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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
All joking aside, I personally look for four things when entering into a brand partnership or ad campaign:
- Is the company Canadian and related to personal finance or investing?
- Is the product or service useful – would I use it myself?
- Can the company offer something of value to my readers that they wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere?
- 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.
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.
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.
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.