Q. Saw your lovely feature on ShopSense. Can you share more business tips you wish you knew before [you started] blogging?
Elizabeth (via Twitter)
A. Oh, yes. The “business of blogging” is one of my all-time favorite subjects. Blogs aren’t just businesses, they’re big businesses. And if you plan to make your blog your business, you should treat it like one.
When I started out, I went into this not “for fun” (although it was definitely the most fun thing I could imagine doing), but rather – and probably ill-advisedly – planning to make the site my livelihood. I say “ill-advisedly” because there were two things working against me at the time:
1: Blogging is still finding its footing as a business, and is still more than a little Wild West-y, but back then? Announce that you were quitting your job to blog, and people would have told you that you were crazy (they still would, but they wouldn’t necessarily be correct).
2: The FTC regulations were brand-new, and advertisers had only recently begun to discover the benefits of integrated marketing campaigns, so there weren’t the kinds of structured opportunities for revenue generation that there are today. Beyond that, there was huge resistance to the introduction of these revenue-generating avenues from readers, who saw them a betrayal of the very essence of the blogosphere. Bloggers didn’t know how to start working with advertisers without alienating their readership, and so some of them tried to kind of slide it in without anyone noticing. (Bad idea.)
Now, I think we’ve come a long way from this perspective. I think readers expect and are generally okay with the presence of sponsored posts on blogs that they enjoy, and get that it’s a way for bloggers to provide the content that they do while supporting themselves and their families. (Personally, I love working with brands on posts; I think discovering new products and finding fun ways to introduce them to readers is exciting, and it often pushes me beyond the boundaries of what I’d write about in my “regular” life.) But when you start out, figuring out how to balance the desire to share your voice with the need to make a living can be a tricky path to navigate, absolutely.
The truth is, the logistics of how to manage a blog that was also a business wasn’t something I gave a ton of thought to when I started out. Back in 2009, I was miserable: I hated my job and couldn’t figure out where my future might be headed, and when a friend suggested that I should try writing a website for a living, I jumped in with both feet because I was desperate for something – anything – to change. I think not having a huge foundation in the hows and whys of blogging worked to my advantage in some ways, because I literally didn’t have the knowledge required to do anything other than what felt right to me…but I definitely didn’t do everything perfectly. Not even close.
So. With the lovely clarity of hindsight, here are a few things I think are important to keep in mind when you’re getting started.
The Business Of Blogging: A Few Things To Keep In Mind When You’re Just Starting Out.
– Be honest with your readers. I mean all the time. No exceptions. About companies that you’re working with, about how you acquired the products you feature, and about yourself. If you don’t want to discuss something, don’t write about it (and if anyone asks, saying “that is not a topic I feel comfortable discussing” is a completely valid response)…but don’t lie. Your readers will know, and you’ll know, and that is no way to start a long-term relationship that has the potential to benefit both of you.
And beyond that, those lies that you tell? You’ll have to keep them up. And when you’re writing every single day keeping track of a bunch of stories isn’t just exhausting…it’s impossible.
Just tell the truth. On the blog, and in life.
– If you screw up, own it. From time to time, I’ve published posts and made statements I’ve regretted. When you write every single day that’s just par for the course. As an example, a couple of years ago I put up a post in which I stated the belief that you should be “sure” when going into a marriage. And then, while discussing the topic with commenters, I realized that I didn’t actually agree with the statements I’d made in the post.
I thought about deleting the post mostly because I didn’t want beliefs that I disagreed with floating around out there in the world with my name on them…but then I realized that would not only not be especially effective, but beyond that, it would be in total opposition to how I believe a blog should be written. You should write what you think, and what you think is allowed to evolve over time. And so I wrote a second post clarifying my thoughts, and to this day it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.
So while of course you should try to make sure you’ve said what you meant to say before hitting the “publish” button, your opinions and beliefs are allowed to change. They should change, if you’re keeping your eyes and ears open to the world around you. That’s not just a basic human truth, but also part of what makes life – and writing about life – so fascinating. So rather than going back and deleting what you wrote and hoping no one noticed, try admitting – openly – where you went wrong. Talking about it. Being fallible, and being real.
Because really: isn’t that kind of the point?
– Pick up some basic photography equipment. Even if your site isn’t “about” photography, images are another way to communicate with your readers…and not-so-hot imagery not only detracts from the professionalism of your site, but also removes an opportunity to enhance your story.
What you’ll need:
- A decent DSLR (I have the Canon Rebel T4i; you can find one that’s a couple of years old on eBay for not all that much);
- Some basic editing software (I just use iPhoto to enhance and brighten up photos);
- A white dry-erase board or similar surface that you can photograph static items on. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but in my opinion it can do a ton to enhance image quality (see this and this for examples of images I used my whiteboard for).
– Embrace your community. The amount of jealousy and competition I’ve seen in this industry isn’t only disappointing…it’s completely unnecessary. This is an industry dominated by women, and one that offers those who work in it the flexibility and family time that are so painfully absent in many modern workplaces. Let’s support each other. Share information. Celebrate each others’ successes. There’s not only “room enough” for everyone; there’s tremendous opportunity for us to help each other climb.
– If you’re planning on making money from your site, keep your finances as straight as an arrow. Start an LLC, keep separate bank accounts for business and personal, and start a third account to hold a percentage of each paycheck so that you can pay quarterly estimated taxes rather than getting surprised by a massive bill at year-end. Use basic accounting software to keep track of payables and expenses. Not the most fun part of being self-employed, but absolutely necessary.
And finally, here’s a few more links you may find useful:
- Blog Advice I: General Do’s And Don’ts
- Blog Advice II: Rules And Disclosure
- Blog Advice III: Finding The Time
- Blog Advice IV: To Niche Or Not
- Blog Advice V: “Evergreen” Content and Making Money
- Blog Advice VI: Creating Cool Visuals
- Blog Advice VII: Taking Selfies And Getting Over It
Anything I forgot? Want more info on any of the above? Ask away.