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Insider’s Guide to How Your Favorite Bloggers Make Money

Credit: kevin dooley

Credit: kevin dooley

Anyone can start a blog and make money.

How much you make will depend a lot on your dedication. Blogging is not a get rich quick scheme. Few people hit home runs. Far more people draw walks, hit bloop singles and stretch out doubles – but they make a nice little career out of it.

I was fortunate enough to string along a few winners to turn it into, what I consider, a home run and that’s the basis of this entire blog. I’ll tell you exactly what I did and didn’t do (just as important), along with who you should watch if you want to see the best do what they do.

Today, we’re going to look at how bloggers make money.

This post is titled “insider’s” guide and I use the term “insider” to mean as a fellow blogger. I don’t have detailed financial records and I emailed almost all of them to confirm these facts, but I don’t want to imply I have inside information about each of their businesses.

This isn’t a huge list of 253 ways bloggers make money where half of them are just there to take up bullet points. This talks about broad categories, with examples within, and the framework under which I thought about monetization. You will not, and should not, do all of these. Use these as a basis for brainstorming ways for you to try to make money. Some will work. Some won’t. They’re all worth trying!

Let’s begin.

Advertising vs Experts

In How Blogs Make Money, I separated bloggers into two categories – advertising/affiliate bloggers and expert/guru bloggers. I paint with a very broad brush with those categorizations because rarely does life fit nicely into buckets and this is no different. The two groups are not mutually exclusive but understanding what you want to do will guide you in figuring out to make money.

Quick refresh – Advertising and Affiliate bloggers make money selling someone else’s product, Expert and Guru bloggers make money selling their own products.

Both rely on having traffic, whether it’s a loyal readership or a decent trickle/torrent of search engine traffic. If you don’t have the traffic, focus on that first before monetization. Getting traffic requires providing an abundance of substance and value and it much harder to do than implementing monetization techniques.

Affiliate/Advertising

The model for an affiliate/advertising support blog is simple – provide a valuable resource on a subject and find advertisers who want to reach your audience.

  1. Google Adsense: Adsense is the simplest way for a blogger to make money and is a form of banner advertising, though it’s far more simplistic. Google Adsense pays on a per click basis (CPC) [CPA vs. CPC. vs CPM Explained] and you just drop it into your theme or into your posts.
  2. Display advertising: Display advertising refers to putting up a banner and being paid every time it gets shown to a visitor. You can work directly with an advertiser or through third-party broker. The key terms to know are fill rate (% of the time you get a paying ad displayed) and CPM (cost per thousand impressions).
  3. Affiliate marketing: By far one of the more popular ways of making money with a blog is through affiliate marketing. Affiliate marketing is a broad term that means anytime you act as an agent for another company. You are the affiliate and by adding a link to a product from the publisher, you get paid every time a specific action happens (CPA). That action could be a purchase, filling out a form (lead), an application, an approval of an application, etc. You can find these offers through affiliate companies like Commission Junction, Shareasale, Linkshare, etc.
  4. Collect leads for yourself: Jeff Rose of Good Financial Cents and Neal Frankle of Wealth Pilgrim are certified financial planners with planning practices. They’re also very smart, extremely knowledgeable, and you can find that out in about two seconds on their blogs. I’m friends with both and have never asked but I would bet a million bucks they get financial planning clients from their blog.
  5. Lead generation: Jeff also runs Life Insurance by Jeff, which collects leads by offering rate comparison services. Those leads are valuable and you can get compensated for it, either by working with underwriters directly or being an underwriter himself.
  6. Refer clients: I feel like a broken record bringing up Neal and Jeff again but they’re the best examples of this! If they get someone asking them about financial planning services and they don’t want to or cannot take them on as clients, they can refer them to another financial planner. Maybe they get a share of the planning fees, maybe they get goodwill, but it’s always a good business practice to send referrals to trusted colleagues.
  7. Slotting fees: If you have a post where you list things, like the best blue widgets ever, companies will pay to be higher on the list. I had posts in which I listed a bunch of similar products in no particular order and companies wanted to be higher up on the list. Just like Google results, the higher ones get the most clicks and companies will pay to be higher. The term originates from supermarkets where stores paid to have their product appear higher on the shelves.
  8. Exclusivity fees: Some companies want to be the only one you mention when talking about companies in that niche. This begins to blur the lines between editorial and advertising but if you have no qualms against it, it can be lucrative. I know several Mom/family/lifestyle bloggers who signed lucrative exclusivity deals when it comes to car seats. I find that it’s better to retain editorial discretion (plus I have a bad memory) but if it’s something you only ever buy one of, it might make sense.
  9. Social media mentions: Do you have a large Twitter, Vine, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or [insert your favorite social network here] following? Companies will pay to get mentions because it drives exposure. Unless you have enormous followings, this is a very limited opportunity.
  10. Social media consulting: One (big) step up from being paid for mentions, which is rarer now anyway, is to start consulting. Melanie Nelson is the blogger behind Blogging Basics 101 and expanded to become a consultant in social media and blogging training via her venture Summit Integrated Media (she is the co-author of Facebook All-In-One for Dummies).
  11. Be an Ambassador for Your Niche: If you’ve been blogging for a while, you probably know a lot of people in your niche. Some people say it’s an echo chamber (it is) but use it to your advantage by doing outreach for large corporations looking to get brand exposure. Kelly Whalen’s Splash Creative Media is an example of that, but focused on social media. Mom Bloggers Club is an example in the enormous mommy blogging scene.
  12. Advertising Management: Once you start becoming good at managing advertisements on your own site, you can start doing it for others. Crystal Stemberger of Budgeting the Fun Stuff has made a career of doing this, as explained to Emily Guy Birken on PT Money.
  13. Sponsored posts, paid reviews: Companies know that links to their websites can mean higher results in search, so they’re willing to pay bloggers to post articles that link back to their website. I believe that doing this is counter productive if you want your site to appear higher in search results. That said, it’s only seen as a bad thing because of Google – is it much different than any other form of advertising?

Expert

Expert bloggers use their blog to show the world they’re good at something. Or they’ve experienced something worth sharing. They turn these experiences and this knowledge into resources and then give those away or sell them to readers.

The benefit of this route is that your moat is so much bigger. It’s much harder to compete with an expert than with another affiliate/advertising site. It’s hard to get ahead of someone with a head start and a large loyal following.

On the other hand, relationships are rarely exclusive. How many expert bloggers do you follow? I started reading a lot of them and each one has something different and refreshing to offer (which is key, you can’t be an also-ran… you need a unique selling proposition). With an affiliate, you need to beat people to get more traffic, more conversions, more revenue. As an expert, you just need to get exposure and have something meaningful to say.

The evolution of the expert blogger: Expert bloggers follow a very clear evolution in terms of what they offer. You start with an ebook, which can be sold for a small price or given away to get email subscriptions. Then you build a short email course, sent to those visitors who signed up, that teaches them a process. Next on the list is often a physical book of some kind, preferably with a known publishers. Followed by building out a longer course with rich media (videos, podcasts) or an even larger membership site with an ongoing membership fee. Lastly, expert bloggers can start their own conference or go on the speaking circuit.

This isn’t a clean evolution, you don’t go from one step to the other. This is just the general progression I see, with plenty of back and forth, and the goal with each step is to build up credibility. Not all expert bloggers do everything on this list and they aren’t “better” if they move up to perceived “bigger” things.

So with that in mind, here’s the list of ways expert bloggers make a living:

  1. Become a freelance writer: If you want to write for a living, you can guarantee the writing part by starting a blog. Brands looking to build up their own blogs often look to leaders in their niche to add credibility and, hopefully, visitors by paying those bloggers to write on their site. Your blog becomes a showcase for your expertise and style, which goes a long way in convincing a company to hire you to write for them.
  2. Build (and sell) an app: Jackie Beck writes the blogs Money Crush and The Debt Myth – but she also created a Pay Off Debt App that is sold for $2.99. The app helps people with credit card debt pay it off using the snowball method, a popular debt repayment strategy popularized by Dave Ramsey.
  3. Become a consultant: Blogs as a showcase of your talent also offer you the opportunity to sell your services as a consultant. Marie Forleo really defies any sort of one-sentence summary and her blog, and videos, showcases the variety of her expertise (and the spontaneity of her personality), to the point that you’re almost struggling to find a way to pay her to teach you. You can participate in her Rich Happy & Hot B-School, watch Marie TV, or follow along her blog for the latest and greatest that she does.
  4. Sell an ebook: Adam Baker sold all of his stuff, traveled abroad for a year, came back and wrote a guide about selling your crap. Chris Guillebeau had a mission to visit every country of the world and produces unconventional guides about gaming the frequent flyer game, building empires, etc. Ebooks typically just take lots of time, perhaps a little for design work, but are a good testing ground for your marketing skills (and improving them).
  5. Give away an email course: As you build that email list, many offer a short 5-10 day email course that links back to their blog. Oftentimes, these courses reference tools and services where the blogger earns a commission if you sign up. Steve Chou of My Wife Quit Her Day Job offers a short email course that teaches you how to get your store off the ground.
  6. Sell a course: Many expert bloggers start with an ebook then graduate to a longer course structure in which they have a dozen modules plus worksheets, mentoring, video interviews and podcasts. Derek Halpern of Social Triggers does a ton of video to showcase his knowledge and expertise at the intersection of business and behavioral psychology. He has free email courses and he recently launched a paid course that teaches you how to create a blog that converts. Another great example is my friend Ramit Sethi has several courses too and you can watch their evolution in terms of complexity, starting with Scrooge Strategy to Earn1K all the way up to Dream Job.
  7. Start and run a conference: Guillebeau started World Domination Summit and Phil Taylor started Fincon, all within the last five years. WDS has thousands of attendees (though Guillebeau doesn’t keep a penny of the profits – he gave all proceeds back to attendees as cash in 2012 and for 2013 they will be starting a scholarship foundation) and Fincon (only in its third year and it’s a much smaller target audience) has hundreds, both are extremely successful. Ramit co-founded BehaviorCon and this is its inaugural year. Conferences can be very lucrative but are extremely time consuming, stressful, and have high up front costs.
  8. Build a membership site: Corbett Barr started Fizzle.co, a membership site for folks looking to start and grow an online business. Fizzle is primarily a video training library couples with special offers and “office hours” with Corbett and his team (and sometimes special guests). Aaron Wall’s SEO Book was the first (and only) ebook I ever purchased and I was amazed at the value – then he shuttered it and started a membership site. Membership sites provide recurring revenue, which is the appeal of this model, but building one has a high up front cost and ongoing time and maintenance.
  9. Become a Speaker: Ever been to a conference with a keynote speaker and been blown away? He or she was probably paid a hefty, and completely justified, sum to give that speech (if you weren’t blown away, conference deserves a refund!). Seth Godin commands a five figure speaking fee, which changes based on distance from New York, and there’s ample evidence to suggest he’s worth every penny. The reason he gets that is because he’s built up a tremendous resume that includes books people cite every day, even if they don’t know it. Ideavirus? Purple cow? Permission marketing? Tribes? meatball sundae? Those are all Seth Godin (ansethd to this day, when I think of him, I picture him with the long nose that is the cover of All Marketers Are Liars).
  10. Leap to Entrepreneurship: I struggled to find a term for this category but I think this one fit. Jeremy Schoemaker, better known as Shoemoney, started as an affiliate blogger (initially in the ringtone industry) and became headline name in the “Make Money Online” blogging niche. He would later start Elite Retreat, which was one of the first conferences I ever went to, and write Nothing’s Changed But My Change. Most recently, In the same vein as many other entrepreneurs, he parlayed his experiences, and pain points, in email marketing to create the PAR Program.

Can You Do Both?

Can you pursue “both” options?

Yes and plenty of people do. One prime example is Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income and it’s all discussed in his monthly income reports. The lion’s share of his income comes from affiliate earnings, of which hosting is the largest component, but he also sells ebooks and partnered with Adam Baker on Only72.com, an online 72-hour flash sale of digital products for entrepreneurs.

Darren Rowse, often seen as the progenitor of the term problogger, is an example of someone who runs multiple successful blogs. Problogger.net, for which he’s most well known, is a blog that teaches others how to be professional bloggers. He’s also written Problogger – Secrets to Blogging Your Way to a Six Figure Income. He started Digital Photography School first, which offers digital photography tips and education, and used what he learned to build Problogger. Both generate income off the affiliate and advertising model.

Another prime example is someone who runs a blog about one subject and actually sells a course teaching something similar but still very different. Steve Chou, who I mentioned earlier, runs My Wife Quit Her Job and has a successful course teaching people how to start an online store. This is all in addition to Bumblebee Linens, the business that enabled his wife to quit her job. He generates advertising and affiliate income from the blog, expert income from the online store course, and even sells linens through the ecommerce platform.

Neville Medhora, a long time internet friend from back when we were both featured in the New York Times, shares all the ways he makes money in this Youtube video I embedded (he uses some colorful language but it’s an entertaining video). The first few minutes are him recapping all the random ways he’s made money online but ones that have flourished are his blog, NevBlog, a drop shipping business, AppSumo (founded by Noah Kagan and Nev has an equity stake), and a Kopywriting Kourse (he did a lot of copywriting at AppSumo and turned that expertise). For those keeping score at home, that’s an ecommerce site, an online course, a blog, and a “membership” site.

Whew! I appreciate you taking the time to read through it, I had a lot of fun researching and studying some of my favorite bloggers with a more tactical eye. I hope this guide helps you understand the current landscape of revenue options for bloggers – was there a big idea or technique that I missed? Is there something you are having success with? Please share your thoughts below!

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Jim

In 2005, I founded a personal finance blog (Bargaineering.com) that became successful enough that I quit my career as a software developer in the defense industry. It is my goal to share everything I learned so that you can do the same - build an online business that let's you pursue your passion.

22 responses to “Insider’s Guide to How Your Favorite Bloggers Make Money”

  1. Fantastic guide, Jim. Useful info and links. (And thanks for the mention!)

    I receive several emails every week asking for advice on making money via blogging. I find that most people want a quick fix, but it’s really hard work. I’ll be sure to point people here.

    • Jim Wang says:

      I get asked the same thing, I hope this guide is helpful for those who are brand new to blogging and bloggers who have been at it for a while.

      Thanks for the compliment!

  2. Your Daily Finance says:

    Great post as usual Jim! I really like the details and how you breakdown the different sections within each. There are a lot of ways to make money and I agree that if you want something bigger those sponsored posts could really do you in. I know a lot of us bloggers use them and if you have several sites or ways of income then go for it. Making money is definitely hard work but I find it rewarding that I am in control of what I do and make. I never realized so many people had several projects moving at the same time.

    • Jim Wang says:

      Sponsored posts are so controversial. To think, if Google didn’t say so, no one would think much of them!

      Sometimes sponsored posts are the way to go so I never “look down” on someone who takes them.

      That said, you do run the risk of sacrificing long term success when you take them… but $50 in the hand is hard to argue against.

      • Your Daily Finance says:

        I agreee I never look down on anyone who takes them. I have personally had them on older sites but long term success was never the plan with those sites. $50 for 2 minutes work isn’t bad.

        • LKnerl says:

          Love the article, Jim. I wanted to just add my two cents on the sponsored posts thing. I think it’s all in how you disclose and handle the Google juice. If you’re upfront that it’s sponsored content and use proper FTC guidelines in saying so (as well as incorporate no-follow links), there really shouldn’t be a problem with having paid editorial content on your blog. (Some of my spnosored posts have been the most popular among readers,) That’s how most of the “mommy bloggers” earn these days, and it’s so accepted as an industry practice that big media players like HuffPo even have their own sponsored content channels.

          It’s the new ad.. just needs to be handled correctly so that you are never misleading or putting off your readers.

          • Jim Wang says:

            Yes that’s very true, I think that a lot of smaller bloggers, without the journalistic editorial oversight, don’t do it this way because, honestly, that’s not what the advertisers want. They want it to look like anything else.

            A lot of big sites do advertorials and sponsored posts, labeled, because the advertisers want the branding and traffic. A small site with 500 visits a day but a PR 4 or DA of 40+ isn’t being targeted because of traffic, you know?

  3. Wow this is a fantastic resource that I’m sure I will refer back to often. Thanks for publishing this.

  4. Stockineer says:

    Good stuff Jim. You’ve given me some ideas. Part of me struggles because I like being a free site even though just about every other site like mine is a pay based service, so your other ideas may be the right thing for me. I get a lot of people that tell me I should teach a seminar or speak somewhere, but it seems like a tough sell for folks that don’t know me …it’s almost a chicken/egg problem. Adsense is a slow road 🙂

    Do you ever find people fearing that their site grow too big? Did you have apprehensions? I mean, the internet is a very public place where you basically expose all your thoughts for the world. Thanks again. I’ve been waiting for this for a week.

    • Jim Wang says:

      Yeah, a lot of investment sites run on a membership model. A blog I used to follow a lot is The Kirk Report and his memberships run $100/yr.

      I haven’t run into people who fear that their site would grow too big but privacy is always an issue. It’s difficult to balance when so much is public record already.

  5. Jim Wang says:

    Thanks Free Money Minute!

  6. It’s amazing to see you list so many online entrepreneurs that have been successful running their blogs whether through advertising or as an expert.

    In your opinion, is there a breakout between those who became successful through very meticulous and calculated planning from the very beginning, vs. those who started something more on passion – went with the flow – and then snowballed their blogs into a successful business? If so, what do you think is that proportional breakout?

    • Jim Wang says:

      I think that in order to become very successful you need to be meticulous and a calculated planner, but you don’t need to be that way from the beginning. You can do well without being quite so meticulous in the beginning but it never hurts you to be meticulous.

      I’m not a very meticulous or a calculated planner by nature. I kind of just “wing it” and like to see what happens. Once Bargaineering had a few pages that ranked highly for some search terms, I forced myself to split test and be more meticulous to maximize the returns.

      I think most people start based on passion and having fun, realize it can make money, then buckle down and start treating it like a business. Then you have people starting their second blogs (Derek Halpern is a prime example) who know how the game works and are treating the second go differently.

      Microblogger is much better run than Bargaineering was in the first month. 🙂

  7. Mike B says:

    Awesome post! In fact, exactly what I’ve been looking for: short enough not to be overwhelming but detailed enough to be helpful. I will bookmark this and probably come back to it often as I work on ways to monetize on my blog.

    • Jim says:

      I think the examples are crucial because it gives you a model to study if you like a particular method and want to see how it’s being executed in the real world, right now.

  8. Neal says:

    Jim . Comprehensive and jam packed with value. Plus you gave me like two and a half plugs so this is absolutely a great resource. What I keep learning from you is to provide just a ton of good useful info. You really provide a great model and you practice what you preach. Thanks for giving me something to aspire to Jim

  9. Jason V says:

    Jim, you are rapidly becoming one of my top go-to resources for online business. This post is rich with content and ideas, and well thought out and presented. Nicely done!

  10. Kristy says:

    Great list! I make my income via blogging and jobs that stem from it too, lots of great ones mentioned on the list that I hadn’t looked into yet.

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