Beginner’s Guide to Part-Time Blogging for Money
(This essay started as a simple little e-mail response to a friend’s easy question. It mutated into 4600 words, but it’s still simple & easy…)
A reader asks:
You mentioned offhand that $10K-$30K blogging was a possibility. How would you get there? Sponsored ads? Just generating scads of traffic? There are lots of ways I can think of to drive traffic and probably a bunch more you could school me on. How hard is it to do this and how long would it take?
The short answers:
- Ads & traffic, plus affiliate sales and your own products.
- Mostly one-time setup tasks, perhaps tedious, but not hard.
- Two years of posting 2-3x/week to build an audience.
Beginner’s Guide to Part-Time Blogging for Money
Disclaimer: This is a beginner’s guide for part-time bloggers. You can spend days or weeks on the technical details of blogging, but I’m not sure that it’s worth your effort. (Especially if you’re still holding down a day job or raising a family.) Instead, this post includes links to other bloggers who have researched the details and can help you optimize your blog with less trial & error. Your time is best spent creating quality content. Let a professional do the A/B testing to find the best font & color for your ads. They’ll share their advice for cheap, maybe even for free.
Another disclaimer: I’ve been read about blogging for at least an hour a day for over two years. I’m relatively skeptical about the conventional wisdom and I’ve tried to sort out facts from fears. I believe that this post’s techniques will work for at least 70% of beginning bloggers. You’ll find exceptions to this advice. The rules keep changing and I might even make a mistake or two out of my inexperience. I’m writing this post to get you started, and after a few months of your own experience you’ll be able to tweak the details to optimize your revenue. If I’m wrong, or if your experience is different, please tell us!
Before we start in on the details: if any of this seems too hard or too time-consuming or just too discouraging to tackle, then consider hiring someone to do it for you. They’ll take a slice of your revenue, but they know what they’re doing and they’re very efficient at it. I recommend an expert at the end of part 2.
This post is not for freelance writers or hard-core entrepreneurs. It’s for people who are blogging an hour or two of entertainment a few days a week, sharing your expertise, maybe documenting a project– and you want readers to put nickels in your tip jar. You could do well as a freelance writer for other bloggers, and entrepreneurs can reach a huge audience with their blog(s), yet those are full-time careers. You’re doing this because you enjoy it, and maybe you’re not quite ready to quit your day job. Pat Flynn can show you how to launch your hard-core entrepreneurial career.
I’m also going to assume that you’ve already found your subject. There are entire books on how to find valuable keywords and set up blogs to advertise on those subjects, but you’re creating quality content because you enjoy writing about the subject. You’re getting paid to share your passion, not prospecting for blogger gold. If you want to start a keyword site from scratch then I recommend starting with “Niche Site Duel”. The rest of you are blogging on a hobby or project that you’re passionate about, and it’d be nice to earn some passive income for it.
Your blogging income won’t make you rich (well, not for a few more years). However, it will accelerate your financial independence. You can sell ads and partner with businesses who pay you to endorse their products. But you’re taking advertiser’s money because American culture tolerates ads you find their products valuable, not because you’re trying to get rich quick.
You may not even want to run a blog by yourself, let alone try to figure out how to earn money from it. I think that many bloggers prefer writing posts to selling ads, while many entrepreneurs who happen to blog may not particularly care to write. Hugely successful blogs like Get Rich Slowly and MoneyCrashers have staff writers with an editor, a tech expert, and an ad coordinator. A few other large blogs, like Smart Passive Income and Mr Money Mustache, are mostly one-man shows (with some part-time support).
A group of writers sharing one blog (and one broad topic like personal finance) will draw more readers than each writer would draw on their own blogs. Perhaps the most cost-efficient combination of personnel and revenue is a group of writers who share a blog’s advertising & affiliate income while selling their own products. That business arrangement reinvents the independent bookstore by putting it online. It also gives you plenty of blogger buddy encouragement.
But maybe you’re blogging because you enjoy running your own project. If you wanted to join a corporate blog then you’d have done that long ago. Perhaps you’ll try it later on, but for now you want to learn blogging while turning it into a paying hobby.
Speaking of having control, WordPress.COM is a great place to learn your craft for free— but their WordAds program is not so lucrative. When you’re ready to earn revenue then I recommend using your own host (I use Bluehost) with free WordPress.ORG open-source blogging software. WordPress.com has been running their own “WordAds” revenue-sharing advertising for about a year but my experiment with WordAds only earned a few dollars a month during nearly six months.
Self-hosting means that you really pay someone else to host your blog for you, and you can quickly spend a couple hundred dollars. The good news is that if you’re in this for the long term then you’ll earn the money back in less than a year.
If you’re concerned about spending the self-hosting money, then stay on WordPress.com for a year or two and build an audience. (I talk more about the size of your audience down below in the “affiliate sales” section.) This blog averages 300-400 hits/day and pays for its monthly hosting fees in the month’s first couple of days.
Ways to Make Money Blogging
Let’s talk about five different ways to bring in the money.
The most popular revenue stream is the 800-pound gorilla. AdSense pays for clicks (CPC, or cost per click) and page views (RPM, or revenue per thousand page impressions) to run up to three ads on each page of your site.
I get to specify where AdSense puts the ads, and I have a little control over what types of ads are displayed. Google does the rest: setting rates, working with advertisers, invoicing, and distributing the profits.
Advertisers bid on these ads through automated auctions. Initially, the ads are text links around your post, set off by position/font/color so that readers can distinguish the ads from your content. As your blog becomes known for its content (indexing and keywords), then advertisers may display graphic ads (instead of just text links) in the locations you’ve selected.
Google wants authentic ad clicks. AdSense includes a long, extremely detailed, bewildering list of terms & conditions to achieve authenticity. It may take over an hour to parse the text. Happily, they accompany that agreement with lots of tutorials, videos, and other resources to help you understand what you’re doing. It boils down to three rules:
- No more than three ads per page.
- Never click on your own ads.
- Never trick or bribe your readers into clicking on your ads.
AdSense can abruptly cancel your account, seemingly on a whim. (It takes them a while to check millions of blogs.) Violations of those three rules are death sentences with no appeal. You might get a warning e-mail for minor issues. For example, if your blog’s photos are somehow identified as adult content by Google, then AdSense might give you a chance to explain yourself. Bloggers are also not supposed to claim that they donate ad revenue to charity because Google doesn’t verify their donations, and readers might be tricked into clicking on ads.
The good news about AdSense is that they teach you what advertisers want. The AdSense heatmap shows the most visible (and highest-earning) locations for your ads. AdSense tutorials show you how to track the most obscure (and confusing) details of each ad so that you can try different techniques. Their e-mails let you know what ad sizes are the most popular and what other trends are gaining traction. Dozens of plugins help you optimize your ad size & placement, keep up with the changes, and track their performance.
Google AdSense is the largest ad network today, but competition is finally rising. Protect your income: diversify your advertising. Have a plan if AdSense yanks your plug. One of the more popular is Media.net.
Display Ads, or Banner Ads
These are a little more complex. Companies like PulsePoint (ContextWeb), AdClickMedia, and Adbrite promise to deliver ads to the right spots on your blog– and in the right context. Some of the ads only pay when readers click on them, others are display ads that pay per thousand site visits.
Frankly, I’ll seek professional help here. In the hour I’ve spent perusing these advertisers, they’re long on promises and short on specifics. It seems as if you have to sign up for an account before they’ll discuss ad rates or services. They certainly make Google AdSense look more attractive for its simplicity and its standardization. I’ll talk to other personal-finance bloggers who are using display advertisers and see what’s working for them.
I was surprised to learn that some bloggers have become ad brokers. They’re generally one-person entrepreneurs instead of large display-ad companies with all the automation and corporate overhead. Instead of striving to dominate the globe as the next PulsePoint or AdSense, they’re making a living wage from a lifestyle business. The advantage to a newbie like me is that they already know their way around the business, they know how to put together a rate sheet, and they offload a lot of the negotiating in exchange for a commission. It’s perfect for bloggers who feel that their time is better spent writing quality content instead of making sales or running a marketing campaign.
Affiliate sales give you a commission when your readers buy the product. The seller charges the same price to your reader whether they use your affiliate link or not— but when the reader uses your link to buy the product, you get a small percentage of the price.
One of the most popular affiliates is the Amazon Associates program, where the blog earns money for anything a reader buys off Amazon’s website. I’m not likely to advertise electronics or games, but this is a slam-dunk for the books on the “Recommended Reading” list.
It may not seem like much money, but Amazon’s affiliate sales link credits you with anything that a reader buys from Amazon during the next few hours. If a reader goes to Amazon for one of your recommended books and then buys electronics or an appliance, you’ll get a commission from that too. A huge chunk of Pat Flynn’s income is from affiliate sales to Bluehost blog-hosting services, which he also describes through posts and video tutorials. Ironically his main blog uses so much bandwidth that he buys a dedicated hosting service from another company, but he runs niche blogs on Bluehost.
At first, I felt a little embarrassed about sending you readers (who are generally frugal bargain shoppers) to a website that’s tempting us to spend money. After all, you’re here to learn about financial independence instead of ways to empty your wallet. I finally decided to encourage searching for the books at a local library (just as they can for “The Military Guide”) and try before you buy. If you decide to buy the book anyway, then I’d appreciate your using my affiliate link.
Some readers are building their own reference library to re-read and mark up (old school!) while others can’t deploy a library book to the Western Pacific or into the desert. Even more, readers are looking for training materials to use at their commands or gifting to family & friends.
Whenever I buy anything online, I check my favorite blogs to see who has an affiliate link for that seller. It’s a cheap way to say “Thanks!”
Credit card companies will pay you a one-time commission for every reader who uses your link to get their card. MrMoneyMustache (admittedly a very popular blog with over 10K hits/day) was earning thousands of dollars a month from credit card commissions.
Affiliate marketing is a potential gold mine, but consider why you’re blogging. I’m not sure how I feel about encouraging junior servicemembers to sign up for credit cards while I’m blogging about military financial independence. However, this blog has hundreds of credit-responsible readers who’d be all over an offer from a military-friendly company like USAA.
Before you sign up for affiliate marketing, you have to grow your own market. If you apply to an affiliate program during your first month of blogging, you have few readers and no credibility. You might be one of the three bloggers each year who grow to thousands of daily readers in a few months. (I hope you are!) The rest of us will need two years to grow your audience to the point where an affiliate marketing company will want to do business with you. If you apply to an affiliate marketer with only a few dozen readers then you’ll probably be turned down, and the marketer may not offer a second chance. If your blog owns the first page of Google search results or has a regular audience of several hundred hits per day then you’re ready for an affiliate marketer.
You can earn a commission by selling recommended products, but you can earn even more by selling your own products. The most popular products are books or tools (like a financial calculator or a special-purpose spreadsheet). Other ideas include smartphone apps, blog plugins, meal recipes, woodworking plans, and clothing patterns. Your products can even develop their own pipeline: you can write special reports or recommendations that you’ll sell as 99-cent PDFs. You can follow up with eBooks on selected topics for a few dollars. You can even repackage your entire blog as a book, which is how “You Are NOT So Smart” was published.
It’s counter-intuitive. Why in the world would people pay you for articles and short books that they can read on your blog for free? You probably let them test-drive your spreadsheet or your website, too, so why would they pay you for it?
First, it’s a way for your readers to say “Thanks!“. If you’re improving their lives and helping them save thousands of dollars, then many of them will want to leave you a tip. More pragmatically, it’s a way for them to have their own copy of your work to take with them when they’re not online. And finally, it’s their reference library if you should decide to stop blogging or even shut down your site.
I’m outlining the second edition of “The Military Guide”, but I’m not going to publish a second edition until the first print run sells out. In the meantime, I can create more of my own copyrighted material on select subjects (like military-related insurance products) and sell a 30-40 page eBook on just that topic. If it sells, I’ll earn lots more money for military charities. If it doesn’t sell then I can give it away and do more research on what would actually sell. Whatever I sell as an eBook can be added to the next hardcopy edition of the book.
Marketing to a Contact List
Every professional blogger gets excited about building a contact list, which is why every blog begs you to sign up with an e-mail address. The idea is that the blogger builds their very own marketing list of hot sales leads who are willing to at least read a product pitch, and possibly even buy it.
There’s an element of paranoia behind the contact list, too. What if your blog host goes down or (even worse) loses the blog and your backups? What if Google changes their search-ranking algorithm and dumps your blog onto the tenth page of results, or even de-indexes your blog? What if all the website advertisers go through a recession or even get out of your business niche? All of these catastrophes have happened to bloggers before– it’s not so paranoid after all.
I haven’t worked on a contact list, but 12 other bloggers already follow this blog through WordPress. Another 26 readers follow it through e-mail, although one of those is my daughter. (Sign up at the top of the sidebar, just below the orange icons for the RSS feed.) 58 people “Like” The Military Guide Facebook fan page, and another 105 follow the @TheMilitaryGuid Twitter feed. All of this has happened with minimal effort from me, so thanks for taking the time to share the social media love.
One of the best ways to build a contact list is with a static landing page and an “Opt-in” plugin, and I’ll eventually use those approaches. It’s one more way to build an income stream. Once I have a contact list, I can send out additional product: VIP subscriber newsletters, spreadsheets, PDF guides, surveys, polls, and draft chapters of the book. It’s a great place to experiment with reader preferences before going out to the blog’s entire audience.
YouTube and iTunes
YouTube and podcasts are powerful marketing machines. Your blog reaches your readers, but your podcast reaches your listeners– and your videos show everyone how it’s done. Popular YouTube videos earn advertising revenue, and both channels can direct your readers to links and products.
I used to consider this an advanced marketing technique requiring expensive audio & video equipment. The problem with my logic is that I’m a geezer who remembers when this type of gear used to cost thousands of dollars, and I’m sadly out of date. Teens use cell phones to create YouTube and iTunes content every day for their audience. It’s the only way to share your advice on topics like surfing or fashion, or show how to use products like makeup. Even a very basic video can talk your audience through the steps of setting up a blog– or entertain you with a Skype interview.
Audio & video might appeal to bloggers who find it difficult to write, let alone create fresh content. You can start today with a webcam and free video-editing software. All it takes is your interest, motivation, and time. If you struggled through high-school English classes or suffer from writer’s block, then you might find it a lot easier to talk or demonstrate than to type.
I’ve read up on these methods, but I haven’t done anything with them. My geezer reality is that I prefer to write. I’m apparently immune to writer’s block, and I’ve been too lazy to pursue podcasts & videos. Someday I’ll redirect my content through those channels, or pay someone to do it for me.
Freelance Writing and Sponsored Articles
Writing paid content for other blogs is an income stream, but it’s pretty much the same as “freelancing”. You get paid to write a post for someone else’s blog and they pay you for your content. Most bloggers do this as guest posts, which don’t directly give you money but will generate more traffic for your blog.
Some people also sell sposnored posts on their websites as a form of advertising. This is something we may do from time to time, but only when the advertisers product or service is a great fit for our audience and the military community.
I would caution you against selling “guest posts” or paid links. This is a spam tactic and is something that Google frowns upon. This is not something we will do on this site, and we do not recommend that you do it on yours.
Diversified Income Streams
How many of these options should I try? Well, all of them. Each one by itself may not be a majority of the blog’s income, but together they’ll add up. More importantly, they’re coming from diversified sources. Just like an investment portfolio for financial independence, if something happens to one part of the income stream then it won’t have a huge impact on the total income. I can tinker with one part of the income stream while the others (hopefully) continue. I can also experiment with each one to see if I can raise its revenue while not worrying about accidentally killing the blog’s income.
The interesting aspect of advertising is that a blog filled with ads won’t earn much money. It won’t hold on to its readers, either. An in-your-face ad that distracts you from the post you’re trying to read will guarantee that you won’t be spending much more time on the blog. The ad has to be placed where it’ll come to your attention because it’s integrated with the content that you’re reading. If it works right then you’ll click it because you want to, not just to make it go away.
I think another challenge will be avoiding inappropriate advertisers: payday loan companies, high-fee debit cards, Ameriprise reps, and similar military-unfriendly companies. I can ask for certain types of ads and turn down other categories, but advertisers are pretty clever too. Especially for the companies that rotate ads in a certain spot on the blog, I probably won’t know about an unsuitable ad until a bunch of you have complained to me.
Whether you’re using AdSense or another network or selling individual ads, you still display them in your sidebar(s) or above/below your text. Some ads pay RPMs, some pay CPC, others pay only if a customer signs up. A few advertisers will find you by e-mailing hundreds of bloggers. You can even choose your own advertisers by reading your AdSense ads (but don’t click!) and contacting those who you think are an exceptionally good fit. Network with other bloggers (especially the ones who accept your guest post on their blogs) for their advertisers.
Be cautious with adding more advertisers. If your blog displays too many ads then your readers may move on. Google’s search algorithm may also drop your page rank, and your search engine results will fall off the first page. If you use a static landing page filled with ads (instead of with your new content) then your blog may even be indexed as spam. You’ll still earn money, but you’re also starting on the first lap of a downward spiral with fewer readers and lower advertising rates.
One way to handle this challenge is to limit the size and number of ads in your front page and your sidebar. Use a plugin to put your biggest ads on older posts. Your regular readers won’t see them (unless they re-read your older posts) but most of your traffic comes from readers who found your old posts through a search engine. I use the venerable WhyDoWork AdSense plugin to set this up.
A more subtle way to sell ads is through sponsored posts and links. An advertiser (or a freelance writer) pays you to put their guest post on your blog with a link to their site. Stick to a guest post that’s directly related to your own content, and only from advertisers whose products you respect. It’s tempting to go for the quick cash, but a badly written guest post with awkwardly worded links will hit a false note with your readers. (I’ve learned that the hard way.) Pick a post (with a link) that you’d be happy to write yourself. Don’t take the first offer you get, and choose sparingly. Negotiate your rates based on your daily hits and your rankings (more on this at the end of the second part).
Setting Advertising Rates for Your Blog
Yeah, I know, I should’ve started the post with this heading. But it’s tougher than I thought.
The blogger market is highly fragmented, it’s hard to find a rate sheet for your topic, and prices change every month. Most advertisers will offer you less than half of what your blog is “worth”, and the professionals you seek for long-term relationships will also be willing to negotiate your rates.
AdSense and Amazon will show you what you’re earning, and you don’t have to know anything about ad rates to sign up. Start with them. Once you’re making a profit (or at least paying your hosting fees) then you can invest some of your income on learning more about ad rates.
In my limited experience, in the very broad category of personal finance topics, I’ve noticed that a month of my blog’s AdSense revenue is about what other advertisers are willing to pay for a year of a text link in a sponsored post. I hope that correlation is causation!
Be bold about charging what you’re worth. Advertisers can always move on to the next blog, but if yours is ranked on the first page of Google’s search results then they’re willing to pay for it. Small business owners (and us newbies) are always hesitant to charge what we’re really worth, but smaller advertisers are going to negotiate your initial offer. Affiliate marketers may want to offer the same commission rate to everyone, but you could always ask for more– or see whether you can include other benefits for a package deal.
Even if I don’t know your blog, your writing is worth about $25-$100/hour. $25/hour is a starting wage for most freelance writers, and $100/hour reflects your level of knowledge & experience in a subject. I ask $125/hour for a two-hour minimum, and if I’m writing on a tough topic then I expect to be rewarded for it. I can write– but I know a dozen bloggers whose writing is worth more than mine because of their style, their age demographic, and their audience.
Hire an Advertising Manager
If any of the above makes you groan at the thought of doing it, then… don’t do it. Hire someone on commission to do it for you. A professional will help you set rates, negotiate with advertisers, and track the income.
Crystal Stemberger is the rock star of blogger advertising. She runs advertising accounts for bloggers– over 200 so far. I’ve seen her in action at FINCON12, and she knows her business. Better yet, she’s willing to teach you how she does it. Her eBook is a great primer and checklist. She charges (at least) $27 for it, but it’s worth more than you’ll pay. After an hour of reading, you’ll either feel confident enough to set your own rates, or you’ll know that you’d like to pay her to handle it for you.
Blog with a Long-Term Attitude
At the very least, after the first year, your blog earnings will pay for your hosting fees. After a couple of years it’ll pay for your hobby– and maybe even your date-night budget. For us casual bloggers enjoying our passion, the income could eventually pay for a couple of IRAs or help you max out your 401(k). After 3-4 years of doing this for fun, you’ll know if you’re a blogger entrepreneur.
It’s work. It requires some hustling. It’s better if your daily routine is organized & disciplined, and it’s best if you have a checklist to make sure you hit all the cyclic weekly/monthly items. It will probably take two years to catch on, but it scales. If you love your hobby then you’ll enjoy writing about it, and you won’t mind the occasional chore.
Most of all, it gives you a sense of accomplishment & validation. It accelerates your financial independence, and it helps some of you to tolerate your day job “until my blog takes off“.
Share your blogger advice– what’s working for you?