How I Built a Million Dollar Blog (by Growing a Loyal Audience)

No — Side Hustle Nation hasn’t quite hit the $1 million mark yet.

That honor is reserved for true blogging elite, and in that spirit I’m excited to introduce Michelle Schroeder-Gardner, the founder of Making Sense of Cents.

On her blog, Michelle helps readers learn how to make extra money, save money, and reach their dream life. She currently earns $100,000 a month (wowzas!!) through her blog and affiliate marketing course, Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing.

Michelle and her husband sold their house in 2015 and currently travel full-time in an RV with their two dogs.

Take it away, Michelle!

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In August of 2011, I started Making Sense of Cents with the aim of journaling my personal finance journey and the many ways I was learning how to make extra money.

I had recently read an article about a personal finance website and I became extremely interested in tracking my own personal finance journey. And even though I started my blog to keep track of how I was learning to make extra money, I never thought one of those ways would include blogging!

This is interesting and hilarious because before that summer, I had no idea about what blogs were, how to start a blog, that they could even make money, or anything along those lines.

I honestly never thought that I would ever earn income blogging, much less knew anything about it, which is crazy, because right now I’m on track to reach $1,000,000 in income for 2016 from my blog. 

Nick’s Notes: Looks like 2016 ended up just shy of a mill for Michelle, at $979,321. Slacker!

A few weeks worth of work for Michelle.

I’ve also been able to help thousands of people improve their finances. My blog receives around 300,000 monthly visitors, and I also have thousands of subscribers and followers between my social media platforms and newsletter list.

Making Sense of Cents started as just a hobby and an outlet. I created my blog just so that I could talk about my personal finance journey. It was more like a diary for me and something to read for others in a situation similar to mine.

I soon realized how much I loved blogging and that it was for me. Now, I’m a full-time blogger! I went full-time in October of 2013 and I haven’t looked back once. Blogging has completely changed my life for the better, and I recommend that anyone who is interested learn to start a blog.

Not long after I left my day job, my husband left his. We sold our house in 2015, and we have been traveling full-time ever since.

It’s been really great, and you’re probably wondering how all of this happened and how it’s all possible.

So, here’s how I’ve built a million dollar blog and my tips so that you can do the same.

How long did it take to earn money from my blog?

It was 6 months of writing and publishing before I made my first blogging income. It happened when a blogger friend of mine connected me with an advertiser and I earned $100 from that advertisement deal.

In the summer of 2012, one year after I started my blog, I was earning $1,000 a month. By the following summer, I was earning $10,000 a month, just 2 years after starting.

All on the side of my full-time day job.

My income grew from there and in 2015, I ended up earning over $300,000 from my blog. For 2016, I ended up just shy of the $1,000,000 mark.

My site is monetized in a handful of different ways. These are the big ones.

Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing is my favorite way to earn an income through blogging.

Affiliate marketing is where you place an affiliate link on your website or a social media platform and attempt to make an income from followers purchasing the product through your link.

This can be a good way to make money because if there is a product that you love, all you have to do is review the product and hopefully others will be interested in buying it as well. I regularly earn over $50,000 a month through affiliate marketing.

Nick’s Notes: Affiliate marketing is my favorite blogging revenue stream as well. I don’t quite have Michelle’s numbers (yet!), but here’s an article that explains how I earned over $7000 in affiliate commissions from one blog post

Creating my own product 

It wasn’t until July of 2016 that I created my own product, Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing, a blogging course for those who want to improve their affiliate income.

I earn around $20,000 to $30,000 a month from the course and it’s a nice stream of income especially considering that I’ve already created and finished the course.

Advertisements and sponsorships

Advertisements and sponsorships are when you place an advertisement on your website and/or social media platform in exchange for money.

An advertisement or sponsorship might be in the form of a sponsored review, a picture on a social media website such as Instagram, an advertisement within a newsletter, and so on.

I earn around $15,000 a month through this blog monetization method and it doesn’t require much work from me. Companies find me and contact me about advertising and sponsorships.

Nick’s Notes: Dang maybe I should stop ignoring all those ad inquiry emails I get…

Display advertising

Display advertising is when you place an advertisement on your website in the sidebar, below a blog post, below your header image, or in some other location on your blog.

Then, for every so many views that the advertisement sees, you earn a certain amount of money. Common display advertising companies include Adsense, Media.net, and Adthrive (that’s who I use).

I don’t have many display ads on my blog, but I regularly earn around $2,000 a month from this.

Rules for building a loyal following

After reading all of that, you may be wondering what I’ve focused on most in order to create a successful blogging business.

Well, one of the main things that has helped me earn a living blogging is that I’ve always focused on having a loyal audience.

You don’t need millions of pageviews each month in order to make money blogging.

Nick’s Notes: But all things being equal, more traffic is better…

Every blog is different, but once you understand what your readers want, you can make money blogging regardless of how much traffic you receive.

It’s all about having a loyal audience and helping them.

You want followers that align with the message you are presenting, as those are the people you are likely to convert into buyers or leads, and those are the people who will come back to read your blog over and over again.

I’m a firm believer that having 1,000 loyal readers is better than 10,000 who don’t care.

With that being said, to make money blogging, it doesn’t hurt to improve your traffic. I’ll cover some of my best traffic generating strategies in a moment. 

Here are my tips for building and growing a loyal audience.

Always publish high-quality content

A blog should always have high-quality content. It’s absolutely necessary if you want your readers to come back for more.

After all, your blog content is what attracts your readers.

To put it bluntly – if your content sucks, no one is going to read it.

Instead, you need to give your readers tons of value so that they want to come back for more and more. Make it compelling, insightful, helpful, and share-worthy.

Nick’s Notes: What are you writing about that readers can’t find anywhere else? What’s the point of your site? And please don’t say inspiration.

Related: My “epic content” case study and income report.

For high-quality content, you’ll want to:

  • Talk about topics that you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy reading what you write, then others probably won’t enjoy reading what you have to write either. This is a good gauge to determine if you should publish a certain blog post or not.
  • Research the topic that you’re writing about. This may include reading other articles, attending conferences, looking up statistics, reading books, and so on. You should be knowledgeable in what you are talking about, and include statistics when needed.
  • See what your audience enjoys reading. You should look at your Google Analytics to see what topics bring the most visitors to your website. However, If you’re having trouble deciding what your readers want, just ask them! You could even create a survey, using something simple like SurveyMonkey.com, with questions to see exactly what your readers are interested in.

Nick’s Notes: I tend to use Google Forms for my surveys.

  • Proofread and edit your content. You should never just write content and publish it. You’ll want to reread and edit it. You should be checking for flow, grammar mistakes, and so on.

Nick’s Notes: You can use online tools like the Hemingway App or Grammarly. Occasionally I’ll have a virtual assistant from Fancy Hands proofread my posts as well.

My blog posts are usually at least 2,000 words and packed full of actionable tips and tons of details.

I always recommend that a blog post be at least 500 words, but more doesn’t hurt.

I believe this has greatly helped me because my readers know there’s no fluff when they come to my blog — they can actually learn things that will help them to improve their life.

Declare your site a “Fluff-free Zone!” via GIPHY

Grow your email list

One of my biggest blogging mistakes is that I waited years to finally start my email list.

I now have grown my list to over 30,000 subscribers in the past year or so, but it took some work to get me here and I’m sure waiting several years significantly held me back in terms of income, traffic, a loyal audience, and more.

There’s a lot of value in growing your own email list because unlike with social media websites such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, your email subscribers are yours, and you have 100% of their attention.

Plus, if someone is subscribing to your email list, there is a very high chance that they are a loyal subscriber of yours. Trust me: if someone is allowing you to show up in their email inbox whenever you want, they probably trust what you have to say and enjoy reading what you write.

Having an email list is a great way to grow an audience and to grow a loyal audience at that.

What’s more, your email list is one of the very BEST ways to make an income blogging too.

This is because your email subscribers signed up specifically to read about what you have to say, so you definitely have their attention. Your email list, over any other strategy, will almost always lead to more sales.

Nick’s Notes: I’ve found this to be true as well. It’s hard to get someone to take action straight from a blog post, but from their inbox it’s a different story.

You can grow your email list in different ways too. My two favorite ways are:

  • Have subscription boxes in ideal spots on your blog. This varies from blog to blog, but I have mine in my sidebar, in my footer, within blog posts, and popups (on desktop only). This is an extremely easy way to increase your email subscribers as you can just add the html code once and it will always be there collecting email addresses from your readers.

For instance, here’s a subscription box I have at the bottom of my posts:

I’m currently using ConvertKit to manage my email list.

Nick’s Notes: I’m still with AWeber.

  • Create free email courses or free printables. Having a free opt-in for your email list is a great way to attract your audience to sign up because they know that they are for sure getting something in return. Plus, who doesn’t love free?!

For example, one of my “lead magnets” is the 7-day series on how to start a blog, pictured above.

Improve your traffic

In many ways, blogging is a numbers game. The more people you can serve, the more you can earn.

Nick’s Notes: In that way, blogging is a more “scalable” business model than freelancing. It takes the same amount of time to write a post whether 10 people read it or 10,000 do.

Here are three specific ways to grow your blog’s traffic.

1. Learn as much as you can about Pinterest

Pinterest is one of the biggest social media platforms that exists, and it’s usually one of the biggest referral sources for blogs — no matter the niche.

And don’t think that Pinterest is only for the women. Over 35% of new Pinterest users are actually men!

Pinterest is one of my top traffic sources and I receive over 5,000 NEW readers checking out my blog from Pinterest each day.

Nick’s Notes: Note to self … stalk Michelle’s boards. Pinterest is also my top social media channel, and I see 500-1000 visits a day from the site. Not bad considering 15 months ago I knew next to nothing about Pinterest!

I learned my Pinterest strategy from the best — Rosemarie Groner, who you may remember from The Side Hustle Show where she broke down step-by-step how to generate massive traffic from Pinterest

If you don’t have time to listen right now, I highly recommend downloading the free PDF summary of that episode: Click here to download Rosemarie’s top blogging and Pinterest traffic tips.

Here are some Pinterest tips that I apply to my business:

  • Always create great images. This means you should pick out great images, add text to them if needed, and make them catchy. There are probably millions of pictures on Pinterest and you want to stand out amongst everyone else.

Nick’s Notes: I get most of my pictures from Pexels or Unsplash, and add text in PicMonkey. The drawback is many bloggers are also using these image sources so you start to see the same pictures showing up over and over again.

  • Make sure to include a description of your image so that it pulls when someone pins an image from your blog.

Nick’s Notes: For my more recent posts, I’ve started doing this with the Social Warfare plugin. This is what it looks like in my WordPress dashboard:

  • Create long images as your Pinterest image for a blog post. Horizontal images do not work well because of Pinterest’s layout — instead, they all need to be vertical. A good size is 1000 x 1500 but you could even try 1000 x 2000 too.
  • Install a Pinterest share button on your website. One example is the Pinterest Pin It on Image Hover plugin.
  • Use a Pinterest scheduler. Pinterest schedulers such as BoardBooster or Tailwind can save a blogger a ton of time. You can schedule your pins in advance instead of pinning all day throughout the day.

If you aren’t active on Pinterest yet but already have a blog, I recommend starting with your top 10 to 20 blog posts and making a Pinterest-friendly image for each of them. This is a great way to start with Pinterest because you already know that those blog posts are popular.

2. Guest post on other websites

I just recently started guest posting again, and it has helped me to improve my traffic and attract new readers. Plus, I enjoy writing so it was a great way to mix my daily tasks up and try something new.

Nick’s Notes: A guest post recommending guest posting … so meta :)

Guest posting is when you place a piece of content that you write, on another person’s blog. You can reach out to them via social media or email, and ask if they are accepting guest posts, as well as a few topic ideas that are related to their audience (like this very guest post!).

It’s easy, and a really great way to grow your readership.

Nick’s Notes: It’s not easy. It’s time-consuming and fraught with rejection, but still can be a great way to get the word out about your site. In a way it’s Marketing 101: go where your target readers already are.

My tip is to find blogs within your niche or something similar. It does not have to be a HUGE blog in order to be a good place to guest post. In fact, I’ve found that the huge blogs don’t really get the same amount of engagement as some smaller blogs — so I like to guest post on sites that have great engagement and are directly related to what I’m writing about.

For a successful guest blog post, you’ll want to give the website owner your best blog content. You should be studying what they currently have on their blog to see what works best for their audience, and then work as hard as you can in order to make it the best blog post ever.

Nick’s Notes: 3 out of the 4 most popular posts from last year on Side Hustle Nation were guest posts. Those included an epic guide to getting started in flipping cars, how one guy made over $21,000 on Mechanical Turk, and an intro to dividend growth investing.

Here are the steps to guest posting:

  1. Reach out to your favorite bloggers in your niche and see if they need any guest posters. Make sure your email is genuine and try to form a relationship with them first. In your email, you should mention anywhere that you’ve been mentioned, links to popular content of yours, possible blog topic ideas, and more.
  2. Write your heart out. Your guest blog post should be one of the best things that you have ever written in your life.
  3. Submit your guest post to the website owner and see if they have any changes.
  4. When your guest post goes live, make sure to respond to any and all comments. You need to engage with the readers of the blog that you guest posted on. This is important because it shows the blog owner that you care about the readers, and to the readers of the blog because it shows that you are interested in their feedback on your post.

3. Make your content easily shareable

I read a ton of blog posts every single day. One thing I notice quite often is that bloggers don’t make it very easy to share their content!

If you want to improve your blog’s traffic, you need to make your content easily shareable.

This means that you should have social media buttons easily found on your website that link to your specific social media accounts. For example, I have my social media buttons in the top right-hand corner of my blog for Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and so on.

By having these easily seen by my audience, they can follow me on any of my other social media accounts, which will eventually lead to them sharing my content and engaging with me on other platforms as well.

I also have social sharing icons in multiple places within my actual blog post too. I have them on the left-hand side of each blog post, and it scrolls with the readers as they read my blog posts.

These are powered by SumoMe.

Third, I have social sharing buttons at the end of every blog post for when a reader is done reading. This allows them to easily share the content when they reach the end of a blog post.

This one is the generated by the Shareaholic plugin.

Nick’s Notes: OK, I just added the Social Warfare buttons to the bottom of my posts too instead of just the top.

Lastly, the images in my blog post are also shareable on social media websites such as Pinterest and Facebook. Pinterest users usually look to pin the image directly, so this is a MUST-have location for a social sharing button.

Build trust with your audience

One of your main goals with your blog should be to always be working on improving the trust your readers have with you.

Making money blogging is not as easy as just slapping links and advertisements on your blog for anything and everything.

This is important because if your audience doesn’t trust what you have to say and write about, then they are very unlikely to read your blog any further or to be interested in any of your advertisements. It only takes one untrustworthy action for your followers to unsubscribe and not trust anything you have to say.

Here are my tips for building trust with your audience:

  • Only advertise products, services, and companies that you believe in.
  • Make sure the product you are promoting aligns with your blog’s message. For example: Talking about how you love gambling at casinos and taking private jets on your blog most likely doesn’t align if your blog’s message is about frugality and saving as much money as you can.
  • Engage with your followers. This will help your reputation because readers like to know that the brand is a real person who wants to talk to them and/or help them.
  • Be honest about a product or company that you are advertising or review. It’s even okay to list off a few negatives of the product if you are writing a review on your blog. Everything can’t always be a positive. If you never mention negatives, readers will either discount your opinion because you haven’t fully researched it, or they may even assume you are lying to make a quick buck.
  • Be personable when you write about a product or company. No one likes to be sold, instead they like to think that they made a good decision with their purchase. Due to this, you should always be authentic as it can help connect you to your readers. You want your readers to feel like they know you — like you are great friends!
  • Lastly, always disclose if something is paid by the company. This means whether it is a monetary payment or a payment in product.

Well, there you have it. That’s exactly how I built a $1,000,000 blog by growing a loyal audience.

When I started blogging five years ago, I never would have thought I would be where I’m at now, and I’m so glad that I gave blogging a shot.

Blogging has completely changed my life and I couldn’t be happier.

Your Turn

Nick here again. I can say that blogging has changed my life too. What started as a creative outlet has now morphed into my main daily focus, a growing business, and a thriving community of awesome side hustlers.

What do you think? Think you can apply some of Michelle’s suggestions to take your blog to the next level?

Let me know in the comments below. I know I’ve got some homework to do after reading this post!

If you haven’t started a blog yet, my free video course will show you step-by-step how to get your site online quickly and for less than you might think.

Be sure to check out her site at MakingSenseofCents.com.

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20 thoughts on “How I Built a Million Dollar Blog (by Growing a Loyal Audience)

  1. Michelle,
    Great to see you here too! Cam is so right. You fill us with inspiration. As a newbie blogger, I didn’t have money to invest, but I just got into your making sense of affiliate marketing program and I really encourage everyone serious about making money online to grab this one. Best investment since there’s Rosemarie’s premium pinterest strategy guide that comes free with it. This is killer awesome.

  2. This was a great article and you motivated me to start my own blog early this year! Your candor and desire to help others start in this business inspires so many people. It does not feel like you are trying to sell us anything either, which I truly appreciate. Keep doing what you are doing. You are my inspiration! Thanks!

  3. The part about pinterest has sparked my interest (no pun intended) lol

    One of my blogging mentors said that if you want traffic without SEO, then pinterest is the way to go

  4. This is so encouraging. As a new blogger I’m already learning how discouraging it can be to put so much into each post and wonder if it’s having an impact. To hear that you went 6 months without earning a dime is very helpful! Obviously you were doing an awful lot during that 6 months to get to that point :)

  5. I was listening to a conference call and heard something that made me think about blogging. I then wondered about profitability from blogging. The term, “million dollar blogs”, came to mind. I entered it on Google and WOW . . .

    QUESTION: How frequently do you post you blogs?

    Thank you for sharing. Your passion is felt. You have my attention.

  6. I am a professional freelance web developer. Starting to make it in blogging. I had huge set of questions as a beginner and this article answered plenty of those.
    I am really grateful for such a wonderful resource. Thanks Michelle for writing it and thank you Nick for sharing it :)

  7. That’s was an inspiring read. I really need to get active on pinterest,I always thought it was people sharing infographics,which I am not really good at. But I can definitely follow michelle guidelines for more pinterest traffic. This was an awesome read.

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