Starting a Blog in 2021: Setting Up, Growing, and Monetizing Your Site
It’s crazy to think that, just a few years ago, the term “blog” was just a strange word that few fully understood. Today there are blogs for just about any topic or niche you could conceive of and a diverse array of talented writers producing content for an equally diverse set of audiences. The question is, will 2021 be the year you add your voice to the mix?
There are many reasons why professional writers and newbies alike consider starting their own blogs. In some cases, the desire to share their own opinions and insights is the primary appeal. Meanwhile, there are those who want to utilize their sites to further a lifestyle they are pursuing, turning their blogs into brands and businesses along the way. Whatever your goals and intentions are, what’s important is that you get started.
With that, let’s take a look at some of the basics you need to know about launching a blog in 2021, including tips for getting set up, ways you can help drive traffic to your site, and some different options for monetizing your content.
How to Become a Blogger
Defining Your Blog and Creating a Plan
The sad truth about blogging is that many sites won’t become successful. Moreover many will flame out after just a few posts. There are several reasons why this can happen (costs, lack of time, etc.) but a common pitfall is failing to fully develop your blog idea before getting started.
While sites can surely evolve and rebrand, oftentimes new bloggers don’t dedicate the proper amount of forethought to what audience their content will serve, what future posts might entail, or even determine what goals and objectives they have for the site. As a result, it can be harder for such blogs to draw in repeat readers and can also cause the bloggers themselves to lose interest.
To prevent this, be sure to develop a plan for your blog by asking yourself a series of questions:
- Who is your ideal reader?
- How would you describe your site in only a few words?
- What types of content will you create (and how will you generate new ideas)?
- What goals do you have in terms of growth and monetization?
Answering these questions will hopefully set you on the right path and enable longevity for your brand.
Tips for Choosing a Name
Going hand in hand with establishing a plan for your blog is the need to select the perfect name. Unfortunately, this task can be more difficult than it sounds as you’ll want to not only pick a name that suits your current needs but that also provides growth opportunities. For example, while using your name as a blog URL might make sense, it might also make it difficult to convey what your site is about other than you. Additionally, including specific words like your current location or age in your blog name (oops) is a common tactic that then presents the risk of needing to rebrand once you move or age.
Before you officially settle on a name, another step you’ll want to take is to look into what domains and social media accounts are available. Luckily this task is made exponentially easier by services such as Namechk. Here you can enter a moniker you’re considering to see what domains and social accounts you can claim with that name. Keep in mind that some platforms may have character limits for display names so you may need to come up with an acceptable shortened alternative. Ideally you’ll also want to make your handles across all platforms identical but it’s not always possible so you might have to create a few nicknames on social media that reflect your blog name.
Buying Your Domain
Once you’ve settled on a domain name, it’s time to make it yours officially. To accomplish this you’ll want to purchase your selected domain from a registrar. Some popular sites for domain purchases include GoDaddy, Namecheap, the aptly titled Domain.com, as well as many more. My personal favorite is Namecheap but any of them will work. Also keep in mind that some hosting services will provide you with a free domain as part of your service, so be sure to consider that option before pulling the trigger on an a la carte purchase.
Depending on the domain, you may be able to register your site for as little as a few dollars. However there are certain options you’ll want to navigate through, such as the ability to hide your personal data from the public WHOIS directory. Since you are creating a brand for your blog, I recommend keeping your WHOIS info public to help build trust.
Furthermore, while many registrars may offer specials on initial domain purchases, be aware that the renewal rate could be significantly higher. This is very common for new TLDs, such as .io.
What Hosting Solution is Best?
Whether you purchase a domain and then look into hosting options or take on both steps in tandem, there are several things to consider. Among them, you’ll need to decide whether to use WordPress for your blog or a different content management system (CMS). A CMS allows you to easily create content without having to know anything about coding. Even if you do know how to code a CMS makes managing a site much easier than manually creating pages. The lack of need for coding skills and the ease of use is why WordPress powers roughly 39% of all websites in the world.
Similarly, there’s also the question of whether you prefer an all-in-one hosted solution or self-hosting. If that jargon sounds intimidating, you may want to start with a hosted option such as WordPress.com. However, if you go with a hosted solution vs. a self-hosting you lose a number of options that ultimately will have a major impact on your ability to grow your revenue. With that in mind if you are really serious about growing your blog and turning it into a revenue producer long term, then you really should go with a self-hosted WordPress setup.
Why You Shouldn’t Use Shared Hosting
Most beginner blogging guides recommend Bluehost, HostGator, and a few other shared hosting platforms. Shared hosting is the cheapest option to get started with; however, there are some significant downsides.
Through no fault of your own if you use shared hosting your site could go down (become unresponsive) – basically, no one can get to your site. By its nature, you are directly sharing server resources with other sites. That means if a site on your shared hosting server has a big spike in traffic the server may not have enough resources left to properly deliver your site, which can cause your site to go down. Site outages create a terrible user experience and can also hurt your search rankings, which is an important way to build your site traffic over time.
Another downside of shared hosting that is related to SEO (search engine optimization) is the “bad neighborhood” effect. Essentially every site on a shared hosting account has the same IP address. That means if a site on your shared hosting plan is violating Google’s rules your site will likely also be hurt because it has the same IP address.
Lastly, shared hosting limits the number of resources any individual site can use. This results in sites that even in the best circumstances load slowly. With mobile usage now surpassing desktop, having a fast loading site is critical for providing a good user experience and gaining rankings in Google.
Why I Recommend Managed WordPress Hosting
I recommend using a managed WordPress hosting service. Although this option is a bit pricier than entry-level offerings there are a number of advantages compared to shared hosting.
First, for new bloggers, one of the biggest advantages comes to the initial setup. Managed hosts will handle the WordPress install for you and will include security features that most shared hosts won’t offer. Removing the potential issues with setup and security is a big plus for both experienced and newbie bloggers.
Secondly, managed hosts will typically optimize the server settings to speed up your website, which as mentioned before is very important for SEO and user experience. Additionally managed hosting usually includes site backups, SSL configuration, and automatic WordPress updates. All of these services can save you time, as well as put your mind at ease knowing they are done correctly so you can focus on creating great content.
Recommended Managed WordPress Hosting Solutions:
Personally, I use Liquid Web for my WordPress hosting. They are a bit pricer than some options but they offer a lot of benefits, including server optimization, automatic daily backups, WordPress updates, a staging site for testing, security features, and more. Other popular managed WordPress hosting services include WPEngine, Kinsta, and Siteground.
Building Your Site
There was once a time when building a halfway-decent looking website was a specialized skill you would pay handsomely for. While a good web designer is still worth every penny, these days you can get quite far without much technical know-how. That’s partially because ultra-popular WordPress offers plenty of themes that can easily be customized to fit your blog’s needs.
When building your site you’ll want to consider both aesthetics and functionality in your design choices. That is to say that, before you select a theme or option because of how it looks, make sure it’s functionality supports how you want readers to interact with and navigate through your blog.
You’ll also want to take page load times into consideration and refrain from using too many large images or videos. They cause slow loading webpages that keep readers waiting, which can lead to users leaving your website before even consuming your content.
With that in mind Google developed a framework called AMP, that dramatically speeds up websites and is very SEO friendly. Up until recently, AMP development was very costly and difficult to implement, but in the last year, AMP WordPress themes and plugins have become available making it possible for even small sites to use AMP. In fact, this site runs on an AMP theme. AMPWPTools.com is a great source for AMP WordPress themes and plugins.
Finally, if you’re not happy with the look of your site or just have no idea where to get started, you may want to consider investing in professional help. You can find web designers and developers at multiple price points using services such as Fiverr or Upwork — or you can always run a Google search to find other options that fit your needs. Not only should you look at a web designer’s portfolio before inquiring about hiring them but you might also want to present a vision for what you’re looking for. This will likely make their job a bit easier and help ensure that you’re happy with the final result.
Promoting Your Content and Driving Traffic
Just explaining what search engine optimization (SEO) is could take up an entire article — let alone the encyclopedia-thick book that could be written on the ever-changing strategies associated with SEO. At the same time, what you really need to know is that paying attention to SEO guidelines will help more readers organically find your content and drive greater traffic to your site. This is accomplished by essentially making your site “Google-friendly” in order to be featured more prominently in searches.
Like I said, SEO is a major topic with far too many components (and consistent updates) to mention here. However, for a look at some of the basics, you can check out this post on the SEO essentials. I’d also recommend utilizing plugins like Yoast, and keeping up on the latest news via sites such as Search Engine Land and Moz to get a better idea of how SEO can impact your site’s traffic and readership.
As important as SEO is, however, it’s not everything. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to overly optimize your content to the point where you’re sacrificing your voice, style, or readability. Like with most things in blogging, there is a balance that needs to be struck — and one you’ll need to find for yourself.
Leveraging (and Experimenting On) Social Media
There’s no question that social media has helped to fuel the blogging and publishing industries forward. In many cases, services like Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest give content creators a free platform where they can share their work, interact with readers, and find supportive colleagues. The problem is that these outlets are constantly evolving, issuing new rules and employing tweaked algorithms that can deal major blows to publishers who rely on them. That’s why it’s important to diversify your traffic and experiment with different social media strategies.
Something you may want to explore is purchasing social media ads. This is most common on Facebook where “boosted posts” and sponsored ads are easy to arrange and can be effective in driving traffic. Conveniently, you can typically get started and create your first campaign with only a few dollars. Determining what makes for a successful campaign may also take some research and experimentation to arrive at so be prepared to make adjustments as you go.
While Facebook may be the largest social network — both in general and for publishers — it’s far from the only one. In fact, depending on your blog and audience, you may find more success on Twitter, Pinterest, or even Instagram. You may also discover that the type of content or the way you present it on one platform doesn’t translate to another and vice versa. That’s why you’ll want to pay attention to any analytics you have (be it via Google or the social sites themselves) to get a better idea of what’s working.
By the way, speaking of Facebook, there are lessons to be learned from some of the social network’s scandals. For example, reports suggest that Facebook vastly inflated their video view totals for some time. While this might not seem like a huge deal, the problem is that these seemingly huge totals helped woo some creators away from other platforms that were working for them and led them to go “all-in” on Facebook instead. Unfortunately, some of these publishers are now far worse off for this decision. This is a great reminder that a more diverse strategy is likely a better one.
Something else to keep in mind is that it may make sense to grow an audience on a platform even if there’s not a direct way to send followers to your site. A great example of this is Instagram, where you’re famously unable to link text in your post descriptions and can only link Stories once you’ve gained 10,000 followers. That said, there are still ways around this using sites like Linktree or Linkin.bio, which allows you to direct followers to your profile and then access several links on a curated site. Meanwhile, you can also focus on just providing creative and relevant content in Instagram Stories so that, once you do have the ability to add “swipe up” links, you’ll have a fanbase that’s already used to consuming your Stories. Also, while I haven’t personally used it, I’ve seen people rave about how large of an audience they’ve seen on TikTok, which could make the platform a novel outlet for original content that will help you build a following.
For more social media basic do’s and don’ts, you can also check out this article.
Growing Your Community
Often times bloggers and businesses see sites like Twitter and Facebook as a place to share their content links and they forget the social aspect of social media. This can be a crucial mistake as building your community is essential for growing your blog. Not only does social media offer the opportunity to interact with and engage readers but also serves as a great way to make friends with your fellow bloggers.
One really easy way to grow your community on social media is to share content from other sites, not just your own. Even better, you can tag the account you’re sharing the content from. This can often result in a retweet (which might lead to more followers) or at least put you on that person’s radar. Personally, adopting this one small strategy has not only been useful for getting shares on social but has also made attending conferences like FinCon more fun as I look forward to meeting some of the other content creators “IRL.”
Along a similar line, there are several ways you can casually reach out to bloggers whose content you admire. This could include commenting on their site or interacting with it on social media. It does help if you make your comments specific and ensure that they add to the conversation instead of just being generically complimentary (although who doesn’t like a kind word every once in a while?).
After you establish a collegial relationship with some bloggers in your niche, you may even be afforded the opportunity to write a guest post. As the name implies, a guest post is when a blogger invites another writer to share an article on their site. This can be a great way to gain new fans and perhaps even branch out to a slightly different audience. It should be noted that, since guest posts can also boost SEO, there are plenty who cold email bloggers begging for a shot. While this may work in a few cases, it’s typically frowned upon. Instead look for blogs that openly accept guest post inquiries (and follow all of their directions for applying!) or stick to asking bloggers you have a personal relationship with for opportunities.
Pitching on HARO
Are you an expert on a certain topic? Well, you can put that specialized knowledge to use assisting a fellow writer and perhaps earning a link back to your site at the same time. How? It’s called Help a Reporter Out — or HARO for short.
You can open a HARO account for free and sign-up for emails that will let you know what topics reporters need tips for. If you find one that applies, you can send the reporter your “pitch” by answering their questions and providing your contact info. In some cases, a writer might just use the quote you sent and send you an email when it’s posted (or not — apparently some bloggers only find out they’ve been quoted when Googling themselves) while other times the reporter might contact you with additional questions.
Like most things, perfecting your HARO pitch is a skill. Luckily, given the popularity of the site, you can find great tips to try out. But, if nothing else, just make sure that (once again) you’re following all of the directions that the inquiring reporter lays out.
Utilizing Additional Services
With so many blogs and sites out there, it seems everyone is looking for a way to get some extra exposure. Enter services like Quuu that allow you to submit your content and make it available for others to share. The only downside is that such services can cost a pretty penny — but there are some free ways to get your work out there as well, such as Viral Content Bee.
One avenue you may want to explore is syndicating your posts to sites like Medium or even LinkedIn. In the case of Medium, readers are heading to the platform to find and consume content. By putting your best work there as well as on your blog, you increase the chances of it reaching your ideal reader. Sidenote: when you do syndicate your content to another platform, be sure to include a link back to your original piece. This will not only help in leading people back to your site but can also come into play with Google’s duplicate content guidelines. Also, make sure sites like Medium are using a rel=canonical link so that your post on their site doesn’t end up outranking you (it’s happened to me and it’s incredibly frustrating).
Making Money From a Blog
There are many different ways that bloggers generate revenue but one of the most popular is via what’s known as affiliate marketing. Simply put, bloggers can direct readers to products and services they recommend using customized links. Then, when readers click those special links and proceed to make a purchase, the blogger earns a commission. In some cases, affiliate links might also entitle readers to special offers, such as an extended free trial or discount.
The first thing to know about affiliate marketing is that there are several different options for becoming an affiliate. For example, some bloggers will simply apply to become an Amazon Associate since the online retailer is a fairly good catchall for just about any product you might want to link to. However several other retailers and companies will run their own affiliate programs and/or participate in an affiliate network. Some popular affiliate networks include CJ Affiliate (formerly Commission Junction), Pepperjam Network, Awin, and others. Each of these networks will allow you to activate affiliate links from multiple retailers, broadening your options and potentially increasing your revenue.
Another thing to note is that each affiliate program may be structured a bit differently. In some cases, you may receive a straight percentage of each sale while other programs might pay higher commissions when you reach certain sales tiers. Other differences might include the length of time cookies (how sales are tracked from your site) are valid for, whether you get credit for additional products shoppers add to their carts or just the one you linked to, and rules regarding where your affiliate links can and cannot appear (Amazon doesn’t allow affiliate links to be sent in emails, for example). It’s important to take note of all of these differences not only because you’ll want to adhere to all the rules but also because this could help you decide what retailer you want to link to in certain situations.
Speaking of rules, the Federal Trade Commission has taken a special interest in affiliate marketing in recent years. This includes creating some guidelines for how bloggers should disclose affiliate relationships to readers. My best advice for navigating this aspect of affiliate marketing is to first review the FTC guidelines for yourself and then look to other blogs and see what their disclosures look like.
At the end of the day what’s important is that you’re being honest with your audience about how you’re utilizing affiliate links. In fact, you may even consider explicitly stating that shopping using affiliate links helps support your blog and thank readers in advance. On that note I do occasionally add affiliate links in my posts, including this one, in order to help pay my bills.
Of course, you’ll also want to ensure that you stand behind the products and services you’re linking to so it doesn’t look like you’re just blogging to make a quick buck. You definitely don’t want to end up like those bloggers that recommend everything they write about, which means they really aren’t reviewing at all.
Referral links are very similar to affiliate links but with a few minor differences. While becoming an affiliate of certain retailers often requires filling out an application and being accepted, referral opportunities are more or less open to the public. Great examples of this are cash back apps like Rakuten (formerly Ebates) or Dosh. Both of these tools allow current users to share customized links and earn bonuses when those links are used for new signups. While these programs may be aimed at getting users to refer their friends and family, it’s typically fine to use them on your blog as well. Specific to the personal finance space, I’ve also found that FinTechs/neobanks and other financial services also offer plenty of referral bonus opportunities.
Using referral links can actually be a great way for beginning bloggers to start earning because they don’t include the same traffic requirements that some affiliate programs do. The downside is that, depending on the program, these earnings might not be in cash. Still, as long as you honestly endorse the product or service you’re referring users to, this is a no-brainer.
Just like with regular affiliate links, you should still disclose referral links in your blog posts. That said, it’s not necessary to distinguish between what I’m calling referral links and affiliate links as they really fall under the same category. Therefore, you’ll likely want to develop a standard disclosure that can be appended to each of your posts.
Passively linking to an affiliate in some of your posts is one thing but, if you want to take the relationship to the next level, you might consider offering sponsored content on your site. Typically a sponsored post is paid for by a brand or company and will more than likely include mention of their products and services. However, this doesn’t have to be a 500+ word ad for the company. In fact, it should be a legitimate piece of content that will benefit your readers while still clearly disclosing the brand behind it.
As you can imagine, there are good and bad pieces of sponsored content out there. There are many reasons for this but it starts with the quality control you instill on your own site. If you don’t think a sponsorship makes sense for your site, will disappoint your readers, or the sponsor is simply asking for too much control, feel free to decline their offer. After all, it’s better to retain the trust of your readers in the long run than to risk it all running a bad brand deal post.
On that note, while it doesn’t really qualify as sponsored content, I do want to share a warning about accepting paid link placement requests. Just as you’ll often get spammy sponsorship “opportunities,” you may also get emails asking you to link to a “resource” in exchange for cash or other favors. While these situations may seem like a win-win, the truth is that Google is very strictly against such arrangements and can also sniff them out quite easily. Therefore, for the good of your site, it’s best to ignore or decline these propositions.
While display ads might be the most common forms of monetization you’ll encounter on the web, they’re rarely the most profitable for sites. That may be thanks in part to the advent of ad blocker technologies but is also due to the low rates (typically expressed as CPMs meaning “cost per thousand” or RPM for “revenue per thousand”) that some ad networks offer. At the same time, there are now higher tier ad networks that offer higher levels of targeting and thus better CPMs/RPMs for bloggers.
Easily the most popular display ad network is Google AdSense. Given their dominance this can be a good place for beginning bloggers to start when deciding to run display ads. As your traffic grows, you might explore other options such as MediaVine, AdThrive, Infolinks, and others. Keep in mind that some of these networks may have more stringent acceptance guidelines, such as excluding blogs in certain niches. Because of this, if you do get declined by one ad network, don’t be discouraged — there are plenty more out there.
Once again, when it comes to display ads, you’ll want to consider the user experience and balance that with your desire to monetize. Sure pop-up ads might make you a bit more money in the short term but may end up costing you readers if they get annoyed and resolve not to return (it might also get you penalized by Google in some cases). Granted, finding the right middle ground when it comes to display ads may take some time and experimentation but I’d recommend easing in rather than having to pull back.
Complimentary Revenue Sources and Online Courses
In addition to the ways you can generate revenue directly on your blog itself, there may be opportunities to monetize other parts of your brand. This could include selling sponsored content on your social media accounts (tip: check out Social Bluebook for a better idea of what you should be charging for such posts) or perhaps starting a podcast that you can sell ads on. There have even been some bloggers who have managed to build up Facebook Groups in their niche that they were then able to sell — proving there are likely more opportunities out there than you think.
One avenue that I’ve found success in has been YouTube. After about 15 months of consistently creating videos for my Money@30 channel, I was able to join the YouTube Partner Program in November of 2017 (channels must reach 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time in the prior 12 months before they can apply). When I first got accepted to the Partner Program, I honestly wasn’t expecting much revenue at all. However, I ended up averaging about $10 a day from the jump and that has continued to rise ever since — even surpassing $1,000 in some months. Even before I reached that monetization threshold on YouTube, my videos did provide another organic place for me to share referral links and generate a bit of revenue that way. Plus, I’ve always thought that adding a video component to my written content has helped it to stand out.
Another way that plenty of bloggers monetize is by creating online courses. Funny enough, I’m actually about to launch my first course all about making money on YouTube. Not only can courses be a natural extension of your brand but can also serve as the perfect place to point people who really want to dive deep on topics that you can’t easily cover in a blog post or single video.
If you do decide to build a course of your own, you can check out different platform options including Teachable, Udemy, Skillshare, and more. Keep in mind that there are pros and cons to each of these platforms as their business models can vary more than you might expect. Ultimately, the choice will come down to how you want to price your course, how much control you want over the sales process, and which interface you like best for teaching and learning.
The moral of the story is that your blog can just be the beginning — monetizing your brand is the next level.
If you’ve ever wanted to start your own blog, 2021 is a great time to get started. With your own site, you’ll be able to share your expertise and insight, make an impact with your audience, and maybe even monetize via various methods. While success might not come overnight, planning ahead, diversifying your traffic sources, experimenting with different promotional tools, and finding a monetization strategy that compliments your content can go a long way in ensuring your blog will grow well into 2022 and beyond.
Also published on Medium.