretty quickly. We have never yet received a complaint about slowness. Yes, they are notified by e-mail when their membership has been approved.
MEQUODA How easy, time-consuming, etc. is the process of adding new content?
DMcC Adding some new content can be incredibly easy, when it is little more than displaying viewers’ submitted pictures. But, adding meaningful content that contains well-thought-out, well-written, useful material with appropriate pictures to illustrate it can be demanding. A new topic can take a day or two to create and upload, but it can also take as much as six months to create and upload, depending upon the subject’s complexity in terms of research, creation, writing and photographing.
By way of example, let’s suppose we decide to tackle “Outdoor baby photography in a shady area”. Well, we need a baby and outdoor shade, and can probably handle the photography in a day if conditions are right, and get through the text creation and data uploading in another two days. Three days max!
Now, let’s suppose our topic is “How to run a commercial photography studio.” Well, we’re looking at months and months of research, the creation of several subsections (portrait studios, product photography, sports pictures, etc.) and hundreds and hundreds of photographs, legal counsel, and on and on.
It’s a massive topic, and needs a lot of time. It’s the kind of project that’s best done piecemeal, so that one component gets uploaded while another is being photographed or written.
MEQUODA How many people are involved in preparing and posting editorial content?
DMcC There is usually only me involved in preparing new content. I’m the photographer, writer, creator, uploader — you name it. That may change as time goes on, but for now there’s only me.
MEQUODA How often do you add new content?
DMcC We are just about always updating PhotographyTips.com, pretty much on a daily basis. Sometimes it is a small correction or addition, while at other times it can be a whole new topic.
We are currently working on several thousand new image files from the Philippines, Cuba and Costa Rica that need to be edited and prepped for the site. We are developing a new product, and we are expanding what is now a minor section into a major section, hopefully to be launched in a month or two.
MEQUODA Has your site changed significantly since you launched it?
DMcC Other than to continually and massively grow in meaningful content, no.
This is a timely question, though, since I have been under pressure to make cosmetic changes, and have resisted. I think our presentation has been and is one of simplicity, openness and wysiwyg (what you see is what you get). It has worked well, with viewers seemingly happy and I don’t see the need to make changes for the sake of making changes.
MEQUODA What’s the single greatest tool that helps you get your new content out every week?
DMcC Viewers’ input. We get a ton of e-mails from our viewers. Many suggest new topics of specific interest. It’s hard to determine what priority to give to viewer requests, but we usually end up going with what seems to have the broadest appeal for most viewers.
MEQUODA Marketing and promotion seem to be a great challenge for most subscription website publishers. How have you approached this task, and what kind of results have you experienced?
DMcC Dan Miller from WebOnTheFly has been after me for months now to talk about and implement improved website promotion. He’s right, of course. It’s a subject we should address. We have gotten by so far on word-of-mouth, and have been doing remarkably well.
Why? Because we deliver what we offer—a super-quality website that speaks for itself. Have a look at the unsolicited reviews, recommendations and mentions we have received in some of the world’s most influential publications (USA Today, PC World magazine, The Kim Komando Show, Time-Warner Cable Around Carolina the BBC, Australian national Radio, Netsurfer Digest, etc.) here at www.photographytips.com/page.cfm/1533.
MEQUODA Do you have any advertising on your site? If so, how do you attract advertisers? Is ad revenue a significant source of your website income?
DMcC There is minimal advertising on PhotographyTips.com—just about non-existent. The site is pretty uncluttered, really. Viewers find pretty much only what they go there to find—photography information without a lot of side-tracking. What advertising there is, is found mainly in our “Products and Services Directory” at www.photographytips.com/page.cfm/935.
I am not against advertising on PhotographyTips.com. It just has to be tasteful, relevant to our viewers, non-interruptive and offering high-quality products or services related to photography.
MEQUODA How do you find new subscribers, or how do they find you? What’s the process like for increasing sales and memberships?
DMcC PhotographyTips.com consistently ranks well with major search engines. Subscribers actually seem to find us. We feel it is probably largely due to our quality content and our good reputation.
MEQUODA For Mequoda members who are devising premium content strategies, any advice you would offer?
DMcC Yes, I have plenty of content advice. If they follow it, they’ll likely have better websites.
- Keep your content relevant; avoid side-trips and irrelevant information.
- Stay on topic. Deliver what you say you’re going to deliver.
- Make sure your content is easily-understood. If something is best explained step-by-step, then write your copy based on an actual step-by-step process that you go through yourself.
- Avoid ego in your text. No one cares if you are lucky enough to live in Hawaii; they want to know how to photograph Hawaiian flowers. Get the picture?
- Never talk down to your viewers. Always write as if you are their mother or father, explaining things in terms that express your good feelings about them.
- Your viewers are golden treasures. Treat them that way. Consider what it took to get them to your site; don’t do something trivial to lose them.
- Write in plain English. Avoid lofty phrases, words like “amongst” when “among” will do, and use proper English style. Forget the familiar. You don’t know them, and they don’t know you, so give them the respect of proper English when you write for them.
MEQUODA What has been your greatest challenge to date, doing business online?
DMcC My biggest challenge was and continues to be finding quality contributors—photographers and writers who can deliver meaningful content without including their own ego and who abide by our high standards for clarity, ease-of-understanding and thoroughness.
MEQUODA What tips would you pass on to aspiring publishers who want to start a subscription-based website?
DMcC Use PayPal for minimum problems.
MEQUODA What’s the best or smartest thing you’ve done?
DMcC Launched and operated PhotographyTips.com.
MEQUODA What’s the worst?
DMcC Launched and operated PhotographyTips.com.
MEQUODA What subscription-based websites do you subscribe to and/or recommend?
DMcC No websites, but I do recommend Kim Komando’s newsletter and PDN Newswire. Kim is a genius at marketing and is definitely doing it right, from her newsletter to her website to her radio show. She is also very human and kind, and gave PhotographyTips.com a great reference just after it got launched. Her staff are approachable, and she is a business builder.
MEQUODA What use have you made of your website to sell related products?
DMcC This is a killer question, because a website that has a solid audience that is interested in a specific topic like photography is a marketing machine for that topic’s products. I have created two outstanding and unique quality products that sell quite well from my website.