Jon Morrow has loved to write ever since he was a kid. “I was always writing something,” he said when I asked him about how he got his start.
He even got a college degree in English literature, but degree in hand and fresh out of college, Jon couldn’t figure out how to make money writing.
So he got into real estate. He was making decent money there, but on the side, he was trying to find a way to make the writing dream work.
He began writing about real estate. During our talk he said, “Looking back, it’s one of those situations… it’s embarrassing how bad it was when I got started.”
But he kept at it. He transitioned into writing about personal finance, and then things started to click.
His early blogging success led to a job offer from Copyblogger, which he accepted. Describing his time at Copyblogger, Jon said, “Copyblogger is where I really learned the craft, that’s where I really, really learned what I was doing. Brian Clark taught me an immense amount about copywriting and about blogging and social media.”
From Copyblogger, Jon went on to work with Neil Patel as the Editor-in-Chief of the Kissmetrics blog. That was another good experience that taught him a lot.
But the time came when Jon knew he needed to take what he’d learned and strike out on his own. And that’s how SmartBlogger got its start.
Choosing a Topic You and Your Readers Will Love
SmartBlogger serves aspiring bloggers. I asked Jon if he chose that topic because it was of personal interest to him or if he selected it because he recognized an unmet demand.
His answer provides a lot of insight for any writer considering launching a blog.
“I did both. One of the things I talk about is what we call the zone of magic… which is, if you imagine two overlapping circles, one of those circles is what you have to give. The other overlapping circle is what people are interested in. So it’s the overlap between those two circles that you really find your sweet spot.”
Jon went on to describe how that affected his own choice in blogging topics.
“For me… people were obviously very interested in blogging. It’s a big topic. But in particular what I was good at was traffic. That was the thing that I was known for, and it was the thing where I felt like I had the most to give people… to teach them how to get traffic. So, that’s why I initially started with that angle and became known as the blog traffic guy. And then I eventually expanded out to being the blogging guy.”
It’s easy to look at Jon’s million-dollar blog and imagine he launched it without a hitch. But I asked him what struggles he encountered early on. His answer surprised me.
He said he didn’t have any struggles. “And here’s the reason why,” he explained. “And I think this is really important, especially for your students who are trying to figure out whether they want to blog for themselves or blog for someone else. The reason why I did not have any struggles with my early blog was because I’d been working for Copyblogger for three years.”
His time at Copyblogger helped him learn the craft, and he picked up a lot of very valuable connections while there.
So when he launched his own blog, his closest connections on Twitter alone amounted to two million total followers. It was the biggest blog launch in history at the time. Jon’s blog had 13,000 subscribers before he wrote the first post. That was a direct result of what he gained from his time at Copyblogger.
Don’t Be Afraid to Start Out Working for Someone Else
For new writers, Jon said, “I think this is one of the biggest mistakes that people make. Is it possible to start a successful blog from scratch? Yes, but when I did that early on in my career, that’s where I struggled.”
Jon gave examples: “There’s something to be said for working in the business that you want to be in, eventually, and I think that’s regardless of the business site you’re in. I mean for some reason people think it’s strange with internet stuff, but in the offline world it would be weird to start a restaurant if you’d never worked in a restaurant before.”
Then Jon expanded on this point, talking about how long it usually takes people to succeed at blogging. He said, “I think there’s real value to writing for other blogs and using that as a way to refine your craft and get good at what you’re doing, to build your connections, and to also do market research and get paid for it at the same time.”
Jon said, “Typically — and we’ve done a lot of research into this — it takes most people from the time they start a blog, to where they’re making a full-time income, it takes two to three years. That’s about the average amount of time. Now it’s not that there’s so much work to do that it requires two or three years. It’s that it takes that long to get good at what you’re doing and also to build your network. It’s those things, getting good and building a network, that takes the most time.”
You can cut down on your success curve by starting out doing blogging work for someone else, someone who can teach you about the craft. Jon underscored the value of this strategy, saying, “The great thing about writing for someone else first is not only are you doing those two things, but you’re getting paid at the same time. You can make a good income doing that, really get good, and then when you go to start your own blog, it’s almost like you’re an overnight success, but really you’ve been building everything you needed to do for a couple years.”
Jon had more to say about the value of networking and how much is possible to do online. For all the introverts reading this, take heart. Networking doesn’t have to been uncomfortable or draining. In fact, you can build a very successful network without meeting any of your connections face-to-face. Jon’s knows this is possible because he did it.
He explained, “Traveling is difficult for me. So the first seven years of my blogging career, I never met anyone in person. I worked with Brian Clark and Sonia Simone; I didn’t meet Brian Clark until… I’d known him for like 10 years. So you can do networking from your computer.”
Networking Strategies You Can Do From Home
In addition to working for a blog, Jon suggested other networking strategies. “Writing guest posts for other blogs is a great way of building your network. Doing interviews is a great way of building your network. Another way you can do it… is start your own podcast and interview other people, right? I didn’t follow this path, but it works very well. That’s a great way to build your network.”
He added, “You can do all of that from your computer. I mean, even just sharing other people’s stuff and when you see something that’s great, sending a short email to someone and saying, ‘You really knocked it out of the park on this post, and I just wanted to send some love your way.’ Those kinds of little things, they matter.”
Jon went on to tell a story about how this can work.
“A great example like that happened to me last year. It was Rachel Miller, who has blown up the Facebook space on growing an organic Facebook page; she’s the best I’ve ever seen by far… she has multiple one-million follower pages. Anyway, she wanted to get to know me, so what she did is on my birthday — we were friends on Facebook but we really didn’t know each other — so on my birthday, she was driving in the car, she has six kids and they were all in the back of the car, and she turned on her phone and she recorded all of her kids singing me happy birthday and just sent it to me. And it was so cute and adorable and personal. And of course I started paying more attention to her.”
Growing your audience is key to blogging success, and all the bloggers I interviewed agree that networking and building relationships plays a key role.
Search, Social, or Both?
But I asked Jon about organic traffic and how important it is. He gave a detailed answer.
“There are really two dominant ways that people get traffic, at least free traffic. First, search engines, and second, social media. Social media is very much dominated by Facebook these days. If you put all of the traffic on the web together, all of the referral traffic, 95% is Facebook and Google.”
So that’s where you need to put your focus. And Jon explained how to approach organic traffic when you’re first starting out.
“A big part of getting traffic is answering the question, where is my audience and how are they finding information? For example, in the blogging space, my space, people search for things like ‘how to start a blog’, or ‘how to make money blogging’. It’s very much Google-centric. On the other hand, they’re unlikely to talk about blogging on Facebook with their friends and family…
“Then there are topics like parenting that are very Facebook-centric because you’re less likely to Google something like, ‘What to do if your two year old has a meltdown in public?’ than you are to react to that kind of post on social media. If you see that post and you have a two year old and one of your friends is sharing it, you’ll very likely read it.
“That’s the first thing to figure out. And you can answer the question just by asking, is this something people would talk about with their friends and family? If it’s not, then you almost certainly need to focus on Google.”
One you know where your audience is, Jon said, “The second thing you need to realize is both of these — search and social — are two different sports that have some overlapping skillsets but not much. An approach that does well on social media may do terrible at online search. And a post that does really well on search, may do terribly on social media.”
Jon cautioned, “Don’t try to get good at both at the same time. Now eventually you can — I’m good at both — but there are probably less than a hundred people who are good at both in the world. It’s really rare and it takes years to get good at both of those things. So pick one or the other just focus on that first.”
Monetizing Your Blog: Three Successful Methods
Building and audience and getting traffic are great, but if you want to earn money from your blog, you have to take steps to monetize all that traffic and attention. I asked Jon if he would share his favorite ways of making money through his blog.
He said, “The majority of my income nowadays comes from courses and information products. And we make a million dollars a year from our products. It’s very successful.”
But then he clarified his answer. “If you’re a beginner though, I think they’re actually the worst monetization method. And that’s because creating a course, creating a profitable course is actually really, really hard. It’s a lot of work.”
Creating a course while you’re writing a blog at the same time is even harder. Jon’s recommendations for beginning bloggers? “Either affiliate marketing, which is where you recommend other products and services that you genuinely believe in and you get a commission for recommending those. That can be successful.
“The other thing that can be successful is selling some sort of service to people. Your writing services, for example. That’s actually the fastest way to make money with your blog. It’s also the easiest sale to make. Everyone is wrapped up in the idea of earning passive income from their blog. But the reason why I say people should still consider a service is because when you’re doing a service, you’re interacting with clients who are paying you a lot of money… and there’s actually no better form of market research than that.”
Next, I asked Jon if could talk a little bit about the non-writing skills that he sees bloggers needing to be successful. His response was, “In my experience most people who struggle are being way too creative. And they’re not doing enough research and really understanding what’s going on in their market. And let me make this point concrete. If you can’t tell me off the top of your head what the five most popular posts are in your market, in either search or social, you’re not ready to launch your blog.”
That may seem like some tough love, but it’s a really helpful point. Doing a lot of in-depth research both of your audience and your market will make a huge difference in how quickly you see success with your blog.
Jon talked about using what you learn to pick the topics you write about.
“So you could bring your own unique spin, your own unique advice, but you should only write about topics that have a proven track record in popularity. And if you don’t have a post that you can point to on the same topic, then you’re probably off track.”
A Better Way to Measure Success
The next non-writing skill Jon talked about has to do with your mindset and how you measure success. He said, “The other mindset would be focusing on building your skill and using that as your metric for success in the beginning.
“People use things like traffic or money or shares or search engine rankings as a metric for success. The chances are the first year you’re blogging, you’re not going to get any of those things. People think they’ll see incremental progress, that they’ll go from 10 visitors a day to 20 visitors a day to 30 visitors a day to 50 visitors a day. But after having worked with 30,000 bloggers we’ve actually seen that’s not true. What happens is you go from no visitors a day, to a thousand visitors a day, and it just boom, it just spikes.”
So what that means is you may spend a year at zero visitors a day, and then all of a sudden, you’ll hit a tipping point, and your blog traffic will just go through the roof. Jon said, “The reason, what that tipping point is, is your level of skill. It’s your skill at research. It’s your skill at writing posts that are both clear and interesting. Getting good at all of those things, should be your primary goal. And the way that you do that is by practicing. So instead of saying, ‘My goal is to get a thousand subscribers,’ or, ‘My goal is to get a thousand visitors a day…’ those are the wrong goals when you’re a new blogger. Your goal should be, ‘I’m going to write my first five list posts.’ Then, once you write your first five, you’re successful regardless of how much traffic they get.”
Jon shared his own experience using this approach.
“My metric (because I’m a little crazy and obsessive) when I was at Copyblogger was to write, as pure practice, 100 headlines a day. So in the first year at Copyblogger, I wrote 35,000 headlines because that’s 100 headlines a day. People wonder now, how am I so good at headlines? I wrote 35,000 in the first year!”
Jon explained, “Now most of those headlines were bad — that’s just part of the process — but I got better and better and better as I went along. And I think rather than setting these metrics like traffic or money, set a metric of output. Try to do as much work as you can and get as much practice as you can.”
I asked Jon, if he could go back in time and give himself advice as he was just getting started, what would he say. He answered, “I’d tell myself to study copywriting sooner. Copywriting and blogging actually have a lot to do with each other and I didn’t make that connection really until I started working for Copyblogger.”
And then as we were wrapping up our conversation, Jon added something very important. He said, “There’s one thing that I think is worth pointing out. There are three stages to building a popular blog, and we talked about two of those stages. There’s the skill building, initial phase of learning how to write good content and get traffic. And then there is also at the end phase, where you begin monetizing that traffic. But there’s actually a step in between those two that a lot of the people miss, and that’s building your email list.
“Building your email list is core. In general, a good rule of thumb — and this is only a rule of thumb, there are lots of exceptions — but a good rule of thumb is you can make one dollar per subscriber per month. So if you want to make $5,000 a month from your blog, you need about 5,000 email subscribers. That’s a really core step, building your list. If you skip it, nothing else works.”
So building relationships, honing your writing skill, and building your email list… that’s a recipe for blogging success according to one of the best-known bloggers in the world.
Editor’s Note: If you want to write your own blogging success story, AWAI now has a program to help you do that. It walks you through picking a topic, coming up with ideas, writing excellent blog entries, building your audience, and earning money from your efforts. You can find all the details here.
This article is part of the Blogging Stories series.
Series Table of Contents:
- A Serial Entrepreneur Shares His Story of Blogging Success
- A Blog – The Ultimate Writer’s Tool
- Blogging Your Way to a Life of Adventure
- Blogging and Business: Harnessing the Power of Attention
- How Jon Morrow Launched His Blog with 13,000 Subscribers – and Other Blogging Stories (This Article)
- Living a Beautiful Life – Blogging Success with Sal O’Neill
- Follow Your Passion – A Blogging Success Story with Carol Bryant
- Building the Life You Want – Holly Reisem Hanna’s Blogging Success Story
- From $700 a month to $3.5 million a year – Sarah Titus and Blogging Success