Interview with Reg Hardy, an expert billiards instructor who writes extensively about the game he loves and publishes a membership website for casual players.
Reg Hardy brings a background as a print journalist, editor and publisher to his paid subscription online newsletter and uses his Palm Pilot to create volumes of content for four websites. In this exclusive Mequoda interview, he reveals how he gets it all done and reminds us of the importance of customer service.
MEQUODA What did you do before www.billiardscrossing.com? Anything else we should know about you personally or professionally?
RH Immediately prior to the development of Billiards Crossing I was, and still am working as webmaster for “The Monk”, an internationally known billiards instructor. This relationship has brought me into close proximity to many of the movers and shakers in the billiards industry. It has also been an ideal relationship for learning this game and coming to love playing. It led to my setting up my own table two years ago, to not only practice, but try shots that members have questions about.
Was this website your creation? Does you anyone else participate in the business, as well?
RH I am the sole owner/president/webmaster/editor and staff writer for Billiards Crossing. I manage two websites for The Monk and am also chief cook and bottle washer for my other billiards website, www.billiardtips-e-press.com where I sell e-books and videos for billiards instruction. This could not be done unless these websites were automated with pre-planned page layouts and traffic development. I have aligned myself with a group of about 10 instructors who are regular contributors to Billiards Crossing.
MEQUODA What motivated you to launch your site?
RH Working in the billiards industry as well as enjoying the game myself, has given me a desire to constantly learn and connect with a number of instructors. Through this exposure, I came to realize there was a need for a meeting point between instructors and casual players around the world who don’t have the opportunity to work one-on-one with teachers. Billiards Crossing provides that meeting point.
The site is about pocket billiards instruction for casual players. Casual players are the sweet spot of the industry. They enjoy the game, but have no desire to go to the pro level. They want to play at the best of their ability and are not really interested in the gambling aspects of the game. The motivation to start Billiards Crossing comes from a desire to want to return something to this industry where I have learned so much and come to know some wonderful players around the world. My hope is Billiards Crossing will help expand and unify the billiards community.
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MEQUODA How long has your site been active and what is your subscription fee structure? What is included with a subscription?
RH It seems like years, but it has only been five months since the launch of Billiards Crossing. Without prior experience in the membership website business, I think setting subscription rate plans was the most difficult part of setting up the site. I found myself trying to put a price on a skeleton with no meat on the bones; the concept was there, but content was minimal.
This is one area in which I believe Mequoda could be instrumental in helping those just getting started. Your membership surveys, case studies and content vs. price studies could be immensely helpful for the new subscription site mogul. In five months, I have gone through three membership plan iterations. Pricing is risky. What price is too high? What price is too low? Will a certain price work nine months from now? How does one know for sure?
Pricing is the single most important marketing decision a subscription site owner will ever make. He/she will have to know what price should be charged so that it can promoted effectively and then place it into the hands of the site’s customers, the final judge. It’s the nub of marketing success!
I have ended up with a set of membership plans that work in this industry. The plans start off with a seven-day trial membership at $4.95; a monthly subscription rate of $15; three months for $40 and an annual rate of $90. Adopting the trial plan led to an immediate 30 percent increase in new subscribers and I have seen about 60 percent of those roll over to monthly or three-month subscribers.
MEQUODA Now to the technical details. To build your site, what tools did you use, and how long did it take? What software programs or functions handle usernames and passwords, and is access immediate or do you provide access later via e-mail?
RH Aside from a desktop computer, a digital camera, microphone, cell phone and a web camera as hardware, the only real tool is software, specifically MemberScript which is the tool I couldn’t get along without. I would hate to have attempted building a website like Billiards Crossing without MemberScript and its people, Dave Debs and Stacy Beck would have been an unlikely prospect. They have been with me every step of the way. Their support far exceeded my expectations when I was reviewing various software options.
Having a software program that automates things like membership management, content production and placement has been essential in the case of a one-man shop like mine. MemberScript simplified the design and updating of Billiards Crossing so that I can concentrate on creating new content and marketing the site and its various information products to prospective members.
MEQUODA How easy, time-consuming, etc. is the process of adding new content?
RH Now you’re getting into one of my favorites. I have a lot of background as a journalist, editor and publisher in the print industry and have developed some unique tools for writing on my Palm (Tungsten/E).
I have an outline program on my Palm with an ever-growing list of billiards subjects to write about. Many of these subject ideas are in various stages of development as articles from a basic skeleton (subheads) to a fleshed out article with each subhead having a page or two of notes (supporting paragraphs).
I am able to write anytime and anywhere on my Palm and am ready for that unpredictable idea which I can jot down anytime and any place. Editing is a breeze because you can easily cut and paste, move entire blocks of copy, spell check it and rewrite all on the Palm without having to refer to paper notes, and hammer away at a keyboard.
Once the article is complete (400-500 words), I Hot Sync it to my desktop. MemberScript makes it a snap from here on in. I open up the article manager, select the areas I want the article to be cloned into depending on the subject. Then it’s just typing a brief headline and a teaser and then copy/paste the article into the article block.
I also use articles from other writers (billiards players) and instructors in the industry. Routinely I add four to five articles and/or resources every week, usually one per day.
MEQUODA Has your site changed significantly since you launched it?
RH Not really, the basic concept–Billiards education for the casual player–has remained the focus. We’ve discussed the subscription rate changes. I have added things like interactive “Rate Your Game” evaluations, new e-Books and am working on audio and video presentations. Billiards Crossing will never be a major resource for the billiards professional, nor will it become a site that sells cues, tables or accessories for the game. I am in the information business and that is where I intend to stay.
MEQUODA What’s the single greatest tool that helps you get your new content out every week?
RH I absolutely rely upon my Palm. It helps me with scheduling, writing, storing ideas and keeps me focused. I can upload my e-books for updating and upload audio scripts. I can also upload Adobe PDF article files on writing and billiards for later study.
Throw in a day’s worth of billiards forum postings for research and you have the ideal tool. It is the trusted keeper of all my usernames and passwords, contacts, a To-Do list, calculator and provides me with a way to read novels for entertainment.
All of this fits easily in my left shirt pocket. My business cell phone is in the right shirt pocket. I am in my office where ever I am.
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?
RH Google AdWords, Forum postings, RSS feeds of my Billiards Blog, cross-linking between the four sites I am responsible for maintaining along with articles in two newsletters and word of mouth at poolrooms. This is an area I constantly work on for all the sites I manage.
I am fortunate enough to have built two sites with Ken Evoy’s Site BuildIt, the only system I would recommend for a serious business site. The vast majority (including www.billiardtips-e-press.com and www.monkbilliardacadem-e.com) rank in the top three percent of 16 million websites in the world in terms of traffic. The SBI forums alone are worth the price of admission.
Here users exchange ideas that WORK for generating traffic, site sales, marketing and a host of other topics near and dear to webmasters. Having an SBI site running in the same niche as a membership site can be a tremendous source of subscribers. I believe any owner or webmaster of a membership site should check out the SBI facts at http://buildit.sitesell.com/DIYSales.html. It is here I learned about using an RSS Blog to drive new traffic. It has brought in another 30 percent of new visitors/buyers and I have only had my blog running since January 1, 2005. I hope to roll out an RSS feed of a blog at Billiards Crossing this month.
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?
RH This is a question I am trying to resolve right now. I use Google Adsense on the other sites. I am going to poll members and visitors to Billiards Crossing to see how they feel about limited advertising. I do not want to offend paid subscribers. The Adsense ads are targeted to my niche, but there is not always a steady diet of relevant content in these ads. Income has been there from advertising revenues-significant, I guess it depends on whose wallet it is in.
MEQUODA How do you find new subscribers, or how do they find you? What’s the process like for increasing sales and memberships?
RH Right now I provide in-text links from my other “free” billiards sites which enjoy about 400-500 visitors per day to related articles at Billiards Crossing. I also provide ample links in my RSS Blog and newsletters. These are responsible for the most new subscribers.
I think they develop an element of trust at the free site and are more apt to subscribe for a membership at Billiards Crossing. I recognize some of the subscriber names as being e-Book buyers at Billiartips-e-press. I also know my RSS Blog has brought in subscribers from Indonesia, New Zealand and China.
MEQUODA For Mequoda members who are devising premium content strategies for their online properties, any advice you would offer?
RH Write anytime, any place. It is important for any writer to be able to get down that “hot idea” the moment it impregnates your mind. Being able to make a quick note in my Palm has been enough to trigger an entire article.
Second, develop a method of categorizing articles on your membership site so you can cull off the 20 or 30 oldest in each category to produce an e-book. I can’t stress enough, get used to writing two to three 400-word articles daily.
Each time you post a new article, be sure it is submitted to your favorite search engines. You want to convince search engine spiders to crawl your pages frequently. You need to put in a steady diet of keyword-rich, content-focused pages to help convince the spiders to check your site regularly.
MEQUODA What’s your best advice to Mequoda members who are seeking to develop additional revenue streams outside of advertising for their online business?
RH Same as the above. Write. We are in the information business and information is a big seller. Generate an e-book or two every month you can offer for sale in your public area and as a free download for subscribers. Remember for every $30 e-book you sell, you bank $30. What other product or service offers you a 100% return for your time?
MEQUODA What has been your greatest challenge to date, doing business online?
RH Establishing subscription rates. Even with Ken Evoy’s book, “Make Your Price Sell”, there are very few resources for establishing the correct price for a subscription site. It is not always what others charge that is the right pricing structure for your own niche.
I have always found surveys do not perform well on the question of price. You never get back enough responses to “yes, I’ll pay this much,” to help making such an important decision. What price is too high and what price is so low the visitor thinks you are offering something of little value?
MEQUODA What tips would you pass on to aspiring publishers who want to start a subscription-based website?
RH Find a niche you love and can work at eight hours a day without feeling like you are working. In this business it is important to like what you do, you are going to have to write about it all day and your readers can see right through canned content. They are looking for your honest expertise in the subject, even if you are not an expert, be honest.
First develop a non-membership website in the same niche that can draw traffic on its own. It is a place to try out content, sell products, establish affiliate relationships and develop a newsletter with a strong subscriber base (500 to 1,000).
Don’t think membership site until you are drawing 40-50 visitors a day to your “free” site. Stay on top of new technology. You don’t have to be on the bleeding edge, but learn enough about it so you can become an early adopter. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a good example.
Write. Learn to write a 400-500 word article in a couple of hours. Learn to write despite interruptions. Learn to write it all and edit after it is complete.
If you say, I don’t have time, I don’t know how, I would question whether or not you are in the right business. Let me tell you right here. If you don’t write, how will you ever get better at it.
MEQUODA What’s the best or smartest thing you’ve done? What’s the worst?
RH The smartest thing was getting involved with Ken Evoy and Site BuildIt. I have learned more about this entire industry through my SBI site to the point I know what works and what doesn’t.
In my pre-SBI days, I tried a lot of things that didn’t work. My sites could go weeks without a single visitor. I was concentrating on Search Engine Optimization with nothing to optimize.
The second best thing I ever did was to go with MemberScript to develop Billiards Crossing. It is the only sensible, low-cost solution that meets the requirements of subscription website content management and can meet a broad list of unusual features.
The support is fantastic, a true value. I probably haven’t done my worst yet, but ranking pretty close to the top was switching from a land-line phone to cells only the month I started to build my membership site. I ended up paying close to $600 in overage minutes because I picked the cheapest plan.
MEQUODA What subscription-based websites do you subscribe to and/or recommend?
RH I only subscribe to two, Mequoda and Bill Myers online.
MEQUODA Which of the above is “doing it right?”
RH I can only look at this from the standpoint of being a subscriber and am not prepared to comment on how successful they have been at marketing and building a subscriber base. I assume I am not the only subscriber. But both provide me outstanding service from the standpoint of delivering the content I need, often before I need it. Both appear to know their customer and that’s what it is all about.
MEQUODA How important is customer service to your business, and how do you handle it?
RH Any opportunity for direct customer contact is the most important thing I do during the day. If someone e-mails me with a problem, I call them back immediately to deal with whatever the issue involves.
At the same time, I get to know them and find out what else I can do with my site(s) that will make their lives easier. I have also found having the ability to set up a Chat Room on your site heads off a lot of problems and provides another avenue for direct customer contact.
Over the years I can’t tell you how many have commented “I never expected I’d hear from you so quickly”. A quick response always calms the most intense customer. Asking for their opinion puts them in “the driver’s seat” and I can’t tell you how many articles I can trace back to a customer’s complaint.