Previously I talked about why I consider residual income sites and content mills to be bad business decisions for freelance writers. I also promised to later talk to you about how you can earn decent residual income, but by writing for yourself -- your own blog. Let's talk about that now.
Why Blog for Yourself?
For some reason, many writers I talk to are afraid of starting their own niche blog. They're afraid it will take up too much of their time. They're afraid they won't see a decent return on the effort put in. They're afraid no one will want to read what they have to say. And sometimes they're just afraid to start something new because they're not sure where to start. To those writers, I have one thing to say -- Get over it.
Blogging is a fantastic residual income stream (don't mistake "residual" for "passive" -- in most cases you'll continue to work as your blog, and its income, grows). I won't go so far as to say it's the best residual income stream for freelance writers (informational products like e-books are fantastic for earning more in shorter periods of time for example), but they are one of the more consistent options once you build some stable traffic. And stability is a good thing. You don't always get a lot of it when you work as a freelance writer.
Managing your own blog isn't as difficult as some people initially think. There's this misconception that you can't earn much money with your own blog, so you'd be better off going with content mills instead. Wrong! It's not difficult at all if you're willing to work for it. The only real excuse for choosing content mills over writing for yourself is that you don't want to be bothered with the work -- you just want to write. And frankly, that's lazy (and you know how I feel about lazy freelancers). If you're a hobby writer and you just want to write to get paid a few bucks, fine. Good for you. But don't call yourself a true freelance writer if you're not willing to work on the business end of your freelance career.
If you're willing to do learn how, do the work, earn more residual income, and take full control over what you write and when, then keep reading. Hopefully I'll be able to give you some new insight that will help you get started.
The Keys to Successful Blogging Income
No two blogs are really the same. There are no rules about what you have to post. There are no rules about when you have to post. There are no rules about how often you have to post. But there are a few things that will give you a better shot at earning some real income in no more than a few months' time. Here are some of the keys to successfully earning through your own blog:
- The right niche -- If no one is searching for information in a niche, you won't get traffic, and you won't be able to convert that traffic into blogging income. That said, you could take a traditionally low-income or low-interest niche and twist it into something more attractive to readers, such as by combining two niches, broadening it, or even narrowing it.
- Self-hosting -- If your goal is to earn money through your blog, this is non-negotiable. Host it yourself (and yes, that means paying for a domain registration and hosting account). Personally I recommend GoDaddy for domains and HostGator for hosting. They're the combination I use for the majority of my blogs. Why is this important? Because if you want to effectively monetize your blog, you need complete control over monetization options and access to thorough site statistics. The easiest way to guarantee access to both is to host your blog yourself.
- Basic marketing ability -- You will not earn a decent income from most blogs if you don't market that blog in some way. That doesn't mean you have to market aggressively or feel like you're whoring yourself out with a constant sales pitch (more on that myth later). The most important thing you'll do marketing-wise is actually completely on the back-end -- evaluating your stats, testing ad placements, and just overall optimizing the site.
That's it. With those three things you can earn a decent income blogging. I mean it.
Nice, but Less Necessary
I've run over two dozen blogs since 2004. I've successfully monetized new blogs across a variety of niches including writing, music, education, small business, marketing, PR, and technology. I still run several of those blogs (like AFW, NakedPR.com, and AudioXposure.com). Others I've monetized only to then flip them for a profit. Either way, I've found it's fairly easy to bring a variety of blogs to three or even four figure monthly incomes in a pretty short period of time -- no more than a couple of months (which is faster than writing the same amount for most 3rd party residual income sites).
Other bloggers often have much longer lists of what they consider must-have skills or tools if you want to monetize a blog reasonably well. I say "nah." But although you don't need all of these things, they certainly won't hurt:
- Financing -- Sure, it's great if you have money to invest in a custom blog theme, advertising, or to hire other bloggers to help out in the beginning, but it's certainly not necessary. In fact, my highest-earning blogs were all started without spending a dime over the domain name and hosting (and since several are hosted together, that saved on the startup costs after the first). You can afford $10 or so per year. If you can't, you probably need to re-think your entire freelance career before you start planning new residual income streams.
- Personality -- Personality's great if your intention is to build a community around your blog. But newsflash: that's not the "right" way to blog (nothing is), nor is it the only option. My small business blog went from $0 - $2000 per month in just a few months, and it was pretty much devoid of personality. There aren't many comments there. I've never made an effort to change that. The posts are simple new and how-to posts. They're not opinions in most cases. There aren't many reviews. I never blogged there to build conversations. I blogged there to earn from my writing. And I have. On the other hand, my PR blog also monetizes rather well. That blog completely revolves around my no-bullshit personality when confronting PR and social media issues. On the other hand, AFW has personality injected, but is also more instructional than NakedPR is -- it falls somewhere in the middle. No method has really proved better than the others overall. It's all about knowing what the niche audience really wants (community vs news vs instructional content or some mix). Sometimes you'll guess wrong.
- Frequent updates -- Sometimes you just won't feel like blogging, and that's okay. Don't stress yourself out feeling like you have to stick to rigid posting schedules or that you have to post every day. Are frequent updates nice? Sure they are. But they're not always required. I mentioned my two highest-earning blogs (small business and PR) before. Both of them can go for months at a time without an update. In fact, I took an announced 6 month hiatus from NakedPR.com previously. During that break traffic nearly doubled, and income followed suit. Even here, where I try to post more frequently (even twice a day a lot of days), I see subscribers and traffic increase when I go a few days without posting. It's become pretty predictable. So go ahead. Feel free to take a break every now and then. It gives your readers a chance to catch up or dig into your archives (where some of your best content might be hidden away). Don't decide on a solid schedule up front. Play with it and see what works best for your niche and your readers.
- Link-building campaigns -- My SEO-centric pals might want to hit me for this, but frankly I've found that most traditional link-building is a royal waste of time. Don't submit your site to every free directory you can find. Don't waste time submitting news releases to all of the free press release distribution sites you can. Don't post short, garbage comments on other people's blogs just to get the link back. Don't engage in link exchanges. Don't get me wrong. There are ways you can increase links early on that I do recommend, but I suggest them far more for the exposure value. Those things would include linking to other blogs from your posts (the bloggers often know who's linking to them, and they might come to check out your post -- it's a good way to start networking with others in your niche). You could also comment on other blogs and include your link, but only do this if you have something substantive to add. Otherwise you just look like a schmuck. The absolute best way to build links to your blog however is to simply create great content that people deem worth linking to. Remember, it's not just about linkback quantity. It's about getting quality, relevant links back from sites who cater to your audience (who not only provide link juice, but direct traffic).
How to Earn Money From Your Blog
Now you have some of the basic dos and "do it if you feel like its." But how can you actually earn money from your blog? First and foremost, if your blog is in your specialty area, you should absolutely use it to promote your freelance writing services (even if just linking to your professional site). It can be a highly effective way of increasing business in general. But let's forget about that and think about more direct income from your blogs. Here are the tools and strategies I used to take my small business blog from nothing to a four figure income in just a few months:
- Quality content -- The most important thing is to build trust with readers. The more they trust you, the more they'll link to you and refer others to you, and the more money you'll ultimately make. So forget about spammy rewrite crap if you want to earn a significant and steady income with your blog over the long haul.
- Private link sales -- These were held to strict quality standards, and had to be relevant to my audience.
- New post sponsorship -- Companies appreciated the blunt honesty on the blog, so they'd hire me to review their products or even their websites. They knew up front they wouldn't get glowing reviews, but instead critical and balanced looks at what they were doing well and where they could improve. Sponsors had absolutely no editorial control or impact whatsoever (the only ethical way to incorporate sponsored posts in my opinion).
- Existing post sponsorship -- These sponsorships were when companies liked existing content on the site, so they would sponsor the individual post (and again, they would have no impact on the editoral aspects, and posts would not be edited for them).
- Affiliate links -- This is one of the bigger tools I use now (on several of my blogs). Affiliate products would only be promoted if I'd honestly recommend them to readers. It goes back to the trust factor. When readers know they can trust your opinion, they're much more likely to make purchases when you do finally recommend something.
- Contextual ads -- These are text or image-based ads that vary with the content on each page of your blog. Google's Adsense is one example of this.
- Information products -- I didn't only promote other people's products. I also sold my own. At the earlier point, I was selling a short e-book for $17. That's no longer for sale, so now I promote my Web Writer's Guide e-book instead.
There are other ways to earn from your blog. For example, you could sell banner advertising. You could survey-based cost per action -- CPA -- ads (you're paid when users fill out a survey or complete some other action). You could sell video ads. Yo and I are launching FreelanceTheater.com soon, and we might eventually sell jingle ads or other audio ads in the audio plays there. Get creative and brainstorm some possible income streams for your blog that would work with your niche. There's a reason you won't see a lot of banner ads or even contextual ads here at AFW. Years of testing told me that they weren't the best ways to monetize a site targeting freelance writers. That testing also demonstrated that far better options were to incorporate job lead based income streams and promoting my own products for sale here. Don't simply assume the easiest option will be the right one for you.
Your Blogging Quick-Start Guide
Okay. So now you have an idea of what you should think about and what you can do to monetize your blog. But where do you start? Follow these few steps to get you moving in the right direction, and fast!
- Get your basic blog set up. This involves choosing a niche (use the Adwords keyword tool to find out if people are really searching for information in the niche first), registering a domain name, getting a hosting account, setting up your basic blog installation (I recommend WordPress.org), and choosing a theme (design). Rather than go through these steps in detail here, you can follow my instructions on getting WordPress set up over in our 30 day marketing bootcamp series for freelance writers over at QueryFreeFreelancer.com.
- Make a list of some post ideas. I'd say if you can't come up with a good 20-30 post topic ideas up front, you should reconsider your niche. While you don't have to post daily, there should be enough to talk about that your blog won't completely run out of steam in a few months either.
- Draft your first five posts. I like to have a few posts ready at launch time for a new blog. Do not write a generic "welcome to my blog" post to kick it off. Blah. What does that really offer? Nothing. Put up a temporary post if the site is up pre-launch if you want to build some anticipation, but if you're ready for launch now then get right down to business.
- Figure out a monetization plan. Decide how you want to try to monetize your blog (knowing up front that it might change after testing for a while). Get some kind of ad model in place. Contextual ads are some of the easiest early on, but affiliate products are probably a better early option if you can find decent products to promote in the niche.
Those are the basic elements you should think about. Did that? Then launch the thing already!
Teaching by Example
I know some people assume monetizing a blog is just easier for me. After all, I can use the "juice" of my existing sites to bring a new blog attention in the beginning. Others assume it's easier because I come from a marketing / PR background (although that's no excuse, since I teach you all about that here if you take the time to look). Still, I've decided it's project-time yet again (when is it not with me?).
I'm going to be choosing a niche and domain name this week and launching a new WordPress blog. The only money I'll spend will be for the domain name (I'll use existing hosting as you might do if you're already hosting your own professional site). No paid advertising. No paying for custom designs or coding. I'll be launching the blog in the same way many of you might -- spending as little as possible up front.
I won't announce the blog here (I won't use an existing domain name I have so you'll be able to verify when it was registered through the WHOIS records after the experiment ends to make sure it wasn't a longer-running site). I don't want to use this blog to push traffic to the new one (or any of my other blogs). Marketing will all be things you can easily do yourself. I'll use my networking environments like forums and social media sites. I'll follow simple PR and marketing principles to build some exposure, traffic, links, and income.
Then, at the end of three months from the date of the domain registration, I'll let you know how much the blog is currently earning. I'll share traffic stats (you'd be surprised how little traffic you really need in order to earn a decent start-up income). I'll share specific revenue stats (as much as I'll be allowed to based on the ad networks' policies). I'll tell you exactly what I did to get there. My goal is to show you that you can at least hit a three figure income in three months. Obviously I'm not aiming for $100 to just call it a day. I will do the best I can using as little as I can in a model that anyone can follow. Some general updates will be posted here just to let you know the project is still under way. I hope that teaching by example will help to alleviate some of the fears some freelance writers have about blogging for residual income. Will you be along for the ride?