Can You Make Money Blogging?

Photography by Nathan


We’ve all come across someone online who seems to be making a living writing a daily digital journal.

Overnight success stories and long term frustration at a lack of readership live in the same space. In the 2000s, blogging was simultaneously ridiculed as the domain of nerdy netfolk and touted as the next big thing to happen to the world of information dissemination. No doubt that blogs are at the forefront of the decline of the newspaper industry, thousands of people are willing to provide their version of the news absolutely free, available right there on your phone, so why pay for that grimy feeling newspapers leave on your hands? Some blogs have risen to journalistic standards. Most still post pictures of cats licking their babies.

But as full-time travelers, what can we do to leverage the platform, not just as a means of spreading our stories or as supplements to postcards home to friends and family we left behind for the road, but as a way of making a buck or two to help with gas, hotels, campgrounds and entrance to the world’s largest ball of string museum?

The bad news should just come first: blogging is not a get rich quick scheme. It takes, typically, years to build up an audience, and even then, only if you’re creating something they don’t already have. In other words, while you can easily create a blog and start jotting down your daily, all lowercase ramblings, what’s not quite as easy is coming to terms with the reality that blogging for money is a business, and every business needs a plan if it intends to make any type of income, let alone be profitable.

We spoke with Corbett Barr, traveler, self-made entrepreneur and our personal go to resource for audience building techniques. Corbett has been influential in big name bloggers, minimalists and travelers Adam Baker, of Man vs. Debt, and Leo Babauta, of Zen Habits, as well as literally hundreds of thousands of readers. When I first heard of his work, I wondered what was so special about this guy in a sea of SEO-focused Blog Advice How to Retweet your Likes to Get 10 Surefire Tips to Grow your RSS Feed Bigger than the Moon type sites out there. As a web designer who’s learned more than a thing or two about getting traffic, search results rankings, and keeping people interested in your stuff long enough to stick around and hire you myself, I wondered what he might be doing differently than all these other guys.

Corbett Barr
Corbett Barr. Photograph by Randy Stewart

So I began reading through his beautifully designed website and the answer was immediately obvious: Corbett focuses primarily on the one piece of advice that has worked for everyone from Socrates to the Rolling Stones, from high school newspapers to 1980’s MTV: create something people really want.

His particular brand of this revolves around epic. “Create epic content,” his site, Think Traffic, continually drives home the point like a bullet through outer space.

“A blog isn’t a business,” Corbett tells me, “it’s simply a communications platform and a way to reach an audience. It can be a fantastic tool, but a blog itself doesn’t earn a living. You have to solve problems or address a need or desire for people, and then you have to create a product or service to deliver that value. Finally, you have to create an offer so people can pay you for that value.”

Let’s take a step back though, because while I do concede that Corbett is more the expert than myself, I think there’s some ambiguity there, something perhaps lost within the translation of exactly what a blog is. That’s because over the years, so many different genres of blogs have arisen, that they essentially cover everything from Grandma digitizing her recipe collection to porn sites to major news outlets. Grandma may not be making a living from the Google ads she’s stuffed into her posts, but you can be sure the porn site is doing more than just providing free content in hopes to better the world. The news outlet, on the other hand, is providing free content and is probably making enough from advertising, as legacy a model as it may be, to validate them as a business.

So how does a guy who makes a living coaching bloggers come right out and say that blogging isn’t a business? Well let’s look a little at his background.

In a past lifetime known as a few years ago, Corbett was running a Silicon Valley startup and making a living as a Fortune 500 management consultant. He was looking for his next big thing, the next step on the entrepreneurial staircase he was creating for his life.

He and his wife decided to take a six month sabbatical, which he humbly refers to as a roadtrip, and they headed to Old Mexico. It was to be a time of reflection and regrouping before moving forward.

“At that point,” he recounts on one of his websites, “my view of the world was that when it came to work, either you were a slave to a cubicle, enjoying the weekends and infrequent vacations, or you became an entrepreneur so you could hopefully get rich and retire early.”

He had opted for the latter, and found himself working much longer hours than what we consider a typical work week, and realized that success in business building was not a guaranteed pension, but more of a lottery that one had at least a modicum of control over.

Think Traffic logo
Much more from Corbett Barr at ThinkTraffic.

Traveling, like it does for so many of us, changed him. He saw people living fulfilled lives in the absence of big figure bank accounts. He saw people living to live, and making work an integrated aspect of that life, not the primary feature.

So, he began a blog. While he was one of those rarer cases that attracted a large following within his first year—due no doubt to the value he was adding to their lives in an effort to not only advance his own existence, but help others who might be interested in doing so along the way—he took that success and did something most other bloggers fail to do: instead of plastering ads all over the place, he created a business around his new audience.

Corbett talks about affiliate links on his website, essentially, linking to products and getting a cut of the revenue if someone buys something. He talks about building a healthy following of newsletter recipients. He has built a consulting business around, yes, blogging, but on a larger scale, his business is about dream making. Lifestyle design, some call it. Making what you like to do and what you do for money less of a “work hard, play hard” situation than a “play hard, get paid” all in one living, breathing boon.

“Money and status are nice, but what I really wanted was to do something I love, have the freedom to live and work anywhere, connect with awesome people and make a difference.” Which he has done, precisely.

“We live in Mexico every winter for about three months. Aside from that we, my wife and I, spend another 2-3 months away from our home in San Francisco. Last year we spent two months in Europe. We also like to road trip around the western U.S. and spend weeks in other cities.”

If I could sum up the one thing you could do to massively increase the chances of actually “making money through blogging”, it would be to simply follow along with Corbett and his associates on Think Traffic. Delve into the archives, keep up with his RSS feed, try out the techniques he offers, for free, and stick with the practice of just creating content that people want to experience. Once you’ve won their interest, you can begin to call on that interest to help figure out what it is they need in their lives, and who then is better suited to deliver on that need than you?

Perhaps that’s a long term goal you’re interested in and willing to work hard towards. Successful travel bloggers talk about years of no income at all before taking off and finally making it work. You should realize that before you get started, but there are some other avenues you can explore that can not only help you become a better writer on your own site, but pay a few bucks along the way.

The first idea that comes to mind when people want to generate income is, “Hey, I’ll put up a bunch of ads.” People will love your stuff, they’ll click the ads, you’ll make money, right? Incredibly unlikely. Do a little research and take note that most really engaging, interesting sites don’t put up ads at all. Even the top “professional blogger” sites, Think Traffic included, are completely absent of ads, save for those advertising their own internal content. Why? While you may make a few bucks from the occasional click on an ad, how does that relate to the space the ad is taking up? It’s competing for attention: that of your newsletter signup form, an actual product push or your actual content.

So if ads are out, and you don’t have a product yet, what’s the alternative?

From both Corbett as well as other successful travel bloggers—though we should mention that few of them are successful purely based on the income their blogs generate, but by the larger business they’ve built around blogging—we’ve heard one thing repeated consistently: affiliate links can actually make some real money.

Of course, you’ll need to have an audience to click on those links, one that trusts you, which you’ve already realized you can create via simply writing amazing, value adding, gorgeous content that makes the world rush back to their computers every morning to suck up every last gooey detail of whatever it is you in particular have to say. Once you do that though, consider that while a fledgling blog with only a few dozen regular readers may only make some fifty cents a month from advertising, realistically, the same blog with very few readers who is providing great value to those people and puts up an affiliate link for a product the writer recommends could make $25. That’s fifty times the revenue, and if we do some math, we can probably figure out which avenue is the better route.

Consider this, you write a blog about great traveler friendly technology. What computers are most durable, which satellite connections work the best, how to get WiFi in the middle of the jungle, that sort of thing. Your readers are few but love your stuff. They’re sharing your content, you’re growing. You’ve got a big banner ad over the top of your site, and one or two in each post. Every time a new potential reader is directed to your site, you run the risk of them seeing your site for what it is: an ad machine. Less people get sucked into your content because of distraction, but even for all of those who do, how many are going to care to click on an ad link for a product you have no control over? Say there’s an ad in that space, and they click through to Amazon. You may have earned two cents for the click, right? But what if they buy a computer from Amazon? Your two cents went towards a $1000 or more sale.

Now imagine if all of those folks came to your site and were able to dive right into your content. They fall in love with the same copy that caused their friends to share it in the first place, possibly paying that love forward. Near the end of your post you mention a product you use and love, a computer, and link to it via Amazon’s affiliate program. Now you’ve made $25 from that sale, instead of a couple of cents.

You’ve grown your readership, encouraged a return visit, and I’m not even sure what the word for multiplying your profit by a factor of 1,250 is.

Corbett has seen many of his readers take advantage of this, and other practices he preaches, “Oh yes, I’ve seen some do incredible things. Scott Dinsmore, Danny Iny, Jennifer Boykin…” He goes on to list about a dozen people who are making a living running online businesses that stretch the gamut of teaching folks how to hack Facebook to their will to designing iPhone Apps to saviors rescuing desperate-for-living white collar workers from their cubicle ant farms.

“‘Success’ is relative,” say Corbett, “so I’ll let you check those names out and judge for yourself. As far as readers go, we’ve had hundreds of thousands of readers over the past couple of years.” He smirks a little, “and I can’t claim to be responsible for all of their success.”

He’s also a fan of minimalism, a growing movement across the world that’s all about “less”. Less stuff, less spending, less consumerism, less trash, less junk in your food. Less. It’s reflected on his website, where the bare essentials are presented to get his particular job done, and nothing else. No hundreds of archives links, tag clouds, no ads. A few simple sharing tools, a newsletter signup form, some announcements, and the content.

“I’ve learned a lot from the minimalist movement over the past few years,” Corbett admits, “and I’ve been friends with a lot of minimalist bloggers. The concept of learning to live with less has made me much happier and gave me more time and confidence to bootstrap my business. Most people never question the spiral of consumerism we tend to accept as reality by default. I’m so glad I finally did.”

Yes, you could become one of those overnight successes we all hear about. But you could also become a rock star or an actress or a politician, and becoming a famous blogger will still leave you less famous and less wealthy than those, while still probably just about as unlikely for each of us. If you want to make money from blogging, following the practices outlined above—create something of value, use purposeful advertising like affiliate marketing over just plastered ads everywhere, and most importantly, make it something you’re proud to own.