The Write Life’s 2019 Audit: How We’re Growing and Monetizing a Website for Writers

July 30, 2019

In late 2017, I almost gave up on The Write Life.

I’d just had my second baby, and we were preparing to move from D.C. to Florida for my role at The Penny Hoarder. Between taking care of an infant and a toddler, not getting much sleep, going back to work full time and setting up our life in a new town, I was pretty overwhelmed. 

By that point I’d delegated the majority of the work for The Write Life, a media brand that caters to writers, to two excellent contractors I’d worked with for years, an editor and a social media strategist (plus the freelance writers they commissioned for content). But occasionally a task would require my attention or a decision had to be made, and even small, infrequent needs felt like too much.

I considered selling the site. Or even just shutting it down.

But I wasn’t ready to let go. Partly because I’d poured my heart into growing the brand since launching it in 2013. But the bigger reason was that The Write Life was my safety net. It was my backup plan, in case my full-time job fell through or no longer fit my needs. I was happy working at The Penny Hoarder, so those worst-case scenarios were unlikely, but having The Write Life at my fingertips as a revenue-generator just in case always gave me peace of mind.

So during that period of intense overwhelm, I held onto The Write Life and pared back, eliminating everything that wasn’t absolutely essential to running the site. We took our publishing frequency down to two or three posts a month, and the team stopped posting on our Facebook page and interacting on Twitter. I radically reduced our expenses so our revenue would easily cover costs. Anything that wasn’t on auto-pilot had to go.

And that is how I survived the next two years, putting all my effort into my leadership role at a fast-growing startup, and zero into The Write Life.

And yet, the site continued to grow. Not at break-neck speed, but little by little, gaining newsletter subscribers, rising up the ranks in Google search, attracting back-links and shares, and just generally becoming known as one of the best online resources for writers.

When it came time to leave my position at The Penny Hoarder in mid-2019, the brand was there, waiting for me.

The Big Question: Did I Want to Build It?

At first I wondered whether I’d really enjoy working on the site. Would being hands-on feel like a career regression after serving in a strategic executive role and leading dozens of content creators? Would I be bored building a site with hundreds of thousands of pageviews each month, when I’d spent the last four years working on a brand that saw millions?

But then I dug in. Just a little at a time, because my primary job these days is Mom, especially as we get settled again into a new home, new state, new town. I pulled stats for The Write Life to look at our growth over time and think about where we might go. I revived partnerships that would allow us to bring in more revenue. I worked with an SEO analyst to create a plan for continuing to climb the ranks in Google. 

And it turns out, all those fears were so off the mark. 

Instead of feeling bored, I feel excited and relieved. Excited because this brand has so much potential and a whole lot of low-hanging fruit. Relieved because I get to set a pace that works for me and my family, and be responsible for only myself and a small team (of contractors, no employees). It has been fun to step back into an executor role, to relearn all of the things with WordPress and SEO and MailChimp, because they’ve changed so much since I had my hands in them five years ago.

And it most certainly does not feel like a step back, because I get to apply the strategic business learnings I’ve collected over the last few years to this media property. Plus put into practice all the things I’ve learned about myself — what my ideal day looks like, how much I want to work, where exercise fits in, and my passion for staying small as a company (small team, big revenue).

Where The Write Life is Now, and Where We’re Going

I’m spending, at the moment, about three hours a day on The Write Life. And as I get reacquainted with this site and community, a plan is taking shape for how we’ll grow the brand, and alongside that, increase profit.

Below I’ll share some metrics around where we are, plus goals for where I want us to be in six months’ time. These goals are largely guesses, but I’ve found educated guesstimates are correct about 85 percent of the time, and saying them out loud, sharing them with you all, drastically increases my chances of achieving them.

Screenshot of The Write Life homepage

 

So here’s what I’d like to achieve with The Write Life in the next six months.

1. Increase revenue, and more importantly, profit

I’m relying on this site to earn money to support my family. While I have a few other projects up my sleeve (if you’re curious, here’s one), I want this brand to be my primary personal revenue-generator.

The Write Life has always been a passion project, and I enjoy helping writers reach their goals. But the truth is that I wouldn’t have built the site if I didn’t think I could make good money from it. We’ve invested a lot of time, energy and money into the brand over the last six years, and now’s the time to reap rewards.

My goal is to hit $10,000 a month in profit (pre-tax) by the end of January 2020, while working on the site 3-4 hours a day.

Of course, to hit that profit goal, we need to increase revenue well beyond that, because as we grow the site, our costs will increase. For example, I’ll write next about increasing our publishing frequency, and creating more content means paying more to writers and editors.

I’ve never relied on this site for income before. When we first launched in 2013, I was running a blog-management agency as my primary focus; The Write Life was a way to apply the systems we’d developed for our clients to a property we could own and benefit from in the long term.

Since the beginning, we’ve prioritized growth over profit, reinvesting most of what we earned back into the site. Just to give you a sense of what it costs to run the site at a minimum, after simplifying most everything in 2017, our costs for 2018 were $25,000, while earnings were $35,000.

Previous years saw significantly higher revenue, but there were so many factors involved, including how much time I put into the site personally and how we earned money back then, that it’s not helpful to share those specifics without context. To be honest, it’s almost entirely irrelevant anyhow. Focused efforts on increasing revenue and profit will change everything.

Still, $10K/month in profit would be a huge increase over what we’ve profited over the last six years. This is a big goal, but I believe it’s doable.

We earn our revenue through a combination of affiliate partnerships and our own products, mainly ebooks. While we’ve tried other money-making strategies through the years, this is the route I’m most excited about right now because it allows us to provide value for our community without requiring too much work from us. It also means we can continue to provide lots of helpful content for free. 

While it’s still early days, here’s what we’re focusing on to increase revenue and profit:

+ Strengthen revenue-generating partnerships

For affiliate earnings, we partner with companies that offer services and products to writers. When a member of our community buys one of those offerings, we get a cut.

We’ve done this for years, so we already have a number of offers we know our community enjoys. Some are tools for writers, like the grammar checker options in this post. Others are writing courses, like this personal essay course, or communities, like this forum for freelance writers

In addition to revisiting old partnerships to see if they’re still worth our effort, we’re finding new partners who have an offer that fits our mission of helping writers.

+ Better monetize our search traffic

We get a lot of traffic from search. So I’m looking at posts that benefit from search and finding ways to monetize them, as well as taking steps to move posts that have earning potential up the ranks in Google. 

I’ll go deeper into our SEO strategy below.

+ Lean into Facebook advertising

We have high-quality content that we earn from, and I’d like to throw fuel on that fire. Facebook ads are the obvious choice for this, and soon we’ll begin working with an agency that specializes in Facebook advertising to make this happen.

+ Focus on our ebooks and training materials

We have two high-quality ebooks: one about freelance writing jobs for beginners and another on strategies for increasing your earnings as a freelancer. The first one sells well, the second one doesn’t. There’s room for improvement in terms of earnings with both, so I want to find ways to drive traffic their way.

We’re also exploring partnerships with experts who want to provide training but don’t have an audience. This is my version of the best of both worlds: we get to offer valuable training to our community and earn revenue, while someone else creates the content and services the customer. Partnering with us tends to be a good opportunity for writing experts, because they can earn a generous paycheck with the size of our audience. If you know someone who’s a fit for this, let me know!

2. Publish more content while maintaining high quality

High-quality content — advice and information that truly helps writers reach their goals — has always been our top priority. We’ve focused on that since The Write Life launched, and I believe that’s why the site has done well. We’ve had the same amazing managing editor, Jessica Lawlor, for the last few years, so that’s helped with consistency.

What’s changed throughout the years, though, is how often we publish. At different times, we’ve published as many as 20 posts/month or as few as two posts/month.

When I looked back at website traffic patterns over the last few years and put them alongside publishing frequency, I noticed publishing more most definitely led to more traffic. 

In 2017, we published an average of about 20 posts/month, and saw about 500,000 pageviews/month (with a high of 745,000 pageviews that September).

Compare that to 2018, when we reduced publishing frequency to two or three posts/month. Our average traffic that year was 340,000 pageviews (with a high of 485,000 in January).

Now, a lot of factors contributed to this, but my takeaway is we need to get back to publishing more. My immediate goal is to support publishing about 8-10 new posts/month, plus updating and republishing at least that number of posts that ran in recent years. (More on that later.)

Over the next few months though, our publishing frequency will be way higher. That’s because we need a lot of new content to reach our partnership and revenue goals, and we’re refreshing and republishing dozens of old posts to meet our SEO goals.

Creating content, of course, costs money. We pay writers to research and write posts, and editors to edit and optimize those posts. Good content is expensive to create, and if anyone tells you otherwise, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Content is by far our top expense, but it’s so important, particularly for a media company. It’s truly the heart of our brand.

One more content-related goal to note here: I’d like to add more diversity to our roster of writers. Specifically, that means publishing more content from excellent writers who aren’t white women. If you want to pitch yourself or someone you know, send me a note.

Edit to add: Geez, the paragraph above got me massacred online! Of course we’ll continue to take pitches from everyone, and we’ll continue publishing great content from women. I simply want to add more points of view so we better serve the full writing community.

3. Take our SEO to the next level

I’m super proud of what we’ve done with search-engine optimization over the last six years. Between offering genuinely helpful content and doing just a bit of SEO, we’ve garnered good favor with Google and a lot of search traffic.

In fact, the majority of our traffic comes from search. I’m happy about this because 1) if you rely primarily on one source of traffic, search is a good one, especially if you’ve taken a white-hat approach to content so you’re less vulnerable to Google’s updates and 2) search users tend to have high intent. That means they’re invested in the content when they arrive at the page they’re looking for, and they’re more likely to convert on offers. (Simple translation: we’re likely to make more money off a search visitor than visitors who come to the site via, for example, social media.)

Search traffic is also free once you do the work to rank for relevant terms. You’ll bring people to you again and again over time without having to pay for those visitors.

Because this has worked so well for us, I wanted to take it a step further and really up our SEO game. We had an SEO audit performed by the best SEO analyst around (contact me if you want his info!), and came up with a huge list of action items, both to prune and optimize content already on the site and to better optimize new content going forward.

I’m pretty excited about this project because it’s a chance for me to get my hands dirty with SEO and learn what’s new with this industry in the last few years. (One new-ish tool I’ve found interesting: Neil Patel’s SEO analyzer offers, for free, many of the services other industry tools charge for. We’re using ahrefs in addition to that.) 

Rather than hiring someone to do this sometimes-tedious work, I’m using it as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with our content. I’m pretty deep in it now and really enjoying it!

4. Better leverage our best asset: Our email list

As of mid-2019, we have about 53,000 email subscribers and an average open rate of 21 percent.

That’s a decent-sized list (and a reasonable open rate), but we’ve had little growth over the last year or two because we haven’t focused on this asset.

While there is so much we could do with email, I’d like to focus on two pieces in the coming months:

  1. Improve our open rate. While 21 percent is pretty good, I know it could be better, and every percentage point makes a difference. I’m not sure yet exactly how we’ll approach this, but it will likely involve reviewing our email content strategy.
  2. Add more subscribers to our list. Again, we haven’t developed a specific strategy for this yet, but it’s on my to-do list. Prioritizing email collection on the website so we can retain more of our new visitors will be a first step.

We also need to look at cleaning our list (basically eliminating people who aren’t active) and possibly running a re-engagement campaign, because it’s been two years since the last cleanse.

I look forward to digging into this personally in the coming months, but I’m also open to hiring an experienced email consultant to help. If that’s you — or you want to recommend someone — please reach out.

And if you want to subscribe to the newsletter, you can do that here: The Write Life newsletter.

5. Continue to de-emphasize social media

I’m not interested in relying heavily on social media for growth because the platforms have proven themselves unreliable.

We launched the brand with the typical channels — Twitter, Facebook page, Facebook group, Pinterest — and put a fair amount of effort into growing them over the first few years.

But when we simplified in 2017, several of our social channels were the first to get chopped because we weren’t seeing a ton of return on investment. We stopped publishing altogether on our Facebook page and instead pointed writers toward the Facebook group, where we could see interaction created brand affinity. We also automated Twitter, only sharing links to new posts via a WordPress plugin.

Just in the last year, we’ve put a bit more effort into Pinterest. It’s an investment to create visual content, but the channel sends good traffic to the website. So while we aren’t going all-out on Pinterest, we plan to publish there regularly, putting most of the little energy we spend on social into that channel.

For record-keeping, here are our follower counts numbers as of mid-2019:

  • Facebook group: 20,000 members
  • Facebook page: 35,000 likes
  • Twitter: 21,000 followers
  • Pinterest: 20,000 followers

Focusing on What Really Counts

This project feels like a perfect fit for me at this moment: it’s an opportunity to apply what I’ve learned about monetizing content, while maintaining complete flexibility and autonomy over my schedule and pace.

The six-month profit goal feels like a bit of a stretch, but I like a good challenge, especially one that forces me to be uber-selective about prioritization. 

This week, for example, I’ve got the kids home with me and just a few hours of babysitting each day. Whenever I sit down at my desk, faced with about a million ways I could spend my time, I ask myself: 

Which of the items on my list will truly move the needle for this media brand? 

Which item will get me to that profit goal? 

Which item will make me feel proud, six months from now, of what we achieved?

If you have questions, I’m happy to answer them in the comments.

***

Want to learn more about how to grow and monetize a website? Other posts I’ve written about The Write Life strategy over the years:

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10 Replies to “The Write Life’s 2019 Audit: How We’re Growing and Monetizing a Website for Writers”

  • Wow! It takes a lot of money to make money. Your goal is ambitious but someone said you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Good luck and Godspeed.

  • john says:

    Great read first thing in the morning and albeit I am not in your world it is genuinely interesting to learn how you are operating.
    thanks

  • This all so exciting, Alexis! I freelanced for you many years ago and always remember you being a wealth of knowledge. I’m home with my two-year-old son trying to earn a little bit freelancing again while also revising my second novel (and hopefully selling this one!), so it’s nice to get a little glimpse into how another entrepreneur mom is making it all work. I’m looking forward to watching your goals turn to reality 🙂

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Kristin! So nice to hear from you! It’s funny, I was thinking all this parenting talk might not be relevant to my readers… but it turns out that while I was growing up, so were you all =) Look forward to hearing about how the novel goes.

  • Logan Allec says:

    Alexis, thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to put this all down for the world to see! I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the most relatable thing I’ve read all year. As someone who recently left a leadership role in the financial world to go full-time with my personal finance blog, I found myself nodding in agreement with pretty much everything here — from my actual full-time job being “Dad” to doubling down on SEO and quadrupling down on content to saying “meh” to organic social and “yes!” to paid social to looking for an email consultant and not finding one (yet). Your 6-month profit goal is ambitious, and you clearly have the team, talent, and tactics to make it happen! I suppose one question I have is this: “There is still, even now in the late 2010s, an incredible opportunity to make money blogging. It is rare, but still possible, for one to set up a blog on WordPress, hire a small team of consultants and writers, and reap 6- and even 7-figure annual profits on the back of organic search within the span of a few years (or less). Alexis, do you think the days of being able to accomplish this (specifically on the back of organic search) are numbered, what with Google slowly (but surely) diminishing organic search results and continuing to reward large, authoritative brands with teams of dozens if not hundreds?”

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Hi Logan — Thanks for your note! It’s always so nice to hear from others who are working on similar projects, both in business and life.

      I don’t think the days of organic search are limited. If I did, I wouldn’t go forward with this strategy! I believe if you offer content that’s genuinely helpful and high-quality advice from experts, Google will see that and rewards you. Any search optimization is ice on the cake.

      Of course I could be wrong, and we’ve seen things go downhill for companies that rely heavily on a platform they don’t own… but personally I don’t see that happening in the near future with Google, in part because they rely on everyone else’s hard work to make their platform valuable to consumers.

      A good backup plan though, is always email. You can use third-party platforms to build that list, then you own it. Then even if every other platform went to sh*t, you’d have your own list to monetize.

      Nice to connect! I saw your email, too, and will respond there as well.

      • Logan Allec says:

        Hi Alexis. It’s great to hear your thoughts – thank you.

        I think sometimes I’m just a worrywart because I’ve been betting so much on SEO and am fearful of seeing my efforts diminished.

        I definitely learned the importance of offering top-notch content the hard way; last year I kind of put my site’s content on autopilot by hiring an agency to “run the show” without much oversight for a few months. Long story short, quality suffered, and traffic took a dive as a result.

        Now I think we’re back on track with a team of top-notch personal finance freelancers, but I’m still going through that agency-generated content and either giving it massive improvements or just deleting it altogether in some cases. Live and learn!

        Great points regarding email…it’s definitely a goal of mine to create better opt-ins and funnels this year.

        Looking forward to seeing you take The Write Life to the moon!

  • Robyn Roste says:

    I love this post Alexis, and I’m so excited for you and The Write Life! I am a fan of the strategy you’ve outlined and hope you’ll keep us updated on how it goes 🙂

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