Monetizing digital attention

The most effective way to make a living from attention paid online is to earn trust, connect a tribe and then sell something that isn't online. The Ironman triathalon, say, or Louis CK's concert tickets. Attention is precious and trust even more so.

Many folks, though, would like to be able to deliver a digital 'product', an ebook or video or some other online good that they can produce at low cost and sell in volume. There's a long history of brilliant writers and directors finding markets for their work using movies, books and other media that used to be new, and it would be gratifying if it could work here.

Unfortunately, most people do it wrong. They use a long sales pitch letter with highlighted boxes and fake testimonials. They make grandiose promises of secret riches or long-hidden techniques. And most disappointing to those that would build trust, they enlist a legion of affiliate salespeople, linking to one another and gaming search results or buying fake search ads.

There's a better way. Consider two counter-examples: Paul Wolfe's site about how to learn the bass, and Susan Piver's Open Heart project on meditation. I'm lucky enough to know both Susan and Paul, and I've seen how they've used the power of digital media to build successful businesses.

In both cases, the model is the same: it's free to get started. So free, in fact, that most people who engage discover that all they need is the free stuff. Since the marginal cost of sharing these samples is free, it costs them nothing to add one more person to the ever-growing list of those that trust, that pay attention and that gladly give permission to their teacher.

The magic comes in because of the inevitable movement of the most motivated students from free to paid. Not because the teacher has to hold anything back to sell out of panic or greed, but because the committed student is happy and eager to pay.

It's almost impossible to hold information hostage online. People are unlikely to sit still as you dangle something valuable but not share what's inside the box. The approach that Paul and Susan take is to eagerly share, and then to clearly delineate between what's free and what's not.