Fifteen months after launching The Write Life, a website and community for writers, we’ve turned the corner toward profitability.
Because of that momentum, and because I’ve been inspired lately by income reports from Pinch of Yum‘s food blogger duo, Kindle author Steve Scott and passive income evangelist Pat Flynn (who launched a niche site on food trucks around the same time we launched The Write Life), I want to give you an inside look at how The Write Life is growing, and how we’re monetizing that growth. My goal here is to help you monetize your blog.
If you haven’t read my analysis posts on The Write Life before, have a quick browse for background:
Before we dive into how we’re earning revenue from the site, let’s take a quick look at how we’re growing the community. This growth — and specifically, the growth of loyal, engaged readers — is why monetizing is possible.
We continue to publish consistently at least three times each week, and our content has gotten better and better. I am so proud of our work here! Not only are the submissions that hit our inbox more awesome than they were a year ago, but we’re also paying occasionally for posts we assign on specific topics.
That has led to high-quality pieces like 29 Fantastic Writing Conferences and Smart Ways to Earn Multiple Income Streams From One Manuscript and 17 Great Grants for Writers. Our post on Websites and Magazines That Want to Publish Your Personal Essays was shared by The New York Times‘ Modern Love Facebook page, which had me grinning for the entire weekend. Look how many track-backs are on that post! (You can see them at the bottom, under the comments; those are other websites who have linked to the post.) All of those back-links not only mean more new eyes to the site, they also boost our search rankings. Sharable content packs that double punch.
This high-quality content is the CORE of our strategy for growing the community. That’s partly because it’s my personal strength and the strength of the team I’ve built, but it’s also good sense: valuable content is what makes one website stand out from the rest. And that’s what we want The Write Life to be known for.
Largely because of this quality content, our traffic continues to kick butt. We saw a slight decline after a peak in March (from of our bundle sale), but the overall trend is up, up, up.
In September we saw nearly 87,000 uniques, and 146,000 page views. This is our highest month to date, but only slightly higher than previous months. While I’m happy with the trend of upward growth, I do think these numbers could be even higher if I dedicated more energy to traffic-building for this site — but more on that in a bit.
Here’s a quick screenshot from WordPress that shows this trend (I prefer their bar graphs to Google Analytics’ line graphs for long-term trends):
We also look closely at where that traffic comes from. Between a third and half of our traffic comes from search, with terms like “freelance writing” and “jobs for freelance writers” performing particularly well. This is no accident; we’ve published and optimized posts around these topics from the get-go with the goal of attracting writers looking for this type of information. You’ll see below how attracting writers who are looking for jobs plays into our bigger strategy.
Of course, amazing content is worthless if no one’s reading it, so we also put plenty of time into spreading our content around the web. We’re up to 7,000 fans on Facebook and 6,200 on Twitter. Almost all of that growth has been organic, particularly for Twitter, where we’ve spent zero on advertising.
Interestingly, or perhaps because Twitter is my team’s specialty, we find it more difficult to grow the Facebook page than the Twitter following. So we do put some money each month into boosting Facebook updates, usually about $20, with an occasional $50 thrown in to boost blog posts we think have the potential to do particularly well.
We also have a Pinterest channel, which is approaching 1,000 followers. It sends minimal traffic to our site, so it’s arguably not worth continuing to invest in, but we’re giving it a bit more time. Persistence is the name of the game here.
Overall, social media accounts for about a quarter of traffic to our site. Twitter tends to be the leader in referrals, but sometimes a post will catch on via Facebook and that channel will leap to the top of the list for that month. In September, for example, this post on writing residencies got tons of Facebook shares, perhaps because the programs featured in the post shared it with their communities.
This pie graph shows our breakdown of traffic sources. I pulled numbers for August, rather than September, because shares of that residency post threw off our September social numbers:
Despite analyzing our traffic and social numbers first, this is the metric that matters most to me: how our email list is growing, and who’s opening our emails. It matters because it’s our direct line to our reader.
This is how we keep our audience engaged, and it’s also a key component for our monetization strategy. Once we begin launching ebooks and other products, this newsletter is how we’ll let our community know about them.
You can see how vital even a relatively small list was for our bundle sale in March. We had 7,800 subscribers then, and sold about 100 bundles to our community; that’s a conversion rate of 1.3 percent. (More details in this post.) Engaged communities convert via email.
Now we have 18,000 subscribers. Our open rate has decreased slightly as the list has grown (that’s normal), but we still see opens for our weekly newsletter falling around 25 percent, which is pretty darn good.
Now that you know what kind of readership we’re talking about, here’s how we’re earning money through the site.
We optimized the site for affiliate ads from the beginning, even though we knew we wouldn’t earn much from them until the audience grew. But we stayed away from Google and text ads that clutter up the entire site; one of our criteria for ads is they can’t be an eyesore. We wanted our site to be easy and enjoyable to read, and it’s not worth damaging the user experience to make a few bucks.
We integrated space for promoting an affiliate product at the bottom of each post (we chose those manually so they’re highly relevant), plus a high-value resources page that’s full of affiliate links, which we also promote in our sidebar. Within posts themselves, we always use affiliate links when we have the chance, including for books and other products our readers can purchase on Amazon. Some posts don’t offer opportunities for affiliate links, but others like this gifts for writers post offer plenty. We also use affiliate links when we mention programs like Freshbooks (for invoicing), RescueTime (for tracking time) and Scrivener (for composing long documents).
How much do we earn each month? Usually between $200-$380, although this past month we earned about $700 from a couple of high-commission sales. Even knowing September might be a fluke, you can see how our affiliate earnings have increased over the last 15 months:
So far this year, our top payouts have come from Amazon (about $1K, so it does add up!), Chris Guillebeau (for his Unconventional Guides to freelance writing, publishing, and legal), Men With Pens (for copy-writing course Damn Fine Words), and Ali Luke (for her guides to irresistible ebooks and effective writing).
Just last month, we added a job board to the site: The Write Life Jobs. SimplyHired makes this easy with their partner solutions, although the page hasn’t been nearly as customizable as we’d hoped. You choose the parameters for jobs you want to show on your page, and you get paid when readers click on sponsored jobs (which are a small percentage of all jobs that show up for any search).
As you can imagine, you need a pretty high volume of traffic to make worthwhile revenue off this model. Our initial reports show us earning between 30 cents and $6 a day, with a peak of $18.45 when we sent a newsletter to our community letting them know the job board was live. So, with our ~85K unique visitors each month, we’ll probably see earnings of about $85/month. Like affiliate revenue, this revenue will grow as our community and web traffic grows.
The better way to monetize this job board, however, is by encouraging employers to post their jobs on the site. SimplyHired lets you set your own fee for posting a job (we chose $179 for 30 days), then you earn half of what the buyer spends. The job is then featured at the top of our jobs page, and it also goes into the rotation of SimplyHired jobs around the web.
Why are we bothering with this when the payout is low and SimplyHired keeps half of higher-priced purchases?
The truth is, we’re not expecting to make significant revenue from this job board. The goal here is to encourage readers to think of The Write Life as a place to look for awesome jobs, and for employers to think of the site as a place to find awesome writers. We’re using SimplyHired’s infrastructure to accomplish this as a first step, and then, in the long term, we’ll build our own job board. That’s where the real revenue potential awaits.
Our own job board will allow us to maintain a high level of quality for posted jobs (we can’t hand-pick them through SimplyHired), which will make it a more appealing destination for both job seekers and employers. Specifically, a destination for freelance, remote writing jobs. It will also allow us to keep 100 percent of the posting fee, rather than handing half over to SimplyHired.
We’re now including Featured Jobs in our newsletter, too. In my mind, that’s where the real value is for employers: going directly to the inbox of writers themselves. Here’s more information on telling our newsletter subscribers about a job if you or your employer are interested in reaching our community that way.
While the monetization tactics I’ve described above bring in relatively small change each month (at least for now), this next development is what’s really allowing us to turn the corner to profitability. We’re now selling directly to advertisers! That means ads in our sidebar and newsletter, as well as sponsored tweets. You’ll see if you look at the site that we’re doing this in a classy way, not cluttering the site with a million ads.
We actually hit the size where advertisers would be interested way back in January, but it has taken me this long to make it work, mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing when it came to selling direct ads. This is an area I don’t have experience in, and I wanted to set it up in a professional way so advertisers would be keen to work with us again and again.
I brought in a friend who sells online ads for newspapers, and she helped us create a kind-of-amazing-if-I-do-say-so-myself Media Kit. It lays out all The Write Life has to offer an advertiser, including the traffic and social numbers I’ve shared here, as well as fees for various types of ad placement. A key part of creating this kit was designing the layout so it would look professional and appeal to established companies. Here’s a shot of what one of the pages looks like:
By the time we finished creating this Media Kit, our community had grown to the point where we were receiving some unsolicited requests from advertisers who wanted to know how they could reach our audience. Rather than responding with haphazard numbers and proposals, we send them this PDF. I believe the professionalism of our Media Kit has helped us seal the deal with several advertisers.
The next step was figuring out how to actually serve the ads and track how they perform. After a bit of research, we went with OIO Publisher, an ad manager for WordPress, which cost $47. So far it has worked well, but I’ll write a more in-depth post about that down the road.
The final piece here is bringing a digital ads specialist on board to manage advertising accounts and proactively seek out advertisers who would be a good fit for our readers. I considered doing this myself, but because I’m running a business that has lots of pieces in addition to The Write Life, it makes more sense financially and from a brainpower standpoint to have someone else manage it.
Once we’re at capacity, we’re thinking the site will earn about $3,000-$4,000 per month from direct ads.
When it comes to making money off a site, this is really the holy grail, the most lucrative way to turn an engaged audience into a sustainable revenue stream. We’re working on an ebook now that we’re planning to launch by the end of this year. The details are still under-wraps, but it’s written for newbie writers who want to get into freelancing, and it will sell at a low price point (under $30).
In general, I believe a smarter route to monetization is creating a high-value and high-priced product (above $100), but that will come later. Baby steps!
With all of these pieces in mind, I thought I’d put together a total revenue wrap-up here, but the job board and direct advertisers are so new that we won’t be able to accurately pull this together until the end of October.
For September, we saw…
Affiliate earnings: $707.30
Job board (only a partial month): $11.77
We’ll have higher job board revenue and significant cash from direct ads (more than $1K) to add in October, but affiliate earnings will likely be lower as well.
We all get excited by the idea of revenue, but don’t forget every website has expenses, too. The Write Life has been an expense for us for the last year or so; we’ve funded it with profits from our bundle sale, as well as through client work. Even when you believe your baby will make money in the long run, it’s never easy to invest hard-earned cash in the short term.
One thing to keep in mind when you look at these expenses is that my team runs the day-to-day operations of the site. Know how we manage high-volume blogs for clients? We use the exact same systems to create content for and promote The Write Life. While I’m involved heavily in strategy, and I do get my hands dirty on some projects, my team handles all the daily tasks.
That’s awesome because it frees me up to work on bigger-picture items, and reliable systems puts us in a position to scale. But it also means my company pays for that work. Many of the bloggers who share income reports do most of the legwork themselves, which means they don’t have these expenses.
Here’s a sample of what our expenditures look like each month:
Socialexis team (editor, social media manager, project manager): ~$1,300
Writers (for assigned posts): ~250
Tech help (we have a firm on retainer for backups and other fixes): $200
MailChimp (for newsletters): $150
MediaTemple (for hosting): $100
Total: About $2,000/month
This doesn’t include occasional one-off expenses like Facebook ads, or other team tools that we use across the board for all our clients, like Flow for task management.
To be honest, I didn’t realize our expenses were quite this high until I pulled all the numbers for this report; I’d estimated it at about $1,400 per month. That’s partly because our expenses have grown over time; it was only earlier this year that we decided to invest in regular tech help and a dedicated server, and tools like MailChimp become more pricey as you grow.
But I’m a firm believer that even if you stay incredibly lean, you’ve got to invest to grow. And growing is exactly what we’re accomplishing with this site!
Now you know all the facts: you know how much we spend, how much we earn, and how many readers we have to support those numbers. But here’s the most important thing for moving forward: Where could we improve, and what should we focus on?
My background and expertise is in content, so that’s what’s gotten the most attention from myself and my team until this point. And rightly so, as it makes sense to set a foundation of awesome content and help people find that content before moving toward monetization.
But going forward, I need to place more of my team’s energy and more of my own energy toward bringing in revenue. Like many creatives, I sometimes make the mistake of hyper-focusing on craft, and failing to give the money side of my work the attention it deserves. If we truly want this site to be profitable — just like any creative who wants to make a living off his or her work — we must also focus on making money. (Click to tweet this.)
Part of the reason I was moved to write this post is because I watched a Mixergy interview with Pinch of Yum‘s founder Lindsay Ostrom. This food blogger has managed to offer such great content and also monetize to the point that she’s now earning a profit of about $30,000 a month.
And I thought to myself: What would I have been able to accomplish over these last 15 months if I’d focused solely on The Write Life like Lindsay has done so impressively with Pinch of Yum, rather than serving clients and growing this blog and rewriting my travel memoir? Where would the site be now?
And my answer was REVENUE. The content is at the top of its game, and we’ll maintain that quality going forward. But rather than focusing solely on content and community for the coming months, we now have three goals: creating amazing content, continuing to build an engaged community, and increasing revenue. That’s where we need to put our energy as we turn this corner into profitability.
Got questions? What else can I explain that might be helpful for growing and monetizing your own site?
Plus: I’m thinking about offering a monthly or quarterly income report for The Write Life, one that would likely live right on the site. Is that something that would interest you?