I had the privilege of talking with Michael Kitces of Kitces.com and Nerds Eye View in preparation for us both attending FinCon (“a conference where money and media meet”). This interview will give you an inside look into his business and services and show you the steps he took to become an authority in the personal finance market. The best thing about this podcast is that you don’t have to be in the financial industry or go to FinCon to get a lot of good insights from this interview. In fact, Michael shares how to duplicate his success in your own industry. Some of the tips and insights that Michael gives have me thinking of how I can apply similar techniques in my own business, as well as the clients that we serve by creating their online course content and membership sites. There is a lot to learn in this interview, so whether or not you’re in the financial services industry, you can take a lot from this interview and apply it to your membership site, CE courses for credits, and online courses.
Get the free bonus audio interview where Michael shares his top membership website resources and productivity tools.
Click to Download the Bonus Audio
Podcast Questions with Michael Kitces
- Give us a background of what your business does.
- I see the word Educator all over your website, while most people would classify themselves by their degrees or other accelerates, it looks like education in one of your priorities. Do you consider yourself primarily as an educator?
- Why did you start offering Continuing Education services on your website?
- How are you uniquely qualified to help accelerate the growth of people’s own financial planning knowledge?
- How has this business model positioned you as an industry leader?
- What are some ways someone in the financial industry can help more people and increase their revenue by creating online courses?
- Bonus: What are some of the technologies used on your website to developer the members only content? (click below to download the bonus audio interview)
- Bonus: what are the productivity tools you use in your business?(click below to download the bonus audio interview)
- Where can people learn more about you?
Get the free bonus audio interview where Michael shares his top membership website resources and productivity tools.
Click to Download the Bonus Audio
My Notes During the Podcast with Michael Kitces:
- Michael has a B2C and a B2B business
- He considers himself an educator
- The financial industry is 5-10 years behind with technology (there could be some opportunities here)
- He went through a process of being able to offer Continuing Education credits
- The CE provider has to give a quiz or test to show the student went through the content and passed the quiz
- His business is growing 5%-10% per month since he gives his content away for free, but they have to pay for the CE quiz and credits
- He was a speaker, then had a newsletter service, then added blogs, and then added Continuing Education services, and not he’s adding more services and businesses to serve his audience.
- If you want to create an online course in the financial services industry, be more focussed and niche, not broad and general. There are too many people doing generic courses.
- He offers the content for free but charges for the CE quizzes
- He loves Evernote to plan, blog and organize his life and business
- Don’t make your business model, the content portion. Make the monetization strategy the implementation and strategy portion
- Get the free bonus audio and hear Michael answers to: “What are some of the technologies used on your website to developer the members only content” and “What are the productivity tools you use in your business?”
- Another great interview on the topic of membership sites: http://www.superfastbusiness.com/business/how-to-jumpstart-your-membership-forum/
Michael Kitces’ Bio:
Michael E. Kitces, MSFS, MTAX, CFP®, CLU, ChFC, RHU, REBC, CASL, is a partner and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, a private wealth management firm located in Columbia, Maryland that oversees approximately $1.3 billion of client assets. In addition, he is a co-founder of the XY Planning Network, the practitioner editor of the Journal of Financial Planning, and the publisher of the e-newsletter The Kitces Report and the popular financial planning industry blog Nerd’s Eye View through his website www.Kitces.com, dedicated to advancing knowledge in financial planning.
Beyond his website, Michael is an active writer and editor across the industry and has been featured in publications including Financial Planning, the Journal of Financial Planning, Journal of Retirement Planning, Practical Tax Strategies, and Leimberg Information Services, as well as The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, CNBC PowerLunch, NBC Nightly News, and more. In addition, Michael has co-authored numerous books, including “The Annuity Advisor” with John Olsen (now in 3rd edition), the first balanced and objective book on annuities written for attorneys, accountants, and financial planners, and “Tools & Techniques of Retirement Income Planning” with Steve Leimberg and others.
Michael is one of the 2010 recipients of the Financial Planning Association’s “Heart of Financial Planning” awards for his dedication to advancing the financial planning profession. In addition, he has variously been recognized as financial planning’s “Deep Thinker,” a “Legacy Builder,” an “Influencer,” a “Mover & Shaker,” part of the “Power 20,” and a “Rising Star in Wealth Management” by industry publications. These awards were presented to honor Michael’s active work in the financial planning community, which currently includes serving as a member of the Editorial Review Board for the Journal of Financial Planning, national chair of the Financial Planning Section for the Society of Financial Services Professionals, and numerous other boards and committees for the Financial Planning Association and the Society of Financial Services Professionals at the local and National levels. Michael is also a co-founder of NexGen, a community of the next generation of financial planners that aims to ensure the transference of wisdom, tradition, and integrity, from the pioneers of financial planning to the next generation of the profession.
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Jeff: In this episode, I talk to Michael Kitcess about his continuing education membership site, and the innovative business model that he uses.
Jeff: Welcome back to another episode of the Online Course Coach podcast. And in preparation for FinCon, that I’ll be attending this week—and FinCon is a financial conference for people in the financial services industry that might want to use blogging, media, social media, etcetera—I had the really cool opportunity to talk with Michael Kitcess. Now, he is doing some really innovative things, and he’s actually speaking at the conference, so I wanted to sit down with him and chat about his business, sis continuing education membership site, and he uses a really innovative business world that, to be honest, has kind of rocked my world or changed the paradigm that I think about membership sites. And so I’m kinda thinking through some of those things that he talked about.
Now, if you’re listening to this before FinCon—if you attended FinCon, that’s fantastic. And if you didn’t attended FinCon, that’s also fine. This interview isn’t specific only to people in the financial services industry, and it’s not specific to people that attended FinCon. So if you’re thinking “I’m not in this industry. I didn’t attend the conference,” this episode is fantastic.
And I’m not just saying that. I told Michael, this was a really good interview because he had some really good insights. And, like I said, things that I’m still thinking through how I want to—or how I might be able to apply his business model to my own clients and their courses, as well as to some things that I have as well. So I wanted to get an authority in the financial market who is doing some things with teaching online with his membership site, and his continuing education services.
But before we get into that, I want to answer a listener question. So Don Gonzales actually asked this question a while ago—and I actually emailed him back—but I wanted to bring this up on the show. Don said, “I’ve been listening to your podcast and find it extremely helpful.” Thanks, Don. He continues by saying: “I am working on starting an eLearning portion of the website for training those who want to learn leather craft. I’m currently selling digital downloads of patterns for artwork and it’s going really well, but I’m looking for advice if I should go the membership route, or offer the classes individually for purchase. I’m also wanting to offer a lot of free content through our blog. Thanks in advance for the advice.”
And, Don, you’re gonna love this episode, because this is exactly what Michael talks about. But let me go through some of my insights and recommendations, because Michael talks primarily about the membership side. We don’t really get into the online courses. So let’s talk about the differences and why you might want to go with one verses the other.
So some pros verses cons. Pros of online courses is you can create single courses based on a single topic, or it could be a 101 course, beginner course, advance course, or anything else that would fit within just one single course. So since you’re doing something like leather craft—and, to be honest, Don, I don’t have much experience with—maybe there’s a certain component that would be its own course and you could sell that.
Another reason you might want to lean towards an online course is you don’t need as much interaction with your customers. And this could be a good or bad thing. Some people are introverts, or they don’t want to do the customer service or they just want to sell the course and let the students go through it. And this could require less of your time over the long run by creating single online courses. But it might be less money, too, so you have to kind of weigh those.
Now let’s talk about the membership site side. These allow you to create reoccurring revenue that you can count on. So you can know every single month that you’re gonna make X amount of dollars. And that is good—for your bottom line, for your planning, etcetera.
One of the downsides of that is you have to create content on an ongoing basis. So every month, you have to have something to give. Maybe it’s an article, maybe it’s a video, maybe it’s a mini course or a part of a course within your membership site. It could be a webinar, it could be anything that is ongoing. And then generally in a membership site, the ones that I have seen that just take off and just explode with members and interaction and value are the ones that have forums or a private Facebook group. Just some way the members can add content and interact.
And, to be honest, sometimes those are the best ones, because it’s not dependent on the organizer—like you. A lot of the students, or the members, interact with each other, they help each other. I’m involved in several paid membership sites, or membership groups, and that’s, to be honest, the value of the membership sites. We’re all helping each other succeed. And yes, the organizer, the main person is in there adding value and content, but if it weren’t for the community, each one of those groups would probably die pretty quickly.
So there’s no right or wrong answer here, Don, but creating a single course might be the best route to start, if you’re trying to figure out which one and maybe the membership site, creating content, is a little overwhelming. Just start with a single online course and then ask your students what else would help them to see if creating ongoing content would really help them. So maybe you could ask what they’re really struggling with and create a course on that. Ask what they need help with. A lot of times it’s easier to ask the negative—“Hey, what’s your biggest struggle with your leather craft?” and they’ll tell you that, verses “Hey, what do you want to learn?” They might not know what they want to learn, or they might not have the best idea.
So think of a pain point. What’s the thing they struggle with most? What’s one of their most frustrating aspects, and go from there.
So, Don, I hope that is a good insight to your question, as well as those of you that also have a similar question. Maybe you’re thinking “I’m leaning towards online courses, but what about this membership thing?” or vice versa. That will be a great way to think about the pros and cons of both.
Now, before we get into the interview, I want to pull out some things that I learned or that I think are compelling about this interview that I want you do listen to or focus on. So, in this interview with Michael, it’s really interesting that he started with his expertise, and he built businesses around what his customers were requesting. And you’d be pretty amazed at the things he was able to build and the businesses he’s able to add on to that. It’s pretty impressive.
And he gives away almost all of his content! And he talks about that, and that is one of the things that was surprising in how he does that. And he’ll explain that in depth.
He has an interesting business model that really flips traditional membership sites on its head. And he’ll go more in depth with that. So I want you to focus on that if you’re thinking of a membership site, or even if you’re just considering it or want to know the pros and cons. He has some really good insights.
Michael and I had a great interview, and it was actually really long. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to put everything into the podcast. I wanted to keep it within a certain time, but I am offering a free bonus download of two of his questions. So I asked Michael: What are some of the technologies used on your website to develop the members only content? He walks through what he uses—some of them, maybe you’ve heard of and researched. Some of them, maybe you haven’t and maybe haven’t even thought of how to use this in a membership site. The other bonus one is what are the productivity tools you use in your business? And I love asking this question because the people we get on the show are high achievers, they’re doing a lot of great things, and it’s interesting to hear what their productivity tools are.
So if you go to onlinecoursecoach.com/michaelk—that’s the letter K—you can get access to this bonus audio. Again, that’s onlinecoursecoach.com/michaelk and you can download that bonus audio for free.
Alright, well, let’s get into the interview. And today I have Michael Kitces on, and he is a partner and director of research for Pinnacle advisory group, a private wealth management firm located in Columbia, Maryland. It oversees approximately 1.3 billion dollars of client assets. In addition, he’s the co-founder of the XY Planning Network, the practitioner editor of the Journal of Financial Planning, and the publisher of the e-newsletter, The Kitces Report, and the popular financial planning industry blog, Nerd’s Eye View, through his website kitces.com. That’s K-I-T-C-E-S-dot-com.
And he’s dedicated to advancing knowledge in financial planning. In 2010, Michael was recognized with one of the FPA’s Heart of Financial Planning awards for his dedication in the work advancing the profession.
So, Michael, thanks so much for being on the Online Course Coach podcast!
Michael: Thanks, Jeff. Good to be here!
Jeff: So, Michael, give us a background of what your business does.
Michael: So I really actually have kind of two different channels of businesses. One, I actually work as a financial advisor. I’m a partner in an advisory firm. We do financial planning, investment management, wealth management services for folks. And then the other half of my business world—you might call that a B2C business, we go directly to consumers. I also have what effectively is a B2B business, or a couple of them that are kid of blended together, that work with other advisors. So I started out as an advisor in my industry working with consumers, and then over the past several years, I built a series of businesses working with other advisors, my peers, actually seeing that, ironically, there’s a lot more competition amongst all of us reaching consumers and there’s remarkably little competition serving us.
The actual market of B2B services in serving financial advisors is not actually that competitive. And so I built a couple of my businesses in that space, including one around education and course content.
Jeff: I see the word “educator” all over your website. And while most people would classify themselves by their degrees or other accolades or description of their business, it looks like education is one of your priorities. So do you consider yourself primarily an educator?
Michael: I do. I think that’s really how my personal path has evolved. I suppose to some extent, I lived that role even in doing financial advising for consumers for individuals. A lot of what we do is educational. But I happen to be one of those folks who likes reading tax code for fun on a Friday night, I’m a little bit of a nerd, so I—as I was getting going with my career, I went out, I got a bunch of professional designations, two Masters degrees. I really immersed myself into the education world for sort of my own fulfillment very early on in my career, and then found a little bit later that I actually kinda liked talking about this stuff. So I started doing a little bit of speaking at industry events—educational events in the industry, live events.
And I did some of those, and I did more, and I did a little more, and I got really good feedback and people were really interested. And so that slowly grew into—actually kind of morphed over time. It started out as just doing live events. Then I decided to launch a premium newsletter service, or kind of a premium content service, just doing very advance technical educational content for a small subset of people in my industry that just really like ready hardcore, gory sorts of contents. Like my niche within my niche.
And that grew relatively well, and then I started doing more writing. Not only in my premium content, which was a newsletter service I called the Kitces Report, but I started blogging in my industry as well. And, while obviously blogging’s been out there in a lot of industries, financial services lags five to ten years behind the rest of the world at pretty much everything related to technology. So when I launched a blog in my industry in 2010, I was like thirteen years late to the blogging movement relative to the general world, but I was an ultra-early adopter in our industry getting started with blogging.
And so as blogging has become more accepted in our industry, suddenly I found myself with this very large blog with all this traffic and people coming in, reading both free content that I had outside of the paywall, the member wall section, which was simply the stuff I was blogging about, and then this premium content service that I had built inside the wall. And the lightbulb moment that I had for myself—I sort of operate with two philosophies.
One, I’m just one of those people that believes information wants to be free and should be free. I actually like—as someone that’s kind of wired to be an educator, I actually hated the fact that some of the content I spent the most time and energy working on was the stuff that was hidden behind the wall that very few people could see. Because I’m like “This is my best stuff! This is the stuff that helps the most people! I want it outside the wall, not inside the wall!” Except I need a business model, I need to get paid.
Kind of the lightbulb moment I had a couple years ago was to say “Look, as long as I’m working in a B2B context”—my readers really come to me for two reasons. One is they just want the raw education, the want to learn. There’s—I figure, about 10-15% of the advisor audience are hardcore enough to like the kind of stuff that I produce. There are a couple hundred tohsuand advisors, so that’s more than enough of a market place, even if I can get 10% of them.
But I realized the second reason they actually come to me is, not only is education kind of an aspirational thing in our industry, it’s a required thing too, as with many professional services industries, we have continuing education requirements for people who have opted into voluntary advanced designations in our field. Things like the Certified Financial Planner or CFP designation. So they actually have a requirement every year, kind of like attorneys and CPAs and doctors that they have to get a certain level of continuing education credits every year. And that, to me, kind of opened up some new business model opportunities and paths.
Jeff: That’s great. And so how did you pursue going from what you were doing to offering CE credits? Was it a big ordeal? Or was it easier than you thought?
Michael: I think, ultimately, the transition was not very difficult. The hard thing about creating content for getting CE credit is the creating the content part. And like, that I had down. I know how to make content, I’m kind of a content machine. I put lots of stuff out there. So the process of getting it qualified for CE credit, frankly, was not terribly difficult. For our industry, you have to register as a CE sponsor, so—and it’s like a couple hundred dollar a year nominal fee. You’ve got to register each course for units. You go through an even more nominal fee of twenty-five to fifty bucks.
And then you just have to make some structure to the course and how you’re submitting it. So you need to create an outline, you need to have a formal description of what the learning objectives are going to be, you need to be able to document what the educational process is going to be—which, frankly, is not terribly difficult as well. You kind of do it once, the course is built, it’s out there, and you don’t have to come back and spend a lot of time on it again. And, frankly, I ultimate found that that’s even something that I can delegate, that I can outsource. So I have a research assistant in our industry. He’s in a Master’s program in one of the financial education programs. He wants to be an educator someday already, so I said “Fantastic! How would you like to write outline and learning objective summaries?” and he’s all excited for it. I don’t enjoy that part at all. So win-win for everybody.
And then the one other piece that you need to do for actually turning course content into something that is eligible for CE credit, around which my business model hinges, is you have to, in some way, test that people have actually read the material. Because otherwise, people could kind of skirt their continuing education requirement. “Oh, yeah, yeah. I read things on the internet! I spent time!” doesn’t really cut it. So the way it’s done in our industry—and really, I found, in almost all industries out there—is if you want to get credit for online self-study, self-directed educational material, the provider has to create some kind of test, some kind of quiz to determine that you actually comprehended and assimilated some of the content, and you have to take the quiz and get a reasonable grade on the quiz, and that’s what actually confirms you have completed the hour of content.
So, on the one end, I have to make a quiz—which was, frankly, not terribly difficult. My grad student actually does that. And what it allows from the business end, though, which was kind of the big deal for me, is you have to take the quiz. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts. You can read all you want and educate yourself all you want. The mechanism for the industry is if you want the credit, you have to take the quiz and pass it. And what that means is it allowed me to start rearranging how I actually deliver content out there. Because it allows me to do something that’s kind of unique in the CE course space that I know is certainly more difficult than other course spaces—it means I can actually give virtually all my content away for free, and nobody can abuse it because they still can’t get the credit without getting in the members section, getting behind the paywall.
So in a traditional world, I know for most of us that do course content, you maybe have some teasers outside the wall, but you have to put all the good stuff inside, then then you have to put the payment to get inside the wall—like that’s the model. “Hey, you’ve seen a little of my stuff. Come check out my super awesome stuff and pay me this much money to get access to this course content,” and that’s kind of the marketing process.
I get to approach it form a completely different end. I go out there and I say “Here, have basically all my content for free!” Read it because you think it’s helpful. Maybe you’ll just think it’s helpful and move on, more power to you. Maybe you’ll read it, you’ll think it’s helpful, you’ll go ‘Geez, I already spent the time reading this, it’d be nice if I could get CE credit as well.’” In which case, I say “Oh, we’d love to have you CE credit! That’ll be a couple of dollars to access the quiz.”
And so now, my content gets shared. My content goes—I was gonna say viral. Viral within our industry, which is not really that viral in the grand scheme of things. It gets to go viral within our industry. And so that actually becomes like a self-perpetuating marketing machine. So now I’ve got a mailing list of people that I can do business in the future with, that’s growing by 5-10% a month, compounding for two years now. So I’ve gone form like a list of two hundred people to a list of almost twelve thousand now. Because they’re sharing the content with each other. They’re forwarding it to each other saying “Hey, check out this article Kitces did. It’s really interesting.” All the content’s getting out there, it’s building a great brand, and I don’t undermine my own business model, because if they want the CE credit, they still have to pay to get into the member’s section, because that’s where the quiz is.
Jeff: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And as you’re talking about that—my company helps build courses for different CE providers and whatnot. And so, to the listener, if you’re thinking of continuing education or a similar model, think if this same model that Michael does could apply to your industry. I think that’s fascinating, Michael, that you—now, did you stumble across that model, where you’re pretty much giving everything away for free, and if they want to take the quiz to get the credits, then they can pay you? Or did you model that after somebody else?
Michael: No, I—this was kind of my own innovation from scratch. I really haven’t seen if anywhere at all. Everyone else I’ve seen gets the—I call it the “traditional model,” which, frankly, I was doing as well. You give away a little content, you put the best, premium stuff behind the wall, and then you try to upsell people into the premium content. And that basically was a version of the model I was running for a period of time, and still run to a slight extent. There’s a little bit of premium content that’s still behind the member’s wall, because I had the awkward reality of transition from people who used to buy me for premium content morphing into a “I’ll give you the premium content for free, but I want you to pay for the CE credit.”
And so, I didn’t want to entirely throw off an existing subscriber base all at once and be like “Hey! I’m just completely changing everything!” and let the dust settle where it may. So I’ve been doing it as sort of a gradual transition. But realistic—I’ve probably already gotten to a point where three years ago, 90% of the content I produce was inside the paywall, and now probably 75/80% of it is outside. So it’s mostly transitioned. I’m gonna continue transitioning it over the next twelve to eighteen months. I expect that probably sometime around 2017, that transition will be complete. And I’m just monitoring my business metrics as I go. How many people are buying? How many people are renewing? Are they actually using the CE credits as I’m expecting? Are they happy?
I survey my readers every six months just to make sure they’re still happy with the service. And so, I’m trying to be sensitive to it just to make sure I don’t take what was actually a business model that was working fine—premium content getting paid, it just irked me personally because of my weird philosophy that all the information should be out there—and make sure I’m not trashing my business model in the process.
But what I’m really finding as it goes is I’m not trashing my business model, I’m growing my business. I guess, strictly speaking, if I look at the numbers, the percentage of people who pay—and this is actually, I think, an interesting insight to it. So the percentage of my readers who pay for premium content was higher than the percentage of my readers who will only buy CEs. So I actually had a subset of people that are just education junkies, because I write kind of deep, advanced stuff, and they didn’t care about the CE. Because if you’re really an education junkie, you don’t lack for CE credit in our industry. There’s plenty of laces to get it. You go to a bunch of conferences, you get it all over the place. They just wanted the content.
So by turning a lot of the content free, they’re happy, but they’re not paying me anymore. Because they don’t need to because I give them the content for free. And then the number of people that are actually in a pain point that say “Geez, I need more CE credits because my license or designation is renewing in two months. Oh crap, I gotta go out and get some of this stuff” is a smaller percentage. But the fact that I’ve been able to put most of the content outside means I now have such a monstrous content marketing machine that feeds the CE engine that the reality is, before, I had a high percentage conversion rate on a fairly slow growing business. Now I have a lower percentage conversion rate on an exponentially growing business, because the content drives its own readership. So I’m ending out with a much, much bigger business in the long run.
And I can see it already from where it was just two of three years ago, even as I technically convert into a model that will have a lower conversion rate over time. And I’m fine with that because it has such a much larger reach.
Jeff: You know, that’s interesting. I’m thinking of one of our clients who is a medical training company. So they teach nurses and things like that. So I’m trying to put your business model into theirs and wonder, does opening it up like you do create more customer service issues? I’m trying to think if we had a mass of nurses go through these courses for free—and these courses are video based learning and obviously they have the quizzes and different things. But is there that component where now you have more people going through it so there’s more customer service needs? Or is it pretty much, “Hey if they read the article and they want to take the quiz, they can do that.”
Michael: It’s really predominantly the second version. It’s you read the article, you want to take the quiz, you gotta pay to log in and get there. Now, we have things come up on the quizzes, “I took my quiz but it doesn’t seem to be getting recorded.” “How soon are you gonna report this?” “I lost my login.” All kinds of things—we still get those service issues, but those are only through people who have paid. Because everybody else that just wants to consume the content, this growing traffic—the sites doing almost a hundred thousand unique visitors now in just our little industry niche—they’re all just coming to what basically is a standard blog format. I don’t have service issues on that end. It’s “Here’s content. I hope you’ll click the social sharing button and let your friends know.” So I really have no substantive service issues for the content outside the wall.
Now, I’ll admit, I don’t do a ton of video content and some stuff that’s maybe a little bit more complex and could have a little more in potential customer service issues that crop up—“The video won’t load. It’s not compatible with my browser,” things like that—but, frankly, even thinking out loud, that’s probably a line I would make to say content that’s complex enough that has to be customer serviced would probably tend to be the stuff I put behind the wall because of that. But it’s kind of amazing how much potential there is to just turn huge swaths of content out there for free and just get paid on the conversion of the CE credit. And of course, the more stringent the industry’s—whatever industry you’re in—the more stringent your industry’s demands are for CE credits, the more native demands they create for it.
As I even look at it from my industry’s perspective, there was a proposal a couple years ago to raise the CE requirements for the number of hours the have to get every year. Ultimately decided not to do it, they pushed it down the road, but whenever that comes up again—and it will as some point down the road—that’s like an instant bump in the total size of my prospective market that I can work in. if everybody’s CE requirements go from fifteen to twenty hours, the demand for my product just got raised by one-third across seventy tohsuand CFP certificants by like our equivalent of regulatory fiat, which is a regulator just said or a quasi-regulator just said “All y’all have do go do more hours. Now figure it out amongst yourselves” and I’m gonna sit here as a CE sponsor saying “I think I’m up to the challenge, let’s go. Here’s my years of content library.”
And frankly, just the whole phenomenon of what happens when you just start turning out high volumes of useful, relevant content. Like the strange thing that happened for me and my business is, as much as it’s grown the CE member’s section over the last several years, that’s actually the smallest component of growth I’ve gotten out of this. One the side, it quadrupled my speaking revenue in four years, which is now even way more than even what I sell in my member’s section. A huge increase in demand for me to go out and speak at conferences and do the content live. Because now do many people read my stuff and they’re used to reading the long things. It’s just like “Now I want to see the guy do it live! Let’s get him up at our conference!”
Which—I could’ve just made a speaking business with the content marketing strategy on its own, and that’s sort of what ended up happening, except, ironically, while I was making this CE business, I had a speaking business on the side. Now the speaking business grew up and got huge because now the content marketing for the CE also became content marketing for the speaking. And it actually became such powerful content marketing, I’ve now launched two to three other niche B2B businesses in our industry because this free content machine I created to power the CE engine has become such a content marketing machine, I’m like adding businesses in as quickly as I can to do other things for my readership, because I’ve got this huge niche audience that has a demand for things.
So I’ve got a recruiting business and we’ve got a outsourced investment management business—like a whole bunch of things that are very relevant in our little industry B2B space that I can grow very quickly, because I’ve got this niche audience of a hundred thousand unique visitors coming to my site every month, originally to build this CE engine, that’s powering all of these other businesses as well.
Jeff: Man, that’s so good. And I’m glad you brought that up, because I was going to ask you for your business model has positioned you as an industry leader. It sounds like you had a great platform to begin with, but it’s really propelled you. So I’m glad you brought that up that this online membership site, yeah it’s doing well—there are things that are doing even better because of it.
Michael: Yeah, it’s been an interesting transformation. Like, I really—I came into this, I came into doing a lot of this, frankly, just looking at the kinds of business models that are out there in other industries. I’m not a fan of reinventing the wheel if you don’t have to. You can only start with something else you’ve seen that’s useful. So I started out by doing some speaking. That was kind of how I got this started. So I got paid a bit for speaking. Then I looked around at the business models for speakers, and the business models for speakers were actually pretty clear for a lot of the best speakers. The saying is you make the majority of your money at the back of the room, not the front of the room. Which basically means, yeah, you can get paid something to be up there on the podium, but the real money is when you sell your books, your courses, your CDs, all the stuff you sell at the back of the room after the session ends.
So that was part of why I’d actually launched my original Kitces Report newsletter. It’s like “Okay, if you liked my stuff on the podium and you want more nerdy educational content because that’s for you, here’s my premium content service. It’s a hundred and fifty bucks a year. We’ll send you a whole bunch of advanced newsletter. It’s unlike anything you’ll read anywhere else”—which is really true in our industry. Like I am the hardcore educator in our industry. And so that’s how I started. I’m gonna be able to have a speaking business, I did that for a little while. “Okay, I need something to sell at the back of the room, so I’ll have a premium content service.” So I put that out. And then I was like “Okay, if you want to build your visibility, you should probably blog a little and do your content marketing.” So I did a little content marketing to premium upsell the content, the newsletter service.
And so that model was working fine. That’s kind of the traditional speaker and course content sort of model. And I kind of saw this virtuous circle—the more speaking I do, the more newsletter subscribers I get. The more newsletter subscribers I get, they’ll help me get more speaking engagements because they’ll want me to come out to more of their conferences.
And what I found happened in practice—maybe this is because I’m not a very good salesperson—the newsletter was much better at getting these speaking gigs than speaking gigs were actually getting me newsletter subscribers. In part because I’m kind of wired as an educator, so I hated doing the part at the end we’re you’re supposed to pitch from the podium to get them to go to the back of the room. I was just like “Hey, thanks for coming! Hope you enjoyed the session. Peace out everyone!” Drop mic, walk off stage. No upsell, no pitch, no call to action. So I wasn’t exactly converting a lot of premium newsletter subscribers. It was doing okay, but I was clearly underselling it for anybody who would have come in and looked at my business.
So I was running sort of this traditional model and saying “This just doesn’t feel right to me because I hate putting the content behind the wall. I wish I could put more of the content out there, but I have to get paid. How can I do this?” and that was kind of my eureka moment, lightbulb illuminates above head, and I said “Wait, we all have to do CE requirements.” I got to because I’m a CFP practitioner as well. “That I can put behind the wall. If I did that, I can make everything else free on the outside and I’m still gonna be fine, because they’ve got to pay for that because they’ve got to get it because it’s required of them.” And kind of realizing that and kind of morphing that model is, I guess, what ultimately let me build this monstrous content marketing machine that now became so big that it’s morphed the entire model.
So I started out, I was a speaker. Then I was a speaker that had a newsletter service. Then I was a speaker that had a newsletter service and a blog. Then I was kind of a blogger that did speaking and newsletter. Then I was a blogger that did speaking and CE, and blog and blogger became more of the center of it and content I pushed out to the blog for free because I charged for the CE on the backend. The bigger all of it got. So literally, if I draw the circles of what’s the center of my business—so early on, I was an advisor, then I was an advisor that spoke on the side, then I did newsletter on the side, then I was a newsletter writer who did blogging on the side. And now I’m kind of a blogger that does EVERYTHING else on the side, because the reality is still when you make a big enough content business that just gives valuable stuff away and you can build a readership and following off of that, that can get so big that it just powers everything else. And that’s what’s happening.
And even as my site is nominally a B2B site like I write about, there’s some pretty nerdy tax law and retirement research and investment theory and stuff like that. It’s gotten so big now that I even drive clients back to our original advisory firm because Google is Google and people look for answers to their problems and they search online and I’m not a very well ranked authoritative site in this space. And so I get consumers that come through who basically say “Saw you article. Don’t entirely know how to apply all of it because it’s really complex, but you clearly know your stuff so I want to work with you. Clearly you’re someone who can help me.” I’m like “Yes! Our firm would love to help you, let me introduce you to our wealth managers!”
And it’s even spun off business on the side in other pieces that I hadn’t even planned or expected or have been aiming for, because that’s just the dynamic that happens when you start building strong successful content platforms. But the—it was an interesting unlock for me when I went from that challenge I think a lot of us have in the premium content core space, which is “I’ve got to give away enough stuff to build audience to have people coming in so that I can upsell them into my premium, but I don’t want to give away so much that they’ll feel like they’re getting all the stuff that they want that they don’t need to upsell the premium.” So we all have that challenging balancing act of “How much to give away because I want to give away but not too much…”
And the amazing, freeing thing when I kind of had the revelation of adjusting to this business model because of the dynamics of CE requirements, where everybody requires these quizzes, tests to affirm that you read the material. It’s so freeing because I don’t have to have this mental debate anymore about how much stuff is gonna be inside verses outside. The answer is pretty much put it all outside! The more you do, the more you win. And the only reason I’ve been slightly slow about just doing it from day one was just because I had an existing business with existing subscribers who had some expectations, and so I want to transition them a little more gently over the span of a year or two, which is what I’m in the midst of right now.
Jeff: You know, I love how you’ve created these different businesses or services, and they all feed each other, and they all serve your clientele. It’s such a great model. I’ve been feverishly taking notes and thinking about how to apply this to our clients and other possible things. Because it’s just such a great, great model. And I can tell—you’ve said it several times. You’re not a salesman. You want information to be free. Obviously, you need to be compensated for your time, for your knowledge and all that good stuff, but I just love that you have this business model.
Now, what are some ways somebody in the financial industry can help their clients or customers by creating online courses? Do you see any gaps where somebody in this industry could create an online course or a different membership site that isn’t already out there or would improve upon something that’s already out there?
Michael: Uhm—yeah. I think there are a lot of options. The one I think most people have to watch out for, and frankly avoid, which is a problem because it’s what most of them do in practice—we do not need yet another generic personal finance course like Master Your Money in Seventeen Days with My Series of 17 Videos kinds of things. It’s been done too many times. If you’re not already running that business model, you don’t already have a huge audience, it’s gonna be virtually impossible for you to pick it up and build it now because there’s too many players in the space already and they’ve already got the audience and they’ve already dominated the kinds of generic search terms that you’re gonna hunt for.
The opportunity is going niche, is going focused. Is saying “Okay, what kind of more narrow audience can I find where, A, I can build a content machine that really is relevant to them, resonates with them, and brings those people in—I don’t have to get everybody, I just have to get a target audience with a means to pay”—b, that lets you make much more targeted and relevant content. In the financial advisor space in particular, I think there’s actually a huge amount of opportunity because a lot of the best practices I know in the financial advisors space have kind of done this, have focuses in on a niche. And so, this basically just becomes your content marketing machine.
If you’re gonna specialize with doctors, you can start making a content machine for everything about how to run your medical practice, how to maximize its value, how to hire an office manager, how you should compensate them, do to run your building process better—all these different things that relate to the finances of a medical practice that are incredibly relevant from the financial advisory perspective, that are incredibly relevant for the medical perspective that not necessarily a lot of people are doing. Now you can build your course and your course becomes How to Make Your Medical Practice More Successful in 3 Months. “We’ll give you a series of fifteen courses to go through, one a week, with come steps to take in order to build this out.”
And maybe it’s out there and I’ve never seen it, but I’ve never seen a course like that. I’ve seen a zillion 17 Generic Steps to Financial Success, but not one that’s focused in on particular niches, particular industries.
And, frankly, for some of them—I don’t know if this applies for doctors but for some, they can get continuing education credit not only for their technical competency, but for basically practice management as well. Accountants, this is known, they can get some of their continued education credits for practice management/business management education. So now you can actually drill down to the point of saying “I’m going to create content that helps accounts be more financial successful. I’m gonna give them CE credit for it. I’m gonna make the content free, I’m gonna charge for the CE. They’re gonna read and shred the content because it’s helpful. They’re gonna pay me for he CE, so I make some money. And in the meantime, if my content’s really that good, they’re gonna share it with each other and at some point five years from now, I get to be the country’s leading management expert on how to run an accounting business successfully.”
Jeff: Well, Michael, I could ask you question upon question. I love your business model, I love chatting with you, I love that you are an educator who loves to serve your community, but I know your time is valuable and you’ve gotta run here. So, lastly, where can people learn more about you and your services?
Michael: So you can learn more about me—the name is Michael Kitces, the site is kitces.com. So that’s K-I-T-C-E-S-dot-com. And that is everything me and all of these various businesses that I have and build and keep adding.
Jeff: Well, that’s great. Michael, thanks so much for being on the Online Course Coach podcast.
Michael: My pleasure! Thanks, Jeff. Thanks for having me.
Jeff: I had a great time talking with Michael, and I can’t wait to meet him at FinCon. It was truly a pleasure to talk with him. I had so many other questions—maybe we’ll be him back on the show, because he’s just doing such an innovative thing with his business model. And I know a lot of people say “Oh, you’ve got to give a lot of it away and then charge for some,” and sure that’s what he’s doing, but he is doing it—to me, at least, he’s doing it a lot more aggressively. He’s pretty much giving any content away, and then he’s saying “Hey, since you need these continuing education credits, you might as well get that through me.” So he’s building good will, he’s building trust, authority, and expertise. And then when they need those CE credits, he has those available.
So some of our clients do continuing ed credits and different things in different industries. And so that’s one things we’re considering. How much can we give away and how much do we sell? Now, some of our courses for the client are video based, they’re pretty intensive and they do have a lot of customer service aspects and whatnot. So just be careful, whenever giving away, make sure you can financial support the customer service needed and the other aspects, if it is a robust course.
But like Michael said, he’s more text based and then the quizzes. So it’s simpler than many, but there’s still some customer service that he has to deal with just like he said.
I mentioned it earlier in the show, but don’t forget to grab that free bonus audio where Michael talks about some of the technologies that he uses to develop his website and his membership site, as well as some of the productivity tools he uses in his business.
Those are free of charge. Just go to the website onlinecoursecoach.com/michaelk as in the letter K, as in Kitces, his last name—and you can download that bonus audio for free.
So how are you going to take this podcast episode, this interview and use it to build your online courses, your membership sites—what other training content you’re creating? I would love to hear! Shoot me an email, jeff (at) onlinecoursecoach (dot) com, let me know what you’re working on, what you’re struggling with, and how I can help.
And then, lastly, I would be honored if you would share this podcast on your social media accounts—Twitter, Facebook, whatever. If you’re listening to this on your iPhone, on your Android phone, etcetera, go ahead, in the podcast app, whatever you’re using, go ahead and hit that share button. Share it out, let other people know that you find this of value. That would be just the biggest compliment that you could offer to me, is by sharing that out to your audience. Because as we bring different guests on and as the community is growing, I want to serve more people. I want to bring more awesome interviews like this onto the podcast. And so, having you share this out definitely helps build this podcast so then I can help you more as well with different interviews and different content.
Well, if you’re going to the FinCon conference, or if you’re already there when you’re listening to this, try to look me up. We can use that app to communicate, or Twitter, or we’ll just have to meet up somewhere and have a chat. See what you’re working on, see what we can help each other out with. That would be fantastic. If you’re not going to FinCon, that’s fantastic. I’ll try to give a wrap up of my thoughts from FinCon in one of these future episodes.
So keep coming back to the Online Course Coach podcast where it’s my goal to help a few to teach many to impact millions.