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7 Reflections on Scaling a Blog to a Sustainable Business

Wendy has written a heart felt post on her blog titled The Things That Get You Successful Won’t Necessarily Keep You That Way which is basically about the realization that her current blogging business model is not really scalable. Some of the areas she’s seeing this in:

  • I cannot respond to the 30-50+ comments left every day anymore, which both saddens me and also decreases participation in the conversation on both sides
  • I spend every Monday digging through 200-300 (or 400+!) emails from the previous week
  • Writing for three blogs is very time consuming – and coming up with 3x more fresh ideas is at best a stretch and at worst downright stressful
  • I have advertisers willing to pay for more impressions – but in my current business model, I do not have the time or resources to create more content

Wendy then shot me an email asking for any thoughts that I had. Here’s a few that come to mind as I read her post:

1. Building a Sustainable Business Out of Blogging is Hard

The realizations that Wendy is having now are ones that most bloggers come to at one point or another. While they are not easy questions to tackle – they are important ones to grapple with and the results of having done so will make any Blogger stronger (if they don’t lead them to give up – as often happens).

The hard reality is that for the majority of blogs – scaling them to a point where they’re able to sustain their authors is not easy. Some blogs are easier than others due to their topic (ie some topics have a direct commercial tie in in terms of selling advertising) but for most bloggers it’s bloody hard work.

2. It takes time

Another obvious thing (that still needs to be said) is that building a blog to a point where it’s able to earn an income from it takes significant time. Getting established in search engines, building an RSS subscriber or email newsletter list, getting active members and building up enough archives to generate significant long tail traffic all takes time.

Part of my advice to Wendy is simply ‘hang in there’.

Her blog has come a long way in the last 12 months – and the next 12 months will see it continue to steadily (if not exponentially) grow. I generally find that the second year of a blog’s life sees it grow faster and to greater heights than the first year.

3. Focus Upon Indirect Income Earners

One of the things that I think Wendy will find is that the key to monetizing her blog will not necessarily be through direct income via advertising or affiliate programs. While this might currently be the main focus of monetizing the blog – the real pay off will probably come through leveraging the profile that the blog gives her.

Wendy has been very active in participating in the blogosphere and her personal brand has grown as a result. She’s already having opportunities to speak at conferences, has experimented with different e-resources and with continued quality blogging and a little self promotion has the potential to open up bigger opportunities for speaking, writing books, selling resources etc.

The key with this is to continue to build her own personal brand and tie it closely to the blogs themselves.

One strategy that Wendy might explore to help keep the content levels up is to use more and more guest bloggers. While this is good in that it helps her to keep the content pumping out – the downside is that she also runs the risk of diluting her own profile on the blog. This is a bit of a tightrope to walk – but if I were Wendy I’d probably be a bit more intentional about selling herself more on her blog than selling other people’s products. Perhaps the blog could do with a little more ‘Wendyfying’? (from memory I think it used to have a picture of her on it for example).

4. Find Untapped Audiences

Most blogs hit plateaus in terms of traffic at one stage or another. This has happened to me on every blog I’ve written on and it can be quite frustrating. To some extent it’s pretty natural – however just because your traffic levels stall doesn’t mean your blog has reached its potential.

At these points a blogger can be tempted to increase the frequency of posts or start writing more and more linkbait type content. While these strategies may work – they are perhaps not the best strategy if you’re hoping to build a sustainable type of traffic. In fact increasing your frequency of posting could alienate loyal readers and set you up for blogger burnout – and writing more and more linkbait articles can also be frustrating for current readers and tends to only attract fleeting traffic.

A better strategy is to investigate ways of exposing your blog to new, and previously untapped, audiences.

‘Easier said than done Darren’ I can hear you say. You’re right. But it’s not impossible. A few ways come to mind:

  • Translation – more and more blogs are getting their content translated into different languages. In doing so they can potentially reach a lot more readers with the same content.
  • Write for Other Web Properties - this might sound like you’re adding to your workload (and it probably will) but one way to expose yourself to a new audience is to write for a site with an established audience and draw them back to your blog. This might be by writing guest posts or could even mean taking up a regular writing job. In fact this is something Wendy has done with her blog for Entrepreneur (smart move Wendy).
  • Media Coverage – while I’ve had limited success with translating MSM coverage into new readers I have seen it work. Get the right story into the right paper or TV show and you could just expand your audience.
  • Offline Promotion – one thing that I’ve been pondering more and more is how to draw traffic to blogs from offline non media sources. I won’t say too much about what I’m thinking of experimenting with but perhaps there are some possibilities here.

It strikes me that some bloggers ‘mine’ the same audiences over and over again. To do so will see a ceiling to your blog’s growth.

5. Smart Diversification/Add Ons

In my early days of blogging I probably would have advised Wendy to simply start more blogs if she wanted to build a larger income from blogging. The logic – if 1 blog earns $XXX a month from blogging wouldn’t 10 blogs earn $XXX x 10?

Of course the problem with this logic is that it’s not scalable (for the reasons Wendy has outlined).

However diversification can take other forms and need not mean starting more blogs. It will mean something different for every blog but perhaps there are some ways of adding income streams that don’t take a whole lot of work to existing blogs.

My own example of this was adding a Blogger Job Board to ProBlogger. While it’s not earned me millions it’s a fairly low maintenance tool that relates strongly to my topic that generates enough income to help sustain my business.

The key is to find something highly related to the topic you’re blogging about and to make it low maintenance.

6. Involve Others

Another thing that comes to mind is that a one person operation will always have a limit to the amount of time that they can devote to any business or job. However when you learn the power of outsourcing, delegation and building a team you can achieve a lot more.

There are many ways to involve others in a blogging business. None are ‘easy’ (be warned) but some might be worth exploring:

  • Build a Network – this is obviously something I’ve explored with b5media. The logic was that I could only ever sustain the writing of a small number of quality blogs by myself but by drawing other bloggers together and managing them there was a greater potential for earnings. Of course managing others takes a lot of work – and this strategy won’t work for everyone. Having said that – a small number of related blogs on similar topics could be an option to explore.
  • Introduce other Bloggers – I’ve already touched on the downside of this above – ie that it runs the risk of diluting your own personal brand. However there are some upsides (many of which I’ve touched on with this post on why guest bloggers are good for a blog). Whether you go for one off guest contributions or regular contributers there are some upsides – however it does take more ‘managing’ type work to keep it coordinated.
  • Administrator Assistant - I’ve toyed with the idea of hiring an intern of admin assistant for a year or two now. The idea is to find someone to help run some of the logistical aspects of running the business. Filtering emails, moderating comments, letting you know of comment threads that need your personal attention, fielding interview requests, doing some basic marketing/promotion etc. I think this would be one ‘solution’ that many bloggers would benefit from – the hard part is finding the right person and being able to afford to pay them.

7. Build a Low Maintenance Blog Community

This one is still forming in my mind – but it strikes me that some blogs have readers that demand a lot more from their blogger than others.

One of the things that I’ve done quite unintentionally on my blogs is to build communities where readers feel empowered to help one another – rather than to just rely upon me as the blogger.

For example – if you wander through the ProBlogger comment threads you’ll find that there is a lot of activity – however many of the questions that get asked are actually answered by other readers rather than by me. My belief is that together as a community we know much more than any single one of us (including me as a blogger). In the early days of my blog I tried to communicate this over and over and perhaps in doing so have created a community that is less dependent upon me to have a good conversation.

The other tip I’d give when it comes to reader interaction is that many of the questions that you ask or conversations that you have with readers can easily be repurposed as actual posts.

Quite often instead of just responding to an email question with an email answer I’ll ask for permission to share it as a post. The asker of the question usually doesn’t mind it – in fact many like it because I give them a link for their troubles. The same can go for answering questions in comments. Quite often it can be better to take a comment of a reader and make it into a new post.

I’m not sure that I’ve really solved Wendy’s problems – but hopefully something here triggers something for her and others.

I’m sure she’d also appreciate anyone else’s thoughts on the issue – fee free to comment on her post or below as she’s a regular around here!

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. I notice that if I ask a question in the comments, even a kind blog reader will usually answer. So it’s all good! *=)

  2. If you decide on getting an administrative assistant, I would be happy to help you out! I don’t have alot of marketing or promotional experience, but I could definitely help you out with the other requirements. I wouldn’t charge you an arm and a leg: it would be a great learning experience!

    Regards,

    Elizabeth

  3. Darren – wow – what a great response. It’s in some way a weird topic to discuss so openly – but as we both know, this is something that many bloggers and businesses either are already facing or will face soon as they grow.

    I’ve always liked to be open about my growing pains to lead and teach by example. You’ve given me both great food for thought as well as some new ideas to consider. Thanks especially for touching on the fact that you have intentionally built a community empowered to help each other in the comments. As I mentioned in my email, I have kind of boxed myself into a corner on setting a tone of participating heavily in the conversation – and it’s taken it’s toll.

    I had an idea earlier this week along these sames lines – and now that you have put it into this context, it makes even more sense for me to put that idea into action, while using it to leverage the tone in the comments away from me being the adviser to me being the facilitator. As one who is a coach, I should have known better, eh? ;)

    Big hugs and thanks again!

  4. Sir Jorge says:

    I say find something you love, and roll with it.

    I love WWE, Movies, and especially horror movies. Blogging about them does not cause me to spend too much time, or cause me straing.

    Those topics each have 3 blogs associated with them.

    I also have 4 other blogs that have NOTHING to do with those topics.

    If you’re into blogging for the prestige, or to earn a living, maybe you should rethink it. However, if you love to write, are already writing, it can be easy to write about things that you love. I love a few things, and I talk about them in my blogs. I also get paid to write for other things, and one site even gets me paid ads.

    A love for what you write makes a world of difference.

  5. rami says:

    Love the idea of answering comments in a new post.

  6. Armen says:

    This is really insightful Darren. The more one blogs, the more apparent the ‘brick walls’ become.

    We all have a breaking point, I just hope Wendy takes measures to implement a plan-of-action that will help to sustain her workload.

    Great post!

  7. Pip says:

    one of your best posts yet Darren. I hope Wendy is paying you for this – I know I’d pay for this type of analysis! Do you do consulting work?

  8. Randy Hill says:

    Sir Jorge is right. Find something that you love – even have a passion for- and it will be much easier. I love music and art, so I combined both of those into a blog idea that is fairly effortless to maintain, one reason being because I love the subject matter so much.

  9. I’ve got so many ideas for my blog as it grows that I hope it doesn’t come to this point (I guess it will one day, of course…) Right now I am about to experiement in offline advertising. I already have some smart ideas for diversification, I just have to wait till my blog is older and more popular for these to take place, as I don’t think they would have much impact now.

    Over all you have some fantastic points in this post. It has been one of my favourite posts of yours lately ;)

  10. Danielle says:

    “One of the things that I’ve done quite unintentionally on my blogs is to build communities where readers feel empowered to help one another – rather than to just rely upon me as the blogger.”
    Another added benefit you have gleaned is that a new visitor feels right at home here at Problogger. I have visited some successful blogs that are very clicky, the interaction is limited to the blogger and his or her established blogroll.
    Guest Bloggers also build a sense of community and I think add very much to your brand.

    Be well and enjoy the day.

  11. I like having blogs on completely different topics, it’s like a break going from one to the other.

  12. It also depends what are your goals? If your goals are to make massive amounts of money and have freedom then blogging is not the best way to go.

    Big authority affiliate websites are much better.

    But if you have a passion for something and want to share your thoughts and help others, then blog is a great idea.

    Or you can do both. ;)

  13. Billy Mac says:

    I found writing about a topic you know and love works best. I just started to realize some regular adsense money for my pest control info blog…I still can’t get any adsense activity on my Critique Blog….that is why I use PPP there and it seems to be working out well without being to “spammy” for my readers. I agree with just plugging along and stay true to the course.

  14. Desty says:

    I’m getting scared. I was in the middle of writing a post about a person’s niche when Kumiko posted about niches. Now today I’m in the middle of an article about spreading one’s self too thin by either too many businesses or the growth of a business and this article shows up! I wonder if someone’s gota RSS into my noggin? Great article BTW! :)

  15. Some of these thoughts are so far ahead in the time schedule of my own blog. They seem so far in the future that it’s not even worth planning for or even thinking about. But I suppose that scalability can be an issue. I always assumed that I would just create more blogs if I needed more income.

  16. Karen Putz says:

    I read Wendy’s post and it echoed a lot of my thoughts. I’m working on a blog for a grant source and will actually make some money from it in the form of a paycheck. To me, that seems to be the best way to go as my time is getting spread quite thin with various other projects.

  17. I also have several blogs that I update on a daily basis and I understand the problems you have in building brand new content. But, on the other hand, my traffic allows be to do everything I need, so everything runs quite smoothly.

    Best of luck and hang in there

    Beijinho (kiss)

  18. Joe says:

    I must have read some of Wendy’s articles before in Entrepreneur. I’ve been forcing myself to read every single article in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Kiplinger.

    I’ll have to quit doing that though, as my stack of magazines is slowly getting larger and larger.

  19. Darren, I especially like point #4. It’s easier nowadays to hook up with other publishers and providers so you can be in more than one place at the same time, giving new readers an opportunity to see what you’re about.

  20. Matt Wardman says:

    I think the two words I would say are:

    Tactics and strategy.

    I have posted some reflections at the link below.

  21. George says:

    Detsy,

    Don’t worry about it. Just write both of your articles it will be from a different point of view. I have a post about this topic in my drafts folder, because it’s a common problem (one I am facing).

    Nice post Darren. I think this will help Wendy and others facing these problems.

  22. I particularly liked your discussion about thinking of one’s blog as a jumping-off point for a personal brand — just part of a total package. As a freelance writer, that’s exactly how I view my blogs.

    The blog itself is not the final product, but rather one of many moving parts if one is a writer and speaker and leads seminars/courses, etc. Looking at it that way takes some of the pressure off; if I’m working on a speech or print article, I’m not “blowing it” or wasting time, and the blog might slide a bit for a few days without the world ending.

  23. Hi Darren,

    Like Wendy, I’m also very thankful for this explanation.

    One point in particular that I’ve tried working with is the translation of my content into different languages, although I had a little difficulty with a few plugins.

    I notice you don’t have translation buttons here. Have you tried it before?

  24. James Joyner says:

    One basic rule that I’ve developed over time is that any answer I write in the comments section of my own blog or any comment I write on the post of someone else’s blog that goes into a third paragraph will be instantly cut-and-pasted and instead used as the basis for a new post or, at least, an update to a post.

    Quite often, too, very long posts that I write are either kept in draft mode and pitched to an outside publication or posted and then pitched in an expanded form elsewhere.

  25. ozlady says:

    I am a personal blogger whose little site doesn’t do much except meet the needs of mysef snd my family. I have been thinking about expanding on my 2 years of personal blogging experience into my professional web sites and frankly this post is one big reason why I haven’t done it. Personal blogging works because I can take snippets out of my blog and mail it to family who aren’t wired in, or create a pdf doc that i can send to those that are… but it’s hard work.

    I do salute you for discussing this and other blogging issues so openly – most don’t for fear of exposing their secrets to everyone. Well done.