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How to Start a Blog: A Side Business Primer
One of the most common requests I get from readers is for detailed information on how to start a side business of some kind, especially how to start a blog. With minimal equipment and ample time, how can a person construct a side business in order to earn a little extra money?
This is the first in a series of articles describing exactly how to do this. In each article, I’m going to discuss exactly how to build an income stream on the side, what effort goes into it, and (approximately) what kind of income you can expect from it.
These articles will naturally be spaced out so that I have time to actually construct each side business and keep it going until it earns a respectable income. However, with blogging, I’ve already done this and due to a lot of luck and hard work, it became successful beyond my wildest dreams. You’re reading that blog, in fact – it’s The Simple Dollar.
So, I’ll start with blogging. Here’s how you can start a blog and earn a small income from it in your spare time.
How to Start a Blog and Turn it into a Business
Step One: Figure Out Your Unique Angle
There are literally millions of blogs out there. Virtually every topic you can think of has hundreds or even thousands of blogs devoted to it.
The number one single thing you need to think about when you create a blog is why would someone read your blog instead of all of those others?
Your readers are going to mostly be made up of people you don’t know who don’t have a reason to read your blog other than the content. What is going to make yours different? Why will they visit? Why will they stick around?
What Is Your Topic?
The first part of that question is figuring out your topic. What exactly are you going to write about?
If you write about a broad topic, you’ll have a lot more material to write about and the potential to reach a larger audience, but you’ll also have far more competition. If you have a narrow topic, there will be fewer things to write about and you’ll have less competition, but your audience will only be so big. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
On The Simple Dollar, I focus on money issues from a personal angle, tying together financial advice with the realities of living through those things. This isn’t an entirely unique angle, of course, but very few things are truly unique online.
Who Are You?
The other part of the equation is what you personally bring to the table. Who are you? What is your voice?
No matter what you do, your articles will emphasize some aspects of your personality and scale back some others. However, you have quite a bit of control over what parts you’ll emphasize.
Will you be snarky? Or will you be earnest? Are you writing from the perspective of a parent? Are you a fan or a critic? What area of the country or the world are you writing from? What are your other interests that you might tie into the topic?
You want to be able to describe yourself in just a few words. For example, I’d describe myself – at least in terms of how I write on The Simple Dollar – as an earnest Midwestern family man who loves reading. That’s a set of traits that makes The Simple Dollar at least somewhat unique. Other personal finance blogs are snarky or sarcastic or hail from other regions or have other financial situations or other familial situations. Some bring in other interests, too.
How do you describe yourself – at least in terms of how you’ll write – in just five to ten words? You should try to bring at least some of that description into everything you write.
The Mix Makes You Unique
It’s that mix of the topic and what you bring to the table that makes a blog unique and makes people want to read it. If you’re not adding any of yourself to a topic people are interested in, your blog will be bland and generic and not different from anything else out there. If you’re just writing about yourself without addressing things other people care about, no one will care. It is the mix of the two that will make the site unique and interesting.
Step Two: Create Initial Content for the Blog
Once you’ve figured out your site’s topic and the “voice” you’ll be bringing to the table, your next step is to start producing content. However, you don’t want to start off by posting your first creations to the internet! You’re going to want to work through it on your own a little bit first, figuring out how to write good stuff before you start sharing.
Content is King: Posts Should Be Useful and Readable
A good blog post is useful in some fashion. Ideally, it should both entertain and inform the reader in some way. The exact mix is up to you, but you should never forget that you should be creating something that someone who doesn’t know you will want to read.
A good post is also readable. Your ideas should be separated out into relatively short paragraphs for easy reading. You should also use bold to highlight key points and use headlines to separate sections. Quite often, people will be skimming your posts and if you make this easier, you’ll cause the reader to retain more information and thus view your site as more valuable.
Every article you produce should strive to be both useful and readable. You’re better off producing one article that’s both useful and readable than ten that fail in one regard or another.
Create “Anchor Content”
Every blog will eventually have a large handful of articles that are very in-depth and continually useful for new readers. You’ll find yourself linking back to these “best” articles on a regular basis because new users will find them very useful and/or entertaining. Other people will link to them, too, and Google will put those articles very high in their search results.
How do you create “anchor content”? The best approach is to just focus on answering some of the fundamental questions regarding whatever topic you chose. When someone goes to a personal finance site, for example, what are they going to want to know? They’ll probably want to find some money-saving tips and probably a plan for getting out of debt.
When you create great articles that answer those fundamental questions, you can link back to them time and time again when those topics come up in your future writings. Readers will follow those links and the longer they stay on your site reading good stuff, the better it is for you in terms of earning money.
Not Everything Has to Be Anchor, Though
Writing “anchor content” is hard. Plus, there are only so many topics that really qualify as “anchor content.”
Whenever you write an article, you should either try to write something that qualifies as “anchor content,” something that builds upon a post (or two or three) of “anchor content” you’ve already written so that you can link back to that “anchor content,” or a very short piece that offers your thoughts on a link to another site.
As you start creating articles, try writing some articles of both types. If you are writing about books, for example, you might write an article listing your twenty favorite sci-fi novels of all time (a great piece of “anchor content”) or you might write a review of a great recent novel that doesn’t quite make the cut for that list but is still a great book (giving you a chance to link back to that great article you wrote earlier).
Step Three: Launch Your Blog!
Once you’ve figured out what you’re writing about and actually created some content that you’d be proud to post, you should launch the site.
Many people become obsessed with finding the “perfect” design at this point. Personally, I don’t think that this matters too much. You’re far better off launching quickly with some good content then upgrading the design later on.
So, how do you actually launch a blog? The technical aspect of it tends to frighten people away, but there are many services out there that make hosting a blog incredibly easy. They take care of everything for you.
There are many, many, many different options out there for hosting your blog. I could review the pros and cons of dozens of different choices, but instead I’ll just cut to the chase and offer my recommendations.
When you are first starting out, use WordPress.com. It is very easy to use and has tons of features. I consider it to be far and away the best free blogging platform. It only really has one drawback – you can’t use some types of ads on it.
After a while, once you’ve built up an audience, you’ll probably want to move elsewhere to take advantage of additional ad options. When you’ve reached that point, my recommendation is to use SquareSpace. It’s a paid service, so I wouldn’t use it until you have enough traffic that you can pay for the hosting with the money you’ll make. However, I consider it to be the best tool out there for most independent bloggers. It also easily allows you to import your blog from WordPress.com, so it’s a great place to move when you’re ready to upgrade.
Both options offer tons of templates and make it incredibly easy to write, edit, and post your articles.
Use a Default Template (At First)
Most hosting services provide you with lots of free templates along with some paid ones that look stunning. Don’t bother with the paid ones until your earnings from the site can easily cover it.
The truth is that with modern blog hosting, even the default templates look great on both desktop computers and mobile devices. You don’t need to pay for a “premium” or a custom template when you’re first starting out.
Step Four: Establish a Frequent Posting Schedule
If a reader likes your site, they’re eventually going to return to it to check out what’s new and you’re going to want new things for them to read. Readers who stick around will eventually start checking your site on a regular basis and you’re going to want new things for those readers each time they visit.
The best way to do this is by adopting a posting schedule of some kind. You might only post once a week or you might post something each day, but once you start establishing a pattern, your readers will come to expect it. If you post daily, readers are going to return daily – and if there isn’t something new for a few days, they’ll stop visiting.
How do you do this?
Post at a Lower Frequency Than You Can Handle
If you spent some time writing a few articles before you launched the site, you probably have an assessment of how much you can easily write in a week. Your posting schedule should be half of that.
Let’s say you were able to write six articles in a week’s time. You should adopt a article posting schedule of three times a week, perhaps on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
The software that runs most blogs lets you set the date and time at which an article becomes public, so you can upload the article earlier in the week and set it to appear at the date and time that you want. So, you might write three articles early in the week, but set them to appear later on.
This is a good thing. You are far better off spreading them out than uploading a bunch of articles at once.
Have Some Posts “In the Bank”
What do you do with that extra time? If you’re able to write six posts a week and only post three of them, what do you do with the extras?
You bank them.
Life is eventually going to get in the way of your posting schedule. Someone will get sick or a vacation will come up. For those times, it’s a good idea to have some articles already completed.
I generally have several articles already uploaded and set to post at certain times so that if something comes up in my life, there’s fresh content on the site anyway. At times, this “buffer” will stretch out weeks in advance.
That way, if a crisis occurs, I don’t have to worry about my posting schedule at all. If I have writer’s block, I don’t have to worry about my schedule. The readers will always have fresh stuff to read.
Step Five: Promote Your Blog!
People aren’t just going to find your site magically. You have to do some promotional work to get your site noticed, not just by people but also by Google.
Most of the people who discover your site will find it by typing in related search terms into Google. For example, if you write about Disney pins, a significant number of your readers will find your site by searching for “Disney pins” along with other terms, like perhaps “Disney pins Pete the Cat.”
So, you’ll probably want to start by submitting your blog to Google, but that’s just the first step.
Facebook provides a good opportunity when you launch as you can share the site with your friends immediately. You can also create a “fan page” for your site so that people can “like” your site, which helps in numerous ways – friends of friends will notice it, plus you have an easy way to share site news or exceptional articles with those people.
Twitter is a great way to find fans of your topic. Just use Twitter search to find people who are talking about your topic of interest and start following them and talking with them. You can occasionally share your articles on Twitter, but I’ve found that if more than 5% or so of your tweets are links to your own articles, people will basically see you as a spammer. Participate in the conversations and just post links to truly great articles or to articles that directly answer someone’s question.
(In fact, questions on Twitter can be a great way to come up with an idea for an article, then after it’s posted you can tweet the link to the person that asked it.)
Another method is to find messageboards and websites that are related specifically to your topic of interest. Most messageboards have rules against blatant self-promotion, so as with Twitter, you’re better off becoming a participating member and only occasionally sharing your links.
One great place to find discussion forums related to your topic is reddit, which is a huge collection of forums on every topic under the sun.
Step Six: Turn Your Blog Into a Business!
After all of this work, the real question people will ask is how you can make money with a blog.
Most blogs make money in one of three ways: displaying advertisements, linking to other affiliated sites, or selling a product. The first two are the relevant ones here, so we’ll focus on those.
Advertisements and Adsense
Display advertisements are those banner ads and box ads that you see on many sites, including The Simple Dollar. Generally, these ads pay you a fraction of a penny each time they’re displayed. You generally earn a CPM rate from these ads – this refers to how much you make for every thousand views of an ad. In other words, you’ll earn that much each time 1,000 pages are viewed on your blog.
There are many different ad networks with different rates, but many are closed networks, meaning you have to be invited in. The biggest ad network, however, is basically open to everyone. It’s called Google Adsense. Adsense pays a relatively low rate for their ads, but it’s generally the best option available for beginners.
As I mentioned above, one big drawback with using WordPress.com as your host is that you can’t use certain types of ads there. This restricts you from using Adsense with your WordPress.com blog. It isn’t a big deal – you’re not going to make much from Adsense at first – but when your site gets popular (say, a few thousand page views a month), you’re probably going to want to move to a different host.
Affiliate Links and Amazon
Another way to earn money is through affiliate links. For example, let’s say you’re talking about a book and you decide to link to that book’s page at Amazon. Amazon has a program – called Amazon Associates – where those links can earn you a little bit of money.
In Amazon’s case, it works by giving you a tool to generate a special link to that book on Amazon that includes a special code. When a reader clicks that link, they get the ordinary Amazon page, but then you earn a small reward if they decide to buy anything there, usually a percentage of their total purchase.
So, let’s say you have an affiliate link to buy a book and someone follows that link. If they buy a $10 book and you’re earning a 4% commission, you earn $0.40. But if they also toss a $50 video game into their cart and buy it, you’re now earning $2.40.
There are many different affiliate programs online. Depending on what you’re writing about, you can dig around and find ones relevant to you. However, Amazon’s program is relevant to just about anyone.
What Can You Really Earn?
It depends on many, many factors, but the biggest factor is the number of readers you attract. The more readers, the more you’re going to earn.
When you first start, you should be able to earn $2 or $3 per thousand page views on your site. However, with limited content, it’s hard to get that many page views. You might only generate that many in the first month of your site’s existence, meaning your first month of writing posts might only earn you a few bucks.
Later on, if you have lots of articles, you may be generating a few thousand page views a day plus your earnings per thousand views might go up (depending on new ad arrangements). When your site starts earning $10 or more dollars a day, day in and day out, it begins to feel pretty good – but it takes a while.
It took me years of blogging at a rate of several posts per day in order to turn blogging into a full-time option for me – and even then, I was incredibly lucky. It took me many, many months even to reach the $10 per average day threshold.
However, sometimes, your site will just click and you’ll do far better than that, but it’s incredibly hard to predict those kinds of successes. Just keep writing the best stuff you can and sharing it on social media.
Surviving The “Valley of Death” and Finding Long Term Success with Your Blog Business
As with every endeavor, the first few weeks are really exciting. You’re posting articles and people are actually reading them!
After that, it becomes quite hard. I call this period the “valley of death” because many people abandon their blogs in this time frame.
What happens is that your site’s readership isn’t growing very fast, but the “newness” of writing has worn off. You begin to feel frustrated because you didn’t gain any readers over the last week or even lost a few. It’s not the runaway hit you dreamed about.
The Long Tail
The truth is that success for most blogs actually comes from the “long tail.” In other words, they don’t necessarily build a huge active readership for a very long time. Instead, they build up lots and lots of visitors from Google because of their extensive archives of writing.
At this point, there are a lot of search terms that match your site in Google, so you get a healthy number of visitors coming in from the search engine all the time. You also have a lot of articles for visitors to look at, so they stick around for a while (especially if your articles link to each other). This generates a lot of ad views and also provides a lot of opportunity for visitors to click on those affiliate links.
Most people never have the patience to reach this point, however. They give up because they don’t earn much from their first ten or thirty articles. Unless you’re very lucky, those first articles won’t earn you much.
It builds, but it builds slowly. You’ll need patience.
Don’t Sweat the Stats
It’s easy to get obsessed with your site’s statistics. For a long time, I looked at them on a hourly basis. Now? I basically don’t even look at them.
Why? They don’t really matter. The stats don’t really help you make your site better. What makes your site better is writing good stuff that people want to read.
As your site becomes popular, your posts will start attracting comments. Some of them are going to be negative.
The problem with negative comments is that most of the time comments are anonymous. You have no idea whether the person is actually expressing a real concern or they’re just trying to evoke a response from you. There are a lot of people online who get a strange joy out of provoking bloggers in their comment section by posting negative or absurd things.
You cannot let this bother you or it will eat you alive. If someone posts a negative comment, my honest suggestion is to completely ignore it. Responding is almost alway sa mistake.
Yes, sometimes negative comments do point out a genuine problem with something you’re writing, but when there’s a genuine problem, a genuine commenter can find a polite way of discussing it without personally attacking you or other commenters and without using excessive negative language. When people do those things, they’re just looking for responses. Don’t let those truly negative people bother you because their negativity usually has nothing at all to do with you. It’s their own problems boiling to the surface.
If you find that it’s too problematic or upsetting, don’t hesitate to turn off the comment section on your site. You can carry on discussions in other places, such as Twitter or via email.
Success from blogging comes down to consistency above all else. At first, the time invested will not seem worth it in terms of earnings, so it makes sense to choose a topic you enjoy writing about.
However, if you stick with it and survive the “valley of death,” blogging can earn you a nice little side income that will continue to grow for as long as you choose to write.