Note from Spencer: Hey everyone, today I’m excited to share a Niche Pursuits reader success story with you! Jeff Howell has worked in the real estate industry for a long time and decided to leverage that knowledge in a unique way.
He’s applied the principles of keyword research, content marketing, and link building to create a niche site in the commercial real estate lease market. Rather than just try to make money as an affiliate, he’s able to sell his own products and services which has lead to tremendous growth over the last couple of years.
Read on to get Jeff’s entire story! Here’s Jeff…
The make-money-online crowd is all in on Amazon, e-commerce and affiliate commissions. Understandably so. But for most people, that is a brand new set of skills that need to be acquired to make money online.
What about leveraging what you are already an expert at and figuring out how you deliver your knowledge or service in a way that has not been done yet?
I spent 18 years as a commercial real estate broker in downtown Toronto. Commercial real estate is not as glamorous as most people think – there is a ton of cold calling, it is highly competitive and it takes about a year for deals to close.
Whenever we would meet with a client, the most important meeting would be when we would review the client’s existing lease and they would be shocked at what they agreed to within the 40,000 word document (all they focused on was the rent in the last negotiation, not all the other stuff).
There was so much value we created with executives in those meetings.
So why couldn’t we capture this and bring this online?
And Lease Ref is born.
The service is a commercial lease score card, prepared by your lease referee, who levels the playing field for you, the tenant.
Your three choices in negotiating a lease are:
Do it yourself: this free option will most likely result in being the most expensive one in the long run, and it will take up a lot of time to try to learn as much as you can about leases.
Hire a lawyer: the job will probably be done well, but you have to find one, trust them, work around their busy schedule, and the hourly fee will amount to about $2,500 by the end of the negotiation.
Hire Lease Ref: for a flat fee (currently $425), you will receive your lease score card, and your lease will be red-lined and it is ready to go back to the landlord.
Lesson # 1: the internet is still a baby and all the use cases have not been figured out on how to deliver goods and services. Real estate is a slow moving industry and brokerages are not offering online commercial lease reviews.
Great, so Lease Ref launches in early 2017…and…drum roll….makes $4,000 (and I’m rounding up).
Lesson # 2: Good ideas do not equal overnight success.
Here is where the story gets interesting.
I retired from commercial real estate.
It was time to move on to something new. Something that I could get excited about.
Naturally I transitioned into home care software :-).
I left Lease Ref alone. It was more annoying than gratifying to be frank. I was loving a new career and once per month I would get a lease to review, and the lack of frequency meant there was not a substantial amount of income coming in relative to the distraction.
That said, 2018 netted $13,626. Ok, this is worth keeping around.
Total marketing budget during this time: $0. Every once in a while I would build a link from Help a Reporter Out (HARO). That was my focus when getting the site up and running.
Lesson # 3: Most people give up too early. I was fortunate that I didn’t sell or shut down – I kept it alive while I focused on my new job.
This is where the story starts to get really interesting.
As you can see, I had one order in September of 2018 and flash forward to September of 2019, there is a 2,407% increase in revenue. Revenue is more than double in that month than in all of 2017.
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There must have been a huge increase in traffic, right?
I wish that were the case. I have learned a lot about SEO but as you can see, traffic has doubled, which is nice, but has not exploded in relation to revenue:
In the same year over year comparison, page views were:
2018 (up to Oct 3): 85,960
2019 (up to Oct 3): 162,904
So if my conversion ratio remains the same, I should expect double the revenue.
During the same time period, here is what revenue looked like:
(the year finished strong with $13k in revenue).
2019 started slow, and the revenue has been back-end loaded and currently sits at:
So let’s review – basically the traffic doubled, and the revenue increased 5x. Why?
Link building? Nope.
Tons of new content? Nope.
1 – I created more buyer intent content. I previously did not have a post of personal guarantees in leases. People that are googling about personal guarantees are trying to figure out if they need to sign them, how they can get out of them, etc. They are nervous and are seeking help. The stakes are high. So I created the best resource available on that topic. You can find it here. These people are far more likely to pay $425 for advice when they are about to sign a personal guarantee for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
2 – I created more top of the funnel content. A tenant usually negotiates a letter of intent prior to a lease. If they find Lease Ref earlier in their buyer journey, I can help them at the beginning stages of their negotiation, or at least they have awareness and more time to circle back for help when the lease negotiation comes around. That resource can be found here.
3 – Video. People have to know, like and trust you before buying. As I expect people to go right from google search to purchase, that’s a lot to ask. So in exchange there is over 200,000 words of advice on the blog, but people want to know who they are dealing with. An example of a post with multiple videos can be found here. You will be able to see me (with cash being thrown in my face), an explainer video shot in Powerpoint, and a couple of screencasts showing lease clauses.
The combination of the 3 have allowed conversions to outpace the growth in traffic:
As you can see, since adding the videos and new content traffic has actually been flat overall.
Note that prices have increased (twice). This has actually helped conversions as well – the prices almost seemed to good to be true at first and there was an immediate improvement in conversions when prices were increased (woo hoo!).
Lesson # 4: Too many people are focused on traffic and not focused enough on the buyer journey once that traffic arrives at your site.
So what was the magic involved in keyword research?
Firstly, there are not many commercial real estate websites that are active in the SEO space, so I decided to track a few that are actively creating content and links, and I followed them with some help from Ahrefs.
The second (and more valuable) source was leases themselves. The logic being, if a user is frustrated with a particular clause in a lease then they would search for “how to remove <insert problematic clause> from my lease”.
So the sight is highly technical, diving into how to modify clauses with specific examples. Not only does this rank in google, but the competition (brokers and lawyers) – they don’t want to give away any trade secrets.
So it has been win-win.
While the ultimate goal is to have websites that truly earn you money while you sleep, there is also opportunity to take existing skills and knowledge you already have and package those services in a unique way to make a living online.