I started The Abroad Guide back in 2013, and even though I’ve had a full- time job for the majority of the 2.5 years it’s been running, I’ve grown it into a site that sees, on average, 50,000 visitors and 90,000 page views every month– and we’ve been seeing these kinds of numbers for over a year now. This isn’t a result of paid promotion, tons of guest posting, or publishing new content more than once per week– I’ve never had time for any of that! But I was still able to grow a successful and profitable blog while working full-time, and here’s how I did it.
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I chose a niche
This is the first point I’m talking about because it’s the most important one, and it’s the first thing I tell bloggers to do when they tell me that they’re struggling with growth.
The Abroad Guide is NOT a travel blog, and I have never explained it to anyone in that way. It’s a website for American students who are at one point of the study abroad cycle. We’ve now branched out to include content about working abroad and traveling after graduating, but that was only once we had established ourselves as the site that every study abroad student should visit before and while studying abroad.
When I need a recipe for a sugary baked treat that this terrible baker can handle, I go to Sally’s Baking Addiction, because that’s what I know I’ll find, and it’s where I send my friends who need baking recipes too.
I go to Travel Fashion Girl if I need some help with packing for a specific destination, because Alex has packing lists and recommendations up the wazoo, so I know I’ll find what I need there.
That’s the ultimate goal– be the site they go to for your niche, the one they think of first — the go-to site for beauty tips for fair skin, for decorating tips for teeny studio flats, for help coping with a specific ailment. Make that happen and you’ll see major returns– not to mention, brands will be knocking down your door to work with you.
By choosing a very specific niche, you’ll also be much more likely to see more growth with less effort. I chose to start a blog for study abroad students because I knew that I wouldn’t have much competition– there weren’t, and still aren’t, that many sites out there writing similar content to ours, and any that were, weren’t doing it terribly well. My site and its content therefore wouldn’t be a small fish in a big pond. If I had chosen to create a general travel site, or even narrowed it down to, say, budget travel, the competition would have been too fierce for me to see the kind of growth I did, and the return on my time would have been terribly disappointing.
I implemented a solid SEO strategy
From the beginning, I created The Abroad Guide’s content for the sole purpose of bringing in traffic from search engines. It was the lifeblood of the site and still is. If you think that you can start to grow a successful blog based on social media sharing alone, you’re very mistaken.
Because I had chosen a specific niche from the beginning, I knew exactly who my ideal reader was– students who were at a point of the study abroad life cycle, whether it the initial planning phase, the prep phase, the phase when they’re abroad, or the reverse culture shock phase. I thought about the questions, problems and concerns that students have during each phase, and initially I created content around that, as I knew that they’d be using Google to find answers, and I wanted The Abroad Guide to be the one to give it to them, sitting right at the top of Google’s page 1.
SEO takes time to kick in if you’ve done it right, but within a few months the fruits of my SEO labours really started to kick in. There was a time when 75% of our traffic was from search engines (we had about 20,000 total visitors/month at the time) but its now around 50% (23,000 visits) since we’ve had a major increase in Pinterest traffic.
Once we had some traffic heading to the site, I analysed my analytics in order to keep fuelling my SEO strategy, but we’ll get into that in a bit…
I created super- useful content for my ideal reader
It’s not enough to think of posts that your ideal reader would want to read, your content needs to be incredibly useful too. Tell them EVERYTHING they’ll want to know– include links, addresses, expert tips, screenshots, video tutorials… everything! We end up rejecting the majority of the guest post submissions because we get so many that are around 500 words, don’t include links to helpful sites, and just regurgitate advice and tips that are honestly just really basic and obvious, and can be found on any site.
Content like that doesn’t keep people on your site or prove your expertise. When someone stumbles on your blog post, you want them to think “hey, this chick really knows her stuff about blah blah, let me see what other useful stuff she can tell me…” When you can get this to happen, they’re much more likely to follow you on social media, subscribe to your newsletter, and eventually, purchase one of your products.
I (eventually) called for contributors
The first 20 or so posts on The Abroad Guide were written by me. I took the first few months of content creation to establish our tone of voice, and to make sure we had some solid evergreen pieces (longer posts that will be relevant to my readership for years to come) before we accepted pieces from anyone else. Then, so I could start to focus more on revenue generating partnership opportunities and affiliate marketing, I opened up applications for contributors.
I won’t say it’s a walk in the park to work with unpaid contributors, but it freed up a bit of my time and also enabled us to start to publish content about topics and destinations I wasn’t familiar with myself.
I focused on quality over quantity
I worked hard on each post, and for the most part we’ve only published a new post once a week. Attempts at twice a week have been made but I’d rather focus on creating one killer blog post than two rushed ones. I’ve been known to miss a week or two here or there as well, but haven’t seen a problem with that ever. Note to yourself– it’s ok to take a week off once in a while!
I shifted our social strategy over time
Twitter was awesome for us in the beginning — our target readership was on there, it was easy to find and interact with them, and those interactions turned into followers and traffic pretty quickly. But a year ago, when I saw that Pinterest was driving a ton of traffic to our site with little effort on our end, I knew I needed to shift my social media strategy.
We still use Twitter but since the return on my time spent on optimising for Pinterest is a lot more than on Twitter, Pinterest is top priority, and therefore I spend less time on Twitter and more on creating great Pinterest-optimised graphics, writing good pin descriptions, etc.
Learning to adapt is really important. As you grow, your community’s tastes might shift and you have to only devote your time to the channels that are working hard for you.
I used analytics to tell me what to do (or not to do) next
I hate numbers but analytics can be SO FUN. Once we started to see around 1,000 page views in one month, I consistently watched our analytics to see which posts were popular on social media, which were bringing in lots of search traffic, and what things I was doing that were actually just a waste of my time. I took those analytics on board and applied them to my content calendar and promotion efforts.
Blogging with a full-time job means you only have time to do what’s working and to drop what’s not– so do that! Even if you enjoy creating a certain type of post, if no one reads or engages with it, then it’s time to ditch it and try something else.
I managed my time incredibly well
Working full- time and growing a blog is not an easy feat (actually I was running another blog too–who was I back then!?) but I’ve always been great at time management, and when I comes to blog stuff, I have Asana to thank for that.
Asana is a project management tool that I can input all blog tasks into. I use it for my content calendar (each blog post has sub tasks to complete, like finding images and scheduling drafts in WordPress), my social media tasks, checking in on my writers’ progress on their latest post, and to schedule in recurring work to be done (like my monthly newsletter).
Each task and subtask can have its own due date, so in the evenings when I had “blog time” I always knew exactly what needed to be done that evening, and could jump right in without having to take the time to figure out what tasks needed completing. It also helps prevent me from wasting time doing tasks that aren’t a priority.
I hired people to help me
When things got crazy, I didn’t mind paying people I could trust to help me. I had a friend who helped manage our contributors, I started paying my best writer so she’d keep writing great stuff and I never had to worry about having content ready to publish, and I started to pay our social media intern so that I could delegate all social media tasks to her and not have to worry about it.
Don’t be afraid to hire help so you can focus on long- term growth tactics and revenue opportunities– if it’s done correctly, you’ll see a return on your investment.
SO… that’s how I grew my blog into a successful and profitable one while also having a full-time job. You CAN do it too if you follow the advice I’ve given above, without going completely MAD and still having time for yourself.