The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Blog, Attracting Readers and Making Money
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Blogging is a great way to make some big bucks.
And blogging success stories really aren’t that rare these days.
Some people turn blogging into a hearty side gig or even a full-blown career — like this mom, who makes $6,000 a month.
Then there’s this student, who paid off $15,000 in student loan debt with his blogging income — before he even graduated!
Even more impressive, this food blogger reaps a comfortable $150,000 a year.
Heck, The Penny Hoarder is a prime example. When I started this site back in 2010, I was using a free platform and updated the content about once a week.
Now? The Penny Hoarder brought in more than $20 million in revenue in 2016 and sees more than 16 million visitors each month (including you)!
Starting a Blog: Step-by-Step
So are you interested in learning the ropes? Let me share with you what I’ve learned about starting a blog and transforming it into a healthy business — and how you can follow a similar path.
The Logistics: Domains, Hosting, Platform and Theme
If you want to start a blog, you’ll have to decide where it will live, how it will look like and what to call it.
Before you write a post or start tweeting about your new site, you’ll need to choose your blog’s domain, sign up with a host, pick a platform and decide on a theme.
It might sound a bit overwhelming, but I promise it’s not too bad.
Here are some simple definitions to get you started:
What’s a Website Domain?
Your domain is your address on the internet. It’s the name you give to people when you tell them where to find your website, like ThePennyHoarder.com.
Yours can be anything you want, ideally close to your blog’s name or your own name. (You don’t want to buy awesomeshoes.com if you’re planning to blog about food.)
Given how cheap it is to get most domains, you could even buy a few iterations. So if your name is Janice M. Schmidt and you want to start a running blog called Janice Runs Fast, try to buy both janicerunsfast.com and janicemschmidt.com.
What Does Website Hosting Mean?
If your domain is the physical address for your online plot of land, your host is the foundation and bare bones of the house you’re building.
Your hosting company keeps your site on its servers so people can access it over the internet. Without hosting, people will just see an error page when they try to visit janicerunsfast.com.
Which Platform Should You Choose for Your Blog?
You probably don’t want to live in an unfinished house with bare walls, concrete floors and no lights, right?
If you want to furnish your house with paint, carpeting, flooring and appliances, you need a blogging platform.
Once you set it up, you’ll use the back end of your platform to update your blog. When it comes to blogging platforms, you have three main options:
Almost every major blog in the world uses WordPress.
It’s the most popular and robust DIY platform out there. You have to set up your own domain and hosting, but if you’re looking to get serious with your blog, WordPress is the way to go.
You have basically unlimited design options, and you can install any number of plugins to manage everything from social sharing to analytics.
There are a few downsides, though: It’s a community-built platform so some plugins can be buggy, you have to be moderately technical to figure out any problems you encounter, and there’s a bit of a learning curve.
That said, the level of difficulty is really up to you.
If you want a simple design with a professional-sounding URL, you can do that on WordPress.org. If you want a New-York-Times-level blog to support thousands of readers every day with high-quality photos and hundreds of comments, you can do that, too.
Want a simpler option to start with? Read on for a few other options that don’t require as much tech-savvy.
This is the simpler version of WordPress.
It’s the best way to get your blog off the ground as quickly, easily and cheaply as possible — using WordPress.com means you don’t actually have to worry about buying a domain or hosting — they’ll take care of it for you.
The downside is your domain will look a little different: You’ll have janicerunsfast.wordpress.com rather than janicerunsfast.com. (You can upgrade through WordPress.com to eliminate “wordpress” in your domain, but it will cost you a few dollars.)
You’ll also see a few ads on your site, you won’t have access to quite as many themes and plugins, and storage is limited (so it’s not a great choice if you want to share tons of high-res photos).
But the big perk is the basic account is free and easy to use.
Because it doesn’t cost you anything, WordPress.com is a good option if you want to start a blog as a school project, to stay in touch with friends and family, or simply to see if you like this whole blogging thing at all before investing in something more substantial.
If you’re keen to blog seriously but you’re not tech-savvy, you might like this happy medium between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. If you want a gorgeous but easy to customize website, Squarespace is your guy.
Unlike either WordPress option, everything in Squarespace is controlled and managed by the platform.
You’ll have 24/7 access to a professional support team and unlimited storage. The downside is you won’t have the huge range of plugin, widget and design options as with WordPress, since many of those are community-designed and maintained.
The other major difference is Squarespace isn’t free. It has a number of different packages, but you should expect to spend just under $100 per year for their cheapest plan, which is probably all you need if you’re just getting started.
What About a Theme for Your Blog?
A theme is a template that enhances the appearance and functionality of a blog without you having to touch any code.
To go back to our house metaphor, using a theme is like hiring an interior designer to pull everything together and make all the rooms flow, without actually having to paint the walls or carry the furniture yourself.
Most of the blogs that look appealing and professional use a theme to pull that off.
No matter which platform you choose, your blog will come with access to at least a few free themes. Squarespace is well-known for having lots of gorgeous themes, so if you value design but aren’t a designer yourself, that’s another point for the platform.
If you prefer, you can also purchase more premium themes from other providers.
If you go with WordPress.org, you have unlimited options, though a few are known for being better than others.
If you're a little more technically inclined or up for getting your hands dirty, you could try these more advanced themes: Genesis, Thesis and X Theme are considered the top WordPress themes out there, and you can get any of them for less than $100.
A Quick Recap So Far
We’ve covered a lot so far. Here’s what you need to do to set up your blog:
- Purchase your domain
- Get a hosting account
- Choose a platform
- Install a theme, if you want one
Content: It’s Time to Start Writing on Your Blog
So you’ve got your blog all set up. It’s online, looking great and ready for action. Now what?
You might feel ready to hit the ground blogging, but first take a minute to set up these two basic pages.
Your Blog’s About Page
This is where you talk about you.
Why are you blogging? What do you know about your subject? Why should readers listen to you?
Besides your homepage, your about page will likely be the most visited page on your site, so it’s worth putting time and effort into creating one you’re proud of.
Janice the runner might want to post a photo of her running, along with a couple of paragraphs about how she discovered her love for the sport, her running goals and maybe a bit about her life when she’s not hitting the road.
On my about page, I talk about how I’ve been trying to make extra money for as long as I can remember. I also include a few photos and display a graphic of publishers we've been featured on. These relationships help establish trust.
Your Blog’s Contact Page
If you want to blog anonymously or don’t want people to contact you, you can leave this out, but otherwise you’ll want to include some information about how people can contact you — especially if you’re hoping to make money blogging.
After all, if readers love what you have to offer, or a literary agent wants to offer you a book deal, or a hiring manager thinks you’d be perfect for his open job, you want it to be easy for those people to get in touch, right?
You might want to install a contact form (WordPress.org has plugins for this) or just write out your email address on your contact page. If you’re worried about spam, you can write something like “janice AT janicerunsfast DOT com.”
If you want to get fancy or you have a team of people working for you, list different email addresses for different reasons, like advertising requests, media inquiries or clients who want to hire you.
But it’s perfectly fine to just funnel everything into one place if that’s easiest for you.
What to Blog About
It’s finally time to start blogging!
What you’ll blog about depends on your goals. Do you want to share your adventures with your friends back home while you travel around the world for a year? Are you hoping to spread the word about your freelance business? Do you want to share your expertise on a particular topic? Or are you hoping to turn your blog into a business?
While you’re more than welcome to write about your every whim and opinion, blogs that focus on a particular niche often perform better in terms of traffic and money-making potential. So think about your passions, your business, your experience or your goals.
What expertise or advice can you share with the world?
Generally, you want to blog about something where you can bring a fresh perspective.
For example, while a ton of people blog about money, I like to think The Penny Hoarder stands out by focusing on weird ways to earn, save and invest your money.
So while the world might not need another daily fashion blog, you can set your fashion blog apart by focusing on capsule wardrobes, refashioning clothes you have in your closet or limiting yourself to clothes you buy on consignment.
This is where I also want to highlight the most important thing about blogging: No matter what anyone tells you, you can do whatever you want.
Never underestimate your own personal, unique perspective; the most successful blogs have their own personalities and quirks, just like the people behind them.
Sure, there are a million and one food bloggers out there, but there isn’t one with your voice, with your experience, who shares your all-consuming obsession with making the world’s best guacamole.
Experiment, get creative and have fun with your blog! Put yourself out there, start writing and see what happens.
Content Strategy and Inspiration
Before you publish anything, decide if your blog is going to serve as a diary, sharing your experiences and adventures, or focus more on how-tos and information.
If your blog is going to lean more toward diary-style, for example, a photographic journal of your travels, your content will depend on your daily life.
Get out there and start exploring, then write a post about what you did and how others can learn from it. Lather, rinse, repeat.
If you prefer to focus on the how-tos of travel photography, you’ll need to get more specific.
That’s easier said than done, but here are some easy tricks to get your ideas flowing. Write down whatever comes to mind as a potential post, and then go through your list anytime you need inspiration.
- Ask friends, especially those with little knowledge about your topic. If you’re starting a travel photography blog, ask your friends, “What’s one question you’ve always had about photography? What do you wish you knew?”
- Skim Cosmo. Bear with me on this one — it’s worth it! Magazines like Cosmopolitan are filled with fantastic headline ideas, and sometimes it’s easier to start with a headline and write the post from there. If you see an article called “12 Makeup Brushes You Need and Exactly How to Use Them,” you might write about “12 Camera Accessories You Need and Exactly How to Use Them.” The more specific you get in your headline, the easier it will be to write the post later.
- Look for trends. Read your favorite travel and photography blogs, skim through Twitter and Instagram hashtags and check the news. What’s hot right now? What’s trending? Is anything in the news relevant for your readers, like a new product release or a new movie with a photographer as the main character? If Instagram just dropped a bunch of new filters or you want to share your obsession with your awesome new zoom lens, your blog is the perfect place to wax lyrical.
- Google it. When you search for “photography tips,” you get a whole a world of content. From “taking stellar photos with your Android phone” to “how to photograph fireworks,” you find tons of inspiration. Plus, you’ll see what’s already popular and you can riff on those topics in your own voice. Keyword Tool can also help. Type in “photography” and you’ll get a giant list of the top Google searches related to your topic, like photography classes, contests and apps.
How Often to Post on Your Blog
The more often you post, the quicker you’ll build up a following.
Give yourself a schedule by picking one day each week to publish, and stick to it. Over time, you might want to start posting more often, especially if you’re looking to build a business out of your blog.
A quick tip: When it comes to SEO (more on that later), longer posts (think 1,000 to 2,000 words) perform better and rank higher in search engines.
Plus, readers tend to like content that outlines everything they need to know in one post (like this one!), rather than having to jump around from link to link.
That said, don’t feel like every post needs to be an essay. Online readers generally scan content, so as long as you’re formatting your posts so they’re easy to read, write as much or as little as you like.
It’s nice to have some short posts for variety, too!
Appearance Matters: Make Your Blog Posts Look Great
While you could just write amazing posts with no visuals or structure, your blog will look a lot nicer with a little formatting and some graphics and pictures — and that helps readers stick around longer.
Here are some tips for making your blog posts aesthetically pleasing.
In general, big chunks of text don’t do particularly well — they look intimidating and no one wants to read them.
If you’d seen a massive wall of words when you started this post, would you have made it this far?
Break up your text with imagery, like graphs, screenshots or photos of your subject.
You have tons of options, from downloading free or low-cost stock photos, finding Creative Commons-licensed photos on Flickr or using your own shots. If you want to get fancy, use a tool like Canva or FotoJet to create your own images by adding text to a photo or combining images.
Need another reason to add photos? Readers love to put a face to the name, or an image to the recipe or colors to the outfit — and when you add something visual, they’re a lot more likely to share your post with their friends or followers, which goes a long way toward helping your blog gain traction.
Format for Easier Reading
If you’re going to write 1,000 words, that’s great, but you need to break it up so it’s easy to read.
Use subheadings, bolded sentences, pull-quotes and photos, and break up long paragraphs into shorter ones for easier reading on a tablet or smartphone.
Take this post for example — we’ve divided it by topic, using heading, subheadings and screenshots to break up the text. Since most readers will skim your posts, you want to make it easy for them to get the main points and decide to stick around for a closer read.
Promoting Your Blog
Don’t worry about this part until you’ve been blogging for a while — creating great content is the most important part of running a blog.
But eventually, you’re going to want more readers, so here are the best ways to promote your blog and increase traffic to your website.
Before you start promoting your blog, install Google Analytics. It’s free, and will help you see how your posts perform, right from the very beginning.
Google Analytics helps you track how many visitors read your posts, how long they spend on your site, where they come from and which posts are most popular.
Over time, this information will help you hone in on your blog’s goals, get specific about your niche, write more posts your readers want to see, develop relationships with sites that link to you, and eventually sell advertising.
How to Find Readers for Your Blog
When you first get started, the easiest way to find readers is to share your posts with friends on social media.
You don’t even need to create a separate Facebook page or Twitter account. Just share your posts with family and friends wherever you hang out, whether that’s LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram or elsewhere.
There’s no need to use fancy hashtags or worry about the perfect time of day to reach people. Just share your posts, and then get back to blogging.
Once your blog has started gaining momentum, here are a few more great ways to build your readership:
Make It Easy to Share Your Posts
When a reader wants to share one of your posts with his friends on social media, you want it to be super easy.
If you don’t have a few clear social media share buttons front and center, you’ve just lost the chance to connect with a ton of potential new readers.
The good news is, adding these buttons is pretty easy. WordPress offers a wide range of plugins to make it simple. A few of my favorites are Monarch ($89), Shareaholic (free) and Simple Share Buttons (free).
Start Learning SEO
It can take years to learn how to wrangle Google search algorithms to your benefit (and once you master the techniques, they change the rules on you), but learn a few basic tricks to help new readers find you.
Before you publish a post, do these four things:
- Check your content for keywords (for example, if you’re writing about a photography class, make sure to say “photography class” and not “course for photography”)
- Write an excerpt and meta description (you’ll find options for these within your WordPress post)
- Name your images and add ALT text (just describe what’s in them or what your post is about)
- Link to other relevant parts of your blog, whether it’s other posts or pages
Focus on Great Headlines
While writing great content goes a long way, no one will click to read those posts unless you have awesome headlines. If your headlines are spectacular, your posts are not only more likely to get read, they’ll also get clicks and shares, which helps boost your ranking in Google.
Experts have written entire books about how to write a good headline, so I’ll keep this brief. Here are two rules of thumb to get you started:
- Pique the reader’s interest: Create a “curiosity gap” so your reader wants to click through and read the full post. Instead of writing a post called “My Day at the Zoo,” write “How My Visit to the Zoo Changed My Life.”
- Think about what you’d ask Google: Most people wouldn’t search for “how I got into running.” They want to know how they can get into running. Make your headlines less about you and more about how others will benefit. For example, “Just Do It: 7 Brilliant Ways to Trick Yourself into Running” or “Never Wear Pants Again: 103 Ways to Make Money at Home.”
Interact With Other Bloggers
You have your favorite blogs, right? The ones you read religiously every time a new post pops up in your feed reader or inbox?
It’s a safe bet that many of those bloggers are in your niche, or at least a similar one.
Instead of lurking on the sidelines, participate!
Comment on those bloggers’ posts, interact with them on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn. You’ll not only create fun relationships, but you’ll increase the chances they’ll share and comment on your content.
And speaking of connecting with other bloggers…
Write Guest Posts
Many large blogs (and some smaller ones) accept guest posts. All bloggers want great, interesting content to share with their readers.
If you can share a new take on a situation or subject, why not offer your thoughts?
Writing for other blogs helps you tap into whole new communities of potential readers, and if you’ve already been chatting with a blogger or interacting with a community in the comments, you might be in luck.
When it comes to pitching other bloggers, do your homework. Be familiar with the blog’s content — don’t pitch something she’s already written about a hundred times, an idea that’s hopelessly generic or a topic that’s totally outside her niche.
Many bloggers who actively solicit guest posts will have submission guidelines, so be sure you’ve read those — and then follow them. Otherwise, your message is likely to get deleted.
If a blogger doesn’t have guidelines, explain how your post will link to other content on her site and share a unique perspective with her readers.
Build an Email List
Hands down, the number one thing you can do to build your blog (and eventually start making money from it) is to build an email list.
Your list helps you accomplish two things:
- It lets readers know every time you post, so you get more repeat visitors.
- It allows you to reach out to people with a special offers, events and sales.
Most people use one of these two options for their email lists.
Mailchimp is the cheap and cheerful option.
It’s free for the first 2,000 users, so it’s a good choice if you’re just getting started, and it’s incredibly easy to learn.
You can play with different formats, schedule your emails to go out anytime you want and even test different subject lines to see which ones your subscribers like best.
If you’re hoping to grow your list to more than 2,000 fairly quickly, AWeber is a good choice.
You’ll get your first month free, and then you’ll pay $19 a month for up to 500 subscribers, with additional charges as your list grows. AWeber is a bigger investment, but offers all sorts of creative options like autoresponders, lots of testing methods and beautiful templates.
The good news is, even if you start out using MailChimp’s free service, you can eventually upgrade to have more subscribers on your list or transfer those subscribers over to AWeber.
Either way, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of building your email list.
Even if you do nothing else with your email list other than set it up and start collecting subscribers, starting it early will be the best thing you can do for your blog.
As I write this post, I’ve got more than 350,000 email subscribers — but if I’d started collecting emails when I first launched The Penny Hoarder, I bet I’d have thousands more.
How to Make Money Blogging
While it can be fun to start a blog just to keep your family updated or show off photos of your cute kids, you might also want to actually make some money.
How much you can earn from a blog depends on a number of factors, but a big one is the level of effort you’re willing to put in.
Even if you sell your own products on your site, like ebooks, you probably won’t make much if you only blog once a month and don’t consider other ways to make money.
But if you blog daily and feature a combination of advertisements, affiliate offers and your own products, you might be able to make a full-time living from your blog. Let’s break down how most bloggers — including me — make money online.
The most common way for bloggers to make money is through advertising.
Google AdSense is the easy option, but there are a variety of ad networks to choose from, including ones targeted towards specific niches like food bloggers, mommy bloggers or athletes.
Whatever you choose, recognize that this piece is never going to be a huge source of income.
Readers don’t love being hit with ads over and over again, so start by including just one or two in your sidebar. Be sure to monitor the ads that show up on your blog — you don’t want scammy “make $35,000 in 20 minutes from home!” ads to distract readers from your great content.
Once your blog has grown a bit more, you might consider selling ads directly rather than using a network. It can be a lot of work, but it can also help you make a lot more money.
Affiliate programs are the next step up for bloggers looking to make money.
In a nutshell, you promote a product you love, and if anyone buys it through your link, you get a percentage of the sale. The most common affiliate program is probably Amazon Associates, which offers a small commission for any item someone buys on the site after clicking on your link (4 to 10%, depending on the item).
But the sky’s the limit here, and many programs offer much higher commissions, often 30-50%.
If you like a product or service, like your hosting provider, your theme, an ebook or an online course, why not earn a little money back by sharing your thoughts with your readers?
A few minutes of research will help you find if a particular product has an affiliate program already set up.
If you have a favorite brand of furniture or clothing or beauty products or running shoes — and your blog is big enough — reach out to the company directly and ask if they can set you up with a program. Most brands these days are used to working with bloggers and are eager to help.
You’ll want to be honest with your readers and explain that your opinions are your own, even though you’re using an affiliate link.
You also need to clearly highlight or declare any affiliate links to meet FTC standards.
Products and Services
The most hardcore, but lucrative, step in the make-money-as-a-blogger world, is creating your own ebook, course or other product — and it will likely yield the best financial results, especially if you don’t have a massive audience yet.
It’s also the most time consuming way to make money, at least at the beginning. The cool thing about making your own product is that once you create it, you can sell it over and over.
If you’re a food blogger, you might want to compile a cookbook of your best recipes. Or if you run a fashion blog and recently purchased an entire wardrobe at your local thrift store for under $100, you could create a video course to help other people do the same.
This is where your email list comes in handy, since you can email them about your product while you’re putting it together and when it’s ready to sell.
You could also offer regular readers or email subscribers a discount to help drum up early sales and reviews. You could even consider trying your own affiliate program and offering your products to other bloggers to promote in exchange for a commission.
Not ready to put together a product? No problem.
Why not experiment by selling your services as a freelancer or consultant in your area of expertise? A food blogger could create meal plans for busy families, a photographer could take headshots and portraits, and pretty much any blogger can offer to write paid blog posts.
Ready to Start Your Blog?
All of that sounds pretty easy, right?
Creating a blog with great posts and a ton of readers that actually makes money takes time.
Start with the basics, relax and have fun with it! Over time, if you put in the effort and follow this advice, you’ll build up your readership and even start making money from your blog if you chose to go that route.