I always say that blogging is an easy thing to do, but a difficult thing to master. It takes time for an aspiring blogger to iron out certain bad habits. Even people who pick up blogging quickly make a lot of mistakes along the way. Someone new to blogging could read a dozen books on how to build, promote and monetize a blog. Yet, there is no doubt that they would then go away and make many mistakes which those books advised against. This is not a bad thing, as identifying your mistakes and learning from them is one of the best ways to improve.
One of the best teaching methods available is the case study. By observing real-life events, you can learn what to do and what not to do. Today I would like to present to you a retrospective case study of BloggingTips.com; a blog which I founded in 2007 and later sold in 2010. It remains one of the most popular blogging advice blogs on the internet.
Before I launched the blog, I primarily made money online through discussion forums and small content websites. Launching BloggingTips completely changed the direction of my work online. Since that day, the majority of my income has came from blogging. BloggingTips was my first serious blog and I emerged from the sale of the blog with a lot of experience on blogging.
In a way, BloggingTips was my journey from a novice to an experienced blogger. Therefore, it the perfect blog for me to use a case study for all of you. I hope you enjoy the article :)
My Introduction to Blogging
Blogging has its roots in the late 90s, however it was was not until the mid 2000s that we started to see commercial websites using blogging platforms to publish content. I kind of fell into blogging by accident. When I first went backpacking to Asia and Australia in 2003, I created a gallery website for my friends and families. I used the website to upload pictures of our travels.
I travelled in 2004 and a little in 2005 too, however it was not until 2006 that I went on a long journey again. This 9 month trip took in Asia again, before going back to Australia for a month, and then onto New Zealand for 6 months (heading back to the UK via Japan and Germany).
I had noticed years before that I was saying the same thing over and over to friends and family in emails. When you are travelling, you do not have a lot of time to sit in internet cafes all day writing emails. So I moved the gallery to a sub folder and then uploaded a blogging script to the root of the domain. This allowed me to post updates to everyone. It saved me a huge amount of time.
I tested lots of different blogging platforms before finally settling on Serendipity. The picture below shows you how basic the blog was. At the time I owned professional looking websites, however I did not see the point in spending money or time modifying the design if it was only my friends and family who were looking at it.
Due to the amount of blogging platforms I tried out for my personal blog, I started using blogging platforms for some content websites I owned. I added a blog to my poker discussion forums and I also added an add-on that allowed members to add blogs of their own. Some of my older websites used static files (i.e. did not use a database), therefore I upgraded those websites too in order to manage the content more easily.
Why A Blog About Blogging?
Despite using blogging software with my forums, on my travel blog, and as a CMS; I still did not run a stand-along blog. Therefore, I started to thinking about what I could blog about. My initial idea was to launch a daily blog about poker. I had read many poker blogs myself at the time so I knew it could be popular. In the end, I decided to add the poker blog to my existing community to take advantage of the traffic there. Looking back, the poker blog would have had more success if I had launched it on its own, as I was not able to show updates to forum members on the forum anyway (i.e. it was just a link on the menu, there were no active updates on the forum).
There are a million blogs about blogging today. Back in 2006 there was not as many, though it did feel that it was a little oversaturated. ProBlogger had launched in 2005, and was rightfully the most popular blog about blogging at the time (it still is to this day).
Very few blogs were of the same standard as Darren Rowse’s blog. Most were giving, what I considered to be, bad advice. In the early 2000’s I had run about a dozen websites that I had branded Webmaster Empire. These websites focused on search engines, affiliate networks, webmaster tools, etc. So whilst I was new to the medium of blogging every day, I had spent years writing articles about building traffic to a website, SEO, and affiliation.
So I decided to launch a blog about blogging. On many subjects, I considered myself very experienced, therefore I felt I had an edge of many other bloggers who were focusing on simple topics. I was perhaps a little deluded. Whilst I had been working online for several years by that point, my writing was terrible (embarrassingly so). Clearly, I had to work on the act of blogging itself.
Launching the Blog
I registered the domain name BloggingTips.org on 11 February 2007. Shortly after registering the domain I started making moves to secure BloggingTips.com. I had my eyes on the .com version of the name from the start. I knew that the COM extension is much easier to brand. I also knew that the more I developed the blog on the ORG extension, the more the COM extension would be worth. So there was a risk that by launching the blog too early, I would be pushing the price of the domain I needed up and up.
On the other side of the coin, I did not want to hold back launching the blog. I had lots of ideas of what I wanted to do with the blog and I did not want to hold back the launch for months because of the domain issue. Therefore, I launched the blog on BloggingTips.org one month later on 12 March 2007. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long to move the blog to BloggingTips.com as I secured the COM extension one month later for $1,250.
When I launched the blog, I was living in Auckland, New Zealand. My routine was the same each day. I would wake up about 9, grab something quick to eat, and then head to the gym for two hours. I would then come back and work on BloggingTips for about five or 6 hours. Later I would do Muay Thai training at night for an hour or so. Then after eating at night, I would work a few more hours.
From the start, BloggingTips always had a high posting rate. Some days I would publish three articles in a day. Between May and June, me and my friends were going to travel all over New Zealand by bus, and it was not possible for me to write so frequently when I was travelling. Therefore, I scheduled all of my articles in advance and then tried to write more if, and when, I could.
Most of the content that was published on the blog within the first four or five months was written by myself (save a few articles). My work rate was relentless. A quick look at the BloggingTips Archives shows I had posted more than once a day during March 2007. In April I published 60 articles and in May I published 71.
Established the Blog
My promotional strategy during the first three months was quite straight forward:
- Publish a lot of articles
- Get reviews on similar blogs to bring my blog to the attention of more people
- Be active on other people’s blogs and leave good comments
- Guest posting
- Convert everyone who visited my blog into a subscriber
I also hosted a few competitions, including one in June 2007 to win a hosting, $100 in cash, and a blog that I had purchased at the start of 2007 that focused on the Microsoft Zune. I also hosted another competition that allowed bloggers to win their own mascot.
The paid reviews helped bring in a lot of new subscribers to the blog. Ironically, I got a review on Zac Johnson’s blog, the blogger who would later purchase the blog from me.
Unfortunately, as the Feedburner feed was transferred to the new owner when I sold the blog, I cannot show you any statistics on the growth of subscribers during this time. I do, however, still have access to some stats via Google Analytics. As you can see, I received about 1,000 visits from the John Chow review. I got a lot of new subscribers too, however my daily traffic dropped down to a similar level after a few days.
Taking It To The Next Level
In the Summer of 2007 I brought in many other bloggers to help me write content for the blog. As I was still writing frequently myself, the posting frequency greatly increased. By September the monthly post rate was around 90 articles per month (3 per day). Most other blogs at the time published articles 3-4 articles per week.
Was it a good decision to publish so much content? In retrospect, probably not. Blogs such as Mashable have established themselves through high volume posting. This technique works well for news type websites, however it was not right for a blogging advice blog.
Firstly, the sheer volume of articles being published overwhelmed some readers. I recall a few people saying that they found they found it difficult to stay up to date. Secondly, most articles were only 500-1,000 words long. My own articles were normally longer, sometimes a few thousand words long.
At different stages of the site’s life, I had around a dozen or so bloggers writing on a regular basis. Each blogger was scheduled to publish once or twice a week. I set it up so that authors had the freedom to schedule content on their designed days themselves. Occasionally, this backfired, as authors would publish on the wrong day or at the wrong time. Generally, the system worked well though, and it ensured that there was at least two articles published every day, even if one author was sick.
One of the problems of this high posting schedule was that the feature articles that I spent a lot of time writing myself would sometimes get lost in the crowd. I suppose this was down to my own inexperience with blogging at the time. In the following years I would do more to emphasise the best articles on the blog.
If I had to go back and launch the blog again, the quality of posts is something I would have placed more emphasis on. It is difficult to get your point across in only 500 words, so many posts only touched upon a subject rather than explaining the subject in-depth.
So if I had to start a blog like that again, my primary focus would be on publishing long in-depth articles (in much the same way Web Hosting Secret Revealed does now).
The Design of BloggingTips
Despite using a few different blogging platforms in the past, BloggingTips was launched using WordPress. It was the platform I used throughout the life of the blog and the platform I continue to use for all of my content websites to this day.
What is interesting is that the blog was launched when I was new to WordPress. I was constantly learning new things about the platform and testing out new plugins, therefore BloggingTips was always in a state of evolution. As a result of this, the blog had many redesigns. This ensured that the blog always kept up to date with the latest advancements in WordPress.
BloggingTips.com Design #1
I created all of the designs myself during the first year. After the design which was used at launch, I created a simple design using the Revolution Theme, a framework type theme that was designed by Brian Gardner. In many ways, Revolution can be considered the predecessor of his flagship Genesis Framework, which is the framework I currently use on my personal blog and on many small content websites I own.
The logo that I used at launch was designed by the guy who designed my mascot. I was never a fan of that logo (he himself said that logos were not his speciality), therefore I approached graphic designer David Airey for a professional replacement. I loved the simple bold style that he came up with. I would continue to use the logo on the blog until I sold it (which illustrates how much I liked it as I changed everything else!).
BloggingTips.com Design #2
In 2008 I got a redesign from a professional designer. The sidebar was a lot tidier and full content posts on the home page were replaced with excerpts. It also had an improved subscription area at the top of the sidebar.
BloggingTips.com Design #3
The following year (2009), the blog got another redesign. This time Mike Smith created a custom design for me. By this point, I had become skilled at knowing what should and should not be included in blog designs. A banner was incorporated into the header to increase revenue and informational links were placed at the very top of the page (contact page, about etc).
All in all I was pleased with the designs I used on the blog. I did not save the fifteen thousand dollars I needed to get the professional design I dreamed off, though the designs were always professional looking.
How I Tried to Monetize the Site
Monetizing BloggingTips is not something I did effectively (hindsight is a wonderful thing!). Throughout the life of the blog, it made decent money through affiliate links and banner ads. It also made good money through paid reviews. So in that respect, I did monetize the blog well.
Where I failed was bringing consistent revenue through selling products. The funny thing is, I did release products. In fact, I released many products, but I gave the vast majority of products away for free to those who signed up to my newsletter.
The books I wrote were a good example of this. They all varied in length. One was 48 pages, another was 63 pages, another was much shorter. I probably should have sold the books that were over 50 pages long, even if it was only for a few dollars. At the time, I was thinking more long term, trying to get people to subscribe to my newsletter so that I could push more premium products to them later.
I released many WordPress themes to WordPress users too. In the first year I released a few basic designs. I would later remove these from download as WordPress has advanced to the point where they were no longer functional, and it was not worth my time upgrading them. Some of themes proved very popular, including the designs Evolution, Hurricane, and Principle.
The Evolution theme was incredibly popular. It was a versatile theme that was available in blue, green, or red. All of these themes had a link in the footer back to BloggingTips (a popular technique at the time). I advised users that they could remove these links if they wanted, however many kept the link back as a way of saying thanks.
With the WordPress themes, the idea was to encourage more WordPress users to visit the blog, so that when I released a premium WordPress theme, I would have many WordPress users to market to. If memory serves me right, I initially sold a premium design through BloggingTips itself.
Shortly afterwards, I would start selling designs through the website Blog Themes Club. Launched with a partner (Sarah), we offered four designs in the club (more were planned). It cost $49 for access to all designs and came with premium support. Customers could purchase themes individually for $19, however they would not get any support. The designs have not aged well, though they did not look out of place four years ago.
The themes club did sell some memberships, however we quickly realised that providing good support was very time consuming. A bigger concern was developing new themes. I was a blogger/marketer and Sarah was a coder. There was no designer on our team. We purchased designs together and then Sarah ensured they were coded correctly for WordPress (she was a great WordPress developer). I handled the marketing side of things and we both worked on support.
Our plan was to reinvest all profits into having new designs developed, however after a few months, we decided to move onto something else. So we sold the blog and split the profits. We did not lose any money through the site but it did prove to be a big drain on time. On a positive note, it was a good learning experience in developing a launching a member driven website.
I should have done things a little differently and released more informational products, or perhaps launched a member only course. It was a bad decision to launch a WordPress theme store. I had a lot of experience with WordPress, though I was not a designer, so I did not have full control over anything. Perhaps it would have been more successful if BloggingTips was making more money at the time, as I could have hired better designers for the project.
So to summarise: BloggingTips did make ok money, but it could have made so much more.
The Discussion Forums
BloggingTips was launched with discussion forums from the very first day. The forums were quite popular at one point but from a business point of view, it was a complete waste of time. It brought in zero income and drained a huge amount of my time.
There were some great bloggers in the community. Unfortunately, there were a lot of lazy bloggers too. People would post problems and ask for help. Myself, or another member, would then post a long detailed reply that explained what they needed to do. Frequently, people would ask “Can you not just do it for me?”. This lazy half-assed approach to working online was very frustrating. The situation could have been resolved by charging members a fee to participate and get support (hindsight strikes again!).
Zac decided to remove the forums from BloggingTips when he bought the website. At the time I thought this was a bad decision but I now believe it was the right move at the time. It has been susceptible to spammers over the last year or so because the forum software has not been updated, however Zac spoke to me recently about his plans to relaunch the forums.
A Quick Look at Two Traffic Spikes
Whilst checking the traffic stats of BloggingTips, I noticed two major spikes in traffic. One on Monday 26 November 2007 and the other on Sunday 19 July 2009. I remember the latter very clearly as it involved the author and comedian Stephen Fry. He sent a tweet to his followers, which resulted in over twelve thousand visits to an article on the blog within a day or so. It was a bizarre experience to have him tweet about my blog as he was one of the most famous celebrities on Twitter at the time.
The earlier spike was caused by a BloggingTips article being listed on the popular community Fark. For some reason, the community did not like an article entitled “Blog Etiquette: The Rules are Quite Simple by Deborah Ng. Whatever the reason, the blog received over twenty thousand visitors due to the link on Fark. Crazy. It is just a pity the traffic was not targeted :)
Why I Decided to Sell BloggingTips
Many bloggers end up selling their blog at the wrong time. They either sell it too early and cut themselves short, or they hold onto it too long and see the value of their blog drop because they are not updating it anymore.
I always had long-term plans for BloggingTips though I had given consideration to selling the blog at the end of 2008. At the time I was heading off to Thailand for a 3 month trip to do Muay Thai, and I knew it would be tough to do five to six hours of training per day as well as maintain a blog full time. I decided against selling, which was the right decision at the time.
A year later, at the end of 2009, I started thinking about selling again; however, my reasons for doing so were different. I was not trying to sell the blog because of time restrictions, I was thinking of selling because I wanted to do something new. The blog was getting a few thousand visits a day, and I was making a lot of money through the blog through paid reviews. So it may seem strange to even think about selling the blog when it was clearly growing quickly.
The truth is, I was burned out. I was bored with the site. I really was. When I sold the blog, it had over 2,500 pages of content on the site. I had written over one thousand of those articles. Due to this, I had became bored about writing about the act of blogging.
At this time I was already planning out my next blog (which would focus on WordPress). I should have launched my next blog whilst running BloggingTips, as I could have marketed my new blog to my existing user base.
Of course, many people may say that I should have kept the blog long term and simply hired someone to maintain the blog for me. The thought had crossed my mind, however I had a feeling at the time that I had taken the blog as far as I could take it. I knew that the blog would continue to grow but I was not confident that I could grow the blog in the time scale I wanted. Maybe I felt jaded after the experience of launching BlogThemesClub. I had made my initial investment back on that project, but that was just because we decided to cut our losses and sell before we spent more time on the site. The whole experience felt like I had tried and failed.
Additionally, selling BloggingTips would have given me two things: time and money. It is very difficult to launch a new blog when you are working full time on another; and I knew that selling the blog would give me the freedom to implement all the ideas I had for my new blog.
I have sold many websites over the years (hundreds). I do look back at some websites I sold ten years ago and think “I wish I still had that website today”. Circumstances sometimes dictate what happens with the websites we own and I do strongly feel that most of the websites I have sold have been sold at the right time, including BloggingTips.com.
Selling the Blog
Once I had decided to sell BloggingTips, I listed the website for sale on Flippa. I did not really have much to lose as if I did not get the price I wanted, I would just keep the blog and develop it more (plus, there was always the chance that the sale would expose the blog to a new audience).
It was listed for sale at the end of 2009. BloggingTips was making just under two thousand dollars per month at the time and had over 8 thousand subscribers. A lot of high profile bloggers bidded, including Yaro Starak. The auction can still be seen on Flippa in full if you are curious as to what I wrote in the auction listing.
I was really lucky that the site was sold to a great buyer. Zac Johnson was well known for being an affiliate marketer and a blogger. He ensured a safe and quick transaction and the bulk of the money from the sale of the blog went to a deposit for my house. Since selling the site to Zac, I have remained in touch with him. We regularly chat on Google about our websites and help each other out when we can.
Zac still runs BloggingTips. He has put his own stamp on the blog and it continues to be updated daily by Zac and a host of other well known bloggers. I encourage you to check it out if you have never read the blog before.
BloggingTips was my three year crash course on blogging. I went into the project as a blogging novice and walked out with a clear view on what blogging is and isn’t.
It has been interesting for me to look back at the period of time. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. For example, I could have saved myself a lot of time by not trying to build the community up in the discussion forums. They were a distraction. One time, due to severe problems with spam, I forced everyone who wanted to leave a comment to register with the blog. This saw comments drop considerably and I quickly reversed my decision. It was such a bad move at my part that I felt compelled to do because WordPress did not handle spam well at the time.
I do not look back at the mistakes I made with regret. The success I have had since selling BloggingTips is in part due to making mistakes during that period. I learned a lot of lessons during those three years that have stayed with me to this day. It goes back to what I said at the beginning of this article. You can read all the books you want, but the best way to learn is to throw yourself in there, make mistakes, and learn from them.
So do not get worried if you are making a lot of mistakes in blogging. The important thing is to recognise what you did wrong and make sure you do not do it again in the future. As you can see from this case study, every blogger out there has made a lot of errors on their journey to success. So do not let adversity stand in your way.
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Thanks for reading,