In this interview, Jessie speaks with us about how to become a professional blogger, and what you need to know to make a blogging career work for you.
How did you get started blogging, and how did that become your full-time job?
When I was in college, my goal was to do nonprofit public relations. Then I studied abroad in Australia, and I was bitten by the travel bug. I knew that I had to keep doing it.
In college it was easy. I would waitress like crazy, save up, and go off and travel. And when I graduated, I stayed an extra year to get my master’s, and it was really because I wanted to keep traveling.
But once I graduated with my master’s in 2010, I had to get a real job, and I didn’t want to. So I started researching travel jobs. I had never really heard of a blog—I think I’d heard of it, but I thought it was like a journal. I saw people actually doing travel blogging full-time, so I pursued it aggressively.
I started my blog, Jessie on a Journey, in 2011. Within a year, I was able to take it full time, and in 2012 I started my second travel blog, Epicure and Culture. Jessie on a Journey is the main business and the main focus, and Epicure and Culture is a passion project that still earns money.
What were the first things that jumped out at you about blogging as a business?
The landscape in 2011 was completely different. The way people made money was mainly sponsored posts. You can still those do now, but there are also many other ways to make money, and blogging in general is taken a lot more seriously now.
I had no idea what I was doing, so I was learning slowly, little by little. I knew that I wanted to keep traveling, that I wanted the location independence, to be my own boss, and to get paid to be creative, so I just kept learning little by little what I needed to do. And I’m still learning all the time because things are always changing. In this world.
Is it harder to break into blogging professionally now than it was in 2011?
There are more blogs than ever, but I don’t think that it’s too late or too saturated, because a lot of people are doing it wrong.
A lot of people are getting into blogging because they want to travel, or they want free makeup or free clothes: a lot of times, it’s very internal and selfish. Whereas the people doing it right are approaching it with more of a giving approach.
So you might have a mission, “I want to help women travel solo confidently.” That’s why I started to blog. Or, “Help people eat healthier,” or “Help black women enjoy camping.” When you approach it with this kind of mission in mind, it’s a lot easier to build a community. From there, it makes a lot of sense to work with brands that fulfill that mission, to create products that fulfill that mission. Once you have that mission, everything you do will be clearer, because everything you do will be to further that mission.
So people can go astray if they start for selfish, or get-rich-quick reasons. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to work with brands and get free trips, but it shouldn’t be your be-all, end-all reason for starting this business. You’re going to realize that it’s not what you thought: it’s a lot more work than you probably thought, and free trips do not pay your rent. You need to figure out how to also make it into a business.
Jessica's Upcoming Classes
How To Start A Blog
April 29th, 2020
Create your blog, brand it, create engaging content and successfully promote posts. Taught by journalist, writer and photographer Jessica Festa.
What other common mistakes do people make when they’re trying to get into blogging professionally?
The number one reason people fail is that they try to do everything at once. For most bloggers, you’re doing everything: you’re writing the content, you’re coming up with a business plan, you’re running the social media channels. A lot of people dive in and try to do everything at once, instead of learning slowly: I’m in phase one and I’m working on building my brand, launching my site, and pinning down my mission statement, then I’ll move to the next phase, which might be creating my first few blog posts, then I’ll work on building my email list.
Do these things one by one, or maybe two things at a time. You can’t do everything at once or you’ll burn out, and you won’t fully understand how to do anything because you’re trying to learn everything at once.
It’s better to learn slowly: “I’m going to get really clear on search engine optimization. Once I understand that, I’m going to move on to the next thing that’s really interesting.”
How did you find the overall learning curve in becoming a professional blogger?
I think it depends on your background. I’ve worked with people who worked at an SEO agency, or who have worked at a company where they saw how the business was built, and so they were ahead of the game. I’ve also worked with many people who were starting from scratch. There’s more of a learning curve for them.
There’s building the foundation, which is your content strategy and visibility strategy. After that, you try to convert people into email subscribers, and then from there you can nurture those people and convert them into customers. That’s the journey a lot of people can follow and see success.
How do you monetize your work?
I make money a few different ways.
I sell products and services, which is something that a lot of bloggers don’t do but should. You have so much more control over your income working with brands and tourism boards. You can actually get paid for press trips, and you can get paid to promote things on your Instagram.
The thing there is to make sure that the brands you work with and the campaigns you take on are still in line with your mission. You don’t want to be working with a brand that makes absolutely no sense in your audience.
I use affiliate marketing. For example, maybe you use a certain type of backpack, so you join their affiliate program. You link to that backpack, and then when people purchase it you get a commission for the referral. That’s a great way that all bloggers should be utilizing to make money.
I do display ads. I work with Mediavine, but there are all different networks. For Mediavine, I think you need a minimum of 25,000 monthly sessions. There’s also Ezoic, whose terms are a little looser. There’s Google AdSense—I don’t know how it is today, but AdSense doesn’t pay as well.
I create content for other brands. I personally create content for the websites of a few brands, like Marriott and Hilton, and I get paid for that.
The sky’s the limit, but those are some good starting points to think about in terms of how to make money blogging.
You mentioned a sequence of foundation into content strategy into marketing. The foundation itself, what is that?
A lot of people come into this and they don’t even know what their mission is. They just know they want to have the independence that a blogger has, to be their own boss, and to get paid to be creative. Before you even write your first blog post, you really want to know your mission, your values, your beliefs, and even some tangible things like what your website looks like. All this is before you before you move on to creating the content that will fulfill that mission and attract the audience that you’re trying to attract.
I think having a defined mission is the most important part. You want to know that mission before you write anything, before you publish anything on Facebook or Instagram, and so on.
How big a barrier to entry is technology, and what do you advise for that side of blogging?
I think it’s become easier. When I started blogging it’s hard to remember because this was 2011, I remember it being trickier. Now when I show people how to set up web hosting, I’m like, Wow, this is one click. It’s really easy nowadays. I remember it being more technical, but maybe I was just so new to this world that I found it more technical.
Some people do have trouble, but there are so many great resources. I often will recommend Bluehost, for example, and they have a really great video that you can watch. Their hosting services have super clear documentation. You can have your website up in five minutes.
How have you approached community building for Jessie on a Journey, and in general?
Again, it starts with your mission. Once you have a mission, you have a reason to build a community.
One thing a lot of bloggers don’t do well, and that has really helped me build my business, is growing an email list and nurturing that email list with valuable content. I email my list every week, and I follow a method that I think Gary Vaynerchuk came up with, the “give give give ask” method. So one email will be teaching a valuable strategy, the next week I’ll send an email sharing a great free app that will help my readers, and the next week I might share a free giveaway: all this great free valuable content. And then the next week, I might pitch an affiliate partner or my own product. I’m not constantly spamming them with sales pitches: I’m really giving a lot before I ask for something.
That has been invaluable. Honestly, when I pitch my own products, like if I’m doing a launch, I think a hundred percent of my sales come from my email list. I’ll use Facebook ads and get people onto my list, and then I’ll email them a bunch and nurture them to that point.
In the past year or two, I’ve also created a Facebook group. When people join my email list in the welcome email, I have a prompt to then join the Facebook group, where I can post a bit more frequently and a little bit more off-the-cuff. I also do live videos in there that help answer some of my audience’s questions. I like to keep track of questions that people ask me, and questions I see people ask in various forums and Facebook groups, so I can start to think about the problems that my audience has and how I might be able to help solve them. Once you help people start solving these problems, it’s easier to start growing an engaged community.
Is the mission that you have for Jessie on a Journey the same as it was eight years ago? Has it evolved over time?
When I started, I was a solo female traveler, so that’s what I was covering. I don’t think I thought of it in terms of a mission back then, but now the mission is to empower women to feel confident traveling solo. I also incorporate a lot of active adventures, wellness, and sustainable tourism. Those are other pieces of my puzzle.
Over time I’ve also added a mission to teach professional blogging, because I’ve had so many people ask me questions about blogging. I actually segment my list: I have my solo female travel segment that gets the solo female travel emails, and I also have a blogging segment that’ll get those emails. I have a lot of different tags I put on people, so I can narrow down their interests and say, okay, this person wants to know about Facebook ads, and this person wants to know about working with brands. I provide better tailored content to them, but solo female travel and blogging are the overarching categories.
Is there a straight line between what you’ve found you’re able to help people with and your mission, or is it more complicated than that?
In college, I planned this huge summer backpacking trip. Everyone wanted to go until it was time to actually book things, and then no one wanted to go anymore. I’d invested so much time into planning it, so I went by myself for a summer in Europe. That’s what made me see, “Oh, wow, you can travel solo as a female. This is really cool.”
Then I went to Southeast Asia and South America. People always told me, “You’re crazy,” or “That’s so unsafe,” and I’m like, “No.” Of course, there are things you have to think about, but I’ve traveled solo all over the world. It’s something people should do—I saw this fear people had, and I wanted to show them that.
Now there are a lot more solo female travel bloggers, but in 2011 there wasn’t really anyone covering this.
How important has it been for you as a professional blogger to be among the first in what you were doing, and is that realistic for folks who are starting these days?
If you can find a way to do something different, you’re going to have an easier time. I usually tell people to try to find a narrow niche. What is that special thing that you do? Maybe you’re a solo female traveler, but there’s some other thing you can add to make it really unique.
For example, I’m working with a woman who is an archaeologist, and she wants to create a blog about archaeology destinations that people can travel to, specifically targeting women. That’s something unique and special that she can add to something that is already being done in some way, but not in the way that she’s going to cover it.
Being a solo female traveler is something that you can create content about in perpetuity: there are always places you haven’t been, experiences you haven’t had.
Is there a content wall you hit at some point, and is that an issue for people who blog about a fairly narrow topic?
I would suggest trying to think of something that you can truly cover forever. I know a woman who had a blog called “Twenty-Something Travel,” and now she is a 34-year old woman with children, so she had to rename it. Her community went with her, because the people who’ve been with her in the beginning, who were in their twenties, are also in their thirties now. So I think she has a great blog and she’s doing well, but maybe when she started Twenty-Something Travel, it didn’t cross her mind: “I’m not going to be twenty-something forever.”
A lot of people tell me, “I’m studying abroad in Australia or I’m volunteering in Thailand, and I want to write a blog about it.” I say, “You want to think longer-term. Once that study abroad or volunteer project is over, what are you going to write about?”
What other advice would you give to people who want to start blogging professionally?
It’s really important to think about a product you can create. A lot of people just want to work with brands. If that’s the only way you’re going to make money, you have to struggle every month to find partnerships. If you don’t find one every month—and especially one that can actually pay your bills—you’re going to be struggling. You might end up having to say yes to campaigns that aren’t a great fit.
If you have your own product that further helps your audience, you can make money on that every single day. My laptop broke when I was in Panama, and I still made money every single day because I was selling my products on my website and through Facebook Ads. It didn’t hurt me to not be physically working.
So think about your own products, and affiliate marketing. People can be buying those affiliate products while you’re asleep. Think about a few ways you can make money through passive income. Having your own products isn’t always passive income, but think about things you don’t need to be running around the globe for all the time. Maybe you’re sick or you break your leg, and you can’t go take Instagram photos.
What was your process for creating your own paid products?
I have two products: I have courses, and I have a membership community. I think digital products are great because they’re very low overhead relative to physically making something. Although I will say that there are a lot of companies now that kind of help you out with overhead. There’s a company called Bonfire that lets you sell, for example, t-shirts. They’re really nice t-shirts—they actually sent me some samples—and they will only take a commission from what you sell, so there’s no loss. Usually with a physical product, there might be some loss if you don’t do well with sales, whereas with a digital product you have to pay for a few things but it’s not crazy.
My other product is that I lead photo tours in New York City. That came, again, from listening to my audience: I constantly have people asking me to show them around New York when they come here. I’ve been leading those tours since 2014.
Anything else you’d like to share?
If you have a passion, get it out there. Your mission could be entertaining people or inspiring people in some way, or helping people with some transformation. You don’t have to be the top expert in the world on the topic, you just have to have experiences that you can share with others.
I think that’s something else that people get scared about, especially if they want to create a course or write a new book or something like that. For example, I’m not the highest-earning blogger—well, you don’t have to be. You just have to have stories and experiences to share with others that can help them have a transformation like you’ve had.
What would you like to say about the courses you teach at Writers.com?
I teach How to Start a Blog, which will help you get set up and identify your mission. There are weekly modules and homework, and the discussion area is really nice because you can bounce ideas off of people. Especially in the beginning stage, it’s really nice to have people to ask, “What do you think of this mission?” or “How to I figure out what problems my audience might have?” It’s really helpful. You set up your social media channels in that class as well.
I also teach a more advanced class, How To Turn Your Blog Into A Career, that will help you transition into the next phase of figuring out exactly how you’ll make money and creating your monetization systems. Which class is the best fit for you depends on where you are with your blogging journey.