- Morgan Overholt is a freelance graphic designer who decided to start a blog in 2020.
- Overholt, her sister, and her husband began working on The Smokies every Sunday for 12 hours.
- They relied on Facebook ads and low-competition keywords to achieve six-figure revenue.
If you had told me in a pre-pandemic world that I would rotate my lucrative freelance business to get into professional blogging, I would have thought you were crazy.
In 2017, I left my full-time salaried job to become a full-time freelance graphic designer. At the time, I felt stifled creatively and professionally. For three years, freelancing gave me the financial and personal freedom I had wanted for so long.
Then the pandemic hit.
I was one of the lucky ones
My independent business was barely affected, but my mental health was declining.
I was living in the middle of a crowded city when the closings started. With nothing to do, I spent most of my time scrolling through pictures on my phone of my pre-pandemic life, wondering how I could have taken so many little moments like traveling, going to dinner or going to the movies for granted.
I started dreaming of a post-pandemic world where not only would I take time to appreciate little moments that I had once taken for granted, but I would also have so many more.
I bought the domain name TheSmokies.com a few years ago because it was a good investment at the time
I had assumed that I would do something about it “one day”. April 1, 2020 ended up being that day.
Convinced my sister, a writer and graphic designer, and my husband, a software developer and data analyst, to officially partner with me on a project showcasing regional tourism in the Great Smoky Mountains, where we all grew up .
We didn’t really have a game plan in place and we didn’t even know how a tourist site could make money, especially in a time when no one was traveling. But what we knew from our combined experience in sales is that the first step to making money is finding an audience.
We started by creating content and posting it daily on social media
We dedicated every Sunday to the project so that it would not interfere with our daily tasks. We would spend all day – often in 12 hour shifts – producing a week of content and scheduling posts. We wrote about topics that few other regional sites covered at the time, such as reopenings and navigating tourism in the age of COVID-19.
We started buying ads on Facebook and invested a total of around $5,000. Few companies advertised tourism back then, so advertisements were incredibly cheap. Before we knew it, we had thousands of followers and we were starting to gain traction.
In April 2020, we had 3,000 visits (1,000 unique visitors) to our website and 500 Facebook followers. In May 2020, we had 197,000 visits (70,000 unique visitors) to our website and 8,000 Facebook followers.
We then started looking for ways to monetize our site traffic.
We were immediately rejected. Both companies told us we were too new and should reapply after we could prove a stable traffic pattern, but we didn’t let the rejection get us down. Instead, we explored other monetization opportunities.
On May 22, 2020, we made our first sale via Commission Junction, a third-party affiliate program, and pocketed a $6 commission from ticket sales to an area attraction. Judging by the way we were jumping around our living room, you would have thought we just won $6,000. That $6, to me, was proof that our site could make money.
In the weeks that followed, we continued to increase our site traffic through constant content creation.
We have made it our goal to post at least one new photo, meme, or article every day. Most of this content was produced by my sister Alaina, a freelance writer, and me.
At the end of June 2020, we were attracting 235,000 unique monthly visitors to our site with 309,000 visits. We applied to Mediavine and were accepted the second time around.
On the first day of ad monetization, one of our posts went viral on social media and we ended up earning nearly $500 in ad revenue. After the viral post waned, our earnings settled at around $100 a day. For the first time since our beginnings, the site has started to be self-financing.
In my mind, it was a success, but we didn’t just want to break even. We wanted to make a profit. And for that, we needed more traffic on the site.
So we started learning search engine optimization, or SEO
When we joined Mediavine, we had access to their invitation-only Facebook group, where we were able to network with proven blogging professionals. We learned that we can’t rely on social media traffic alone.
We’ve noticed that the biggest blogs (and biggest earners) rely mostly on evergreen content and search engine traffic. We signed up for SEMrushan SEO tool that helps websites improve their online visibility, and we continued to study bigger and better sites, absorbing as much knowledge as possible.
In November 2020, we moved beyond our original ad monetization partner to AdThrive, which only accepts websites that consistently produce 100,000 pageviews per month. In December 2020, our RPMs (revenue per thousand impressions) were skyrocketing and our site received 264,000 unique visitors with 402,000 visits.
This month ended up being our first profitable month. We raised over $14,000 in ad revenue.
We have continued to reinvest this income back into the business
We hired a virtual assistant to manage our social media accounts and proofread and upload our articles. We’ve also increased the number of freelance writing assignments each week. The remaining profits usually went to social media ads.
We didn’t take a penny out of the business for ourselves until April 2021. We continued to maintain our normal jobs during the week.
There were many times when I felt the burnout starting to set in. After all, I became independent to get away from work weekends. Suddenly I found myself working all weekend.
We also had months of downtime. We’ve learned that blogging, like any business, has a “busy season” and an “off season.” When major area attractions closed for the post-holiday winter season, traffic to our site plummeted, and so did our revenue. Nonetheless, we kept our eyes on the prize.
In the spring of 2021, we had several watershed moments
I discovered something called “low competition keywords” after listening an episode of “The Blogging Millionaire” podcast. The strategy behind the hunt for low competition keywords is basically targeting a bunch of smaller, less trafficked topics that your competitors may ignore, which is a bigger sum.
Around the same time, Alaina discovered something called “Google Stories.” Google Stories is similar to Facebook and Instagram Stories, but instead of showing only to your followers, they’re shown to anyone using Chrome’s mobile browser that Google thinks might be interested in the topic.
James also developed a data-driven content ranking system to help us take the guesswork out of the topics we choose to write about each week with analytics-based decision making.
To top it all off, it was also around the time that another blogger we met through AdThrive’s private Facebook group told us how he improved his site’s revenue virtually overnight. simply by adding ad-sponsored videos to its website.
These four strategies skyrocketed our traffic and revenue.
In August 2021, we earned $34,977 with 515,000 unique visitors and 779,000 visits
More importantly, we let ourselves be picked up on Sundays and started taking larger distributions. It allowed us to fit blogging work into our regular work weeks instead of treating it as a side hustle.
In 2021 alone, we generated $205,642 in advertising revenue with 5 million visits.
Now, for the first time since quitting my “normal” job in 2017, I am once again facing a major turning point in my career. When we started this journey, we thought we would be lucky to create an additional revenue stream. But it is now well on its way to fully replacing our income.
It remains to be seen whether or not we will continue to reduce our daily jobs or focus solely on blogging income in the future. But it’s an amazing feeling to know that we have the option. And while it still takes a lot of work, it doesn’t take as much time as our daily chores.
Best of all, it pays off 24/7.