What I Learned Using Paypal

Doug Belshaw wrote an item this week called 3 things I’ve learned from 200 weeks of sending out an email newsletter which made me smile and think "newbie" to myself. That's not even four years!

But it's actually a major commitment  and I respect anyone who can carry out something on a regular basis for 200 weeks. I have a good sense of what it takes, not only in terms of effort, but also in terms of computing power and servers.

He draws three lessons:

- "You are the most important audience". By "you" he doesn't mean "you, the reader," he means "you, the author." If the newsletter didn't mean something to me personally, I would not keep it up. Belshaw has learned the same lesson.

- "People like commentary". I can attest to this. I've run surveys a couple times over the years, and I always ask whether people like the commentary or whether I should shut up and just deliver the news. The responses are unanimous. Readers want the opinion. Informed opinion.

- "A little bit of personality goes a long way." Like Doug, I don't just stick to a narrow diet of education technology tools and applications, or some similar specialization. My items reflect an interest in a range of disciplines, and the articles orbit around a set of core ideas, not some market managers conception of a vertical.

But also, like Doug, I have asked for donations. As I explained in my Donations page, my website costs me $200 a month to run, or $30,000 over the years. The traffic demands it; I have tried to run OLDaily and the rest of the website on a cheaper server, and simply crashed the server. It has created some financial stress, so I asked for help.

But I was also curious. Some people say that you simply have to ask, and you will receive, but I don't really fit the demographic. I'm not private-school pretty, I'm prickly and annoying, I'm not exactly a supporter of the corporate and entrepreneurship agenda, and I don't really have an interest in self-promotion (that doesn't mean I don't do it, it just means I feel guilty whenever I do).

But, you know, I always wonder, if I ever wanted a backup gig, could this be it? I look at some of the other people who started out as ed tech pundits and became self-employed as writers or consultants. There are some who make a living doing it, but I don't see people retiring early on the money. It looks like a tough life, with a lot of work in the trenches.

So how did I do?

From 30 donors I received about $1478. Most of the donations were the minimum $25 but I receive a large number of $75 contributions and a couple of people gave $250. Nobody selected the $1000 option (I thought maybe a company or two might want their name and link on the logo, but it didn't happen). It really is a tremendous response, and it comes close to covering my server costs for the year, and I'm grateful.

Here's what I did: when I redesigned the site to make it mobile-friendly over the holiday break, I added a donation page. I put a donate button on the home page, and ran one link in the January 4 issue of OLDaily. That was it for advertising. I thought anything more would be crass. But given that the link had (as of this writing) 67 views, maybe it wouldn't have been so crass.

I thought I would get a flurry of donations right away, and then nothing, but that's not what really happened. I've had a steady flow of donations spaced out over the last three weeks. Sure, I got 12 donations in the first two days, but it's averaged a steady one-a-day since then, in varying amounts.

I got my thank-you emails sent out today. At first I didn't think I could even send them - while PayPal faithfully reports the incoming donations, it downplays the sender's email. It has a co-branded service whereby it will print shipping lables and handle delivery for you - for a fee. Smart. But that was more than I wanted to pay just to send an email.

Sending out 30 individual emails took some time, and I was always afraid I would get the person's name wrong (happened once) or misrepresent the amount they donated (happened once). Cut-and-paste seems so impersonal, but retyping the same message would have been too much, but I was able to add some personal touches. Were the frequency of donations to increase, I would create a 'thank you' script.

I received a few comments on the list of options. Feeling very clever, I created the following range of choices: $25, $75, $250, $1000. And as we see on donation pages everywhere, I offered incremental rewards for each level (I resisted calling them 'gold', 'platinum', 'sustaining', etc.). Within a day I had to add two additional notes on the donations page: one telling people they could choose whatever amount they wanted, and another telling them they did not have to have their name listed on the page. A few people chose their own amounts, and two people took the extra effort to mail me a cheque instead of using PayPal.

Would I do it again? Definitely. I feel people appreciated the opportunity to say thanks. The money was significant. And server costs aren't going away. And hey, maybe a few companies will start using that $1000 option. :)


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