A-List Case Study: How I Grew the Make a Living Writing Blog

I started my Make a Living Writing blog in 2008. There were already dozens of better-known, more established blogs about freelance writing success. I didn’t have much of a business plan — just a vague idea that I could write an ebook on what I knew about getting freelance gigs and maybe sell some copies.

After dabbling around with it for a couple of years, I got serious about building the blog in mid-2010, and began posting twice each week. At the end of 2010, when the blog won Top 10 Blogs for Writers, I was up to three times a week and had just 300 subscribers or so. From there, my audience built steadily. About two years later, in mid-2012, my blog cracked six figures in income.

It’s notable that MALW is still a baby blog with barely 5,000 subscribers. I’m nobody’s mega-success in terms of audience size. Yet my blog and the paid community that it promotes, Freelance Writers Den, together generate a full-time income.

How did I carve out a niche for my blog in a crowded field, and make a living off this relatively small audience? Here is a boil-down on what I did:

Learn. While I had plenty of experience as a journalist and writer, I didn’t know anything about blogging or social media, and I’d never sold anything to anyone. I knew I needed to learn a lot. I began reading voraciously, subscribing to Problogger, Copyblogger and many more newsletters on blogging and Internet marketing. One of the most impactful things I read early on was Leo Babauta’s free ebook on how he got his first 100,000 subscribers (DO YOU HAVE A CURRENT LINK?). That opened my eyes to how to begin building an audience.

Differentiate. I also looked at what competitors in my niche were offering, and where I could be different. Some seemed to be set up to offer moral support to low-paid content-mill writers. This showed me where I could be different — I wanted to help writers interested in moving up to the next level and earning professional rates.

Get to know readers. At first, I just posted about whatever was on my mind in the freelance-writing world. Then, I began asking my readers what they needed to know and writing posts to respond to their questions. From that point, my audience started to grow steadily and I got more and more comments. I learned my readers weren’t all brand-new freelance writers; half my audience is experienced writers who just aren’t earning enough. Creating posts for both audiences helped me capture more readers.

Clean it up. My blog was a design mess when I started — the header was hideous and the sidebar was cluttered with nonessential widgets. I made a lot of small changes to my blog’s design and layout that made it more visually appealing and easier to navigate. I also learned to write strong Internet headlines, with help from Sean D’Souza’s report Why Do Some Headlines Fail?.

Start promoting. I knew nothing about Twitter at the time, except that I needed to learn about it. After spending some time watching and learning about the conventions on each platform, I set up a Facebook page for my blog and starting sharing interesting posts by others and my own blog posts, there and on Twitter.

Acquire mentors. Once I started sharing my newly strengthened headlines on Twitter, I got a life-changing response — it was from Jon Morrow of Copyblogger. He’d just discovered my blog and thought it had something fresh to offer. He wanted to know if I would guest post on Copyblogger.

Guest post. I haven’t told many people this, but writing your first big guest post for a major blog is agony. I actually wrote a post that Jon rejected outright. He thought it wasn’t strong enough to be a first guest post for me on Copyblogger. We threw it out and I wrote a completely new one — which went on to be included in Best of Copyblogger 2010. That meant my post stayed for months in Copyblogger’s sidebar, sending me a steady stream of new readers. It may seem weird to work so hard on a piece of free writing, but the extra effort really paid off. My visibility on Copyblogger brought me to the attention of many other top bloggers including Darren Rowse from ProBlogger and Social Triggers’ Derek Halpern.

Learn a lot more. The idea of guest posting on Copyblogger terrified me. I had a lot of writing experience, but…blog for one of the biggest audiences on the Internet? I felt like I was in over my head. That’s when I decided to join Leo’s A-List Blogger Club, so I could learn a lot more about guest posting and blogging success in general.

Start selling. It took me a while to begin introducing products. I created a lengthy ebook and took a long time getting it done, where I would have been better off creating several shorter ebooks. I didn’t know much about product launches so I didn’t make a fortune off the ebook…but it did introduce the idea to my readers that I had some paid products. I next tried paid one-hour Webinars, which did better. They started at $36 apiece and soon went to $47 (the latter price point actually sold more tickets). I also learned something important: Each live event you do can be recorded and become a permanent product you can sell forever. From there, I began collaborating with other teachers to create small-group coaching courses at $225-$295, and offered one-on-one mentoring as well. Success stories from students in early classes made these courses increasingly popular and easier to sell.

Start affiliate selling. This is probably the area where I learned the most from A-List. The idea of pushing products on people disgusted me, as did sleazy marketing where someone emails you hourly to buy something. I knew I didn’t want that, nor Google AdSense ads I couldn’t control. In A-List, I was able to learn a more ethical sales approach. I created a Products I Love page and began only selling products and services I had used or reviewed and could personally recommend. I routinely get notes from my readers thanking me for introducing them to one of the products I affiliate sell — which is my guidepost that I’m building sales in a sustainable way, without alienating readers. Gradually, affiliate sales grew to be a substantial income stream for my blog.

Steal ideas. While I was learning in A-List Blogger Club, a thought kept coming up to me: There should be a place like this for freelance writers. I began formulating the idea for creating a membership community of my own. After attending SOBCon in Chicago in spring 2011, I went from musing about it to committing to a launch schedule. I have no technical skills and ended up hiring three different webmasters and designers to help create Freelance Writers Den. I built the content based on a reader poll I took about what writers needed and what price they would pay, and offered a signup discount to people who took the poll. The launch cost about $2,000. I continue to add features based on member feedback.

Scale it up. My goal was that one day in the far-off future, the Den might grow to 500 members. That was the biggest membership number I could imagine! But Freelance Writers Den surpassed that figure as we neared the community’s very first anniversary. As a membership site gains more members, it becomes more profitable as the amount of work you do stays roughly the same — it’s just that more people access your content. I believe the Den is so successful because there simply isn’t anything else like it for the money, and writers need a lot of ongoing support and training.

Keep the free stuff. While Freelance Writers Den is my paid community, my blog continues to offer free posts three times a week. I also do a free monthly live training that’s open to all comers. I’m a big believer in offering substantial free information — that’s what allows you to build trust with your readers and grow interest in the more in-depth information you sell.

Don’t compare. I’ve read many success stories online about blogs that sprung up and nearly overnight had tens of thousands of readers. Also, many tales of guest posts that brought 500 new subscribers in a day. Nothing like that ever happened to me…and for a while I had a complex about it. Eventually, I decided as long as my subscriber number kept growing, I was on the right track and wasn’t going to worry.

It isn’t the growth rate or subscriber numbers that matter when it comes to earning from your blog. What matters is the amount of trust you build with readers and the extent to which you can identify products and services to sell that are exactly what your readers need.

Every blogger’s journey to financial success is different. I found my audience and the ways to make my blog pay through a lot of learning and experimentation. That approach will probably work for you, too.