When I started Consumerism Commentary in 2003, after about eight years of writing on the internet in a smaller, more personal capacity, I only had two goals: to track my finances while working to improve my money situation and to learn more about personal finance by finding articles, sharing links, and adding occasional thoughts of my own. Over a year later, I added advertising to Consumerism Commentary, and within another year, the website became more than just a way for me to track my financial improvement, it became an essential part of that progression.
For the last three or so years, I’ve been earning more from Consumerism Commentary than I have been from my day job. At times it has been significantly more, expressible in multiples — enough for me to consider leaving my career behind and write for the website and tend to other related business on a full-time basis. I’ve ultimately decided to make this jump, and now it’s only a matter of timing.
Throughout this time, I’ve been receiving request after request to write more about the income I receive outside of my day job. I’ve been reluctant to write about earning money from blogging. My primary reason for this reluctance is that the concept of blogging is not directly related to the concept of personal finance. Although the topics on Consumerism Commentary occasionally stretch away from pure personal finance, I want to remain focused.
Asking me to write more about blogging would be similar to asking David Bach to offer his opinions about the process of writing a bestselling series of books rather than about the content within those books. (I don’t mean to imply any similarity or equivalence between myself and David Bach.) An even better illustration would be asking Claude Monet to paint his impression of how he paints a scene rather than his impression of a bridge over a pond of water lilies. It’s too “meta,” an added level of abstraction between something that exists and its representation.
I also don’t want to write about earning money for blogging because I’d prefer not to draw attention to my success. Of course, that is antithetical to most people’s suggestions for broadening a “personal brand.” I think it should be obvious that at this point I have little desire to be a renowned expert. No one in the “real world” has any interest in taking advice from someone who calls himself Flexo, a name chosen in about five seconds when there were no expectations for growth. “Personal branding” is furthest from my intentions.
Despite this, I reluctantly admit that earning money from blogging, just like earning money from a career or saving money on non-discretionary expenses, is a legitimate aspect of personal finance. I shouldn’t shy away from writing about the process of blogging.
So here is what I have learned from almost seven years at Consumerism Commentary, and at a lesser extent, from fifteen years writing for the web and almost twenty years building online communities including a popular modem-based bulletin board system in the early 1990s. (I’ll be thirty-four next month; it’s up to you whether you want to consider my teenage years managing a BBS as experience, but it is surprisingly similar to what I do today.)
Consider some of these points before starting a blog to earn money.
1. Increase success by writing about your passions
Which comes first, the topic or the passion? Much of the “earn money by blogging” advice I’ve seen suggests would-be internet moguls should start their business by determining which topic generates the most income overall and creating content within that topic. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of people writing about personal finance, a lucrative topic thanks to a proliferation of deep-pocketed advertisers in the financial industry. Even broader than the topic of personal finance, it also results in proliferation of less-than-inspiring content, more noise making it difficult to discover the signal.
I don’t see this as a path to long-term success. It leads to frustration when the dollars don’t appear quickly or don’t appear at all. The only path that seems to work well is to start writing only if you have a passion for a certain topic and only if you are willing to dedicate time and effort into creating content at the highest level you can. You don’t choose the topic, the topic chooses you.
2. If you write with dollar signs in your eyes, don’t bother
It’s true that financial success is expedited by focusing on the business aspects of your endeavor, and I often hear from people who believe that if an untalented writer like myself can earn a living by writing on Consumerism Commentary, anyone can. However, most people will not earn a living from blogging-related income.
Many dollar-chasers start writing about the lucrative topic of personal finance without either a passion or interest in the subject. I read perhaps thousands of articles each week and it is crystal clear to me when a blogger is inspired by the topic and when a blogger is inspired by potential income.
Here is what I think about when evaluating whether a blogger is motivated primarily by potential income:
- Is the writer more interested in quality or quantity? Quantity is necessary in order to get noticed by search engines, but quality provides a better experience for the reader. Attaining both would be a good goal; I try to find a balance while other successful bloggers take obsession over quality to an extreme and try to “save the world” with every article.
- Are the articles written for the benefit of the reader, the blogger, or the advertiser? I give exceptional writers free passes to throw in a post for affiliate income if the overall tone of the blog does not involve shilling for companies. If every article borders on advertisement, my impression is the blogger is writing solely for money.
- Does the blogger bother removing spam comments or spam links within comments? A website operator who can’t be bothered to filter noise from comments is not interested in creating a user-friendly experience. Many times I’ve stopped myself from linking to an otherwise excellent article that’s full of spam links at the bottom of the comments section.
- Is there any personality within the articles or does the blog read like it could appear in a textbook? When I was looking to add writers to the Consumerism Commentary staff, I found that those who considered themselves “freelance writers” had a more difficult time bringing something personal to the tone. I like to know that there is a human being behind the words.
It is good that talented experts and dedicated amateurs are able to earn compensation for producing quality content and for making it available to the internet-browsing and searching public. But as the popularity of earning money through blogging has increased, so have the bloggers who are interested more in fattening their bank accounts than they are in adding something valuable to the world.
3. Have a mission statement or at least a mission
Consumerism Commentary began without any income-related goals. Its purpose was to keep myself accountable for my finances and to help me learn more about money. That was, and is, the mission of this website. It sounds somewhat selfish on the surface; Consumerism Commentary is mostly for my own benefit, not for the readers.
This approach is, however, less self-focused than it sounds. The opposite approach would be to write a blog under the assumption that the author has all the answers and with the purpose of teaching others, ignoring the possibility that the author has more to learn. This is self-fashioned or self-proclaimed expertise, and I find it unappealing.
4. Earning money takes time
I don’t know exactly when Google created AdSense, but I do know it was not available when I started Consumerism Commentary. Very few blogs at that time earned money. I added the first AdSense advertisement to the website in November 2004, about sixteen months after my first post here. It was more of an experiment than anything else, and I had no expectations for income.
My cumulative earnings didn’t reach $100, the threshold for receiving the first check from Google, until April 2005. That is six months after the first ad appeared on the website, almost a year after Consumerism Commentary began, ten years after I had been writing for the web, and fourteen years after I started creating online communities.
I was lucky that there weren’t many, if any, other blogs discussing personal finance when I started Consumerism Commentary. There are thousands now, so it is more difficult to stand out in this particular niche. The same is true for the wider web, as well.
But great talent will always rise to the top. J.D. Roth is one of my favorite examples. He started writing on Get Rich Slowly in April 2006 and is one of the finest writers among those focusing on personal finance. Although there were over a thousand personal finance blogs when he started, he quickly rose to the top of the list. J.D. had been writing a personal blog since at least 2001, and that experience should not be ignored when looking at his path to success.
It is almost five years after I received that first AdSense check. Now there are more bloggers competing for advertisers, and putting the recession aside, more advertising dollars to go around. So I believe it is still realistic to expect income to come in slowly during the first year. If waiting six months for the first $100 seems like too much work for too little return, you may want to consider a different business venture.
5. Success takes more than just writing
I am reminded of why I’m perhaps not as successful as I could be. Over the past few years, I’ve been working harder at writing and managing this and several other websites. Unfortunately, I’ve put aside important aspects of building a successful website and community, such as participating on similar websites. As I mentioned above I read thousands of articles each week. About 70 percent of these articles are on “mainstream” websites or major media blogs and 30 percent are on amateur or independent blogs.
With more time, I would be able to participate in discussions and social networking media more. This participation in the larger community will assist with increasing the chance for success with a blog.
So is earning money through blogging unrealistic?
There is significant potential for earning money, possibly even earning a living, through blogging. For many people, especially those who are not passionate and dedicated, financial success will be elusive. My intent is not to discourage but to help manage expectations.
It’s great that free and widely available tools on the internet can help anyone can have a voice. You need to strive for excellence in order to stand out both to readers and to advertisers. It’s not enough to write occasional uninspired articles, put up a few ads, and wait for the money to roll in.
Readers can expect at least one more article on Consumerism Commentary about the specific ways I earn money from blogging with suggestions helpful to those who are writing about their passion and are ready to form a strategy for building diversified, self-sufficient income.
Because I was writing for new audiences, my recent ten-day tour forced me to write better articles than I normally write for Consumerism Commentary. This experience, in addition to my decision to put thoughts together for this article on earning money through blogging, helped me realize that I need to focus on improving my writing skills and find time for more participation within the community.
Updated April 12, 2011 and originally published February 15, 2010.