If you’ll allow me to sound like a sentimental wuss for a second, let me tell y’all the difference blogging has made in my life.

A few years ago, I met another personal finance blogger on the Twitter, making her one of three people who actually thought my shtick was funny. After finally meeting her for reals and having the courage to admit my feelings, we started to date. We’re now married.

Yeah, that happened.

Despite my continual efforts to piss off the rest of the PF community (i.e. a like-minded echo chamber who, largely, cannot deal with criticism), I can still count on dozens of other bloggers as people who will at least answer my emails. Some of them are even friends, at least when the cheque doesn’t bounce.

Because of my body of work here at Financial Uproar and at other sites, I’m not only lucky enough to be able to make a living writing, but I get to write about investing, one of my true loves. People regularly email me and say they bought stocks based on my analysis. That simultaneously fills me with pride and TERRORIZING FEAR. Do your own research, people.

The real beauty of starting a blog is the potential. I leveraged my blog into writing jobs. Others use their blogs to push affiliate products or create their own courses or books. Others sell a dream, like early retirement or travel the world blogs. Some are even getting into things like blog and life coaching. I might make fun of some of these things, but hey, if the market demands it, who am I to say something isn’t worth the price?

But over and over again I see the same mistake being made by new bloggers. They start out full of energy, eager to make a difference. Most burn out soon because they don’t get immediate results, while others make it a year or two in and start getting bitter.

The problem is there’s no plan in place to make money. Everybody just thinks about starting a blog; nobody thinks about how to start a profitable blog. They just think they’ll put some words down, throw up some ads, and they’ll be a millionaire in just a few years.

Okay, maybe not. Still, many people struggle. Here’s my guide on how to start a profitable blog.

Getting started

The first thing you’re going to need is a domain name and hosting. You can host your site somewhere free like WordPress.com or Blogger.com, but then you’ll end up with a blog address something like NelsonAbSexyTime.wordpress.com, which screams amateur hour. It doesn’t take much to actually buy a domain name, so just go ahead and do that.

You’ll want to put a little thought into your domain, and even then, chances are the one you really want will already be taken. You can either settle for a less desirable domain name or try to buy one somebody is sitting on. Once you start looking, you’ll be amazed at how many domains are just sitting there. It turns out the internet is just like your useless brother-in-law.

Next, you’re gonna need hosting. I’m a fan of hosting from Bluehost, which starts at just $3.49 per month. They’ll even throw in a domain name for free when you sign up for the first time. The $3.49 plan is only good for one website and is shared hosting (which just means they put several sites on the same host), which is fine for somebody just starting out. If you get wildly successful you can upgrade to dedicated hosting later.

Or for $5.95 per month, you can host an unlimited amount of websites on Bluehost. For those of us who have multiple sites, it’s a great deal.

Make a business plan

It’s been almost six years since I first started the ol’ FU machine (here’s the first post if you want a giggle), so I’m not sure I can entirely remember my thought process when I started this thing, but I’m pretty sure it was this.

“There’s a lot of crap out there, some of which is actually popular. The hell? I can do better.”

Or, to put it another way, this was my business plan:

  1. Write stuff
  2. ??????
  3. Profit

Needless to say, that is not the type of business plan that you’d have if you’re looking to have a profitable blog. It’s a business plan from East Germany in the 1960s.

You might be thinking that it’s fine, because hey, you’re just looking for something to do. Nelson of 2010 was like that, and it seemed to work out well for him.

The issue becomes when you inevitably grow tired of it. You might not grow tired of the writing; hell, that’s what usually keeps people in this business sane. But I’m willing to bet you will get tired of the bullshit that goes on behind the scenes, whether it’s from cliques formed by your peers (the favorite activity of bloggers when they get together is to bash the hell out of other bloggers), or from constant attempts to get beaten down by advertisers. Or you just might not get any readers.

If you focus your energy on starting a profitable blog day one, you’ll still go months without selling anything, especially at first. But after a few months of working hard, sales will inevitably start to happen. Even small successes can be incredibly motivating when you’re ready to burn out.

How to figure out what you’re going to sell

Now that we’ve established that you need to think of making money day one, let’s talk about the second part of starting a profitable blog. You’ve got to figure out what to sell.

Some ideas include:

  1. A book, ebook, or some other such product
  2. A recurring subscription-based product, like a newsletter
  3. A physical product
  4. Writing for other websites
  5. Consulting services
  6. Your body

Okay, maybe not number 6.

I won’t get too much into the pros and cons for each, I’ll let your imagination go wild on this. Just remember this — you want to focus more on stuff you can leverage into bigger and better things. It takes just as much work to write a newsletter that’s read by 15 subscribers as 15000. One of the biggest advantages to starting a blog is the ability to scale it.

One of my writing clients is a great example of this, Motley Fool. At the end of each article is a call to action, trying to get people to sign up for a newsletter by offering a freebie. They’ll send you a free report on a stock if you give them your email address.

Something like only 2% of people who read an article will take the freebie offer. And out of those 2%, a further 1-3% will actually pay out of pocket for something.

Or to put it another way, you can anticipate selling something to every 2,500th reader who stumbles upon your offerings. And that’s assuming you’re any good at selling, which you probably won’t be at first.

Other ways to make money blogging

If you’re looking to start a profitable blog, you might not have the patience to wait until you start selling something. Here are some easy ways you can start making money today even with just a few visitors. Keep in mind that, generally, few visitors = little (if any) profit. Unless your mom is clicking ads all day long, it’s going to take a long-ass time to make anything more than beer money.

Sell ads

There are three types of ads you can do. You can either sell links, sell PPC or CPM ads, or work with brands directly, either by them buying ad space on your blog or using affiliate links to get paid whenever somebody clicks through to buy something.

Let’s start with selling links, something that many bloggers will recommend you never do because it can hurt your own blog’s ranking if you’re caught.

Here’s what happens. An individual will generally approach a blogger under the guise of providing a “free, quality guest post.” They’ll say nice, oddly non-specific things about your blog.

These guys aren’t around to help you. They’re just looking for a free link so they can look better in the eyes of Google. It’s all about raising their rank when people type in a certain phrase into their address bar.

If you respond to these emails with “nah, but you can pay me to appear on my blog,” you’ll get a few that are interested and even fewer that’ll pay. For blogs starting out, you’ll only get $25 or $50, but you can charge more when you’re more established. Getting link money is also really inconsistent, and is far less prevalent than it used to be.

PPC ads are just ads that pay you a little bit of money each time somebody clicks on one. Google Adsense is what just about everyone uses. There are also a few competitors, like Yahoo. As you’d expect, the Yahoo offering is worse than Google’s in just about every way.

CPM ads are ads that pay per impression. I have some of these on my blog, and they really don’t do well unless you have the traffic. They pay a fraction of a cent per page view. When you’re first starting out you probably won’t be able to qualify for CPM ads anyway.

Work with brands

There are two ways you can work with brands. You can either use affiliates or approach brands directly.

Affiliates are easy. You get approved for the program (which takes nothing but a pulse and a blog that isn’t about porn or shooting stuff), insert links, and hope people click on them. The best affiliate marketing is done naturally; if you do it right, people won’t even realize the ads are there.

The other way to do it is to reach out directly. If you’re first starting out, there’s no chance McDonalds, Wal-Mart, or even K-Mart is going to return your emails. But Bob’s discount emporium might be interested.

I’ve gotten free books before by just reaching out to the publisher and promising to write a review. Travel bloggers regularly get free nights in hotels or free meals in restaurants for plugging the place. Video game bloggers can get free copies of games. And so on.

When you’re first trying to start a profitable blog, aim low. You’re not worth much at first. Realize this when reaching out to brands.

Get traffic

Finally, you’re going to need eyeballs on your blog. You can’t make money if nobody visits.

There’s no tried and true way to get people to come consistently, but here are a few things I’ve done over the years that have worked out pretty well.

  • Focus on writing good content. You want to be equal parts entertaining and educational.
  • Post consistently. Think of your new content as a store. If you tell people your store opens at 9am but you don’t show up sometimes until 11, you can’t expect people to be happy about it.
  • Have a Twitter and Facebook presence. Twitter is best if you actually use it to talk with people. Nobody is going to follow you if you only tweet every 3 days.
  • Link to other blogs you read. The big guys probably won’t notice, but the medium to small guys will. If you riff on their stuff (even if you disagree), they’ll often link to it and let their followers know.
  • Be controversial. Don’t be a dick about it, but people like reading contrary opinions. And if they don’t, you’ll even get some hate readers who stick around.

Let’s wrap it up

It’s not enough to just start a blog. You need to start a profitable blog, or at least a blog that’s on its way to making money. Because what’s the point of doing all this if you can’t at least make a little bit of money?

Tell everyone, yo!