How to Make Money From Your Blog
Translations of this material:
- into Ukrainian: Як заробляти гроші на своєму блозі. 2% translated in draft.
Submitted for translation by gcolor 31.03.2011
- into Russian: Как делать деньги на своем блоге. 5% translated in draft.
Submitted for translation by AlexBel 04.06.2009
StevePavlina.com was launched on Oct 1st, 2004. By April 2005 it was averaging $4.12/day in income. Now it brings in over $200/day $1000/day (updated as of 10/29/06). I didn’t spend a dime on marketing or promotion. In fact, I started this site with just $9 to register the domain name, and everything was bootstrapped from there. Would you like to know how I did it?
This article is seriously long (over 7300 words), but you’re sure to get your money’s worth (hehehe). I’ll even share some specifics. If you don’t have time to read it now, feel free to bookmark it or print it out for later.
Do you actually want to monetize your blog?
Some people have strong personal feelings with respect to making money from their blogs. If you think commercializing your blog is evil, immoral, unethical, uncool, lame, greedy, obnoxious, or anything along those lines, then don’t commercialize it.
If you have mixed feelings about monetizing your blog, then sort out those feelings first. If you think monetizing your site is wonderful, fine. If you think it’s evil, fine. But make up your mind before you seriously consider starting down this path. If you want to succeed, you must be congruent. Generating income from your blog is challenging enough — you don’t want to be dealing with self-sabotage at the same time. It should feel genuinely good to earn income from your blog — you should be driven by a healthy ambition to succeed. If your blog provides genuine value, you fully deserve to earn income from it. If, however, you find yourself full of doubts over whether this is the right path for you, you might find this article helpful: How Selfish Are You? It’s about balancing your needs with the needs of others.
If you do decide to generate income from your blog, then don’t be shy about it. If you’re going to put up ads, then really put up ads. Don’t just stick a puny little ad square in a remote corner somewhere. If you’re going to request donations, then really request donations. Don’t put up a barely visible “Donate” link and pray for the best. If you’re going to sell products, then really sell them. Create or acquire the best quality products you can, and give your visitors compelling reasons to buy. If you’re going to do this, then fully commit to it. Don’t take a half-assed approach. Either be full-assed or no-assed.
You can reasonably expect that when you begin commercializing a free site, some people will complain, depending on how you do it. I launched this site in October 2004, and I began putting Google Adsense ads on the site in February 2005. There were some complaints, but I expected that — it was really no big deal. Less than 1 in 5,000 visitors actually sent me negative feedback. Most people who sent feedback were surprisingly supportive. Most of the complaints died off within a few weeks, and the site began generating income almost immediately, although it was pretty low — a whopping $53 the first month. If you’d like to see some month-by-month specifics, I posted my 2005 Adsense revenue figures earlier this year. Adsense is still my single best source of revenue for this site, although it’s certainly not my only source. More on that later…
Can you make a decent income online?
Yes, absolutely. At the very least, a high five-figure annual income is certainly an attainable goal for an individual working full-time from home. I’m making a healthy income from StevePavlina.com, and the site is only 19 months old… barely a toddler. If you have a day job, it will take longer to generate a livable income, but it can still be done part-time if you’re willing to devote a lot of your spare time to it. I’ve always done it full-time.
Can most people do it?
No, they can’t. I hope it doesn’t shock you to see a personal development web site use the dreaded C-word. But I happen to agree with those who say that 99% of people who try to generate serious income from their blogs will fail. The tagline for this site is “Personal Development for Smart People.” And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your outlook), smart people are a minority on this planet. So while most people can’t make a living this way, I would say that most smart people can. How do you know whether or not you qualify as smart? Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you have to ask the question, you aren’t.
If that last paragraph doesn’t flood my inbox with flames, I don’t know what will. OK, actually I do.
This kind of 99-1 ratio isn’t unique to blogging though. You’ll see it in any field with relatively low barriers to entry. What percentage of wannabe actors, musicians, or athletes ever make enough money from their passions to support themselves? It doesn’t take much effort to start a blog these days — almost anyone can do it. Talent counts for something, and the talent that matters in blogging is intelligence. But that just gets you in the door. You need to specifically apply your intelligence to one particular talent. And the best words I can think of to describe that particular talent are: web savvy.
If you are very web savvy, or if you can learn to become very web savvy, then you have an excellent shot of making enough money from your blog to cover all your living expenses… and then some. But if becoming truly web savvy is more than your gray matter can handle, then I’ll offer this advice: Don’t quit your day job.
What do I mean by web savvy? You don’t need to be a programmer, but you need a decent functional understanding of a variety of web technologies. What technologies are “key” will depend on the nature of your blog and your means of monetization. But generally speaking I’d list these elements as significant:
* blog publishing software
* blog comments (and comment spam)
* feed aggregators
* full vs. partial feeds
* blog carnivals (for kick-starting your blog’s traffic)
* search engines
* search engine optimization (SEO)
* page rank
* social bookmarking
* contextual advertising
* affiliate programs
* traffic statistics
Optional: podcasting, instant messaging, PHP or other web scripting languages.
I’m sure I missed a few due to familiarity blindness. If scanning such a list makes your head spin, I wouldn’t recommend trying to make a full-time living from blogging just yet. Certainly you can still blog, but you’ll be at a serious disadvantage compared to someone who’s more web savvy, so don’t expect to achieve stellar results until you expand your knowledge base.
If you want to sell downloadable products such as ebooks, then you can add e-commerce, SSL, digital delivery, fraud prevention, and online databases to the list. Again, you don’t need to be a programmer; you just need a basic understanding of these technologies. Even if you hire someone else to handle the low-level implementation, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. You need to be able to trust your strategic decisions, and you won’t be able to do that if you’re a General who doesn’t know what a gun is.
A lack of understanding is a major cause of failure in the realm of online income generation. For example, if you’re clueless about search engine optimization (SEO), you’ll probably cripple your search engine rankings compared to someone who understands SEO well. But you can’t consider each technology in isolation. You need to understand the connections and trade-offs between them. Monetizing a blog is a balancing act. You may need to balance the needs of yourself, your visitors, search engines, those who link to you, social bookmarking sites, advertisers, affiliate programs, and others. Seemingly minor decisions like what to title a web page are significant. In coming up with the title of this article, I have to take all of these potential viewers into consideration. I want a title that is attractive to human visitors, drives reasonable search engine traffic, yields relevant contextual ads, fits the theme of the site, and encourages linking and social bookmarking. And most importantly I want each article to provide genuine value to my visitors. I do my best to create titles for my articles that balance these various needs. Often that means abandoning cutesy or clever titles in favor of direct and comprehensible ones. It’s little skills like these that help drive sustainable traffic growth month after month. Missing out on just this one skill is enough to cripple your traffic. And there are dozens of these types of skills that require web savvy to understand, respect, and apply.
This sort of knowledge is what separates the 1% from the 99%. Both groups may work just as hard, but the 1% is getting much better results for their efforts. It normally doesn’t take me more than 60 seconds to title an article, but a lot of experience goes into those 60 seconds. You really just have to learn these ideas once; after that you can apply them routinely.
Whenever you come across a significant web technology you don’t understand, look it up on Google or Wikipedia, and dive into it long enough to acquire a basic understanding of it. To make money from blogging it’s important to be something of a jack of all trades. Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “A jack of all trades is a master of none.” That may be true, but you don’t need to master any of these technologies — you just have to be good enough to use them. It’s the difference between being able to drive a car vs. becoming an auto mechanic. Strive to achieve functional knowledge, and then move on to something else. Even though I’m an experienced programmer, I don’t know how many web technologies actually work. I don’t really care. I can still use them to generate results. In the time it would take me to fully understand one new technology, I can achieve sufficient functional knowledge to apply several of them.
Thriving on change
Your greatest risk isn’t that you’ll make mistakes that will cost you. Your greatest risk is that you’ll miss opportunities. You need an entrepreneurial mindset, not an employee mindset. Don’t be too concerned with the risk of loss — be more concerned with the risk of missed gains. It’s what you don’t know and what you don’t do that will hurt you the worst. Blogging is cheap. Your expenses and financial risk should be minimal. Your real concern should be missing opportunities that would have made you money very easily. You need to develop antennae that can listen out for new opportunities. I highly recommend subscribing to Darren Rowse’s Problogger blog — Darren is great at uncovering new income-generating opportunities for bloggers.
The blogosphere changes rapidly, and change creates opportunity. It takes some brains to decipher these opportunities and to take advantage of them before they disappear. If you hesitate to capitalize on something new and exciting, you may simply miss out. Many opportunities are temporary. And every day you don’t implement them, you’re losing money you could have earned. And you’re also missing opportunities to build traffic, grow your audience, and benefit more people.
I used to get annoyed by the rapid rate of change of web technologies. It’s even more rapid than what I saw when I worked in the computer gaming industry. And the rate of change is accelerating. Almost every week now I learn about some fascinating new web service or idea that could potentially lead to big changes down the road. Making sense of them is a full-time job in itself. But I learned to love this insane pace. If I’m confused then everyone else is probably confused too. And people who only do this part-time will be very confused. If they aren’t confused, then they aren’t keeping up. So if I can be just a little bit faster and understand these technologies just a little bit sooner, then I can capitalize on some serious opportunities before the barriers to entry become too high. Even though confusion is uncomfortable, it’s really a good thing for a web entrepreneur. This is what creates the space for a college student to earn $1,000,000 online in just a few months with a clever idea. Remember this isn’t a zero-sum game. Don’t let someone else’s success make you feel diminished or jealous. Let it inspire you instead.
What’s your overall income-generation strategy?
I don’t want to insult anyone, but most people are utterly clueless when it comes to generating income from their blogs. They slap things together haphazardly with no rhyme or reason and hope to generate lots of money. While I’m a strong advocate of the ready-fire-aim approach, that strategy does require that you eventually aim. Ready-fire-fire-fire-fire will just create a mess.
Take a moment to articulate a basic income-generating strategy for your site. If you aren’t good at strategy, then just come up with a general philosophy for how you’re going to generate income. You don’t need a full business plan, just a description of how you plan to get from $0 per month to whatever your income goal is. An initial target goal I used when I first started this site was $3000 per month. It’s a somewhat arbitrary figure, but I knew if I could reach $3000 per month, I could certainly push it higher, and $3000 is enough income that it’s going to make a meaningful difference in my finances. I reached that level 15 months after launching the site (in December 2005). And since then it’s continued to increase nicely. Blogging income is actually quite easy to maintain. It’s a lot more secure than a regular job. No one can fire me, and if one source of income dries up, I can always add new ones. We’ll address multiple streams of income soon…
Are you going to generate income from advertising, affiliate commissions, product sales, donations, or something else? Maybe you want a combination of these things. However you decide to generate income, put your basic strategy down in writing. I took 15 minutes to create a half-page summary of my monetization strategy. I only update it about once a year and review it once a month. This isn’t difficult, but it helps me stay focused on where I’m headed. It also allows me to say no to opportunities that are inconsistent with my plan.
Refer to your monetization strategy (or philosophy) when you need to make design decisions for your web site. Although you may have multiple streams of income, decide which type of income will be your primary source, and design your site around that. Do you need to funnel people towards an order form, or will you place ads all over the site? Different monetization strategies suggest different design approaches. Think about what specific action you want your visitors to eventually take that will generate income for you, and design your site accordingly.
When devising your income strategy, feel free to cheat. Don’t re-invent the wheel. Copy someone else’s strategy that you’re convinced would work for you too. Do NOT copy anyone’s content or site layout (that’s copyright infringement), but take note of how they’re making money. I decided to monetize this site with advertising and affiliate income after researching how various successful bloggers generated income. Later I added donations as well. This is an effective combo.
Traffic, traffic, traffic
Assuming you feel qualified to take on the challenge of generating income from blogging (and I haven’t scared you away yet), the three most important things you need to monetize your blog are traffic, traffic, and traffic.
Just to throw out some figures, last month (April 2006), this site received over 1.1 million visitors and over 2.4 million page views. That’s almost triple what it was just six months ago.
Why is traffic so important? Because for most methods of online income generation, your income is a function of traffic. If you double your traffic, you’ll probably double your income (assuming your visitor demographics remain fairly consistent). You can screw almost everything else up, but if you can generate serious traffic, it’s really hard to fail. With sufficient traffic the realistic worst case is that you’ll eventually be able to monetize your web site via trial and error (as long as you keep those visitors coming).
When I first launched this blog, I knew that traffic building was going to be my biggest challenge. All of my plans hinged on my ability to build traffic. If I couldn’t build traffic, it was going to be very difficult to succeed. So I didn’t even try to monetize my site for the first several months. I just focused on traffic building. Even after 19 months, traffic building is still the most important part of my monetization plan. For my current traffic levels, I know I’m undermonetizing my site, but that’s OK. Right now it’s more important to me to keep growing the site, and I’m optimizing the income generation as I go along.
Traffic is the primary fuel of online income generation. More visitors means more ad clicks, more product sales, more affiliate sales, more donations, more consulting leads, and more of whatever else that generates income for you. And it also means you’re helping more and more people.
With respect to traffic, you should know that in many respects, the rich do get richer. High traffic leads to even more traffic-building opportunities that just aren’t accessible for low-traffic sites. On average at least 20 bloggers add new links to my site every day, my articles can easily surge to the top of social bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, and I’m getting more frequent requests for radio interviews. Earlier this year I was featured in USA Today and in Self Magazine, which collectively have millions of readers. Journalists are finding me by doing Google searches on topics I’ve written about. These opportunities were not available to me when I was first starting out. Popular sites have a serious advantage. The more traffic you have, the more you can attract.
If you’re intelligent and web savvy, you should also be able to eventually build a high-traffic web site. And you’ll be able to leverage that traffic to build even more traffic.
How to build traffic
Now if traffic is so crucial, how do you build it up to significant levels if you’re starting from rock bottom?
I’ve already written a lengthy article on this topic, so I’ll refer you there: How to Build a High Traffic Web Site (or Blog). If you don’t have time to read it now, feel free to bookmark it or print it out for later. That article covers my general philosophy of traffic-building, which centers on creating content that provides genuine value to your visitors. No games or gimmicks.
There is one other important traffic-building tip I’ll provide here though.
Blog Carnivals. Take full advantage of blog carnivals when you’re just starting out (click the previous link and read the FAQ there to learn what carnivals are if you don’t already know). Periodically submit your best blog posts to the appropriate carnivals for your niche. Carnivals are easy ways to get links and traffic, and best of all, they’re free. Submitting only takes minutes if you use a multi-carnvival submission form. Do NOT spam the carnivals with irrelevant material — only submit to the carnivals that are a match for your content.
In my early traffic-building days, I’d do carnivals submissions once a week, and it helped a great deal in going from nothing to about 50,000 visitors per month. You still have to produce great content, but carnivals give you a free shot at marketing your unknown blog. Free marketing is precisely the kind of opportunity you don’t want to miss. Carnivals are like an open-mic night at a comedy club — they give amateurs a chance to show off their stuff. I still submit to certain carnivals every once in a while, but now my traffic is so high that relatively speaking, they don’t make much difference anymore. Just to increase my traffic by 1% in a month, I need 11,000 new visitors, and even the best carnivals don’t push that much traffic. But you can pick up dozens or even hundreds of new subscribers from each round of carnival submissions, so it’s a great place to start. Plus it’s very easy.
If your traffic isn’t growing month after month, does it mean you’re doing something wrong? Most likely you aren’t doing enough things right. Again, making mistakes is not the issue. Missing opportunities is.
Will putting ads on your site hurt your traffic?
Here’s a common fear I hear from people who are considering monetizing their web sites:
Putting ads on my site will cripple my traffic. The ads will drive people away, and they’ll never come back.
Well, in my experience this is absolutely, positively, and otherwise completely and totally… FALSE. It’s just not true. Guess what happened to my traffic when I put ads on my site. Nothing. Guess what happened to my traffic when I put up more ads and donation links. Nothing. I could detect no net effect on my traffic whatsoever. Traffic continued increasing at the same rate it did before there were ads on my site. In fact, it might have even helped me a little, since some bloggers actually linked to my site just to point out that they didn’t like my ad layout. I’ll leave it up to you to form your own theories about this. It’s probably because there’s so much advertising online already that even though some people will complain when a free site puts up ads, if they value the content, they’ll still come back, regardless of what they say publicly.
Most mature people understand it’s reasonable for a blogger to earn income from his/her work. I think I’m lucky in that my audience tends to be very mature — immature people generally aren’t interested in personal development. To create an article like this takes serious effort, not to mention the hard-earned experience that’s required to write it. This article alone took me over 15 hours of writing and editing. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to earn an income from such work. If you get no value from it, you don’t pay anything. What could be more fair than that? The more income this blog generates, the more I can put into it. For example, I used some of the income to buy podcasting equipment and added a podcast to the site. I’ve recorded 13 episodes so far. The podcasts are all ad-free. I’m also planning to add some additional services to this site in the years ahead. More income = better service.
At the time of this writing, my site is very ad-heavy. Some people point this out to me as if I’m not aware of it: “You know, Steve. Your web site seems to contain an awful lot of ads.” Of course I’m aware of it. I’m the one who put the ads there. There’s a reason I have this configuration of ads. They’re effective! People keep clicking on them. If they weren’t effective, I’d remove them right away and try something else.
I do avoid putting up ads that I personally find annoying when I see them on other sites, including pop-ups and interstitials (stuff that flies across your screen). Even though they’d make me more money, in my opinion they degrade the visitor experience too much.
I also provide two ad-free outlets, so if you really don’t like ads, you can actually read my content without ads. First, I provide a full-text RSS feed, and at least for now it’s ad-free. I do, however, include a donation request in the bottom of my feeds.
If you want to see some actual traffic data, take a look at the 2005 traffic growth chart. I first put ads on the site in February 2005, and although the chart doesn’t cover pre-February traffic growth, the growth rate was very similar before then. For an independent source, you can also look at my traffic chart on Alexa. You can select different Range options to go further back in time.
Multiple streams of income
You don’t need to put all your eggs in one basket. Think multiple streams of income. On this site I actually have six different streams of income. Can you count them all? Here’s a list:
1. Google Adsense ads (pay per click and pay per impression advertising)
2. Donations (via PayPal or snail mail — yes, some people do mail a check)
3. Text Link Ads (sold for a fixed amount per month)
4. Chitika eMiniMalls ads (pay per click)
5. Affiliate programs like Amazon and LinkShare (commission on products sold, mostly books)
6. Advertising sold to individual advertisers (three-month campaigns or longer)
Note: If you’re reading this article a while after its original publication date, then this list is likely to change. I frequently experiment with different streams.
Adsense is my biggest single source of income, but some of the others do pretty well too. Every stream generates more than $100/month.
My second biggest income stream is actually donations. My average donation is about $10, and I’ve received a number of $100 donations too. It only took me about an hour to set this up via PayPal. So even if your content is free like mine, give your visitors a means to voluntarily contribute if they wish. It’s win-win. I’m very grateful for the visitor support. It’s a nice form of feedback too, since I notice that certain articles produced a surge in donations — this tells me I’m hitting the mark and giving people genuine value.
These aren’t my only streams of income though. I’ve been earning income online since 1995. With my computer games business, I have direct sales, royalty income, some advertising income, affiliate income, and donations (from the free articles). And if you throw in my wife’s streams of income, it gets really ridiculous: advertising, direct book sales, book sales through distributors, web consulting, affiliate income, more Adsense income, and probably a few sources I forgot. Suffice it to say we receive a lot of paychecks. Some of them are small, but they add up. It’s also extremely low risk — if one source of income dries up, we just expand existing sources or create new ones. I encourage you to think of your blog as a potential outlet for multiple streams of income too.
Text Link AdsAutomated income
With the exception of #6, all of these income sources are fully automated. I don’t have to do anything to maintain them except deposit checks, and in most cases I don’t even have to do that because the money is automatically deposited to my bank account.
I love automated income. With this blog I currently have no sales, no employees, no products, no inventory, no credit card processing, no fraud, and no customers. And yet I’m still able to generate a reasonable (and growing) income.
Why get a regular job and trade your time for money when you can let technology do all that work for you? Imagine how it would feel to wake up each morning, go to your computer, and check how much money you made while you were sleeping. It’s a really nice situation to be in.
Blogging software and hardware
I use WordPress for this blog, and I highly recommend it. Wordpress has lots of features and a solid interface. And you can’t beat its price — free.
The rest of this site is custom-coded HTML, CSS, PHP, and MySQL. I’m a programmer, so I coded it all myself. I could have just as easily used an existing template, but I wanted a simple straightforward design for this site, and I wanted the look of the blog to match the rest of the site. Plus I use PHP and MySQL to do some creative things outside the blog, like the Million Dollar Experiment.
I don’t recommend using a hosted service like Blogger if you want to seriously monetize your blog. You don’t get enough control. If you don’t have your own URL, you’re tying yourself to a service you don’t own and building up someone else’s asset. You want to build page rank and links for your own URL, not someone else’s. Plus you want sufficient control over the layout and design of your site, so you can jump on any opportunities that require low-level changes. If you use a hosted blog, you’re at the mercy of the hosting service, and that puts the future of any income streams you create with them at risk. It’s a bit more work up front to self-host, but it’s less risky in the long run.
Web hosting is cheap, and there are plenty of good hosts to choose from. I recommend Pair.com for a starter hosting account. They aren’t the cheapest, but they’re very reliable and have decent support. I know many online businesses that host with them, and my wife refers most of her clients there.
As your traffic grows you may need to upgrade to a dedicated server or a virtual private server (VPS). This web site is hosted by ServInt. I’ve hosted this site with them since day one, and they’ve been a truly awesome host. What I like most about them is that they have a smooth upgrade path as my traffic keeps growing. I’ve gone through several upgrades with them already, and all have been seamless. The nice thing about having your own server is that you can put as many sites on it as the server can handle. I have several sites running on my server, and it doesn’t cost me any additional hosting fees to add another site.
Comments or no comments
When I began this blog, I started out with comments enabled. As traffic grew, so did the level of commenting. Some days there were more than 100 comments. I noticed I was spending more and more time managing comments, and I began to question whether it was worth the effort. It became clear that with continued traffic growth, I was going to have to change my approach or die in comment hell. The personal development topics I write about can easily generate lots of questions and discussion. Just imagine how many follow-up questions an article like this could generate. With tens of thousands of readers, it would be insane. Also, nuking comment spam was chewing up more and more of my time as well.
But after looking through my stats, I soon realized that only a tiny fraction of visitors ever look at comments at all, and an even smaller fraction ever post a comment (well below 1% of total visitors). That made my decision a lot easier, and in October 2005, I turned blog comments off. In retrospect that was one of my best decisions. I wish I had done it sooner.
If you’d like to read the full details of how I came to this decision, I’ve written about it previously: Blog Comments and More on Blog Comments.