So I have to start off by telling you that the title of this post is a bit misleading because it makes me sound like some kind of online money making guru – and I’m not. I mean, I think the easiest way to build a six-figure blog is to find a job that pays six-figures and then blog from work.

But it’s not that simple. If you have a blog and you’re anything like me, you try to balance a regular 9-5 career with a busy family and then struggle to find some spare time to write and promote your blog on the side. And when the fruits of your labour earn you just pennies an hour, blogging can be a bit of a grind.

How I turned a blog into a profitable online business

One general rule of blogging is that those who get into it strictly to make money tend to fail.  A blog needs to be compelling enough not just for people to want to read and share your content but to keep you motivated to continue writing.

But blogging can be fairly lucrative if you stick with it long enough, and the truth is there are lots of bloggers who make a pretty good living online.

I know some of the real online money making gurus – like Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income or Jeff Rose’s Good Financial Cents – would put my little business to shame.

That said, I do treat this blog as a business with the intention of making money. To understand why, and how it evolved, I have to take you back five years ago to when I first started blogging:

Boomer & Echo: The beginning

We launched Boomer & Echo in the summer of 2010. My mom and I wrote over 100 articles between August and December that year and didn’t earn a dime over those five-and-a-half months. Okay, maybe I had something like $80 in my Google AdSense account, but I hadn’t hit their $100 payout threshold yet.

They say most bloggers quit before the 6th month mark and I’ll bet that’s one of the main reasons why. It takes a long time to gain any traction.

Meanwhile I’m reading income reports from Pat Flynn’s Smart Passive Income and he’s making $100,000 a month!!!

Here’s my first year’s income report – in the first 12 months I made a total of $2,531, or an average of just $230 a month.

B&E income 2010

Now I’m sure most blog readers know that their favourite bloggers want to earn a little bit of money from their blogs. Many have ads on their blogs, so they must have put them there for a reason. And a few of us have other side-hustles where we sell our own products or offer other services online.

One of the goals I had when I started blogging – not my main goal but one of my goals – was to earn enough money online so that my wife could stay home full time and look after our two kids.

For me it’s like having a 2nd – and sometimes 3rd or 4th – job that I can work on at home from my living room during the evenings and weekends.

My big, hairy, audacious goal

So if we were going to make it work on one full-time income I figured that I’d have to earn an extra $3,000 a month online – after taxes – so that we could maintain our standard of living, and still meet or exceed our savings goals.

But making $3,000 a month is a pretty ambitious goal for a blogger. It actually sounds pretty crazy, right?

I mean, when you think of a blog you probably imagine an online diary, or a bunch of goofy memes and GIFs, or maybe some pictures of your pets.

I wasn’t going to reach that goal on blog writing alone. I started freelance writing, started a second blog, and promoted my work like crazy to try and get noticed. I was determined to make it happen and sure enough, in October 2011 – after just 15 months of blogging – I brought in over $3,000 for the first time and never looked back.

So how did I get to that point?

Honestly, I have no idea – blind luck, I suppose. Hell, I’m not even sure how I managed to install WordPress right the first time. I don’t know how to code, I don’t know a lick of HTML, and I don’t have a way with words like Kerry Taylor on Squawkfox, or Dan Bortolotti on the Canadian Couch Potato blog.

Looking back at some of my earlier work is pretty humbling.

But I knew the best blogs were writing consistently, at least 4-5 times a week if not more. If we did anything right back then it was that we churned out five articles a week for two straight years, not to mention guest posting and networking with other bloggers to get on their radar.

Gaming Google?

Eventually Google decided that a couple of crappy articles that I wrote about redeeming Air Miles and Aeroplan points were worthy of being ranked in the top five search results for those extremely popular keywords.

Search traffic that used to trickle in at 100 or 200 visits per day, now began to flood in at 2,000 visits a day, and with those two articles alone I was easily making $400 a month from Google’s AdSense program.

Sensing that rewards and loyalty programs were potentially lucrative topics, but conscious of not wanting to flood Boomer & Echo with those types of posts, I started a new blog called Rewards Cards Canada, a made-for-AdSense and affiliate income site where I published uninspired reviews of credit cards and loyalty programs.

The new blog quickly gained traction and I was pretty proud of myself – and not because I somehow managed to install WordPress for a second time.

I thought I had unlocked the secrets to making money online. Just research a topic, find some lucrative keywords, stuff as many of them as you could into a 400-word article, sit back and watch the passive income roll in.

I was so dialled-in to this formula that in August 2012 – just two years after starting my first blog – I made almost $15,000 from AdSense and credit card referrals.

Smart Passive Income?

At that point I was seriously ready to quit my job and blog full time. I mean, I really thought I had it made.

shareasimage

I was picturing a life of leisure, relaxing on the beach, sipping drinks, and watching the passive income roll-in without any effort. But before I could finish typing my resignation letter a couple of big events happened that forced me to change my approach to making money online forever, and (thankfully) temper my expectations going forward.

First of all, Google began introducing changes to its algorithm that were designed to weed out some of the crappy content that seemed to be ranking at the top of the search results, and replace them with articles from bigger brands and media sites that had more clout.

Panda and Penguin

So that meant instead of finding many of my articles ranking on the front page of a Google search, you couldn’t find them at all.

Another problem that I hadn’t accounted for was that credit cards and loyalty programs – you know, the bread and butter of my online income formula up to that point – were constantly changing their rules. That meant going back and updating articles and changing recommendations – it was a massive amount of work.

There was one particular change – when TD bought MBNA and then reduced the amount of cash back offered by its popular Smart Cash card – that meant that I could no longer recommend the card in good faith and so I gave up a big chunk of credit card referral income.

By November 2012 search traffic had dropped by one-third and by the end of the year it was down 66%. I didn’t think it could get any worse, but it did. A year later our search traffic was down an insane 95% from its 2012 highs.

Google drop

In the span of a year I went from wanting to quit my day-job and blog full-time to wanting to give up on blogging altogether.

A Profitable Online Business, Again

Thankfully I didn’t give up, but instead ramped up my efforts and tried to diversify my online income streams. How did I do it?

I started with improving my own writing, doing more research, interviewing sources, and getting more personal in my articles by sharing my own successes and failures, and not being afraid to take sides in an argument.

On the Rewards Cards Canada blog, that meant going above and beyond a basic product review, using real-life examples of how products worked, and researching useful tips and tricks on how to maximize points.

Thanks to a healthy email subscriber base on both blogs I was able to offset some of the lost search traffic with increased direct traffic on the days when we published a post. Because of that I was still able to leverage our readership into successful advertising deals.

Brand partnerships

I reached out to Canadian brands in the financial services space, companies like the big banks, online wealth management firms, insurance companies, and tax providers, and offered to publish an article on my blog about their product or service, whether through a review or an interview Q&A.

Yes, the dreaded “advertorial”. Let’s stop and address this topic for a minute.

I want to be clear: Bloggers shouldn’t have to apologize for advertising. It takes an insane amount of work to publish a consistent and high-quality blog. The writing, research, and promotion, plus what goes on behind the scenes with web hosting, plug-ins, coding, answering emails, and responding to comments.

The quickest way to recoup that time investment is to sell advertising on your blog. Let’s be honest; how many of you would work 15-20 hours a week for free – no matter how passionate you are about a topic? A lack of income leads to blogger burnout, which means less quality, less frequency, or just flaming out altogether.

Blurred Lines

So when you look at traditional media publishing there’s a hard line drawn between the business side and the editorial side. But that line has been blurring over the last few years as media companies struggle to gain revenue. You’re seeing more articles like this one from MoneySense, touting the benefits of actively managed mutual funds, or advert-emails like this one from the Globe and Mail.

Globe email

But as a blogger, who’s also looking to make money, I have to be both the journalist and the ad sales rep for my brand. See the dilemma?

Of course, you have to be careful. An advertorial, or sponsored post, if written poorly or done with the wrong partner, can be confusing for you as readers and cause great anxiety for me as a publisher. I don’t want to lose readers over an article, or worse be labelled a sell-out.

It’s important to have some guidelines around the type of sponsored content you’re willing to publish.

As Stephen Colbert said recently on The Late Show:

Standards

All joking aside, I personally look for four things when entering into a brand partnership or ad campaign:

  1. Is the company Canadian and related to personal finance or investing?
  2. Is the product or service useful – would I use it myself?
  3. Can the company offer something of value to my readers that they wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere?
  4. Can I write the article myself instead of using your press release or ghostwritten listicle?

Too often, companies see bloggers as free promotion for their brand. But my time – and yours – is valuable. So is my expertise as a writer and personal finance expert. I will absolutely leverage that into an advertising deal, as long as I’m not compromising the four rules listed above.

Again, bloggers shouldn’t have to apologize for advertising.

Okay, now back to my story.

Be Everywhere

I was inspired by Pat Flynn’s “Be Everywhere” mantra, which is about expanding outside of your blog and bringing new eyes into your business.

I started guest posting again. I put more emphasis on freelance writing, and landed some fairly lucrative writing gigs, including another stint with the Toronto Star. I collaborated on a video podcast called Because Money, which gave me a chance to interview other experts in the field and get my name on their radar.

Then in January last year I started my own part-time fee-only financial planning business. It’s going really well so far. In less than two years I’ve already worked with about 30 clients and I’ve made money doing something that I’m really passionate about, which is helping people with their finances. I’m taking courses online to become a certified financial planner, and, who knows, maybe this will lead to a new career in the future.

I also started reaching out to PR firms – you know, the ones who send out those annoying surveys that are sponsored by the big banks – and I worked with them to get access to their clients in the financial services industry. I want to be the first one to blog about the new Tangerine credit card. I want PR teams to reach out to me first, along with the other top personal finance journalists, when something new and exciting is about to launch.

Building those relationships took time, but it has paid off. Back in August I reached out to dozens of companies, PR firms, and authors and managed to get 63 prizes worth over $5,000 to give away for our fifth-year blog anniversary.

Last year I was flown out from Lethbridge to Toronto to attend a major product launch, and now I seem to get those types of requests every other month.

The result of all this effort was that the 95% drop in search traffic only translated into a 13% drop in income from 2013 to 2014.

And it looks like this year is on track to become my highest earning year ever online.

Final thoughts

I think the key to my success, if you can call it that, was being able to adapt to a changing environment and trying to become a better writer, and more importantly a better resource for our readers online.

Income trends

I mean, just look at the different online revenue streams and how they’ve evolved over time.

It started out with crappy text links and AdSense. Then we moved to affiliate income – credit card referrals, online shopping rebates, Tangerine savings account referrals – mixed in with some freelance writing. This year my highest income streams will come from brand partnerships and my own fee-only financial planning business.

I know that I’ll never have a monthly income report like Pat Flynn’s or Jeff Rose’s, but I’ve exceeded my goal of earning $3,000 per month online and I’m having a hell of a good time doing it. That’s good enough for me to hopefully continue this side-hustle for many years to come.

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45 Comments

  1. Mr Riche Relax on November 29, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    That is very interesting ! As someone who just started a blog (mostly for fun for the moment) this is information I’ll keep in mind if I want to monetize my blog !

  2. Steve Boyko on November 29, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    Thanks for the detailed tour through your online business history! It’s inspirational to see how you have succeeded despite a few setbacks. It really shows how diversifying your online income streams is so important.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:52 pm

      Hi Steve, diversification is really important. I touched on a few things that worked for me, but there are so many ways to earn money online – it’s pretty crazy when you think about it.

  3. Cool Koshur on November 29, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Thank you Rob for sharing your story.

    I believe you had “belief” in yourself and you never gave up.
    I feel happy for you and enjoy reading your blog.

    Cheers

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      Hi Cool Koshur, thanks for the kind words and for being a loyal reader of our blog.

  4. Tawcan on November 30, 2015 at 3:49 am

    Very neat Rob, appreciate you sharing your story. I have a lot to learn when it comes to getting net positive cash flow with my blog.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:49 pm

      Hi Tawcan, let me know if you have any specific questions and I’d be happy to help.

  5. Heather on November 30, 2015 at 6:19 am

    Rob, as a faithful reader of your blog this is a fascinating story. I applaud your goal of earning extra income to allow your wife to be home with your children. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      Thanks Heather!

  6. Jane on November 30, 2015 at 6:36 am

    Thank you Rob for a very frank and revealing blog. You shouldn’t have to apologize for making money from your blogs, that’s just business. But it is edifying for readers to always judge who is writing and why in assessing the value of your writings. Always consider the source and motivation of the writer.

    Keep up the good work and success will continue! All the best.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:47 pm

      Hi Jane, thanks for your comment. It’s a tough balance, for sure, but I try to do the right thing and put our readers first.

  7. Roadmap2Retire on November 30, 2015 at 7:27 am

    Great overview – and thanks for sharing, Rob. Its a hard time-consuming job to blog, and its erroneous to think that money will continue to flow once an article is written and a blog is up. Commitment on a regular basis is necessary – as you said – you need a few articles per week to keep readers coming back.
    I 100% agree that bloggers shouldnt have to apologize for advertising. Im glad you have found your niche with the advertorials. I wish you the best and continued success.

    cheers
    R2R

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:42 pm

      Hey R2R, blogging can be a tough slog but I’ve found the personal finance community to be very supportive and that helps keep a blogger going.

  8. Kari Clark on November 30, 2015 at 7:55 am

    Thanks for writing and sharing this post! I can’t believe you’ve been at it for 5 years.. I’ve been following your Boomer and Echo blog the entire time, trying to learn what I can from here and friends in the business. Times flies.
    I’m glad you’ve found ways to adapt and make the Internet work for you by posting good, honest content. We need more people like you out there 🙂
    Thanks for doing what you are doing!
    Kari

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:31 pm

      Hi Kari, thanks for following us for all these years 🙂

  9. Gary on November 30, 2015 at 9:27 am

    Your honesty and integrity come through in all of yours and Marie’s post. Thank you for your wisdom and experiences ——- and research you must do to educate your followers.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:28 pm

      Hi Gary, thanks for the kind words. We certainly appreciate loyal readers like yourself.

  10. Richard on November 30, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Thanks for sharing Robb, it’s always interesting to see the reality revealed! And it’s great that you can get something out of all the hard work you’re putting in and the information you’re sharing. When you’re giving this much away for free there’s nothing to apologize for 🙂

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:27 pm

      Hi Richard, thanks for your comment. We’re very lucky to have a loyal and engaged community here and so that helps keep us motivated to continue.

  11. John Ryan on November 30, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Robb: Great post! Very inspirational. The whole time I was blogging with Mike, I kept expecting changes to Google to capsize the whole thing. It never did, but your approach of adapting to a changing online space sounds like the right perspective.

    Good job!

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:23 pm

      Hi John, it sounds like you got out just in time 🙂

  12. Talbot Stevens on November 30, 2015 at 10:10 am

    Very valuable article Robb, especially for those, like me, who are considering blogging. Success is often only a few steps after the point that most people give up.

    We’re glad to stuck to it, adapted, and reaping the rewards.

    • Joe on November 30, 2015 at 8:07 pm

      Hey Talbot. Just wanted to say thanks. A while back I actually came across your book after reading a referral from this site. Bought your book that day. Worth every penny. Have a good one.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:22 pm

      Hi Talbot, thanks for the kind words. Let me know if you decide to take the plunge and start your own blog.

  13. Paul (The Travelling Boomer) on November 30, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Thanks for writing this road map for bloggers, Rob. It shows just how difficult it is to make a success in the blogging business, even once things start going your way. After two years, my own blog is just starting to gain traction, with some sponsored posts and free travel, but there’s a long way to go. You’ve given me some ideas on how to “reach out” for more success. Most of all, though, the message is that it takes a lot of work, so you’d better love what you’re doing.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:21 pm

      Hi Paul, persistence and passion are definitely two of the keys to success. Glad you;re finding success in your own niche. Thanks for your comment.

  14. Alexander on November 30, 2015 at 10:32 am

    I love reading articles like this. I am just finishing up my 6th month of blogging and I have made about $900 so far mostly from ads and affiliates and I am super ecstatic about it.

    It may not be much money but for me its way more then I thought I would be making at this point. I would love if I could figure out how to make more but for now Im just going to keep posting and see what happens.

    Thanks for the inspiring words to keep at it.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:18 pm

      Hey Alexander, $900 is pretty solid for the first six months. Sounds like you’re well on your way so just keep at it!

  15. Michelle on November 30, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Great post! I love blogging and I am so very happy that I am able to do this full-time.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:17 pm

      Thanks Michelle!

  16. David on November 30, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    I’ve always respected your writing, but I think the unmitigated praise from your adoring fans above is plain naive. It should be made clear that you can’t work for two masters — particularly two on opposite sides of the investment spectrum — without a conflict of interest.

    Even if you decide for ethical reasons not to cover a particular product or service which is bad for consumers, you are simultaneously deciding not to inform your readers with your criticism of that product or service. That is a direct conflict of interest. If you don’t like what TD is doing in changing the terms of a credit card but refrain from saying so in no uncertain terms, you are letting your readers down.

    I’m not trying to judge you. I think you have done good work and on balance it’s almost certainly positive. There is no comparison between you and investment “advisors” whose advice is almost always in the interest of their financial institution rather than the ignorant investor they purport to help. You have a family to support and good luck to you in doing so.

    But — as Jane seems to hint, above — people reading your work should take into account that you are at least partly in the camp of the enemy. Caveat emptor.

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      Hi David, thanks for your comment. I should be clear that in the case of TD devaluing the rewards on the MBNA credit card, I did inform my readers and subsequently changed my card recommendations going forward. it was the right thing to do, even though it cost us money in the short-term.

      There are plenty of partnership opportunities that we have passed on because the company or product absolutely did not fit with our brand and our values. In fact, some companies have refused to work with us because of how critical we are of the investment and banking industry.

      I could not in good faith recommend investing in segregated funds, or some mutual fund with a 3% MER, or a payday loan shop, or some doomsday gold-slinging investment newsletter.

      We will never stop advocating for consumers and investors on this blog, and that means continuing to be very critical of the industry. But I also reserve the right to heap glowing praise on a product or service that I deem worthy.

      • David on December 1, 2015 at 11:05 pm

        Jon:

        I thought I made it very clear that I was not accusing you of shilling for anyone in the industry trying to take advantage of consumers. It should go without saying that no one can object to you heaping your glowing praise on something you deem worthy, though there’s not that much around deserving of that degree of praise.

        The tricky area, which you avoid discussing, is when one pulls one’s punches in evaluating some product or service, or decides not to cover it. You need to be brutally plain when writing for non-specialists like your readership. Which means being fearless and not veiling your judgment in the hope the investors will read between the lines, and that you won’t mortally offend the financial institutions. Which, as you know better than most, is amazingly easy to do.

        I once wrote a report for the Consumer Council of Canada about the relationship of Canadian financial institutions and small investors. I called it the “Scorpion and the Frog” and an editor (a CCC editor aware that the Canadian Banking Association was about to make a sizeable donation to the CCC) asked if I didn’t want to tone the title down. I refused, and because my study was funded by Industry Canada, I got my way.

        But I never again received any work from any Canadian financial institution, from the day of publication. This, even though I explicitly said the Canadian banking system was the best in the world from the point of view of the consumer.

        Do I have any regrets? Sure, it lost me a lot of money and I had to henceforth focus on other industries which I didn’t know as well, and which didn’t pay nearly as well. But I thought it very important to consumers to be aware that the industry in its very nature has no choice but to represent its managers and shareholders first, not small investors. Consumers needed to know they have to learn — and equip themselves — to look out for themselves.

        Perhaps your way of dealing with the dilemma is best. After all you are still writing about the financial institutions and doing good work.

        As Jane very tactfully said above, it’s important to the small investor to know the full story of where Jon Chevreau’s coming from, and what your self-imposed limitations are. Let’s not pretend one can represent the consumer fully and fearlessly while still remaining acceptable to the industry. You need to admit that though your heart’s definitely with the consumer, you cannot say everything you’d like — and everything the consumer needs to know — while continuing to maximise your retirement plan.

        • David on December 2, 2015 at 2:23 pm

          Sorry, Robb, I thought I was writing to Jon Chevreau! Wonder why I thought that…

          So whenever I said “Jon” please substitute “Robb”.

          🙂

  17. Joe on November 30, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    Awesome post Robb. As I’ve told you before you and My Own Advisor inspired me to start a blog of my own. I hear ya about the struggle sometimes. It’s tough balancing a family, a full time job, time for exercise and then time to research, write, edit and improve the blog. Having fun though. It’s also nice to see I’m not the only one that doesn’t have a clue about code, HTML ect. I can fly a 100 million dollar airplane but I can barely install wordpress. Looking forward to more great Boomer and Echo posts.
    Keep the blue side up.
    Joe

    • Echo on November 30, 2015 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks Joe! It is humbling to see what some talented coders and designers can do with their blogs. But, hey, if we can do it then anyone can, right?

  18. DivGuy on December 1, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    You and I were on the same boat when Google decided to sink blogs! 😉

    It’s amazing how we took two different paths from there but are both still around and reaching new goals. I’m now more focusing on my membership website, but I still enjoy A LOT writing on my blogs and for Seeking Alpha.

    I enjoyed reading about your story and hope we will still be around for many many years to come! 😉

    Cheers,

    Mike

  19. Mike Holman on December 1, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    $15k in one month? Holy sh**! That is amazing, even if it didn’t last.

    Kudos for making such a great business for yourself and getting rewarded for all your hard work.

  20. My Own Advisor on December 3, 2015 at 7:38 pm

    Wow, I’m nowhere near that money Robb but kudos to you. You’ve worked very hard on your content and site(s). I wish you continued success my friend. Keep it up!

    Mark

  21. The Blunt Bean Counter on December 5, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Robb, as an accountant who sees all kinds of business ventures, I give you an A+ on yours. Great job by u and ur mom. As I always tell u, I knew you had potential from the start 🙂

  22. SST on December 7, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Robb, what kind of credentials/license do you currently hold to operate your advisor business?

    Thanks.

    (p.s. – I have relatives in Lethbridge!)

    • Echo on December 8, 2015 at 5:20 pm

      Hi SST, I don’t sell financial products or manage money so I don’t hold any licenses or credentials in that respect. As I mention in the post, however, I am in the process of completing my CFP designation.

  23. Carlos Henao on September 12, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Hi Robb

    I’m not an online guru, but have you considered putting up ads directly from the advertiser, as opposed to through Google? That way you can get ads that are more relevant to your readers, and you get a larger piece of the pie. You might have to do some hussle on this. You could call up some businesses you deal with already, tell them what your subscriber base is like right now and what you expect, and give them the opportunity to reach your readers through the ads.

    Just thinking!

    • Echo on September 12, 2016 at 10:38 pm

      Hi Carlos, thanks for your comment. That’s the idea, go directly to the source rather than through a 3rd party like Google. In reality that’s much tougher than it sounds. And companies want more than just a display ad, they’re always on the look-out for ways to engage a new audience through sponsored content, surveys, infographics, etc. Twitter chats have been a surprising revenue stream this year. Who knew?

  24. David Toyne on June 28, 2018 at 4:57 am

    This is a really interesting story and good on you for sharing it. It would be great to hear an update!

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