I‘m always telling people who want to start a blog or other project to just start. Do the necessary research and learn what you can, but don’t get stuck on perfection before you’ve even begun. Your hits and misses will guide you.
It’s not a novel idea. Startup founders are always saying the same thing: Start now and fail fast. Get a minimum viable product. Bootstrap, or go lean.
You’re better off not having it all figured out when you start. It’ll be a lot harder to pivot from a bad idea that you perfectly planned.
You don’t need the timing to be perfect, or the plan to be flawless. You just need now. And soon enough, you’ll get there.
I try to take the pressure off myself by remembering that life moves in real time. I think about how I focus my energy on a day-to-day basis.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to get spiritual or waste your time with platitudes. I’m going to tell you a specific story that proves this advice out.
I’m going to tell you what happened the first time I dipped my toes in affiliate marketing. You’ll see the mistakes and solutions that led me from a mildly interesting niche to a profitable one on my second try.
(You might also want to read my step-by-step exercises to find your best niche topic here.)
It was all about following clues in order to optimize my time and efforts.
How It All Began: Niche Site #1
For some backstory, I’d been in online business for myself for years selling digital art assets. I also knew the basics of using WordPress, since I’d been writing personal blogs until about 2008.
But I had NO idea how to make money with blogs and niche sites yet.
Repeatedly, I found stories about people who were making a killing with affiliate marketing. I was curious, but every time I thought about it I brushed it aside with doubts that I was ready or understood it enough to start.
Then one day I finally decided to throw caution to the wind and just try.
What does that mean? It means I was in the same place all beginners are in at this point. I was on alert looking for a good niche.
In the 2000s, I was spending time on improving my cooking and trying new recipes. I regularly picked up magazines with healthy recipes at the grocery check out aisle. One day when flipping through one, I saw what was basically the print version of a listicle. It was all about a healthy ingredient and its benefits.
I wasn’t as intrigued by the ingredient so much as I was by how appealing the article made it seem. For whatever reason, it was just fun to read. If this article was so catchy yet so simple, could I write about it too?
I decided it was worth a try, and that’s how I stumbled onto my first ever affiliate niche topic.
But, alas, you saw the title. You already know it wasn’t a big winner.
Not financially, anyway. Traffic-wise, it was actually kind of popular.
The site got a huge audience, including tens of thousands of Facebook followers (and back when Facebook didn’t paywall your access to your audience).
It also made a small amount of money, which was important because it proved to me that affiliate marketing works. With Amazon Associates and Adsense, it grew to earn about $150-200/month. With other affiliate programs added on, I got it up a little more, maybe to $500-$700.
All of this was really good, but it just wasn’t scaling as much as a better niche could.
What was happening? People apparently found the topic just as appealing as I did in the magazine. They followed social accounts. Articles did well. People shared them on social media.
But what was the problem? It was food. Or rather, the narrowness and lack of profit in writing about a food.
Trends be damned, one food item is just not a high-ticket item for an affiliate to work with. Nor was it broad enough that I could make the site a recipe site or healthy cooking brand. That would have been one good way to go.
My only options now would have been to start manufacturing that ingredient myself and selling it, or to sell the site to a brand that does. I could also go through to hassle to rebrand it.
But luckily, a simple but smart content strategy allowed me to find something more worth my time.
How That Led Me to Niche Site #2:
Just as good content strategy should do, I took advantage of long-tail keywords on the cooking site. That meant I was able to make posts for a lot of separate issues — and I could see exactly which ones were popular.
You see, I had several categories for this site, things like Recipes, Nutrition, and Health. Health was a lot more general, about cooking for different specific health goals.
The Health articles were catching search engine traffic for a lot of concerns unrelated to my topic.
One article in particular was getting the most activity of them all. It was a specific fitness topic and angle that ended up ranking first for its keywords in Google’s result pages.
This post was also generating sales of some affiliate products at a steady rate.
Just like that, I had a validated niche idea on my hands. There was a hungry audience ready for anything they could find — and ready to spend money, too. The article proved this particular fitness topic was popular, that I could rank for it, and that it could convert into sales.
I started my second niche site shortly after the cooking one. It grew quickly, and went on to make as much as $6,000 per month.
How I Made the Second Niche Profitable:
The new site was off to a great start, but it wasn’t automatically hitting those numbers. It did, however, respond to any growth strategies with a better payoff.
An idea that helped me was the Pareto Principle as described in the Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. It’s the idea that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. If you focus more time into that 20% of activities that pay off, Ferris wrote, you can earn more in less time.
Since the site was showing a better payoff already, I decided to apply the Pareto Principle. I stopped writing on other topics for a while and focused on the new site. I still kept my other projects active for the sake of not relying on only one income, but they weren’t my priority.
I first focused on building out long-tail keyword articles so the site would rank quickly, and it did. Next, I focused on the types of content on the site that converted to sales well, and the site rapidly took off.
The site took off in such a big way that eventually, my affiliate earnings alone paid me passive income. Passive income can be a controversial term, but I could spend months at a time doing nothing if I wanted to, and still get paid. I’d earned passive income before with digital art, but I appreciated how blogging was scaling so much faster.
If you’re wondering, the site was monetized with Amazon Associates, programs on Commission Junction, and some independent, third-party affiliates.
I went on to make new sites in other niches, applying the same techniques.
Here’s what I learned:
I did some things right, and others thing I could have done better.
- Pick something you actually like writing about. It doesn’t have to be something you’ve always been passionate about. A brand new interest can also hold your attention and be interesting to others. Pay attention to those little sparks of curiosity.
- A good long-tail keyword strategy can bring amazing results with highly qualified traffic. After doing this for a while you can start ranking for competitive, short-tail keywords as well. My second niche site’s traffic was all organic, and worked out even though I didn’t bother to use e-mail lists for that site.
- Even if you have a niche that people love, take some time to think about monetization. Specifically, what will happen when people arrive on your page, and what will they do next? Find related products and either make your own, or use affiliate programs, and think about the entire user journey.
- A lot of personal time will be sacrificed on any new business in the early stages, and that includes your website or blog. Make sure you have the interest needed to persevere.
- Pick a topic people will come back to. This can be something that helps people improve their lives or something with a community. Care about your readers and find ways to really help them.
- Write your content yourself at first, even if you’ll bring on writers later. You’ll learn about your niche and get a realistic idea of how much work it takes to create quality posts.
- Even though you should niche down, you’ll also need wiggle room to broaden your topic if needed. What if your site’s working okay, but it can grow into an authority site? My first niche site was too specific, and so was the domain name.
Read my article about how to finally decide on a niche topic.
What’s Changed: Building Authority
Blogging has changed a lot over the years. Since I first started, some rules have remained and others have changed.
Branding, web presence, and authority are crucial now.
And ever since Google’s Medic update, certain niches are harder to rank for. Sites in health or finance need to prove their authority with signals like credentials, online presence, and other social proof. You might need experts like nutritionists or financial advisors to review and put their names on your site.
Don’t worry: credentials is not necessary in all niches. Point of view is also valid. Readers like someone they can relate to and ride along with. And much of your traffic can arrive from social media.
To succeed in general means taking a long view for your business. Even though you don’t have your plan down perfectly, you should consider if you’ll be happy to work on it in five years? Are there ways to expand you shouldn’t rule out now? You don’t need all the answers. You just need to see those possibilities.
Even though I’m glad the fitness niche site worked out so well, if I would do it again today, I would still change a few things. I had an interest in writing about the topic then that really helped me. But it wasn’t a longterm interest or something I really wanted to ride my whole career on.
So today, my message is to find something that you would be happy to develop into something more than just a blog or site. When it comes down to it you won’t have to, but it’s good to know it’s an option.
About That First Site Today
Years later, something funny happened with my original niche site.
Someone contacted me through the site’s Facebook page asking for a link to his site. He was writing about the same thing I’d built this big site around. I could tell by his site and posts that he was brand new to affiliate marketing, trying to figure it out as I had been years before.
I gave him some friendly but real talk and let him know the niche had barely any margins, even at the following size my site had. He asked what I suggested and I told him pretty much what I’m telling you now. Don’t be afraid to go more broad, niche down without pigeon-holing yourself, and let the clues guide you along the way.
It’s embarrassing now — but that’s the story of what finally got me to start in affiliate marketing and find out how to make it work.
If you’re ready to start a blog, check out my guide to get started on WordPress.