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MBP #8: Jason Leake on how to grow a real food blog to 5 million pageviews (and monetize it!)

Jason Leake, 100 Days of Real FoodJason is one-half of the team behind 100 Days of Real Food, along with his wife and site founder Lisa Leake. Together, they’ve grown 100 Days of Real Food into a real food blog that had over five million page views in January of 2014 and supports both of them full-time (and 7 part time staff).

Lisa is the “face” of 100 Days – writing the content, interacting on social media, being the passionate guide, and growing the site.

Jason is the behind the scenes guy who makes sure all the trains run on time, advertisers pay their bills, and manages most/all the technical aspects of keeping everything up and running.

That’s a gross oversimplification but I think you get the general roles. It’s a common division of labor and it’s one that works really well.

They’ve been able to grow the site, which started as a challenge to promote another site, to five million pageviews and we go into what it takes to do that and more.

In this episode, Jason talks about how he manages their affiliate links using Pretty Link plugin. Just recently, Jason learned from Amazon (despite having heard that it was OK from them several times before) that it’s NOT okay to use it… he talks about it on this post. He’s still using it to manage other links, just not Amazon.

What will you learn in this episode:

  • How Lisa started 100 Days of Real Food (100 days pledge) as a way to promote another site!
  • How assigning a number jump started the site
  • Learn about their “upward spiral” technique of getting more exposure
  • How being between President Barack Obama and Justin Bieber crashed their servers
  • A brief discussion about writing a cookbook, working with an agent (and what they look for, the answer might surprise you) and a publisher (Harper Collins)
  • A simple technique they used to increase Facebook fans (they have over 1.2 million likes)
  • How 100 Days of Real Food makes money – there are three main ways and we discuss them all in detail
  • How they use dynamic allocation & frequency capping to maximize ad revenue from premium networks
  • How they willingly gave up $60,000+ in ad revenue to remain true to themselves (and their audience)
  • How they integrate Amazon Affiliates on 100 Days (using Pretty Link plugin, but he’s moving away from that for Amazon per Amazon’s orders)
  • How they’ve expanded to include Pinterest in their social media promotional efforts
  • How they manage direct advertising sales (including the system they use to make sure they don’t inundate their readers)
  • How important it was for Lisa to attend conferences, network, and follow up with other attendees

As you probably guess from all that Jason does, he’s exceptionally busy and I’m so thankful he could make it on the show. If you enjoyed the episode, please join me in thanking Jason by clicking to tweet @100daysrealfood and tell him how much you enjoyed on the podcast!

Resources and links mentioned in this chat:

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Raw Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to the Microblogger podcast. If you’re looking to build a business you can be proud of, you’re in the right place.

Here’s your host Jim Wang.

Jim: Hi, everyone, Jim here. Welcome to another episode. Today I’m
talking to Jason Leake of 100 Days of Real Food. It’s a real
food blog started by his wife Lisa to help document their
family’s move away from heavily processed food or it’s real-
food. The chat is just with Jason. He works behind the scenes
and we get into a lot of what goes into running a blog that got
5 million page views in January.

If you haven’t listened to Episode 6, that’s with Lindsay and Bjork
of Pinch of Yum, another food blog I invite you to check that
out after listening to this one, because you can see the
differences in strategy between the two, especially when it
comes to monetization. They’re both within the same broad
general niche of food.

Now, for show notes, links, other goodies you can go to
Microblogger.com/8, that’s number eight. Lastly, if you haven’t
given us a review or a rating on iTunes and you have a few
moments, it would help me out a lot if you could. It helps
others find the show, it gives me a boost of energy to keep me
going.

All right, on the chat. I hope you enjoy it.

Hey, Jason, how’s it going?

Jason: I’m doing great, Jim. How are you?

Jim: I’m doing awesome. I’m really excited to have you on, because I’m a
big fan of 100 Days of Real Food. I’m not even sure how I
discovered it, probably at looking around at various food blogs.
It amazed me, but it is in and of itself–not, I guess,
amazing, it’s a great accomplishment that you guys have been
able to grow that site to the huge numbers that it sees. Now, I
think I saw a chart that it’s almost 4 million page views a
month?

Jason: Yes, we actually had about 5 million page views in January, but
we’re around 4 million on average.

Jim: That’s amazing, congratulations.

Jason: Well thank you. I run the operations fulltime behind the
scenes, but of course the credit really goes to Lisa Leake, my
wife, who started and put in all those years of effort on the
front end. She’s been blogging for four years now.

Jim: Yeah, I saw you started on May, 2010.

Jason: Yeah, she actually started another blog just a few months
before that called The Food Illusion and then she had the idea
of 100 Days of Real Food to draw attention to that blog, but 100
Days just took off so we just ported everything over there.

Jim: Wow, that’s funny. So she built 100 Days just to promote the other
site?

Jason: Yeah, I can give you kind of the basic story for listeners that
may not have heard of 100 Days.

So we’re just a typical suburban family and Lisa watched an interview
with Michael Pollan the author of “In Defense of Food.” It was
actually on Oprah, not daytime Oprah, but at night. She was
like, “Jason, you’ve got to see this.” He was talking about
where our food comes from and Lisa realized she had no clue, so
it was like this switch flipped in her head and she got curious
and started educating herself. Once she realized all the junk
that’s in our food she just had to make the change.

I remember, my parents were hippies so a lot of this like, “Yeah,
duh. I’m cool with all these changes. I’d rather eat more
natural food and less chemicals and so forth.” But for her it
was like she was losing sleep. She was like, “We have to clear
out or cabinets and make these changes right away.”

So anyway, her friends were asking her about it and she got tired of
emailing just chains of people, so a friend suggested she should
start a blog, so that was the Food Illusion. She got so
passionate about it and really wanted to spread that message she
had the idea, almost like a marketing tactic to draw attention.

So like you’d hear about, I think there was young female sailor that
tried to go around the world in a little boat in a certain
amount of time, or whatever, but when you assign a number to
something and it’s some challenge that people can kind of root
for you and check in it’s intriguing. So that’s what the 100
Days of Real Food pledge was about our family pledge to not eat
any processed foods.

We have very strict rules. We have two daughters. I was a traveling
salesman at the time so it was very challenging. Anyway, like
it said, it just got to be so popular that it just made sense to
just go with that as the main blog.

Jim: So the whole idea was to only have it for 100 days?

Jason: Yeah, there was not thought in our mind about this becoming a
business. It was purely to get the message out and to educate
other people about what we had discovered.

Jim: I absolutely love both of those stories. The little happy accidents,
right?

Jason: Yeah, exactly.

Jim: I guess this was still Lisa’s show, how did she get people to find
the 100 Days of Real Food back then.

Jason: Well, she was actually pretty intentional about it. When you
have no traffic any traffic is good, so I call it the upward
spiral of if you can get in the local paper or another blog and
then you get a link back, then you add that to your repertoire
[inaudible 05:19] “I’ve been in the Charlotte Observer, yeah.”
Then someone else is more likely to see you as a credible
source. So it was really a lot of intentional work, so guest
posting, obviously being active on social media, but then
really, like I said, leveraging.

Now she was in a Charlotte Observer article, she starting writing for
their blog online with some guest posts. Then she had a
syndicated news column that went out nationally. It don’t
remember how many newspapers it was, half a dozen or something,
so things like that.

Then when you’re out there in different spaces then influential
people can see you. I remember we had this crazy month in
August, 2011 which was 16 months into her blogging career where
a 100 Days of Real Food was on the Yahoo front page, right
between President Obama and Justin Bieber.

Jim: Awesome.

Jason: It was crazy. So was at that point getting around 200,000 page
views a month and that August we had 1.1 million, obviously the
server crashed. We had no idea this was going to happen, but
luckily a lot of the traffic that came liked what they saw so
the next month we had 570,000 page views. So it went from
200,000 to have that spike, to 500,000 so we kept a lot of those
people.

Jim: Wow, so that was all built on leveraging up, so to speak. You start
with the local paper, you get some guest posts on a column and
then you just move your way up, as you said, “Up the spiral.”
That’s a great way of thinking about it.

Jason: Yeah, and it doesn’t hurt that this is obviously a topic that
she is passionate about and Lisa’s extremely authentic, and it’s
a topic that’s very timely right now. It’s gaining traction.

Jim: In 2010, I don’t know the exact chronology of the whole–is it a real
food movement, like everybody being more conscious of where
their food is coming from, sources and things like that–would
you say that she was ahead of the curve of that, our about the
middle, or how does that fit?

Jason: That’s a good question. I’d say she was probably slightly
ahead, but some of the real pioneers are like Michael Pollan
who’s been writing about this for decades.

Jim: Sometimes too early is not as good, unless you’re like the first. If
you’re Michael Pollan and everyone knows your name, but the
couple of people right after doesn’t catch as much speed.

Jason: Well all these people are important. I mean, Joel Salatin, The
Organic Farmer, and Jamie Oliver with The Food Revolution, the
television show, bringing some education to the masses and
trying to change policies in schools. These are all really
important people, so it don’t know that it’s necessarily a
specific chronology, it’s bringing different facets to the
movement.

So Lisa’s specialty is, I think in hindsight, that’s she’s just a
normal mom. She had never looked at ingredient labels and she
ate macaroni and cheese out of the box. She’s just a normal
person, yet was able to make the changes.

I mean, I’m looking out the window right now, we live on a cul-de-sac
in a neighborhood, we have school age children, we’re just
normal people. So rather than her blogging from this position
of being on a high horse and it’s my way or the highway, she’s
very much talking to her old self and remembering. I mean, I
think that’s one of the keys to her success is that she’s
speaking to that person that doesn’t know what we know now.
She’s very approachable in that manner, if that makes sense.

Jim: You know it’s funny, I don’t know if I was reading 100 Days or
something else, but I remember thinking, “Okay, I’m going to
look at some of the ingredients in the food that I’m eating.”
The thing that I pulled out of my fridge is something that I get
every day, which is coffee creamer. I buy like the nonfat
coffee creamer, I pull it out and I look at it. I’m expecting
to find like cream, milk. What do I find? Cream, milk,
titanium oxide. “Titanium oxide? What the heck is titanium
oxide?”

And then I remember to myself, “Titanium oxide, that’s the stuff that
they put in sunscreen to help block the sun.” The frugal Chinese
person came out and was like, “I could finish this or I can
throw it out.” I was like, “You know what? This is in sunscreen
specifically to block the sun and I’m eating it because they
like it’ll make the cream whiter.”–I mean, it does make the
cream whiter–“and I’ve been drinking this stuff in my coffee
every day for a long time. This is not good for me.” Like I
went against all of my training as a frugal Chinese person and I
threw it out. That was a big moment for me.

Jason: Yeah, well I’m glad you had that moment of realization.

We cleared out our pantry and the same thing it’s like, “We don’t
want to waste the food.” So we gave it to a neighbor and we felt
bad, “Here’s all this stuff the we won’t ingest, but you can
have it.” It was kind of funny.

Jim: Yeah it’s tough. I mean, it’s a lot of food and when you don’t think
about it you’re just buying it, and when you buy it you just put
it in your pantry. Then it’s when you start looking at it
you’re like, “Whoa, hold on.” It’s funny, years ago Breyers had
a whole ad campaign that said, “Our stuff only has four
ingredients, milk, cream, sugar, whatever, chocolate chips.”

So you’re right, it’s not something that’s really, really new, but
it’s good that she was able to get sort of ahead of the curve,
but also she sort of had the persona of herself to write to,
which makes what she does resonate a lot better.

So getting back to the meteoric rise, one on the other things that
you work on in Pro Blog School, which in know you were saying
that you wanted to do a lot more of. It sort of chronicles the
behind scenes after you joined the 100 Days, which I think was
December, 2011, somewhere around that time period.

Jason: Let’s see, actually I’m working on a timeline for a
presentation, so I’ve got these dates in front of me.

Jim: Oh, perfect.

Jason: Yeah, I started about then January of 2012 I started helping
her part time. Then it was July of 2012 where I quite my
corporate job. It’s the same month that Lisa got her book deal.
It was a pretty incredible summer.

Jim: That’s awesome.

Jason: I remember, I was in my cube and I’m getting calls on my cell
phone. We were living on blog income so I had been putting my
corporate earnings into the bank, just in savings. I knew I was
going to quit, so it was such a weird environment to be in this
cube farm getting calls like, “Oh, we’ve got another publisher
interested and there’s this bidding war.” And I’m going outside
and I don’t care at all about the work around, but I’m living
this second life. All my friends at work are like, “What is
going on?” I’m getting calls nonstop from agents and Lisa
updating us. It was wild.

But anyway, I started Pro Blog School in November of last year. It’s
really about how to monetize your blog, how to grow traffic, and
build a small business. I don’t want people to have to reinvent
the wheel. Yes, it’s a blog about making money online, but it’s
based on a real life success story that was not started for
those reasons at all, so I can pull from things that we’re
currently doing and experimenting with and talking about. I
really enjoy it and I want to work on it more and more, but I’ve
got to automate and delegate a little bit more of my operation
responsibilities with 100 Days of Real Food, so I can focus more
on it.

Jim: Now that you mentioned it, I actually wanted to dig a little into the
negotiations. How did that all start?

Jason: Well, we got an agent and I’m really happy we did, because this
is such a foreign environment for us having never done anything
like that. Lisa really wanted to write a cookbook. We’d put
aside some other monetization opportunities so she could focus
on that, in that not just looking at the dollars and cents, but
just her personal sense of accomplishment and her interest. She
just really wanted to focus on that.

Jim: How did you find an agent?

Jason: We asked around, as I recall. We actually had some agents
approach her, but I think we talked to about half a dozen,
really. We were fortunate because some people have trouble even
finding an agent to talk to, but we got to pick who we wanted.

Jim: At this point 100 Days had a million page views a month, at least.

Jason: Let’s see, I’m trying to remember.

Jim: But it was really popular at that point, to the point that saw it and
saw your traffic numbers was like, “Wow, I want this person to
work on a book, because their readership would be able to
support the whole process.” Right?

Jason: Well, it’s interesting you mention that, because she had
thought of the book a year prior and actually spoke to the agent
that we ended up using. She was at that point, I think, we
still might have had 5,000 or 10,000 Facebook fans and she gave
her some tough love. She’s like, “I think you’ve got a good
story, but really these days the publishers are looking for a
strong platform, so talk to me when you have tens of thousands
of Facebook fans.”

So Lisa made that her mission and that’s when we put up a like-date
on Facebook with a free incentive, so it was a free meal plan if
you like the Facebook page. She started doing some guest posts.
I have an article on that for Pro Blog School about this.

That was what started ramping up the social media numbers. So then
she came back to that agent and said, “Hey, I not only met your
goal, but I flew by it like it was standing still.” Eventually
we ended up working with that agent, who’s been great. Granted
they take a fee, but her negotiations she just wiped her fee out
in one phone call. Plus, she’s holding our hand through the
whole process, so that’s really good.

Jim: Awesome, so they wanted to know that you had a platform by which to
promote the book, and that was Facebook? They didn’t care about
Pinterest or anything else?

Jason: Well it’s just Facebook is what Lisa was excelling at, just
because her audience, that was her demographic, what people were
using, and she was comfortable with using. It wasn’t like we
actively sought out, “Hey, we’re going to use Facebook.” It was
just naturally what she was already using, so she just improved
upon it.

But, no, they’ll look at different platforms if you’ve got great
Instagram numbers, or Pinterest, or whatever. They just want to
see that there’s some audience buy-in and that the general
population has seen value in this person.

Jim: Had you guys ever considered self-publishing?

Jason: That would be a question for Lisa. I don’t think she did. I
mean, I was pushing her to do some eBooks, even just simple
stuff Likeipedia 100 Days of Real Food for two bucks or
something, because I know you can make a ton of money with your
own products, but she really didn’t want to have anything out
there until she got the book deal, because she didn’t want any
publishers to look and that and be like, “Okay, well she’s got
the little eBooks.” In her mind, she wanted to be the whole
house.

Jim: A published author.

Jason: Right.

Jim: The logic of that makes sense.

Jason: And that was just a personal choice for her. I don’t think
there’s anything wrong with self-publishing. Some people like
Tim Ferriss, he got turned down so many times and look at what a
success he is now with “The 4-Hour Workweek.”

Jim: Yeah, that’s true. Yeah, that thing has blown up.

How has the book done? I guess it came out a couple of years ago, the
cookbook that Lisa wrote.

Jason: Oh no, actually it’s not out yet.

Jim: Oh, it’s not out yet?

Jason: Yeah, it comes out August 26th of this year. Originally it was
supposed to be released in January, but there were some delays
on the publisher end, I won’t go into details, but an August
release so we’re pretty excited about that.

Jim: Wow, so the lead time on these they seem really long, because you
guys started talking about it, you said August of 2012 or July
of 2012?

Jason: I’m trying to think of when she landed the deal. I think it
was right around the time I quit my job, so it was July of 2012.
So she had actually started talking about it, gosh, around May
2011.

Jim: Okay, so these things just take a while.

Jason: Yeah, and different publishers some crank them through it just
depends. Your editors have other authors they’re working with
and blah, blah, blah. So January is a strategic time for us to
release, but they couldn’t make that, so they’re were suggesting
May, but that would be a horrible time for us to release. So we
suggested August, because we get big bumps in January from
people becoming health conscious and then also in August for
back to school.

Jim: Oh, okay. Are those typically the two big traffic periods for 100
Days?

Jason: Yeah, absolutely.

Jim: Okay. So going back to 100 Days, I know that on Pro Blog School you
mention the main monetization methods that you guys rely on
there, it’s premium ads, affiliates, and then direct sales. Do
you want to talk a little bit about how you guys figured out the
premium ad business?

Jason: Sure. Basically we started monetizing too late, honesty. Lisa
went to a blogging conference and then realized, “Oh, you can
actually monetize your blog.” She, I guess, met some ad network
reps there. At this point she had about half a million page
views a month, but she had no as to what she was doing. She was
just overwhelmed and she needed help and that’s when I started
helping her.

So yeah, you can make pretty good money just with AdSense, but then
there are premium networks which with pay a higher CPM. When
you start to layer those in a daisy chain then you can maximize
the income from all the different impressions.

So what I’m working on right now, we were with Federated Media as our
premium ad network, but we just got accepted to Martha’s Circle,
so that’s another one. I’m talking to 350 Media. So this is
kind of advanced stuff, but it’s challenging to figure out how
to optimize and work all those together to extract the most
revenue from every page view, because when you have a long daisy
chain you start to have issues with latency where the time it
takes when there’s all these server calls. So you may not even
get an ad that shows up by the time someone clicks off the page
and you made nothing.

Jim: How are you guys trying to solve that problem?

Jason: I’m using Google DFP, DoubleClick for Publishers it’s a free ad
server. I’m experimenting with what they call a dynamic
allocation, so it’s like the first call goes to DFP and then
I’ve got my different ad networks set up as line items, then
I’ve got AdSense set to compete and I can adjust that floor
rate. I’m also experimenting with frequency capping.

You can put a pretty high floor rate, like let’s say Federated Media
we expect to get $3 CPM or I could set AdSense at $3.50 or $4 or
whatever. It’s only going to serve that if it can beat
Federated. Then if AdSense doesn’t go then Federated will get
the call. If Federated has an ad, it serves it, great we’re
done. If it doesn’t then you can have a backfill, which could
be another premium network or AdSense. So that’s on my to-do
list this week.

Jim: How do you find the premium ad networks?

Jason: The best thing to do is ask around, because who’s the quality
network today may not be so tomorrow, they really vary. So that
and like blogger forums if you could get attached to some of
these Facebook groups or you can just ask other people, “Hey,
what’s working for you? What kind of CPM rates are you seeing?”
I mean, I wouldn’t share those types of numbers in public, but
in a private group you could compare. But like I said, some
good ones are Federated Media, and some of the bigger ones like
Glam, BlogHer, Say Media. There’s different types there’s
Legit, which actually just changed to Sovereign.

But with any of these networks it’s really important that you look at
the constraints around them, so for us with don’t want to run
processed food ads or pharmaceutical ads and a lot of networks
are not able to filter appropriately. AdSense you can, you have
a lot of control and that’s great. I mean, sometimes bad ads
slip through, which you can then block, but a lot of these
bigger networks they’ll have no way of filtering, so we can’t
work with them. In fact, I estimated last year we probably left
about $60,000 on the table since we don’t run processed food
ads.

Jim: Wow, that’s a lot to leave on the table, but it’s also hard to run a
processed food ad or a pharmaceutical ad if your mission is to
be against that, right?

Jason: Yeah, it just doesn’t seem authentic, so we don’t do that.

Jim: It creates a disconnect and then your readers as they’re reading an
article about how you don’t like processed foods or how to avoid
processed food and right next to it is a processed food ad. So
it doesn’t seem like a very difficult decision to make, but then
you look at the money and you’re kind of like, “$60,000, that’s
quite a bit of change.”

Jason: Exactly. But it’s a really easy decision to make.

Jim: The other thing that has been succeeding for you is Amazon
affiliates. You’ve mentioned to me, in another conversation,
that it’s passive. Could you talk a little bit about you guys
integrate Amazon affiliates?

Jason: Sure. You don’t have to do this, but we use Pretty Link, it’s
a little plug-in for WordPress to manage our affiliate links.
The reason being because we have over 500 post/pages and let’s
say we have an Amazon link for a blender and we have it just
peppered all over the place. Whenever we mention a blender or
feel it’s appropriate to drop that link and then that blender
gets discontinued, or they’re out of stock, or something like
that then there’s no way we can go back and change all those.
It would just be a nightmare.

So Pretty Link is a little reader [inaudible 24:59] plug-in, so we
can have 100DaysofRealFood.com/blender and then it goes to our
Amazon affiliate link. Then if we need to update that we just
update it in one place and it updates everywhere. Also, it
gives you tracking, so we can see how many people click on that.
So we also use that if we have, say, a sponsored post from an
advertiser then we can give them some feedback on the
performance.

But anyway, how we promote is just wherever it’s natural. If we’re
mentioning a product, we typically only talk about products that
we use or know are high quality and they’re really good fits for
the audience. We’re not just dropping links whenever, only when
it makes sense.

But really you can make money two ways. One is if you follow trends,
and this can be through Facebook or whatever, what people are
talking about. Often these are tied to holidays or current
events or whatever and if there’s something that relates to that
then you can talk about it, or hopefully we’d just be talking
about it anyway, you can drop that link there.

A perfect example is there’s this little $7 salad dressing bottle
with the recipes on the side, so it’s for real food, it’s great
to make your own salad dressings as opposed to buying something
off the shelf with a bunch of chemicals in it. So it was right
before Christmas and Lisa had mentioned, “Hey, a last minute
stocking stuffer idea, $7, get it with Amazon Prime and it’ll be
there in a couple of days.” It just flew off the shelves.

So that’s one strategy, but another is just the long tail effect of
just having a lot of links out there and then even if they’re
only getting say five clicks a day, or whatever, when you have a
whole lot of pages at five clicks a day it all adds up.

So the other thing is having a dedicated store, so we’re about to go
through a total site redesign, but if you go to
100DaysofRealFood.com right now there’s a Shop page. Then we
have the kitchen essentials, recommended reading, and instead of
using the Amazon store, I highly recommend having your own
custom page and having some of your own words about the product.
You know, personalized like, “This is my favorite tortilla
press. My six-year old can make tortillas with it. It’s
awesome.” Then people will relate to and are more likely to
click through and purchase it. I’ve got a recommended reading
carousel on the page, which does well. Since the images rotate
through; I think it draws attention to it.

So those are some ideas.

Jim: These pages that you have that are custom like the store and stuff
like that. Do you generate traffic to that through search,
through social, or from links within 100 Days?

Jason: We link to it whenever we can, whenever it make sense, so in
the Start Here page it redirects you to there or there’s a link
on it to there. We get a lot of comments and questions. In
fact we hired a comment moderator, because we couldn’t handle
them all and then we have a Facebook moderator, because we
couldn’t handle all of those. But we think it’s important for
people to get answers to their questions and oftentimes they
just need someone to point them to an existing article, so
that’s an opportunity, if someone’s asking about that then you
can just direct them there.

A lot of people ask, like we did a couple of videos and they were
like, “Oh, where did you get that whatever kitchen gadget that’s
in the video?” Then you can tell them, so just listen to people.
It’s really easy instead of like, “Oh, no. I have to go find
an affiliate link.” You’re like, boom, “Here it is.”

Jim: Have you done a lot of video?

Jason: No, we haven’t. I got pretty excited about it as a potential
revenue stream, because we really need to diversify since we’re
pretty dependent on Facebook. We produced, I guess, four or
five videos, but I haven’t figured out how to effectively
monetize on it yet. We’re just using the standard AdSense
through YouTube, but it’s no money to speak of.

I have talked to some consultants and some other people that are
successful in it–I think what it takes is dedication to have a
regular schedule where you’re releasing a video a week, people
expect it, it’s high quality, and then you have a really large
library on YouTube. When you have that large library then
you’re treated more kindly in search results and so forth, then
you can build it. But we’re really kind of anti-commitment, so
we just didn’t want that, so that’s kind of on the backburner
for now.

But we do like video from the standpoint of it’s another way to
connect with the audience. They get to see you, your
personality, etc.

Jim: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why I started a podcast. I know
there are a ton of podcasts, bit I figure I like casual
conversations. I get to talk to awesome people like you and
it’s fun. It is a commitment though to always be putting
something out every single week. So 100 Days, it’s a ton of
work already, it’s hard to take on even more work without
knowing that there’s that return there. Especially in YouTube,
if you need to have a large library, it’ll take a lot of time
before you build it up.

Jason: Yeah, I appreciate the kind words. But yeah, we’re just not
going to commit to that right now. But with Pro Blog School I’m
considering doing a kind of an Ask Jason thing, sort of like Pat
Flynn has with Ask Pat, where I could take the voice mail
messages and answer those and that’s such a low commitment that
I could probably answer a ton of questions in a day or two and
have a backlog. So I may look into doing that, because I love
talking about this stuff.

Jim: I can tell. It’s great. It is, it’s like a kindred spirit.

Jason: It’s just the way I am. I work so hard to figure something and
it’s like, “Why should somebody else have to do that? Just let
me give you what I’ve figured out.” I like to see other
peoples’ successes and figure out what’s working for them. I
certainly don’t know it all by any means. I mean, you know how
many questions I ask of you and other people in our group.

Jim: I love it. I mean, Bargaineering as well it did, it was because I’ve
networked and I talked with other personal finance bloggers and
other bloggers outside the niche, and shared as much–well less
than what I’ve learned from other people–and these are things
that I never would have thought of myself. So I’ve always felt
in sharing you get way more back. Even though the other
personal finance bloggers are “my competition” they aren’t,
right?

Jason: Exactly.

Jim: The pool is so huge. If you took all the personal finance bloggers,
it wouldn’t even be a drop in an Olympic size pool compared to
like a Capitol One or a Citi, so why shouldn’t we ban together
and learn, and grow, and do even better amongst ourselves, so I
totally get what you’re saying there.

Jason: Yeah, it’s an abundance mindset, so same thing, people who you
would think would be my “competitor”, so I’m an open book.

Jim: Yeah, that’s awesome. You were saying before that you guys were
reliant on Facebook in terms of a traffic source. How much of
your traffic comes from Facebook?

Jason: About 35%.

Jim: Thirty-five percent, okay.

Jason: It’s just because Lisa likes Facebook and it’s just worked, so
it’s not like we’re going to ignore an opportunity, but for a
long time we’ve been aware that, “Hey, we need to diversify
because Facebook could change their algorithms like they did in
December and January.

Jim: Do you want to hear something scary? Bargaineering through Google
Search, just Google not Yahoo, Bing, or whatever, 75% of the
traffic was from Google.

Jason: Wow.

Jim: Yeah. But Pinterest isn’t really a place for personal finance blogs,
at the least the way back a few years the way I thought of it.
I think it’s perfect for 100 Days of Real Food, photography,
beautiful photography. There isn’t beautiful photography in
personal finance, so it’s a little harder to sort of connect on
that level.

What have you guys tried other than YouTube to diversify your
traffic?

Jason: Well we allocated some resource towards growing Pinterest.
Lisa can’t just be super active on all these different social
media platforms, so also have to write content, and be a mom.
She should enjoy her life; it’s not all about, “Hey, can we eke
out every last cent.” It’s about finding balance in your life.
So she was already somewhat active on Pinterest, but our
Facebook moderator, Shawn actually loves Pinterest, so we put
her in charge of the Pinterest page, so that’s grown since then
from about 25,000 followers to about 60,000. So not huge
numbers compared the almost 1.3 million on Facebook, but it’s a
step in the right direction.

The other thing we are looking to do it be effective with our email
lists, so we’ve got about 143,000 on our email list, but really
just treated it as a service to our readers of, “Hey, there’s a
new blog post up.” Even though it’s really expensive, it costs
us about $650 a month. So now I’m analyzing that and we’re
making the messaging more simple and we’re interspersing like
maybe one monetized post a month to try to get that money back,
but also just to experiment with it, to play with it.

I finally hired a virtual assistant for myself–well one that’s going
to stick around–this past month. She’s Number Three, the first
two didn’t work out. So I’ve been in this cycle of hiring and
training, and not being happy, and then doing that again. So
now that I have someone I can trust and I know who is competent,
and all that, I can put her in charge of some basic things that
we should all be doing like going and looking at the lists of
our top-ten posts and, “Hey, are all of those monetized? Could
we tweak some SEO on those high traffic pages?” Getting better
with Google Analytics a setting some goals and just being real
mindful of things.

I mean, going back to the email, we don’t have any drip campaigns set
up. When someone’s new to the blog, which we get about 50% new
readers, it would be really nice if we kind of held their hand
with an email a week, like you do with your blog, and show
people, “Hey, here’s some resources for you.” And just really
help them and kind of get them over the hump to where they’re a
regular fan now.

Jim: Wow, 143,000 and no drip campaign, you just have too much to do, it
sounds like.

Jason: Yeah, I do. I have a lot to do.

Jim: It’s like you’re running down hill and there’s like all these bundles
of money, like, “I’m too busy to go pick that up.” I mean, I
don’t say that to mean. I’m just saying this is a great
opportunity and it’s so exciting that you guys have such a great
resource and that people resonate so well that they sign up in
droves like this. I think it has to be super exciting for you.

Jason: It is, but we’re intentional with that. I’m looking with some
graphs, so like in July of 2012 we put an email opt-in form
after the post and before the comments and that’s by far our
highest converting subscription form for the email list. We
have a freebee associated with it, some free meal plans, which
are really helpful for people and they’re very difficult to
generate.

But, yeah, the subscription jumped quite a bit. I think we went from
20,000 to 40,000 in three something at that point in time.

Jim: That’s amazing. You had mentioned also that one of third ways that
you guys do sponsored posts. What do those look like?

Jason: Well, a lot of people will sell ads on their site, like maybe a
little 125 by 125 button for $50 a month or $100, or whatever,
depending on their traffic, but just those little display ads we
don’t think are very effective. We started out with a whole
bunch of ads and then we realized people were getting ad blind,
so we dropped that down and spread it out with useful things
like the archives and other things on the sidebar.

So we sell packages, so you have a display ad, but then you’ll either
get a Facebook shout out or a mention in a blog post. We always
double [inaudible 37:42] if something’s sponsored just to keep
the trust factor. We try to find sponsors that are totally
aligned with our message and things that we think will be
helpful to people, which makes it difficult.

So Lisa sold our own ads for too short amount of time, because it’s a
lot of work, so we hired a sales manager, Kiran, and she’s
great. So she handles prospecting and trafficking the ads. We
actually use Adzerk for that because it’s way easier to use than
DFP.

But in that segment, even though it’s roughly a third of our revenue,
it by far takes the most time and oversight. I’m reviewing
deals, and legal contracts, and there’s all the accounting
around it, and management, and the promotion.

Actually I have a sophisticated spreadsheet I created to track our
inventory, so that we don’t inundate our readers with too much
messaging. We just had to guess where to start like, “What’s
too much? We don’t know. We want to find a right balance.”

Jim: What had been the right balance?

Jason: Gosh, it’s just so off my radar right now, because Kiran
manages it all, but I think we work with about five sponsors a
month. There’s a point value associated with each thing, like a
Facebook mention versus a sponsored post versus a dedicated
post. The spreadsheet will literally give you colored feedback,
like green, yellow, red, “You can’t do that.” That way Kiran has
the flexibility to work with different advertisers in a given
month and allocate inventory as she sees fit, but we still don’t
hit that limit.

Does that make sense?

Jim: Oh, it makes perfect sense to me. Do you just rely on feedback to
know how to adjust up and down, how frequently?

Jason: Yeah, exactly. You’re not going to please everyone and we work
really, really hard so, yes, we’re going to make money from the
blog and we have two people working fulltime, seven part time
people right now helping us out, we all have big bills to pay.
We really don’t have to have comment moderators, we could just
let comments hang, but that’s not right.

Jim: It’s not a good experience.

Jason: Yeah, exactly. Anyway, the point being, you’re always going to
get some people that don’t understand or they just think you’re
all in it for the money. But yeah, if the comments come back
and you’re getting more and more of them we listen to that, so
we scale back. I think we’re at a good balance now.

Jim: Yeah, it’s always interesting to know where that balance is, because
it’s tough to say. You always have your vocal–not opponents–
but people that want what they want the way they want it. In
talking to a lot of bloggers and entrepreneurs they don’t get
that it’s a business, they don’t get that you have to support
seven part-time people, and you and Lisa at the same time. This
stuff isn’t free and you need to eat, and all that good stuff,
but that balance is crucial.

Jason: Yeah, and it’s important, again, you can’t please everybody and
you don’t need to get hung up on that. I mean, really it’s a
big world out there. That’s not to say to ignore your readers,
by any means, but just if you get too caught up in trying to
convert each individual person over to the bright side, you’re
going to be miserable.

Jim: Yeah, true. Now thinking back through the almost four years now of
100 Days, were there any big breakthroughs of things that you
did that surprised you with how well it did?

Jason: Yeah, I’ve got a half dozen or so, so I’ll just kind of blast
through them.

Jim: Yeah, sure.

Jason: The first one was, as I mentioned the 100 Days of Real Food
pledge as a marketing vehicle for the Food Illusion blog that
really got attention and took a lot of work, so that was a
really good idea. I already mentioned the Facebook growth and
that was intentional initially with the light gate and the guest
posts, and the incentive, and all of that. That really fueled
exponential growth.

But other things that I haven’t talked about are: Month 13 into her
blogging career Lisa went to a BlogHer food conference in
Atlanta and I’ll highly recommend that to people that are just
starting out, because that networking is so crucial. It’s like
drinking from the fire hose, but I have to remember, like with
Pro Blog School, I’m also trying to talk to my old self and to
think how clueless I was. All this stuff I take for granted now
and I think is easy and I almost don’t even want to talk about
it; it’s like, “No, I need to be talking about that stuff,
because other people don’t know.”

So going to a conference and just understanding what’s out there
what’s available, and meeting people, and then really
intentionally networking, and following up with them after the
fact. That’s were Lisa met our current web developer and a lot
of friends that we’ve stayed in touch with. So a blogging
conference, definitely a breakthrough.

Month 21 is when we began monetization after almost two years and we
should have started way earlier. I mean, we were at about half
a million page views at that point, but then it’s all of a
sudden we were making two grand a month and we could have been
making 200 a month, and then 400 a month all that time.

For me, personally, it was Month 23, a couple of months after I had
started working with Lisa part time, I say Pat Flynn’s Smart
Passive Income and I saw he’s making $50,000 plus a month and I
was just like, “Holy cow! This is amazing.” Not I thought,
“Hey, we’ll be making $50,000 a month, but that switch got
flipped that, “Hey, this is a real possibility for us. I could
really quite the corporate job that’s making me miserable and
work fulltime.”

Really, the breakthrough was not so much me realizing that, because
I’d wanted to do that for a long time and be an entrepreneur,
but for Lisa and I both getting on the same page where saw,
“Hey, this isn’t just some harebrained scheme. All right, let’s
do this as a team.” So that was really important.

I mentioned the book deal with Harper Collins on Month 27. That was
a huge breakthrough, because that’s going to feed the brand. As
I mentioned the website, there’s a new logo up, but we’re going
to redo the website so it will correspond to the book more.

But the last thing is selling our own product Month 45 was actually
in January. We negotiated the ability to sell an e-guide for
full [inaudible 44:40] meal plan for two weeks and just had
phenomenal results.

So for anybody out there with lower numbers, and this I me included
with Pro Blog School, reselling you own thing you can make a
good bit of money from a small group of dedicated followers,
especially working your email list and selling your own product
without having to have these huge number that Lisa has in terms
of traffic.

Jim: Yeah, I think that last bit is always a little tricky, because you
never think that the numbers are always big enough. Then you
hear stories about like 100 Days that has 143,000 emails
subscribers and sometimes you can get a little demoralizing, so
you just have to change your mindset and think, “These people
have loyal followers. Send them something and it’s good and
they’ll buy it and support you, and then you’ll just grow.

Like you said, when you turned on monetization it was $2000 a month,
but if you’d started earlier maybe it would start at $200,000.
At $200,000 that’s real money in your pocket and it will just
inspire you to work even harder.

Jason: Yeah, absolutely. It’s these small victories that really make
you feel a sense of accomplishment and encourage you to keep
going, so absolutely.

You know, too, the point about the email list, so we’ve got 143,000
people on our list, but I need to go back and cull some of those
people. It’s not 143,000 just like super rabid fans.

Jim: Yeah, that’s always the case.

Jason: Yeah, and it’s getting expensive.

Jim: Yeah, it is.

Jason: So that’s one of the many things on my to-do list. I’d rather
have 40,000 just super engaged email subscribers. I mean, I’m
not dissing our email subscribers, maybe 90% of them are totally
engaged. I’ve just got to do the research.

Jim: Yeah. If you were to go back in time and give yourself advice when
you were sitting in that cubicle fielding those agent phone
calls, what would that advice be to yourself?

Jason: Well, at that point I wasn’t that engaged with the blog, so
that early on I would say just understand what’s possible and
just kind of be involved, follow people like yourself, or me
with Pro Blog School, and Pat Flynn, all these different
leaders, or listen to Entrepreneur on Fire, just get inspired.

I guess what’s possible is the first thing, but speaking specifically
to the business, I would say, “Monetize earlier.” I mean, you
don’t want to be out of the gate. You need to understand who
your audience is and have your voice, and have your blog looking
nice, and to have some traffic, but then monetize, because that
will inspire you and help you afford additional people to work
with you.

Also, sell your own products, especially with lower traffic. That’s
profitable. But sell things that people want. If you don’t have
the time to create your own product then find some other
people’s products and sell them on an affiliate basis, products
that you really believe in have tried out and think are a
natural for your audience.

Then lastly, I would say learn how to make your email list work for
you. That’s something that I’m still working on myself.

Jim: Cool. Jason, thanks for all your time. This has been awesome.

Jason: Hey, thanks for having me on.

Jim: If people want to find you where should they go?

Jason: You can find my wife at 100Daysofrealfood.com and you can find
me, which again is behind the scenes on the business side of
things, over at problogschool.com. And I really encourage people
to subscribe to my email list. I’m about to release an income
calculator that I think is going to be really helpful to people
where they can literally just enter their blog traffic, whether
it’s real or hypothetical, and then different options will be
displayed depending on how much traffic you have and different
ways to monetize. Then it’s going to calculate your income off
of that, so I think it will be really educational for people.

Jim: Jason, that was awesome. Thanks again.

Jason: No, problem. Take care.

Jim: I hope you enjoyed the chat. I know I learned a lot from Jason about
how to monetize a site with huge traffic numbers and their three-
pronged approach works quite well for them.

As I mentioned in the intro, for comparison I would check out Episode
6 about Pinch of Yum for their approach. It’s different than
what Jason’s doing, but it’s also pretty good, too. You can
find that at Microblogger.com/6, that’s the number six.

For this show’s show notes you can go to Microblogger.com/8, that’s
the number eight. You can leave any questions or comments you
have and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Finally, if you haven’t left a review or viewer rating and are
feeling charitable, I would love if you’d go on iTunes and do
that for us. It would help me out a lot and help others find
the show.

If you want to give me feedback, suggest a guest, tell me a joke, say
hello you can email me at jim@Microblogger.com or tweet me
@Wangarific.

All right, see you next time, thanks.

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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.

8 responses to “MBP #8: Jason Leake on how to grow a real food blog to 5 million pageviews (and monetize it!)”

  1. Donnie Law says:

    Awesome episode! Jason seems like a smart guy. Recently my wife asked me to manage the “business” side of her blog. She gets 175k visitors/ month so not on the same level as 100 days of real food. We have adsense which does ok but I’m trying to figure out google DFP and multiple ad networks. This stuff gets confusing!

    Anyways, great podcast!

    • Jim says:

      He is a smart guy and many of the principles he talks about works for 175k, which is a great accomplishment in and of itself!

      Was there anything specific in the podcast that resonated?

      • Donnie Law says:

        It was just neat hearing about a successful husband and wife team. It sounds like his wife does the writing and content creation and Jason works on overall strategy and the technical stuff. That’s what my wife and are starting to do. Her first product is launching in June so she can just focus on writing (her strength) and I can mess around with payment processing, landing pages, etc…

        Thanks again for your great podcast Jim!

    • Jason Leake says:

      Hey Donnie,
      Congrats on your successes thus far. This stuff is fun, and it is so inspiring when you realize that you can directly affect the results and your income!

      Funny you should mention it…I have been dealing with ad network optimization issues all week. I put together a great strategy and during implementation starting seeing some strange stuff happening (that totally should not have been happening). That was on March 25th, and today just as mysteriously as the issues came about, they vanished. Strange stuff can happen when you link together multiple 3rd party black boxes (you can read my latest blog post on Pro Blog School for details), but in the end it’s all worth it. Good luck with that and on the product launch!

      -Jason

  2. Listening to this now.

    @Jason we have an Amazon plugin that will solve your woes though, save you time with link creation etc

    I replied to a comment on your blog with my email so hit me up and I’ll give you free access to it. My wife loves the 100 days of real food blog and has gotten a lot of value so would be happy to send some back your way hah.

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