THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN COMPENSATED LINKS. PLEASE READ DISCLAIMER FOR MORE INFO.
Each month, we share the story of a member of the DNW community that is making money from blogging. These stories share the blogger’s journey and tips about exactly how they make money and get traffic to their blogs. I hope you find these interviews inspiring and helpful in your own journey. This month, we are featuring Anne Sutherland-Smith who is a Travel Blogger from Pretraveller.
I’m especially excited to share Anne’s story as I have known Anne online from the time when I first started trying to grow my blog. She has come a long way and it’s been really exciting watching her growth over the last year as she became laser focused on what really works for her blog.
It’s incredibly inspiring what she has been able to achieve while having a full-time career and parenting three children. She 100% proves that it’s not about the time you have available but how you use it, and I am so appreciative that she has been happy to share such detail with us all here.
1. Introduce yourself!
Hi, We are Anne and Tony Sutherland-Smith and we live in Sydney, Australia. We have three children aged 14, 13 and 10 years old, and we both work full time as busy professionals and have a very busy life as parents, along with running our blog part-time.
2. Describe your blog(s)
Our main travel blog is called Pretraveller.com. We have a destination focus to help people travelling to Japan, and are also developing other countries as focus destinations as well. We have followed Sharon’s methodology to write buying guides with a key focus to make affiliate sales.
Our audience is mainly people planning their own trips to Japan and our other destinations and wanting to DIY. We also have a dedicated Facebook Group called Japan Travel Planning and an email list which are both critical to our success, and we have replicated this model for our other focus destinations.
You should read our blog if you are planning a trip to Japan.
3. When did you start blogging and why did you start?
We have a travel blog called Pretraveller.com which Anne first started as a hobby 9 years ago.
The Early Years – Learning How to Blog (2010 – 2016)
I started the blog shortly after the birth of our third child as a personal outlet to have something of my own, and as a way of having something that did not have the frustrations of working in a large bureaucracy like my normal day job.
I experimented a lot in the first few years (and nearly gave it up a few times!). I had a lot to learn about running a WordPress site and the basics of blogging. I started using Typepad, then shifted to WordPress.com and then finally made the switch to self hosted WordPress.
Plus, it was really hard as I kept on reading advice on doing this and doing that to build a successful blog. I experimented a lot and found some things worked (a bit) and other things didn’t seem to work at all for me.
I trialled doing sponsored posts and earned a small amount of income, I also managed to get my first sponsored trip in this period and quickly realised that this business model was not going to work for me while I was still working full time and raising our family.
By the end of this period, I had grown my blog traffic to 20,000 PVs per month with a DA of 35. So a great example of how you can have a high DA and low traffic… I accidentally managed to do some good link building as a result of publishing an annual round up of top Australian and NZ bloggers, but it did not translate to more traffic or income.
I then started a part time Master of Business degree for a three year period from 2014 – 2016 and did not have time to progress the blog. I kept it going in the background so it would still be there when I finished my studying. During this period, my blog traffic declined to around 12,000 pageviews per month.
I first connected with Sharon Gourlay as I was starting my Masters and was one of her early readers and followers. I read everything that Sharon published about her journey to become a full time blogger. And I still read everything that Sharon publishes as well as watching her live videos on Facebook.
While doing the Masters, we went on a family holiday to Japan in late 2015 which was great fun. While planning the trip and booking tickets, I found that there was not a lot of information to help people plan their trips.
Having read Sharon’s case studies about buying guides, I decided to write my first buying guide as an experiment, noting that at the time I did not have any affiliate partners.
I did some basic keyword optimisation using Google Adwords at the time (before they removed that feature), and found that article subsequently ranked really well in Google Search. I subsequently found some affiliate partners and added them to that one article, and then saw my first affiliate sales start to trickle in from August 2016.
I then decided to essentially replicate that article for another of our Japan experiences, and again saw that article get really good traction in Google and started to generate consistent sales.
Focus on Building our Blogging Business (2017 to 2019)
I finished my Masters in November 2016, and immediately refocused on developing my part time blogging business. I started by purchasing Keysearch and setting up two product focused niche sites, to follow Sharon’s case studies at the time.
After spending quite a lot of time on the new projects I realised that I did not have the same passion for niche sites that I had for my travel blog, so decided to refocus on the travel blog from April 2017 by generating more affiliate focused articles on Japan, and also to develop more affiliate partners.
In June 2017, I read Sharon’s suggestion for people to set up Facebook Groups, and decided to set up the Japan Travel Planning Facebook Group. I added calls to action to all of my Japan content for people to join the group, and saw that group really start to grow quite quickly.
As I was on a tight budget due to having a low blogging income, I decided to purchase a one year subscription to the pro Buffer tool to use for content sharing. This process required fortnightly bulk uploading and manual placement of content every two weeks, but this was a great option for the content sharing to the group to run automatically while I was at work and asleep. I shared a combination of my own content and other people’s non-competing content to the group using this method.
As a result of setting up the group, I identified Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and started writing content to address those FAQs. By November 2017, I was consistently earning over $US1,000 per month through affiliate sales. At the time, my traffic had grown to 22,000 pageviews per month.
In February 2018, I was crazy busy and under a lot of pressure at work. In addition a tragedy happened at work at this time which really affected me personally. As a result I was really struggling to keep up with the Facebook Group and blog.
It was at this time that my husband Tony started to get involved to help out. I trained him on how to write buying guides using Sharon’s methods, as well as how to administer the Facebook Group.
By April 2018, our blog pageviews had grown to over 50,000 pageviews per month, and in May 2018 we joined Sharon’s Build Blog Freedom course. We found the goal setting as well as the technical lessons were a great add on to develop our blogging skills.
We kept applying these skills to generate new Japan content, and also decided to broaden our destinations by booking a family trip to South Korea in October 2018.
Things were going mostly well until August 2018, when I reached a point of burnout from work as a result of the high and difficult workload combined with the previous tragedy and other family issues going on at the time.
As a result, I required an extended period of time off work and a subsequent return to work program. From a blogging perspective, things were still growing, but I had about 6 months where I was only doing basic blogging activities as I was able. This was the great thing about focusing on SEO as a strategy rather than client based work – the work is done once and then just keeps generating income.
Tony took the lead during this period, and suggested that we reach out to additional affiliate partners in areas where we were already doing well. We had one amazing case where after a few emails, we agreed to a new business partnership. Anne spent around three hours writing a new article about this service provider and shared it to the group, and within 2 months that partner generated an add on income which has since averaged around $US4,000 per month – generated by a combination of SEO and direct sharing of the affiliate links to the Facebook Group!
Of course nothing is perfect, we have also had some recent issues with getting this partner to make payment, but hopefully we have now come up with a new process to resolve this issue.
Adding more partners saw us have a step increase in our blogging income thanks to having a ready audience to consume those recommendations.
Of course, we also have many other affiliate partners where the growth has been slow and steady, the above example is one where it just worked straight away, and was a brand name which had been recommended many times by group members already even before we became their affiliate. 🙂 In this instance we followed the lead of the group to identify the affiliate we should work with due to group member recommendations.
In December 2018, Anne finally got to meet Sharon face to face for the first time when she came to Sydney for a Christmas function, which was a real highlight given how much Sharon has influenced our current level of success.
December was also the first month where our blogging sales exceeded $US10,000 for the month – starting to reach real money levels! And it was also the first month where we achieved over 100,000 pageviews. And yes, you can get months where you see 30% step increases in PVs! We saw that happen consistently as we went through our significant growth phase across 2018.
Since then our blogging income has continued to grow, and we are on track to consistently earn as much through our blog in the not too distant future as both of our full time professional incomes. And we plan to keep it growing well past that level!
We decided to invest in our business by traveling both to South Korea in October 2018 and Japan in April 2019, and are now intending to focus on consolidating the content we want to generate from both of those trips. We have also invested in accounting and legal advice to set up a new business structure.
Anne has now returned to full time work, and we are resettling into our normal work routines, and have high expectations for the future of our blogging business. We are planning to continue blogging part time for the next few years to enable us to build up our nest egg. We do plan to eventually shift to full time blogging, but the time is not yet right.
4. What is the most rewarding part of blogging for you?
Writing a new buying guide and seeing it start to generate a good income within 3-6 months of publication.
5. What do you find the most challenging?
Time management to juggle running the blog in and around our demanding full time jobs and family. We always look for opportunities to automate our blogging processes and are happy to invest in tools which assist us with this approach.
We now use the SmarterQueue tool to manage our social media content sharing. It is more expensive than Buffer, but enables automatic recycling of content, as well as the ability to have different types of content and to share them at specific times. We set up once, and it just works.
Anne regularly adds new content to freshen what is being shared, but it does not matter if she does or not. We would not be able to manage our multiple Facebook groups without a tool of this nature.
We have also set up a lot of automations in our email system to make this an easy process to help people to plan their trips. Anne is now planning to do a new project to revamp these and make them a lot more tailored for each subscriber to ‘choose their own adventure’ to help them plan their trip.
Active Campaign has recently released many new automation features which will be the basis for the new automations. This is another case of investing the time once and then see the benefits over and over again as a result.
We also look for productivity improvements where possible. A job we both love to hate is processing our Facebook Group member applications and adding emails to our email list where provided.
Late 2018, we were processing around 300 member applications per day, and the job was taking around 1 – 1.5 hours per day. At the time we shared it so Anne did the morning shift and Tony the evening shift.
Anne investigated options to improve this process, and found a free data mining tool which has enabled us to do this task a lot more quickly. Per day it now takes 30-40 minutes in total, and we alternate weekdays and our daughter does the weekend shift to give us a break.
We are now a lot more relaxed if we miss a day as we know we can catch up quickly. This improvement has given us a lot of time back to focus on growing our business rather than doing administrative tasks.
6. How much did you earn in the last month and how?
We prefer not to say, but as per our previous comments we are earning well over $US10,000 per month since December 2018 and still growing. Most of that income is from affiliates, with a small amount from advertising. We only run advertising on pages which do not have an affiliate focus.
We do not do any sponsorships apart from when we are travelling.
For our recent Japan trip we managed to get a lot of sponsorship, and are now paying the price by having deadlines to produce the resulting content – and I am reminded that one of the reasons I originally decided to focus on SEO and affiliates was to avoid working with clients and having deadlines…
The articles that we are currently producing will definitely grow our business over time as we are keyword optimising them, but there are other articles we could be investing our time in which are more likely to generate significant business income growth, but we do not have time to write them until after we get through our sponsored articles.
An interesting paradox… and lesson learned for next time we plan a trip.
7. What tips do you have for bloggers trying to monetise their blogs?
A key factor for our success has been developing a deep understanding of what our readers want to know, them building trust in us and our brand and then delivering it to them in an easy to consume form when they are ready to buy.
Overall, you need to have a clear niche and strategy for your blog, and follow Sharon’s advice on building authority for that niche. Once you have authority in Google’s eyes you can publish new articles and still see them rank quickly with a lot less effort.
Learning to write buying guides which are properly SEO optimised has also been key, along with understanding the travel buying cycle. Travel has a long buying cycle, so the key benefit of having a Facebook group and an email list is that you can capture people when they are doing their initial research.
When they are ready to buy they have built confidence in our recommendations, and are also familiar with our recommended providers. They see our content regularly so are more likely to click through when they are ready to buy.
8. How much traffic did your blog have in the last month and where does it come from?
Last month (May 2019) we had 150,000 pageviews, 85% came from Google Search, 5% from Social Media, and 10% from other sources.
The bulk of social media came from Facebook, with a small amount from Pinterest. We tried to grow Pinterest last year but it was too much work for not enough results so we ditched it, but still see a steady trickle of pageviews as a result.
9. What tasks do you do that have the biggest impact on your traffic?
Writing every article as an SEO optimised buying guide, and then doing internal and external link building for each article.
Also, for Facebook and other social media we now use the more expensive SmarterQueue tool, which is a ‘set up once’ tool which recycles our content. It is worth the money as it saves us so much time, and as a result, we have not had to pay for a Virtual Assistant to do Social Media.
Another task is to get people to provide their email address in the questions we ask when they join our Facebook Groups. We then have to collect and manually transfer those email address to our email system. This task is one we still do ourselves, and share between Anne and Tony and we pay our daughter to also do this task on weekends.
Growing our email list is a real priority and generates sales, and de-risks our reliance upon the Facebook Group to generate sales. If Facebook makes a change to how Facebook groups run that is a real risk for our current business model.
An important thing is that because we are so busy we prioritise our time on things which are working and get rid of things which are not working (see the earlier comments about Pinterest and taking on sponsorships for trips).
We focus on ONE social media channel which is working for us, and while we have other social media channels, we do not spend any time on them apart from including them in our automated social media sharing using SmarterQueue.
10. What has helped you the most when it comes to getting search traffic?
Writing SEO optimized Buying Guides and building our authority for our niche through link building. The Facebook group click throughs also stimulate Google to see our site as an authority for our niche.
11. What are your main goals for your blog?
Our main goal is to be able to set ourselves up for retirement in the future, and be able to live in comfort and travel regularly. We also want to be able to help out our family.
12. What are you doing to work towards your main goals? How do you work out where to prioritise your time?
We have an agreed content list to develop, plus we share the social media management. We prioritise new content development at the moment as we have a lot to do following our two trips. Anne also intends to revamp our email system once we get through our current list of new content development to offer a much more tailored experience for our subscribers.
13. What three biggest tips/pieces of advice do you have for other bloggers?
It takes time to learn, develop and grow, and the risk is that you are spending your valuable time on the wrong things. Sharon’s course provide a structured approach to grow your blogging business. If you follow her recommendations you will see your blog grow much faster and earn an income much faster than if you try to DIY.
14. Where can we find you online?
You can find us at Pretraveller.com and the Japan Travel Planning Facebook Group.
You can find more interviews with successful bloggers here and more posts about making money from blogging here.