These days, it seems as though everyone with an opinion has a blog. But there is a clear distinction between hobbyists and those who have made blogging their business.
BusinessNewsDaily picked the brains of five successful bloggers to reveal how they got started, the work behind the words, and what it really takes to transform a blog into a professional operation all its own.
Boing Boing — Do what you love and the money will follow
Founded in 1999, when blogs were still called “weblogs,” and not yet respected as a viable form of media, Boing Boing was founded by five friends: Mark Frauenfelder, Carla Sinclair, Cory Doctorow, Xeni Jardin and David Pescovitz. All shared an appetite for eccentric, thought-provoking information exchange delivered in alternative formats.
There was no editorial agenda or posting schedule. They simply posted a potpourri of what they found interesting. Articles ranged from offbeat pieces, with headlines like “Minor-League Hockey Team on E-Bay” and “Decorative Rug That Looks like a Pair of Men’s Briefs,” to intelligent commentary on the latest in technology. Readers were invited to join in by submitting information from the web that they found interesting.
The vision caught on and by 2004, Boing Boing was a standout on the web. But that also meant that hosting costs, which were covered by the founders, were steadily creeping upward. The team called in John Batelle, who was in the process of developing a business plan to monetize blogs with paid advertising. The end result was a joint venture (called Happy Mutants) between Batelle and Boing Boing’s founders.
While the team was reluctant to delve into what was then the pioneer notion of paid blog advertising, they identified Google, Apple, O’Reilly Media and Wired as their top four desired advertisers. All but Apple jumped on board, and before they knew it, their hobby became a money-making business.
Today, Boing Boing draws more than 4.5 million visitors a month and has advertisers ranging from Sprint to Chevy. Perhaps most amazing has been its ability to stay true to its original quirky vision as a “directory of wonderful things,” while maintaining continuous advertising revenue from blue-chip clients.
“Our editorial isn’t for sale,” said David Pescovitz, co-editor/managing partner of Boing Boing. “We are always transparent when a sponsor underwrites a series of posts within a particular theme or a new feature on the site. Of course, advertisers have no approval or oversight of what we post before it’s published. Our editorial independence is non-negotiable.”
To bloggers struggling with how to grow, Pescovitz advises “not to chase page views with your editorial. Instead, follow your own curiosity. If you’re genuinely interested in what you’re writing about, readers will sense that.”
Wise Bread — Making personal finance fun
One of the top personal finance blogs on the web, Wise Bread attracts about 680,000 unique visitors a month. Co-founded by Lynn Truong, Will Chen and Greg Go in 2006, the team started the site as a hobby in response to a lack of resources that made personal finance fun and accessible to their generation. The goal of Wise Bread, according to co-founder Will Chen, is “not to be cheap, but rather to spend money on things you truly value and enjoy.”
As ironic as it may seem for a virtual business, much of Wise Bread’s success can be attributed to an old-fashioned concept: relationship cultivation. In an era where web writers are often underpaid (or not paid at all), Wise Bread has taken the opposite approach, treating their staff of contributors as valuable assets.
“As for featuring our writers, we’ve done some very cool things in the last couple years, including publishing a Wise Bread book, placing our writers on national TV, helping our writers land prestigious syndicated columns, and getting their content featured on the Yahoo and MSN homepages,” Chen said.
Chen also shared that in the beginning, Wise Bread got “constant support and encouragement” from other established personal finance bloggers. Now, the team is paying it forward, so to speak, by featuring other personal finance bloggers on the site to provide them support and exposure in the community.
To fellow bloggers, he stresses the importance of teamwork. “Five years ago, you could succeed as a professional blogger based purely on writing talent and a passion for a particular topic,” Chen said. “Now, there are so many things you have to deal with. For example, today you also need a Twitter and Facebook presence, to know all the FTC regulations regarding blog reviews, and to constantly learn new ways to generate traffic, like mobile, hyper-local search, co-branding partnerships, etc. It is truly too much for one person to deal with. Make sure you find some great partners and divide up the work.”
In 2003, Kathryn Finney was a bit of a pioneer in the blog community when she started The Budget Fashionista. Most blogs at that time focused on tech issues, not on women and fashion. Her rogue topic proved a good bet. Today, The Budget Fashionista attracts more than 10 million unique visitors each year, and Finney has been recognized on AOL’s list of the “Top Ten Women in Money.”
But, building a successful blog hasn’t been without challenges. Finney said that the most difficult part of running a multimedia company is how disconnected offline and online communities still are, and how often she is forced to choose between the two.
If she could do it all over again, Finney said, she would have spent less time worrying about design and issues like that and more time focusing on external relationships.
Finney offered a few tips to those pursuing a blogging business. First, ask yourself what sets your blog apart, and why someone would read it over a similar blog. Second, she advised that bloggers purchase their domain name and have a domain-based e-mail account.
Lastly, Finney, warned, focus on having good content.
“One of the biggest mistakes new bloggers make is spending a ton of cash on a fab blog design, but have no content,” she said.
Seeking Alpha — Having an opinion pays
Sharing his insight as a technology research analyst proved to be serendipitous for David Jackson, CEO of Seeking Alpha. In the midst of a career transition, he wrote a series of investment articles and distributed them to friends and industry peers. One recipient suggested that he post them on a website, planting the seed for what would become Seeking Alpha.
Today, Seeking Alpha employs more than 70 people, along with nearly 4,000 contributing authors. Jackson spends less time writing articles than he did back in the early days, but still comments on contributor’s articles. Recognizing the integral role that quality content and audience knowledge has played in its success, Seeking Alpha recently announced plans to increase the contributor compensation rate to an amount that is substantially higher than what many leading content publishers pay.
According to Jackson, the move was inspired by the recognition that “there’s a world out there of other people who have considerable knowledge and insight about stocks, options, bonds, ETFs and investment strategy,” and that many highly knowledgeable investors are not located in San Francisco or New York City. Seeking Alpha hopes that it can “transform the investment research industry” and grow the business further by giving credit to the valued readers and contributors that have made it the success it is today.
A brush with tragedy proved triumphant for Danielle Smith, founder of Extraordinary Mommy. At the time, Smith had a career in broadcast media but knew she wanted more. One night, she was hit by a driver who ran a red light, sending her car tumbling into an embankment. She emerged from the accident unharmed, but forever changed.
Determined not to waste anymore time in a career she didn’t enjoy, she started Extraordinary Mommy the next week. The site’s mission is to both remind moms of the extraordinary work they do every day, and inspire them to teach their kids to be giving citizens.
Smith admitted that she initially had no idea how to run a blog. So, she simply read what other bloggers were doing, and commented regularly. While this helped to spread I word, she credited social media tools as critical to her success. (Smith currently has more than 12,200 Twitter followers). “It [social media] has allowed me to connect, engage and share in a way that I’wasn't before,” Smith said.
She advised bloggers seeking to monetize their sites to experiment with different tools, and “do only what feels right to you and your blog.” For example, Smith tried affiliate marketing, but eventually determined it wasn’t a fit for the kind of blog she wanted to have.
The greatest investment in running a successful blog for this busy mom is time, noting that she often works well into the wee hours of the morning after her kids have gone to bed. Planning is critical in order to maintain focus and avoid feeling overwhelmed by your blog, she said.
“Live by an editorial calendar,” Smith said, “you need one for running a site.”