How We’re Monetizing The Write Life: An Income Report (October 2014)

October 21, 2014 · 21 comments

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:

Traffic Stats: Website, Social & Newsletter

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.

(Ah-maze-ing) Content

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 TimesModern 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.

Web traffic

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):

The Write Life long-term traffic trends

The Write Life long-term traffic trends (click to see a larger version)

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.

This post describes some of the things we do to optimize for search. If you want to learn more about how to increase your search traffic, this free webinar breaks down SEO for bloggers.

Promotion Channels: Social Media

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:

The Write Life traffic sources for August

The Write Life traffic sources for August

Newsletter

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.

How We’re Monetizing the Site

Now that you know what kind of readership we’re talking about, here’s how we’re earning money through the site.

Affiliate advertising

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:

The Write Life affiliate earnings

The Write Life affiliate earnings

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).

Job board

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.

Direct advertising

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:

The Write Life Media Kit

The Write Life Media Kit

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.

Ebooks & other digital products

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!

Total revenue

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

Total: $719.07

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.

Expenses for Running a Popular Website

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!

What We Could Do Better

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.)

Image: Craft vs. Earning

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?

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

HJK October 21, 2014 at 4:17 pm

I’m very curious about how you reached the decision — as a former writer and journalist– not to pay for the content on your site. It seems like that’s a way of participating in a system that takes advantage of people who are trying to write for a living.

Reply

Alexis Grant October 21, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Hi HJK,

Good question, and I’m going to take the time to answer it in depth.

We *do* pay for posts we assign, but we don’t have the budget to pay everyone who wants to contribute. So we do our best to make it worthwhile for writers by offering a link or two in their bio, which point to the sites of their choosing. We send as much traffic as we can to their post, and some of that traffic ends up on their links, which they’ve hopefully monetized in some way. Maybe it goes to their Amazon book, or to their ebook, or to their website where they say they’re available for freelance work, for example.

That traffic is meaningful, and it’s why writers want to contribute to our site. This wouldn’t work, of course, for a blog without much readership.

This is a touchy subject, so I’m sure people will argue with my ideas here, but the truth is, publishers can get their hands on high-quality blog posts without paying in cash. Would I like to pay all our writers with cash in addition to links? Sure. But that’s not in the cards right now, so we do what we can. I’d rather pay a going rate for posts we assign to established writers (valuable posts we wouldn’t otherwise be able to publish) than pay everyone a low rate of, say, $25/post.

My team runs a number of blogs, and how we approach pay varies with each blog. This is how we’ve decided to do it on The Write Life, the way we’ve found works best for a low-budget site.

I’m often on the other side of this coin, though. I guest post for $0 across the web. Why do I write for publications like Mashable for only a link in my bio? Because it helps me make money in other ways. The words themselves don’t go for a high price, so I’ve been creative about making a living in other ways. That’s what writers need to do these days.

That’s the story! Hope it sheds some light on our thinking.

Alexis Grant, founder of TWL

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HJK October 21, 2014 at 5:50 pm

Thank you for such a thoughtful response, Alexis!

Reply

Ali Luke October 22, 2014 at 7:59 am

Hey HJK,

I’m one of the guest posters for The Write Life, and from my perspective, it’s a perfectly good deal! I get to promote my ebooks in my bio (which TWL have also reviewed — actually, I’m rather flattered to be one of their higher sources of affiliate income). TWL has a larger readership than my own blog, so it’s a good source of traffic for me too.

I’ve been working as a paid blogger for six years now (at varying levels from “blogging pays all my bills” to “blogging is a bit of extra income while I work on my own projects”) and I love guest posting. It gives me the freedom to write about topics I choose, it’s allowed me to build a great audience online, and it’s led to all sorts of opportunities, including speaking at international conferences. Frankly, without guest posting, I doubt I would be able to successfully write for a living,

Alexis, thanks for this wonderful insight into the behind-the-scenes of TWL — I’d love to see regular reports along the same lines, as (a) I’m nosy 😉 and (b) I might well focus slightly more on affiliate income in the future.

Reply

Alexis Grant October 22, 2014 at 9:07 am

Thanks for chiming in with this perspective, Ali! We love having you write for us =)

And will certainly consider your interest in regular reports for the future!

Chris October 21, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Nicely done! A number of bloggers (mostly in the personal development field) find a monthly report to work out well – it’s a good way of forcing yourself to track things more carefully to see what’s working and what isn’t. A standard format should keep things relatively consistent – one I personally read is over at Disrupting the Rabblement. (I met Niall in Chiang Mai, but otherwise have no connection with him).

Cheers =)
Chris recently posted…Destination: Chokchai Farm – Thailand’s most tourist-friendly farm turned theme parkMy Profile

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John October 21, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Thank you for posting such an informative article – truly, an awesome read. We’ve spent 20 months developing a travel planning & story telling platform called hiptraveler. It’s been ALOT of work, but we’re finally (almost) done with development and monetization (at least the mechanisms for future growth), so we switched our focus to content generation, marketing & SEO. We are interested in recruiting writers to post to hip and are willing to offer revenue shares from the bookings for the highest quality submissions. It should be quite lucrative for these writers as booking revenue is substantial and the income will be residual for 1 year from their post. Also, we are fine with listing their latest offer and all of their social / web links, and trackbacks. I am just (quite literally) getting started with this recruitment effort, so any suggestions that you may have for me would be greatly appreciated. I plan to use our social media (20k T, 7k FB, 7K IG) as well as some FB groups to promote the effort, but I’m sure I’m missing something… You’ve done such a fabulous job of recruiting guest posters any chance you can spare me yet another learning curve and offer up some advice?

Reply

Alexis Grant October 21, 2014 at 9:16 pm

Hi John,

That’s so cool! Good for you!

We *do* have a solid network of guest posters we use for all our blogs, including The Write Life. But it has taken years to develop that, and much of it stems from my personal network. I have a database of 650+ writers that we look to whenever we work with a new blog (here’s the signup: http://bit.ly/AGbloggers). But the truth is, we only use a small portion of those writers, ones who have proved themselves to be high quality.

My lesson from that is to work your network, try a lot of writers, and keep track of who’s good and who’s not. It sounds simple, but when you work with a lot of people, it’s easy to forget which ones you want to work with again!

Also, I’m sure you know this, but for anyone who hasn’t thought of it: reach out to bloggers in the niche who have built their own communities, and try to convince them to write for you. If they’re already blogging, they know how to blog — whereas some writers don’t have experience with blogging style. Those bloggers also will likely share their post with their community, which gives you a built-in boost.

Hope that helps! Give me a holler on Twitter when you put a call out for writers, and I will RT it: @alexisgrant

Cheers!

Reply

Financial Samurai October 21, 2014 at 10:22 pm

Interesting stuff! I’m impressed you plan to hire a digital ad specialist. How much can one make a month doin that for you?

Just to be clear, does your report say you made $700 in revenue and spent $2,000 in Sept? This is just the blog income right? What about the income from writing and stuff?

Cheers,

Sam
Financial Samurai recently posted…The Cheapest International City In The World: San FranciscoMy Profile

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Alexis Grant October 22, 2014 at 9:11 am

Hi there,

Right, this is just income *for this one site*. My company also runs a number of blogs and communities for small businesses and startups, and as I mentioned in the post, that income subsidizes this site. I wouldn’t do an income report for my company as a whole because much of our work is service- and client-based, not product-based. I often share numbers for products (for example, you’ll see the link to TWL bundle sale above), but not for client work.

We also see income from this site, AlexisGrant.com. I don’t do much paid freelance writing myself these days!

Reply

Financial Samurai October 27, 2014 at 7:43 am

Makes sense. Thanks.

I did some service business before. And while it feels very gratifying, it is a lot of work for the effort.
Financial Samurai recently posted…Why Would An Aerospace Engineer Want To Be An Uber Driver?My Profile

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Sara Frandina October 22, 2014 at 9:51 am

Lexi –

Just had to drop in and say THANK YOU for such a fantastic, thorough, enlightening post. Your transparency is truly valuable to all of us looking to make a living writing. (As well as those just curious about how you do what you do!)

I would absolutely be keen to read monthly or quarterly income reports on the site. 🙂
Sara Frandina recently posted…Why Your Copywriting Needs to Maintain a Consistent VoiceMy Profile

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Warren November 2, 2014 at 3:42 am

Hi Alexis,

This is great stuff. Thanks for this article. I’ve always wanted to create a job board site myself, but I’m unsure on where/how to start getting traffic to it.
What was your first traffic approach for The Write Life job boards?

How do I get job seekers when there are no employers to post; since conversely, there are no job seekers for employers to post either?

It’s like starting a forum, when you’re the only person in it when it first goes live. I’ve always wondered how forums gets started. But I digress.

Do you leverage your current readership and/or create a launch campaign prior to going live with your job board?

How can someone, like myself, start a job board site when I have no leads and no launch campaign? Paid advertising perhaps?

Thanks and I hope to hear from you soon.

Keep inspiring,
Warren
Warren recently posted…AN EYE FOR AN EYEMy Profile

Reply

Alexis Grant November 2, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Hi Warren — We used Simply Hired’s partner option! It lets you pull in jobs from around the web, so you have a starting point. Otherwise, you’re right, it would sort of be a Catch-22.

Reply

Warren November 3, 2014 at 12:35 am

Hi Alexis,
Thank you for the reply and information — it helps a lot! =)

Keep inspiring,
Warren
Warren recently posted…AN EYE FOR AN EYEMy Profile

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Thuc February 23, 2016 at 5:39 pm

Thank you so much for this post. It is incredibly helpful and I really appreciate you being so open with it! I love The Write Life – it is an awesome and inspiring resource.
Thuc recently posted…How to be ready for impromptu camping tripsMy Profile

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Jessica Gavin December 13, 2016 at 4:19 pm

Hi Alexis! Very helpful info. I want to echo the value of posting consistently. Not only does it help with SEO but it helps perfect your quality of writing and photography. I just wanted to bring to your attention our monthly income reports that my husband and I have been producing for over two years for our food blog. It’s not to the level of Lindsay & Bjork of Pinch of Yum, but we’ve heard from many beginner bloggers that our numbers are a bit more relatable. Thanks!

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