I’ve dabbled in the past with writing posts about blogging here, but it always felt a bit too meta for my tastes. I know the vast majority of you don’t come here to learn about the ins-and-outs of running a blogging business, so I decided long ago to (mostly) do away with that blogger-to-blogger talk.
That being said, I do know there are quite a few of you out there who are trying to grow a blogging business (or honestly, are just curious) and could really benefit from getting a behind-the-scenes view at what happens here at Back to Her Roots, LLC. So welcome to my first ever annual report! I am incredibly proud of the business I have grown—and how I have grown it—so it’s always amazing to look back and see how far my little blog baby has come in a short time. I am living proof that you can make a livable wage doing something you LOVE to do. I am living the dream, kids!
I am so excited to do some horn tooting today (and if you aren’t in the mood for navel-gazing, you can come back tomorrow when I’m sharing a whole bunch of salad in a jar recipes from all over the internet). Before I dig in though, I want to point out that the inspiration from the end-of-year business update came from my dear friends Lee at Fit Foodie Finds and Davida at The Healthy Maven. Those ladies are two of my business heroes—they also happen to be incredibly sweet, creative, and gracious. They started a whole separate website—The Blogger Project—to help other bloggers get their businesses of the ground. They are amazing.
Alright, let’s dig into what’s the haps over here on BTHR. Let’s kick things off with a fun little infographic about 2015.
Blog Traffic Growth
Alright, let’s get into the stuff that most people are curious about—the numbers. Overall in 2015, I had 7.4 million pageviews on my blog from over 4.3 million visitors (honestly, hearing those numbers makes me both thrilled and terrified—so many people reading all my typos).
I averaged 607,000 pageviews per month, with January 2015 being my highest month at 732,000 pageviews and my lowest being June at 492,080 pageviews. Compared to 2014, I have increased my total pageviews for 2015 by over double (3.3 million to 7.4 million).
My growth over the course of 2015 wasn’t anything to write home about—I have hit a steady pageview plateau. I know there are many sites out there that are larger than mine, but I sometimes feel like I’ve topped out what I can do here. Like maybe I’ve reached as many eyeballs as possible with what I’m doing? And honestly, I’m kinda okay with it. Growing my blog traffic is definitely not my main goal right now (more on that in a bit).
How I Grew Traffic in 2015
I didn’t focus a ton on specific traffic growth in 2015, but there were a few steps I took this year to help make sure I kept seeing the kind of numbers I wanted:
Focus on SEO: I had no clue what SEO (Search Engine Optimization) even meant before 2015. I researched. I asked experts. I started actually using an SEO optimizing plugin (Yoast). And I started working hard to make sure all my new content was in tip-top shape for search engines, and I had one of my team members (more on that in a sec) start working on my older content to overhaul it for SEO. It wasn’t a monumental jump, but I saw a 60% increase in my Google search results. That translated into an extra 350,000 pageviews over the course of the year.
Implemented a Social Media Strategy: 2015 was the year of social media overhaul for me. I was using the BTHR social media accounts as my personal accounts—which was fine when my blog was just a hobby, but didn’t work for a branded website. I stopped complaining about that random driver who cut me off on the Back to Her Roots Twitter account, and transitioned it, and all my other social media accounts over to a branded experience. I hired professionals to create and implement a strategy (to varying levels) on all my social media platforms.
I’m still actively Tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking, etc. but I’m doing it with the support of a strategy and a team—not just following my whims. I saw a whopping 190% increase in my traffic referrals from social media in 2015. The vast majority of that was an increase in Pinterest. I hired a Pinterest management team (hi, Kate and Leslie!) and they have blown me away with the results I’ve seen on Pinterest. Two of my pins even ended up in the Pinterest 100 for 2016—which is amazing (and means that Pinterest thinks the content I’m doing is fresh, relevant, and trend-setting)! I never loved doing the social media promoting my own work, so it has been AMAZING to hand it off to someone who does it professionally and with strategy and experience to back it up.
Improved Photography: I worked very hard to improve my photography skills in 2015 (I hope it shows!). I invested in new equipment. I set up a specific photography studio area in my house. I took courses and read books on how to improve. I worked. Worked. WORKED on my photo skills. I still have a long way to go, but I think the improvement helped my traffic increase. It’s hard to see how this directly translates into more traffic, but one way I can see the benefit of this work was the frequency with which I was featured on other media outlets such as Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. My clicks from BuzzFeed alone increased nearly 200%—and nearly all of those clicks are on posts of mine that feature newer, better-quality photos.
My goal when I decided to turn my hobby blog into a business in 2014 was to just make enough money to make it worth my time I put into it. Basically, I wanted it to be a part-time job that would supplement my freelance work as a graphic designer. Fast forward to 2015 (almost 2016), and I am no longer doing graphic design work, and my blog (and the related work) earn me enough each month the pay my bills and support my husband while he stays home with our daughter and goes back to school. I never (ever.) could have even dreamed this was possible. On one hand, I feel very fortunate to be this blessed, but on the other hand, I know that calling it all fortune isn’t giving myself enough credit. I worked (and continue to work) very hard to make this dream a reality! I am so proud of this business.
Back when I first started trying to turn this blog into a business, I did monthly income reports with specific numbers. That was all well and good until I starting signing contracts with non-disclosure agreements. I decided it was important for me to continue growing my business without limitations, so I decided to stop those reports.
Knowing that, I hope you’ll understand why I can’t give you the specific dollars and cents of the money I made in 2015 (I also can’t even tell you the names of some of the companies I worked with—sounds silly, but it’s actually a real honor to have a company approach you and want you to do recipe development and food photography for them without your blog name attached to it). I would love to be completely transparent with you, but I legally cannot. However, I do think I can give you a general idea of where my income came from in 2015. Hopefully this is still helpful!
As you can see, I had five major sources of income in 2015. If you’ve spent more than five seconds on my blog, the breakdown probably doesn’t surprise you. Let me go into each one in detail:
Ads: Oh ads, we have such a love-hate relationship. I love the consistent, reliable income with little to no work on my part. I hate the ads themselves. I know many of you have had a less-than-ideal user experience on my blog this year, and part of that is due to the volume and types of ads, and for that, I am truly sorry.
You might not know this, but the catalyst for me turning my blog into a business was my husband getting laid off from his job back in the summer of 2014. We had a new baby and no job between the two of us. The quickest way I could think to bring in more money to pay our bills was to increase the number of ads on my blog. And it worked. It was an excellent way to save us from a pretty dire financial situation. And seeing that increase in income was really what made me think, “Hey, I could maybe make this my job.”
I promised myself that as soon as we were “in the clear” financially I would dramatically reduce the number of ads on my blog, but it hasn’t been that easy. “In the clear” just doesn’t exist when you are a single income family running an internet business. I’ve had to adjust my expectations for how to go about reducing the number of ads I run. It’s been a slow transition, but every few months, I work with my ad managers (AdThrive, love them!) to analyze and strategically reduce the number of ads that are delivered on each post. In 2015, I reduced my number of ads by almost half (many of them being dropped in the last few weeks). Eventually, I’d love to run an ad-free blog and instead generate income directly from sponsored content and product sales, but that’s a slow transition. It’s hard to turn your back on over half of your income.
Sponsored Content: I pushed way out of my comfort zone in 2015 and started charging a premium to get on my blog in a sponsored capacity. Much to my surprise, I actually was offered more opportunities with better brands when I started asking a premium rate. My number one piece of advice to other bloggers: don’t you dare undervalue yourself. Shoot for the moon, and, even if you miss, you’ll still land among the stars.
I am incredibly proud of the work I’ve done with sponsors this year. I pour my heart and soul into posts I do for brands, and I truly believe in everything I post about. It is wonderful developing a working relationship with these companies, and I am so excited to continue in 2016!
Affiliate: I have a number of affiliate programs I participate in, but my main squeeze is Amazon Affiliates. I think it works so well for me because Amazon is a service I use, literally, almost everyday. Even if I’m not ordering from them (which I do multiple times per week because I live in the middle of nowhere), I use their website to research products, read reviews, and check prices. I believe in Amazon, so I feel wonderful about recommending products through them.
In 2015, I sold $96,647.80 worth of products through my Amazon Affiliates account. Now, I only get a tiny percentage of that (and never at any extra cost to the customer), but still, that’s a huge amount of money flowing through my blog!
Freelance (Writing, Recipe Development, Photography): My freelance work in 2015 did a major shift—instead of doing mostly graphic design work for other bloggers or brands, I abandoned almost all of my design work and started doing more writing, recipe development, and food photography. This outside work is a ton of fun for me! I love doing it and hope to do lots and lots more in 2016.
Product: I launched my first ever product this past year—the 2015 Wellness Calendar. It sold better than I ever could have even imagined! After a lot of soul-searching, I decided to not publish a Wellness Calendar in 2016. It just isn’t where my passion is. But, I did love creating and selling my own work, and I hope going forward to transition a large chunk of my income to it!
Big Changes in 2015
Now that we’ve gotten the numbers out-of-the-way, I thought I might report on some of the big changes my business saw in 2015. BTHR, LLC is a whole different beast from who she was last January.
I’m no longer a solo act!
Probably the biggest change this year was that Back to Her Roots expanded from just being me, myself, and I (and maybe my husband occasionally), to being a team effort. It was a big hurdle for me to relinquish parts of my business to others, but it wasn’t a sustainable model for me to continue working at the pace I was working at. I was on the fast track to blogger burnout, and I love this gig too much to hate it.
Back to Her Roots is still ran 90% by me. Sitting in my yoga pants. At my desk (or in the kitchen). In my little country house in the middle of nowhere Indiana. This blog is still me. But, I did some analyzing of the tasks that I do on a daily basis and decided to hire out the work that I was either not good or efficient at or didn’t enjoy.
I hired a wonderful assistant, Julie (hi, friend!) who is pretty much a total rockstar. She’s the person behind most of the tweets and Facebook posts from the Back to Her Roots accounts. She also does all kinds of other promotions on each of my posts (StumbleUpon, Yummly, Foodgawker, etc.). She also goes in and updates my older posts to fix typos, optimizes them for search engines, and adds affiliate links for me. She also does a wonderful job of connecting with other bloggers to get my posts out there in round-ups. Julie is my rock. She’s amazing. I honestly don’t know how I did this before her (actually, that’s a lie, I do know—I rarely slept and didn’t do any of it well).
As I mentioned above, I also hired a Pinterest management team. I loathe dealing with Pinterest—it just ain’t my bag—but Pinterest is the #1 traffic source for the vast majority of bloggers, and I’m no exception. It is irresponsible to ignore it. So I hired a team that created a strategy and does 99% of my pinning for me. They have done an amazing job of embodying my voice and brand, and there are lots of times when I log into Pinterest and see my account and think, “all this stuff is SO cool!” It’s stuff I would have pinned if I was pinning—if that makes any sense?
Overall, one of my biggest things in 2015 was to give myself a break on social media. I felt like I had to be doing it all the time and doing it well. It just wasn’t possible! There are too many social media outlets that require too much time. I analyzed them all and decided which ones I felt like were most important to my brand, and then I hired professionals to take care of them. The one social media account that is still 100% me? Instagram. Posting and interacting on Instagram brings me a ton of joy, so I kept that under my wheelhouse. It makes me happy. Everything else, I let go of—and deleted the apps of my phone. I’m a much better person because of it.
The most recent development is that I have hired on a writer! You might be thinking, “Um, hello, it’s a blog, shouldn’t you be doing the writing?” And I am! Don’t worry, I am! I’ve hired a friend (hi, Liz!) to do a very specific type of posts for me—round-up posts.
You know those 28 Slow Cooker Recipe posts? Well, I love having those on my blog, because they are a great resource for readers and it’s a fun way to give back some link love to my blogger friends, but honestly, they are a pain to put together. I don’t have fun doing them, so I hired someone who enjoys doing them and does a great job!
As much as I struggle with the blank page sometimes, I mostly really enjoy the writing part of this blog, so I have no plans on farming out the rest of the writing here. Plus, I’m sure you all would miss my pervasive typos, awkward sentence construction, and tweenspeak!
Defined the Back to Her Roots Brand
I am fortunate enough to have a marketing background, so I knew that I was in dire need of some branding guidelines to mold and shape my blog moving forward. So in the later half of 2015, I worked hard to actually define my brand, set up some documentation on it, and implement it.
When you transition a blog from a hobby to a full on brand, it can be hard—because the truth is the blogger is the brand. As uncomfortable as it makes me feel to say this out loud, what makes this blog different from other websites is ME. And it can feel really awkward to try to define yourself and your personality in a document. But coming from someone on the other side of the branding work? I can tell you, it has made my blog so much better.
There are two words that define the Back to Her Roots brand, and every single decision I make regarding my business is defined by these two words: aspirational and approachable.
I understand that my hobby farming, über crafting, food photographing, chicken wrangling lifestyle isn’t the norm. I understand it isn’t relatable to most folks. My goal isn’t to make you feel like you need to move to country and buy a 10 acre plot of land and put a chicken coop on it (although, if that’s your plan, cool!). My goal is to make you aspire to return to your roots in a whatever way is approachable for your current lifestyle. Homemade made simple.
Part of my branding work was to create a list of brand keywords that I think define my business. It was an incredibly rewarding exercise, and I think it really gives a great idea of the positioning of BTHR. Here are the ones I landed on:
- Perfectly imperfect
Content Strategy Change
You may or may not have noticed, but over 2015, BTHR has transitioned from being a mishmash of fitness posts, healthy living articles, gardening posts, healthy recipes, and whatever the heck I felt like talking about to a very focused collection of curated content. That’s because I defined a content strategy! I have four pillars of content on this here blog of mine.
Each post I do fits into one of those categories (well, except this one, ironically). It’s not a coincidence that those pillars also match the four things I love to write about. About 6-8 weeks in advance, I plan my editorial calendar. I decide the number of posts for the month, and the mix (six posts are recipes, two are sewing, etc.) and then I fill in the “slots” to make sure I have a great mix.
The “Lifestyle” category is of particular interest recently, because after Juni was born, I went all Mama Bear on this here website of mine and pretty much stripped all the content of any mention of our life. I desperately needed to protect her (as all parents do). Only in the past few months have I begun to realize that (a) it is possible to talk about my life without neglecting Juniper’s right to privacy (b) a personal blog devoid of personality is flippin’ boring! So I’m slowly starting to bring some just “me” posts back into the mix—10% worth.
I believe that by the end of 2016, if you are a food blogger (or honestly, any kind of blogger) and aren’t doing video, you are going to be behind the times. Readers want video. Facebook wants you to post video. YouTube is the second most popular website IN THE WORLD (behind Google). As Bjork from Food Blogger Pro so eloquently put it in one of his podcast episodes, in the near future, a blog without video is going to feel the same way we feel about a blog without photos now. Video isn’t the way of the future. Video is a baseline requirement, in my opinion.
I am 100% new to video—shooting it, editing it, working with YouTube—so it’s been a steep learning curve for me. I published seven short-form videos to go along with recipes in 2015, and I am pretty proud of them. Well, actually, I think they are rough, rudimentary, and not very professional, but I am still proud that I did them. I put myself out there to learn a new skill. I applied it. And I’m improving! That’s what I’m proud of. I am still learning and educating myself on video, and I have some big goals in this arena in 2016!
Overall Business Organization
One of the biggest struggles that happens when you turn a hobby into a business (in any arena) is that you have to reverse engineer some of your “systems” to fit into a business model when you turn legit. 2015 was my year of getting all that boring (to me) and tedious stuff organized and under control.
Instead of using the highly sophisticated Google Drive spreadsheet bookkeeping method, I switched to FreshBooks for accounting and invoicing. Instead of writing posts all willy nilly based on my whims, I started using CoSchedule to plan out my editorial content weeks ahead of time. Even something as simple as setting up canned responses in Gmail to deal with some of the frequent emails I get from PR companies and advertising networks—my over-arching theme for the year was to get all my ducks in a row, and I feel great about everything I accomplished. Overall, I feel like a much more organized businessperson heading into 2016!
Goals for 2016
Now that I’ve bored you with all the stuff I did in 2015, let’s talk about moving forward! I have some big goals for 2016, and I want to share them (as well as my plans to get there) with the whole world so you guys can keep me nice and accountable.
For many bloggers, one of the top goals is to get more traffic. It always seems bloggers are trying to bring more people in the door. For me, next year, instead of bringing more people in the door (I am very happy with the number of folks I have visiting), my goal is engage, interact, and build a community with the ones who are here.
I have a big ole list of goals here, but this first goal is prime, primo, supreme, number one on the list. It’s going to be my main focus for the entire year—engagement is everything. Engagement is not only what makes this job so much fun (I love interacting with everyone!), but it is also the cornerstone of why brands want to work with bloggers. Our engaged, invested, and responsive readership is what makes investing in a blog a good business decision for a company. Honestly, I have a much lower engagement than many bloggers with my traffic numbers (hence, for example, why I only have 8,000 likes on Facebook, where other bloggers my size might have 50k), and I think it is negatively impacting my business (both from a dollars and cents standpoint and a fulfillment standpoint). There are a lot of reasons behind that, and my hope is to correct them in 2016.
There are a number of arenas I plan on focusing on to help boost engagement with the brand overall—Facebook, Instagram, that oft-neglected comment area at the bottom of posts. If I end 2016 with the same traffic numbers, but a much more engaged audience, I will be one happy country girl.
Producing and selling your own product is one of the best and most stable ways for an online publisher to earn an income. I don’t own my Facebook page. I don’t own my Twitter account. Heck, I don’t even own the rights to any of my traditionally published cookbooks.
But you know what I can own? An eBook that I write, design, and sell. I feel incredibly far behind on this arena of blogger income—especially when you consider my education and work experience—it’s easy for me to do the technical implementation of an eBook. The hardest part is just writing the thing! In 2016, my goal is to create, self-publish, and sell three eBooks (I even have the ideas already written down!).
In 2016, I really want to focus on getting the right equipment, studio set up, and skills to become a serious video producer. By the end of the year, I would like to be consistently posting four videos per month (and maybe even more). I want to improve the quality and production value of my videos, and maybe even venture into the world of on-camera, longer-form videos, too.
Like I mentioned above, I did a lot of backend work for the BTHR brand in 2015. In 2016, it’s time to do the front end work! This involves a lot of things, but the designer in me is most excited about launching a redesign! Back to Her Roots is going to look drastically different by the end of 2016.
I’ve been blogging for 5 1/2 years now, and for the first four years or so, I had no dang clue what I was doing. Which means there are a lot of really great recipes (and other posts) buried way back in my archives that never see the light of day because they have bad photos or bad SEO or broken links or a number of other things wrong with them. My last goal for 2016 is go back and rework some of my old content—one post per week.
I want to continue to produce high-quality new content, but I also want to refresh some of the good concept/bad execution content I have from years past. There is a whole lot of potential living right here on my website—I need to maximize it! I think one post per week should be doable.
The Final Word
Thank you so much for indulging my 4500 word (!) deep dive into the world of blogging for profit. I absolutely love this job, and I hope you guys can see that love coming through when I talk about the nerdy details of the blogging business. 2015 was a banner year for me and my business, and I really hope to be able to feel just as successful at the end of 2016!
As always, none of this would be possible without you. You reading and sharing and commenting and pinning and loving my work is what makes it possible for me to do this every day. I am so grateful for you (yes you!). You all have fulfilled my life in a way I didn’t know was even possible. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Onward to an awesome 2016!