I was recently trying to explain to a friend new to the concept of affiliate marketing how I made money from blogging.
For this post, I'll use Sugarrae specifically as an example of how I make money by blogging since most people blogging primarily to earn extra cash (or a full time income) are doing it via one personally branded blog (which is what Sugarrae is for me).
Understand Readership comes First, the revenue later
Making money through blogging is not an instant process. You need to focus on readership first and revenue after you start to develop a readership. Am I saying you should launch a blog with no idea how to monetize it? ABSOLUTELY NOT.
Unless “back pats” and comments pay your bills, you need to have an idea of how you plan to monetize your blog before you start building it. But it can't be THE focus from day one. Start with a plan regarding what niche your blog will target, what demographics your blog will serve and what topics and programs you'll be able to turn to in order to monetize it.
That said, understand that in MOST cases you're going to work on your blog for months before you start to see even an insignificant amount of revenue coming from it. Results will vary based on any “personal brand” you're starting out with and how hard you work at PROMOTING your new blog.
When I originally started Sugarrae, there were NO ads on it. My primary concern was building my personal brand and not creating a revenue stream. I'm not saying you should IGNORE monetization. I'm just saying you need to understand it is on the back burner compared to building an audience in the beginning.
Understand that Blogging for Money has Overhead Costs
You should also plan to spend a few bucks on a design (assuming you're not CSS and PHP savvy). I use the Genesis theme framework (you can find out why here), but also have my Genesis framework skinned. I've been doing this a long time, so I've obviously invested into my design (Proof Branding did the current one)… but you can find great low cost templates to alter (if you're using Genesis, you can find some nice custom skins at Themedy) if you're just starting out. It doesn't need to be a custom design, but it shouldn't look like a plain generic template either.
Choose a Niche
There used to be a time where I said choose what will make money versus choosing what you love. For instance, I started off in the telecom industry. I didn't “love” telecom, but I always joked that I could learn to love any topic that made me money. But 2012 is a different playing field than 2002.
With Google's love of “brands” – large and small, you'll need to be sure that whatever niche you pick is one you can write passionately about – and regularly. It needs to be a topic you can become an authority on – and therefore build a brand on. And for most bloggers starting out with their first blog, the only way you can achieve that kind of authority and STICK WITH IT is to be blogging about something you are 1. knowledgeable about and 2. something you'll enjoy blogging about.
On Sugarrae, I blog about affiliate marketing, entrepreneurship and Internet marketing – topics I am obviously passionate about and – I think anyway – it comes across in my writing. I don't blog as often as I'd like, but I try to make sure that when I do? It isn't “fluff” so to speak.
Figure out what your hobbies are, what the things you enjoy are – then check the larger affiliate networks and ensure there are products that relate to your niche with affiliate programs.
Setting Up Your Blog
WordPress is free, and despite its security loopholes and constant updating, it's my preferred platform. You can install WordPress in under ten minutes (they say five, but if you've never done it before, it might be more like ten). Next up, ensure you make sure you do basic SEO for your WordPress blog so it will do as well as possible in the search engines once you follow through on all the steps below. Get that design (and framework like the Genesis Theme if you can) and you're ready to go.
Before you write a single post, I'd like to offer up some advice. BE REAL. Don't be who you think readers want you to be. Don't be just like the person writing for the most popular blog in your niche. BE YOU. Being you may not get you the most readers, but it will get you PASSIONATE readers.
I was talking with a very popular blogger a while back. His subscriber list trumps mine many times over. When I made a joke about that, he said, “Yeah, but your readers trust you, they listen to you – because you never bullshit them – you are what you are. I may be more popular in numbers, but your entire audience LISTENS.” I've long said I'd rather have 5K READERS vs. 50K subscribers. And it's true. You may not be everything to everyone, but by being real, you will be “real” to YOUR audience. And that's the goal. If you plan to make money online, it's not about “numbers” but rather about a following. And people can see right through “fake” – so be REAL.
I curse like a sailor… I very regularly offend people. But I also don't bullshit on Sugarrae. What I say is what I'm thinking and not who I am “trying to be” to please the masses. You want the audience who likes you as you truly are, not as you try to be. A bullshit personality can only go so long before it's found out.
Figure Out Your Point of Difference (POD)
I've been mentioning the need to have a POD in affiliate marketing and blogging since the mid-2000's. When I wrote the affiliate evolution over six years ago now (and have never updated it, because it's STILL relevant today), I mentioned within it (and the statement applies to traditional blogs as much as commercial affiliate blogs):
“Treat your affiliate site like any ‘real business' and develop a point of difference. Sorry guys, it’s up to you to figure out how to do this. But, I can promise you that spending some time on doing this, on creating a POD, will be the single biggest thing you can do to keep your resume dusty and on your hard drive.”
I cannot overstate how important it is to find a POD – or a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), depending on the terminology people wish to use. In short, this equates to figuring out how to STAND OUT among the top competition in whatever niche you're in.
With Sugarrae, I think my POD is my “in your face” writing style and my in-depth product and service reviews. A lot of the online marketing blogs were doing their best to appear super professional and politically correct when I started. And, keeping in line with “being real” above, that wasn't my style – so I offered up the same topics, but infused with my personality.
When it comes to my reviews, I noticed so many people were going the lazy route… here is the product, here are the generic screenshots of the product and here is my 500 word overview of the product (and honestly, half the time, I was wondering if they had even actually USED the product). My reviews take me a while to do, but I think they're different than the rest of the reviews you find on blogs like mine – and that it shows.
Find out how you can leverage your “real” to be different than the top competition. When we launched a Blackberry blog, we noticed the top blogs catered to the tech geek crowd with news, scoops, etc. So we decided to cater to the not so tech crowd – focusing on teaching people simple things and give them understandable and simple solutions to their problems.
Check out the competition and figure out your POD. It will likely be a big factor in your “make or break” when it comes to blogging. Whatever the topic is of your blog – if you look at the top sites you'll be competing with and find what they're MISSING, you can likely get some inspiration to help in finding that POD.
The Beginning: Blog Like Everyone is Listening
If you “wait until you have readers” to begin posting awesome content, then you'll likely be waiting a long time. You need to blog as if everyone is listening from the moment you launch because when someone happens upon your blog, what will turn them into a READER vs. a VISITOR is said awesome content. Not everything needs to be a work of art – but you need to show readers you have a lot of awesome to share and give them a reason to keep returning.
Look at other popular blogs in your niche to see what kind of content is resonating with readers. Check Google Suggest for what people are searching for… start typing your topic and see what appears in the drop down – this is likely the exact information that people are searching for. All you have to do is start providing them with it. Keep adding a letter to find more suggestions. For instance, I might type “affiliate marketing a” and see what drops down… “affiliate marketing b” and see what drops down, etc.
You'll read a lot of advice on blogging frequently. I'm more in the “blog when you actually have something to say” camp. I personally would rather post 1 (what I hope is a) truly helpful post a week than 6 “so-so” posts. But I will say that while you don't need to be blogging daily, you do need to be blogging consistently – especially in the beginning.
That said, I have a very sporadic blogging schedule here on Sugarrae – mainly because I run a few companies that can sometimes take my attention away from the blog for periods of time. However, I've had the brand for a long time now and it's something “I get away with” and not something I SHOULD be doing. Additionally, my analytics tell me that every time I go a while without blogging, I begin to see a traffic dip (which correlates to an earnings dip) – so try and do as I say and not as I do in this arena for maximum benefit. ;-)
Build Your Mailing List From Day One
Mailing list? I fully admit that I used to think of a mailing list as a “days of old” marketing technique. But my buddy Derek Halpern (one smart SOB) gave me a [headdesk] moment a while back. I knew he was an email marketing nut and we were discussing WHY he was one. I didn't get the focus, because I got plenty of word of mouth and search engine driven traffic. And he looked at me and said matter of factly, “if Google or any other traffic source decides to stop sending me traffic, my mailing list ensures I have the audience I built via them STILL ready to listen to me.”
After Derek said that, I resurrected my old mailing list (which meant starting from scratch as far as subscribers since I'd let the old one I'd never put any effort into lapse) and began to actually put some focus on GETTING subscribers. I'd recommend that you do so as well. Lynn Terry offered up some great advice here as a guest post on starting your first email newsletter which you can read for more detail (that said, I second her recommendation of Aweber).
But simply “building” a list isn't enough – you also need to send your list newsletters – which Lynn covers pretty well in the above post. I admit to being horrible at sending out newsletters even with my new-found effort to get subscribers, but that is something that I will be changing. Like with blogging, the frequency isn't as important as the consistency – I know this because I utilize mailing lists on my commercial blogs (whereas Sugarrae is my personal brand blog). And like with blogging, try to do as I say and not as I do. ;-) That said, every time I send a newsletter, I get increased traffic, increased sales on products I recommend and increased social mentions.
When the blog you're working on is your primary focus, your newsletter can be an important revenue generating tool. Don't wait to start building that list. For more email list tips and awesomeness, I'd recommend that you visit Derek Halpern's site, Social Triggers. This guy is wickedly scary smart.
You can check out Derek's interview below with THINKTRAFFIC on how he built a 17K subscriber blog in under a year. While we don't always agree on every aspect of blogging, he's a source of very solid advice.
The interview above is specifically about how he built his blog that centers around marketing – but you can use his tips to create a blog in any niche.
Get Social (or Network, Network, Network)
Let's be clear – I don't mean to sit on Facebook all day or to tweet your links incessantly on Twitter. What I mean by this is that you need to get involved in your off-site community. Why? Because people like to help, link, retweet and drive traffic to people they know and like. Look at all the things I've linked to above or people I've mentioned in this post. I “know” them all, except for one. Half of them, I initially “met” by interacting with them on social media. I communicate with people on a non business level through my social channels and the relationships I build ultimately help me promote my blog.
Traditional brick and mortar businesses get involved with their chamber of commerce, attend local networking events, sponsor local youth teams, advertise in local papers… bloggers need to be involved in their off-site topic community with social media.
Interact with Your On-Site Community
Once you HAVE an audience commenting or sending you emails, be sure to interact with them. Don't simply ignore the 12 comments on a post or the follow up questions readers might ask. Do your best to answer them and offer the additional help or advice they're looking for. This is any easy way to help turn one time visitors into actual readers.
I'll use an offline example to try and drive this home. My son plays youth football. Every year, he outgrows half of his equipment and we have to replace it. But I know nothing about how the equipment should fit, sizing, etc. One year, I happened to go to a local, non-chain store in our town. The prices were higher, I had to wait 30 minutes to get serviced… but it was because they used their specialty knowledge to ensure each customer was specifically helped, sized and fitted correctly. When I went to the big chain stores, I was pointed to an aisle. This non-chain store actually spends time fitting my child's helmet specifically to him. So they are now the first store I go to for my son's equipment and the first place I refer other parents to.
When you're starting out – be that helpful blogger. People will remember it. They'll return to your site, they'll subscribe to your list and they'll refer your site to friends. I understand this gets harder to do the bigger your blog gets – but if you're reading this, you likely don't have a big blog yet – and helping your internal community is a great way to help build your audience.
I was one of the first people to start using the Thesis theme (before I switched to Genesis). So when I started doing tutorials, I would have people frequently post questions about them and I did my best to help them figure their problems out. Even though my blog at the time had less than 10% content on Thesis, I suddenly found myself being linked to and mentioned on tons of sites as being a helpful resource on Thesis. And those tutorials help drive people into other portions of my site, to my social profiles and to my mailing list.
Promote, Promote, Promote
Honestly, I find that this is the stumbling point for most people wanting to earn an income through blogging. You build it and wait for them to come. [headdesk]
In addition to being social and interacting with your on-site community, you need to LET OTHER PEOPLE KNOW YOU EXIST. And you do that with good old fashioned promotion and hard work. Find
Forge Through “The Blogging Dip”
It's no secret that I absolutely LOVE Seth Godin's book, The Dip. It's all about knowing when it's time to quit and when you're just quitting. After the initial high from building something new wears off, you're then writing great content and promoting your blog – the two hardest aspects of blogging – and it's easy to start feeling deflated at all the work you're putting in and watching subscribers only trickle in at the beginning. I've taken to referring to this as “The Blogging Dip” because it's the timeframe in which most bloggers lose interest, give up and declare “it” didn't work.
I'm not saying you should continue on the same blogging path for two years if you're still not seeing results and audience growth after some time as passed. But you have to realize this dip exists and decide beforehand whether or not you're willing to work through it. If not, there's no point in even building a blog in the first place.
It never, EVER fails that at every Affiliate Summit, I will have a blogger come up to me after my session, tell me they have a decent readership, but they're not making any money. When I ask how they're monetizing their blog, the answer is usually the same… with ads on the sidebar.
Now don't get me wrong – I run ads on my sidebar and those ads make sales. But they make a very insignificant amount of sales compared to the other ways I monetize my blog. You can't simply slap up six 125X125 ads and expect to make a significant income.
You need to join affiliate programs (or a master affiliate network if your blog focus is very scattered) and link – tastefully – to products and services within posts. If you have a lot of pageviews, look into selling advertising on the site (either on a CPM basis or on a CPC basis with a program like Adsense). Create an info product you can sell. Market products and services you genuinely love to your mailing list (however, don't simply blast them with ads – you'd better have some useful content surrounding any calls to action).
Additionally, don't be SCARED to monetize. I meet one too many bloggers who tell me they don't try and monetize their site for fear of alienating readers. Well, as Lee Odden once said, “It'll be tough to pay the bills with a wallet full of famous.” I'm not saying to slap Adsense at the top of every page or shove offers down readers throats. But there is NOTHING WRONG with monetizing a blog to help afford you the time and money to continue helping your readers on a regular basis. The minority that IS offended might bitch the loudest, but if you monetize tastefully, they WILL be the minority.
If you own a productivity blog and do a post on “Six Ways to Find Two More Hours in a Day” then LINK, with an affiliate link if possible, to the products or services that you're showcasing as making their lives easier. You're actually doing your readers a FAVOR. You can either A. not link them and force your users to do a off-site search to find them B. link to them without an affiliate link or C. link to them with an affiliate link and potentially get commission on something you were going to link to ANYWAY. Why the HELL would you not choose to use method C?
When it comes to monetizing, I'm also a big fan of doing reviews. That said, never lie, always be honest in your reviews and never sell out your readership's trust in you for a twenty dollar affiliate commission. Oh, and for the love of all things PLEASE only review products you've actually USED. There's enough crappy, bullshit reviews on the Internet. Make yours worthy of being read.
NOTE: Once you start monetizing, you need to add a Disclosure page to your site. Missy Ward has a great Disclosure page on her site you can take a look at. I'd say to take a look at mine, but it's not exactly one you'd likely want to model your own after – but it still does the job. ;-)
Use Tools To See What's Working (and What Isn't)
Once you have an audience, you need to start using tools to see what is working on your blog and what isn't. You can use Google Analytics (free) to see where your users are coming from and what pages their visiting most. You can use Crazy Egg (paid) to see what users are clicking on (and what they're not) when they're on your site. You can use link cloakers (GoCodes is free – Eclipse Link Cloaker is better, but paid) to easily insert links (and be sure to use SID codes to identify which sales come from which ads) and as a result find out which ads and mentions are working and which aren't. PopUp Domination (paid) is great for increasing newsletter subscribers.
Can You Really Make Money Blogging?
Understand that most who attempt it won't, but ANYONE CAN. You might be thinking, “Wow, thanks Rae. That was encouraging.” but the fact is that most people simply don't follow through. If you really work at it and really FOLLOW all of the free advice out there you CAN do it. If you're the type who would rather have condensed information in one spot versus searching the net, Then Traffic and Trust (paid) by Nick Reese might be a great starting point for you. But understand all of the free or paid information in the world isn't going to help you unless you FOLLOW THROUGH.
Blogging isn't easy money – it's simply an easy opportunity. YOU have to decide what you're going to make of it.