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In the 10+ years we've each been self-employed, David and I have built, owned, managed, and sold dozens of profitable blogs. At this point, it's pretty rare for either of us to have a flop – and if we do, it's usually more of a “not worth our time” than a “not worth anybody's time” kind of thing. If a project doesn't have the right balance of fun and profit, we don't hesitate to shut it down or otherwise dispose of it.
We've spent years trying and failing and sometimes succeeding, and we've both had loads of opportunities to work with other bloggers, especially newbies. It's gotten to the point where both of us are REALLY good at figuring out which blogs – and more importantly, which BLOGGERS – are going to make it. Seriously, give me five minutes with somebody and I can tell you if they're on track to make money with their blog. For some, I can do it in two.
Does that mean they won't ever make money? Definitely not. It just means that with years of practice and talking with other bloggers, we've learned that there are certain things successful bloggers do. If someone's not on that track by default, they need a course correction if they're ever going to make real money.
So – if your blog's not making any money, settle in and prepare to get honest with yourself. You CAN turn this around and make a wonderful life for yourself blogging full-time, but you have to be ready to make some tough changes.
Table of Contents
1 | Successful bloggers have STUPID levels of dedication.
Once your blog takes off, blogging is amazing. In the beginning, though, it's an uphill slog in the snow with a heavy backpack and a bum leg. Seriously, it takes a ridiculous number of unpaid hours to get a blog to the point where it's actually making real money.
Though it's a little easier with each successive project, I still question myself every time I start a new one. “WHY did you do this to yourself AGAIN?” I think. “Are you stupid??” Of course, these days I have the luxury of turning attention to one of my income-producing sites to remind myself why I'm doing it. That definitely helps.
If you're not prepared for the effort and weird variety of tasks required of bloggers, you're going to struggle. There are ways to get small quick wins, and some blogs take off more quickly than others, but it's important to realize that the “I started a blog and made 6-figures in 3 months” stories are rare exceptions (and in a lot of cases, they're just plain old dirty lies).
Be prepared for family and friends to roll their eyes. Be prepared to bore them senseless because the only thing you talk about is your blog and your niche. Be prepared to work many late nights while you wedge your blog in around other responsibilities. Be prepared to sell off things you own or miss out on fun activities because you need more time or money to work on your blog. You're living the way other people WON'T so you can eventually live the way they CAN'T.
2 | Successful bloggers get the 80/20 rule.
David and I have been blogging FOREVER, but we still occasionally do research to make sure we're staying on top of what it takes to win at this game.
Recently, we made a list of successful, high traffic blogs – sites getting traffic in the millions. Then, we took a look at which traffic sources were driving their traffic. At that level of traffic, Google was almost universally the top traffic source, but pretty much all the sites we looked at were getting steady traffic from Pinterest, YouTube, and Facebook. Twitter and LinkedIn came in at a distant #4 and #5.
Curious about what they were personally doing in terms of social media, we took the time to track down social media profiles for each site. More often than not, we found NO LinkedIn or Twitter activity, and minimal current Facebook activity. Most of the traffic on those platforms was coming from other people sharing their work.
Sure, they might have potentially gotten a bit more traffic by actively tweeting or sharing articles on LinkedIn – but at what cost? If it caused them to put out less quality content or write fewer books or make fewer videos, it would likely be a net loss to their business.
The 80/20 rule (as it applies to business) says that 80% of your results can be traced back to 20% of your inputs.
The goal is not to spread yourself thin and be everywhere and do everything. It's to find that small set of activities where your time and effort are best applied – things like creating quality content, building an email list, and zeroing in on only those social media platforms likely to drive great results for your site. Blogging is hard enough without trying to do every possible thing that can be done.
Beyond that, it means developing efficient processes to drive bigger, better results with less work. Instead of wasting countless hours pinning manually every day, you can get Tailwind and automate the process. Instead of endlessly visiting blogs and Facebook groups and leaving comments, you can cultivate relationships with a handful of bloggers, and connect with your readers by writing great posts and emails where your personality shines through.
3 | Successful bloggers test.
One of the “secrets” to our success in blogging is that we've learned to micro-test before we mega-invest. I know, it sounds super cheesy – but stay with me.
We've both made some stupid business decisions over the years, and at least half of them can be attributed to jumping in too fast, investing too much, and generally going too far in the wrong direction before turning around. Sometimes, life makes you repeat the same failures a few times until you learn the lesson.
Eventually, we learned. Now, we don't start any new project without trying to figure out a way to test it before it's built. When I started the British TV site, I was really just playing around – but even there, I ran some early tests.
- I ran a few paid like campaigns on Facebook so I could build a small audience and see how responsive they were. With a few hundred fans at the cost of 2-3 cents each, I learned very quickly that it was a ravenous audience.
- I created some affiliate link-heavy blog posts and boosted them to see how well the traffic converted to sales.
- I set up an opt-in form for email addresses to get a vague notion of how many visitors I'd need to get a subscriber.
It was a different kind of audience than the ones I was used to, and I knew entertainment sites generally made a lot less money per visitor – but the tests let me set reasonable expectations, and they showed me I definitely could generate a real income from the site.
If you're just starting out, don't waste 6 months writing content and hoping people will eventually show up. If it's at all possible, set aside just a little bit of money for ads so you can see what people do when they get to your site.
If money's really tight, I'd recommend talking with some other bloggers before you put money into paid tests – only because it will help you get a little closer to the mark before you start throwing money around. Either way, though, a couple hundred dollars in ad tests will give you a LOT more information than buying your 17th “how to make money blogging” course.
4 | Successful bloggers build connections.
Some people put up a blog and write a bunch of articles to no one in particular. They don't get to know their readers, and they don't share anything of themselves. While you definitely CAN make money that way, it makes life harder.
When you build a relationship with your audience, several things happen.
- They start to trust you. Your blog's income relies on having an audience that trusts your content and trusts your recommendations – and they're not nearly as likely to trust you if they don't know you.
- They remember you. You're no longer one tree in the great big forest – you're THEIR tree in the forest. They look for you, they point you out to others, and they feel a connection to you.
- They give you valuable insight. If you don't know your audience, you don't know what they want. You don't know what worries them, and you don't know what holds them back. Learn those things, and you'll learn how to make both you AND them a whole lot happier.
- They want to help you. It's human nature. We want to make life better for the people who are close to us, and we want to give back to the people who have helped us. When you form connections with your readers, they'll go out of their way to help you succeed.
Whether it's answering your blog comments or making a Facebook group or just having a really friendly tone in your email newsletter, it's vital to build that connection between yourself and your readers.
I use the British TV site as an example a lot because it's probably my favorite project. The audience is made up of mostly older women (something like 40% of the audience is 65+), and it's been so fun getting to know them. I've been able to clear up technical problems, teach them how to watch imported DVDs, and give them a great social outlet. Because I worked so hard to get to know the audience, it also gave me a great book idea – and that book has sold thousands of copies because it fulfilled a need.
5 | Successful bloggers build email lists.
Email lists don't always pay off in terms of sheer traffic volume, but there's no better tool for building an audience and selling to them. Google is fickle. Facebook and Instagram have reduced organic reach so many times they don't have much left to cut. Pinterest can drive tons of traffic, but it takes work and there's always the chance of getting banned or seeing a huge reduction in traffic.
With an email list, you have a set of people who have specifically opted in to your correspondence. You own that list of emails, and you can take it to another email company if you don't like the one you're with. The relationship is a direction connection between you and your readers.
More importantly, these are the people who love you the most. They've handed over their email address and ASKED to be contacted on a regular basis. They trust that you can give them what they want – and if you cultivate that relationship, the trust will only grow. That's how you build relationships, and it's how you build sales.
Don't skip list building because your traffic is too low or you don't have time. Even if you have NO money to spend on a list, start with Mailchimp and switch to ConvertKit or — when you're able. I've literally never met a blogger who said, “I started building my email list too soon.” I've met TONS who wished they started sooner, though!
6 | They share their uniqueness.
No two people are alike, but an awful lot of blogs sound like they were written by the same handful of people. Some people are so desperate to be successful at blogging that they try to imitate bloggers they've seen. Unfortunately, that leaves their sites feeling hollow and sort of bland – and totally unmemorable.
I'm not saying you need to be an endless parade of, “Ooh, look at me, I'm so different and weird!” Please don't do that. Just don't feel like you have to strip away your personality in the interest of sounding more acceptable.
If you're a Kenny G-loving, British TV-watching, parrot-keeping circus weirdo, just be that. Trust me, I speak from experience on that one. By being who you are, you find the people who love that about you – and the people who may not necessarily love it, but who love that you're genuine and unique. My crazy cat guy, anime-loving, yoyo enthusiast fiancé will vouch for me on this.
7 | Successful bloggers monetize and self-promote without guilt.
Broke and unsuccessful people LOVE to complain about ads and self-promoters – and if I'm being perfectly honest, there are a few hard-core self promoters who make even my skin crawl a bit.
But here's the thing – nobody is going to champion your cause like you can.
If you don't promote yourself, don't expect anybody else to do it for you. People are busy and pre-occupied and rightfully self-interested. It's TOUGH to get by in the world today.
If you want people to listen to you and buy from you, you have to be willing to promote without guilt or apologies. That goes for ads on your blog, affiliate links on your site, and products you make. You can't hold back and just hope people will find their way to the products.
Along the way, some people will call you greedy, others will complain about ads, and a handful will desperately want to take you down a notch. Ignore them. They're not your audience, and they're not the ones helping to pay your bills. Don't waste an extra minute on them, because every minute they steal from you is one you can't give to yourself, your family, your pets, your business, and the people who ACTUALLY want what you're offering.
I mean really, what could you do to make those people happy anyway? They think it's sleazy to have ads on your site, sleazy to charge money for courses – are you just going to quit your job and life and sit around reading free content for people who can't even be bothered to look at an ad to help you out? I certainly hope not.
Again, focus on giving your time and energy to the people and animals who make a positive contribution to your life.
8 | They take Google, Facebook, and Pinterest seriously.
Although it's possible to build steady traffic from a lot of different sources, Google, Facebook, and Pinterest are the three most common traffic sources I see at the top of the heap for most successful bloggers. If you want to do well, I'd advise you to give them both serious attention.
Think of Google as your long-game. It's all but guaranteed you won't see a lot of Google traffic in your first 6-12 months, but you want to lay the groundwork. With time and inbound links, Google will eventually start to trust your site – but if you haven't done the prep work (optimizing your posts and site), you're not likely to see much traffic.
I don't know of any other site that can drive the kind of volume and quality Google does. I know SEO can be intimidating at first, but I would STRONGLY urge you not to ignore it.
Pinterest is much faster, but she's a fickle, needy beast. If you're trying to generate traffic fast, this is where the lion's share of your efforts should go. You can't count on it to last forever, but it can be a great ride as long as you're putting in the effort.
Facebook has gotten harder to work with in recent years, but it still has the potential to drive tens or even hundreds of thousands of visitors to your site every month if you use it right. The main thing is to really focus on keeping engagement high – mixing up links with things like videos and images that get more engagement from people just scrolling along.
9 | Successful bloggers focus.
When you're working through the hard stages of a new blog, it's really, really tough to stay focused. The little devil on your shoulder will try to tempt you with all kinds of naughty thoughts:
- “This blog isn't taking off…I bet a different blog on a totally different topic would be MUCH easier.”
- “The problem is your design. Things will fall into place if you just redo everything about how your blog looks.”
- “Hey, here's a course you haven't tried yet. I bet THIS will be the one that makes you a millionaire.”
It's not that any of these things are wrong in every case. It's totally possible that a different niche could work well, or that a new course would have valuable information you don't already know, or that a new design would work slightly better.
The problem is that some people just can't hold still long enough to make progress. At some point, you just have to say, “The design is good enough, I've prepared by taking courses and learning at least the bare minimum, and I'm committed to this topic.” Tons of sites do well in weird niches, with less-than-optimal designs, and without nearly as much education as a lot of blogging failures have.
Determination and focus matter more than just about anything, aside from one thing…
10 | Successful bloggers write what people want to read.
Too many bloggers make the mistake of starting a blog to talk about what they want to write. It's totally fine to do that if you don't want to make money – but if you want to build an audience and earn a living, you need to think about how to serve your audience.
Yes, SERVE your audience.
Full-time bloggers may not have normal bosses, but that doesn't mean they just get to do whatever they want all the time. Successful blogs need eyeballs – so you need to be able to attract and retain attention by filling a need. Whether you're a gossip blog filling somebody's need for snark, or a caretaker blog teaching people how to deal with the challenges of caring for sick relatives while raising your own kids, you need to fill a need.
Sure, there are a rare few who manage to just ramble about things in a way that's entertaining enough to sustain an audience – but they're the exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of successful bloggers make it work by consistently delivering content that fills a need.
How do you do that? If you're not sure, check out our Blogging 101 course. It's designed for beginners who want to learn the basics of building a blog that actually makes money. If you want to run a blog that's essentially an online journal, that's totally fine and we wish you the best – but if you want to learn to make serious money, that's where we come in.
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