Building Marketable Skills Through Blogging, with Ashley Barnett
Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.
Recent events have placed a spotlight on people working online from home, but it’s a trend that’s been building for years. In fact, just about anyone can make money online if they can learn a few key skills. This week, I’m joined by Ashley Barnett, a long time freelance editor and expert in blog management and content creation. Ashley works with sites like Money Under 30, PT Money, and Choose FI. Her course, Hit Publish, teaches new and intermediate bloggers how to create the best content on the internet.
Ashley and I sat down to discuss what makes blogging the perfect way to build the right skills to make money online, even if the blog itself doesn’t make money. In fact, blogging forces you to learn a number of marketable skills, in a risk-free way. Writer, marketer, web designer, social media manager – these are just a few of the roles an active blogger must fill. Blogging can also teach you how to network, as you build relationships with other like-minded bloggers in your niche.
Ashley explains how she started out blogging, then figured out that freelance work was a way she could earn good money using the skills she picked up as a blogger. She’s hardly alone. Many bloggers have built successful freelance businesses. According to Ashley, the beauty of freelancing is having the ability to choose work that you love to do and set your own rates.
If starting your own blog or online business is something you’ve been thinking about, this week’s episode might just be the starting point you’ve been looking for.
Can you imagine a no-fee savings account that pays you 2.00%, along with free transactions, no minimum balance requirement, and fast, cheap, and fully transparent international money transfers? Well, the dream is real, through our sponsor, EQ Bank. Their EQ Bank Savings Plus Account will give you all of that and more. For more information, visit EQ Bank today.
- Never start a blog to make money
- How blogging teaches you the skills to run an online business
- Freelancing vs. blogging: the next step
- COVID-19 is forcing people and businesses to do business online
- A successful blogger understands who their target reader is
- The importance of establishing a well-defined niche
- Where freelancers find their clients
Recent events have placed a spotlight on people working online from home. But it’s a trend that’s been building for years. In fact, just about anyone can make money online if they learn a few key skills. This week I’m joined by Ashley Baurnett, a longtime freelance editor and creator of the brand new, Hit Publish, course for bloggers. Ashley and I sat down to discuss why blogging is the perfect way to build the skills necessary to make money online even if the blog itself doesn’t make money.
Welcome to the Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Can you imagine a no-fee savings account that pays you 2 percent along with free transactions, no minimum balance requirement and fast, cheap and fully transparent international money transfers? Well, the dream is real. And through our sponsor, EQ Bank, their EQ Bank Savings Plus account will give you all that and more. For more information, visit maplemoney.com/eqbank today. Now, let’s chat with Ashley…
Tom: Hi Ashley, welcome to the Maple Money Show.
Ashley: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.
Tom: One of the things I’ve said a few times on this podcast, when it comes to blogging, even though I’ve done well with it, I kind of crap on it a little saying this isn’t what you want to do if you want to start a side hustle. You might be better off doing Uber, Uber Eats or something like that—just something where you can immediately start earning money. Blogging isn’t always the best for that but something you brought to my attention is how blogging can be step number one to building all sorts of skills. The more I started thinking about that, things in my own situation with a team where I’ve got I’ve got an editor and a whole bunch of people involved in the podcast, I’m starting feel a lot more like a manager than a blogger. When I start my blog, it was a started as a hobby. I did not see it going from hobby to (technically) SEO—even though I think that term is a little cheesy. It’s the fact of it being a corporation. In your own situation, you also started off with a personal finance blog. But that’s not where you are now. Obviously, those skills have led to something else. Can you walk us through that a bit? What did things start out for you? When did you start as a blogger and what were you picking up over that time?
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. I agree 100 percent that if you start a blog in order to make money, you’re going to quit well before you ever start making any money. It just takes a long time. You have to be in it for a different reason. The easiest way to make money blogging is to be a freelancer and work for other people and get hired by other blogs, which is exactly what I did. I started blogging—I actually started with a mom blog back in 2005 and then I moved to personal finance in 2008 and I started freelancing in 2013. That’s really where I started. My blog made a little bit of money but the real money came after I started freelancing. Having a blog, you just learn so many marketable skills; everything from the tech side of blogging to social media design, writing, editing, and just thinking like a content marketer. You learn so many marketing skills; email newsletters. These skills are skills that all businesses need and you get to learn them in a very risk-free, low-cost way when you have your own blog.
Tom: That’s something I kind of realized quickly. When you start a blog is it’s often going to be this one-person-show. You’re registering a domain name, getting hosting—and you do everything. You have to be able to install your WordPress so you’re doing this kind of IT kind of role. Obviously, you want to write if you’re starting a blog, but there’s so much beyond just the writing. Now you need to know how to be an expert in five different social media platforms. It just goes on and on. When you start a podcast or do video the list keeps growing.
Ashley: Yeah, now you’re editing video.
Tom: Yeah, especially when you start out. You are this one-man-show but you’re going to learn all the things. It’s similar to when I started out in the grocery industry. I started off in this small little grocery store where I was able to work in all the departments just because it’s such a small building. They would say, “Oh, they need help over in deli, can you go serve customers or wrap up some meat?” Then in my own career I went to a bigger corporate store in a city where you never would’ve had that opportunity to work all the departments. But I was so much more valuable because in a year and a half, I had learned everything about the grocery business. It’s very similar with blogging. What was that first payment like as a blogger? I know for me, I made my first Ad Sense check about 6 months in. And for people I don’t know, Ad Sense are the ads you see on a blog. It took 6 months technically to make $100. But to truly get paid in any form it was 6 months. And that’s a long time if you need money now so that’s obviously not the way—
Ashley: Yeah, and that check was $100?
Tom: Yes, I passed the threshold and got paid. But that was the build up over 6 months. It wasn’t one month or anything like that. What did it look like for you as a blogger? How did making money look? Did you start to make money at all or was that even in your head?
Ashley: No, I didn’t even know you could make money blogging when I started. I just had a passion for personal finance. When I found a personal finance blog on the Internet I said, “Oh, this is a thing! People are doing this? I’m in!” I think my first money was selling sponsored posts. That’s where companies will pay you to write about them. At the time, I think I was charging something like $100 for a sponsored post which is not the greatest way to make money on a blog. But it was money and I was happy. I thought it was so cool that somebody would give me money to write.
Tom: How has this transitioned for you? You said you started out freelancing. I know you do a lot of work as an editor. Were you doing any other kind of freelancing like freelance writing? Or was it straight into editing?
Ashley: I did a tiny bit of freelance writing when I first started. I think that was really the only thing I knew you could even do for freelancing that was blog related. Over the decade that we’ve been doing this, the industry has matured a lot. Back then when we first started blogs didn’t really hire people—at least not individual blogs. Corporate blogs probably did. So I was freelance writing. I think I charged $25 a post back then. When I really started making actual money, I was just really a VA and just kind of did random blog tasks that needed to be done. Some of that was definitely editing and that’s where I really felt like where I should be. And that’s what’s cool about blogging is you learn all these skills. Some of them you’re going to love and some of them you hate. But when you become a freelancer you only have to do the parts that you like. You don’t have to become a social media manager if you hate social media. So when I started freelancing, I was thought, “Yeah, this is way better. I only do the parts that I like and I actually get paid to do it.”
Tom: One thing I was wondering, as an editor was any of this through a course or anything? Or was it all self-taught—just picking it up as you go?
Ashley: Just picking it up as I went. Another cool thing about being a blogger is you get to meet a lot of other bloggers. And so that’s definitely how I got my first freelance job was just talking to friends who had bigger blogs than me who said they could really use some help. They didn’t know anybody else. I told them I could do that. It wasn’t even really about becoming a freelancer. It wasn’t a decision I made. It was just that my friends needed help with their blogs and I could do that. It will give me some money. It sounds good. Once I started though, I knew this is where it was at.
Tom: You hit on something I find is one of the biggest soft skills I think I’ve picked up as a blogger. It was the ability to network. Most bloggers (at least in our community) are very introverted and I consider myself that too, even though some people question where I am. As someone that was rather introverted and had a regular job where I would just sit and do my work most of the time, this blogging and online world made me need to start networking. And you find you do fall into opportunities like that. You’re not even looking for something and all of a sudden it’s working out for you. It just happens.
Ashley: Yeah, you just start talking to people. And again, with blogging in personal finance, you don’t just walk across in your regular life and find people who are as into personal finance as personal finance bloggers. So you automatically have that instant connection. And I’m sure that is across all niches. If you are passionate enough about a subject to blog about it, when you find someone else who’s as passionate as you about that topic, you are going to instantly connect with that person. It makes it a lot easier. It’s not even networking. It’s just like hanging out with your people.
Tom: For sure. I know right now we’re in this whole crisis where everybody’s locked down and everything. One thing I’ve seen the past, you and a whole lot of other people have started as bloggers that have kind of turned into other businesses from that. They’ve literally sold their blogs and have moved on. It’s not even keeping one foot in. They’ve just found something that’s working for them more. In this current situation, how does that change? Are more businesses likely to realize this exists? Even in the corporate world I see all this talk about just having employees stay home and work where they don’t need all this expensive office space downtown and all that kind of stuff. But even as a small business, how are they able to adapt to this and maybe see that this online thing can kind of be for anybody?
Ashley: I think the quarantine and shutdown has forced everybody to start living online and forced businesses to figure out that they really can make money online. We were kind of chit-chatting about people like personal trainers who are a perfect example of this. In January, you couldn’t have convinced a personal trainer that they could have their business online. They’d tell you they work at a gym, need equipment and have to work face-to-face with people. But through the quarantine they’ve realized that is not the case. They can be in their garage with their clients in their own garages and it still works. And in some cases it’s even a better experience. All these businesses are realizing they can 10X their income. A personal trainers class that used to max out at 20 people can now be 100 people or unlimited. Or you can record your workouts and people can watch them at their leisure. You record that one time and they buy it over and over. They might have a monthly subscription to it maybe. And you don’t have to do anything except sell that one course. In January they couldn’t see that. Today they can. The opportunities that are online for these skills—how to have an online business has absolutely exploded. It’s crazy. And people are more used to that, too. Maybe before a customer may not have wanted a personal trainer online because they thought that would be weird. Now, they’ve been forced to adapt to that and they see it’s really not that bad. It’s actually kind of cool. You don’t have to go to the gym and all that. I think we’re just going to see an absolute explosion of businesses that want to be online but don’t have the skills to do it. So they’re going to be looking for people—for bloggers and content creators.
Tom: Exactly. If you’re the personal trainer who had started a blog a year ago you would have been picking up those skills. Maybe you were writing some blog posts about whatever you do—some personal stories. Maybe you would have tried some videos and all that kind of thing. You would have been more prepared for this. Of course, getting forced into this there is a need to hire people. They may want a blog and find it easier to pay someone to set that up because they already have an established business they don’t want to see die. Like you said, there’s suddenly a demand from customers and clients but now there’s also going to be a demand for people offering these services. Obviously, you can’t go back in time but if you had a blog and were picking up these skills they’d be better off. If not, they can hire those with the skills. Now, normally, I ask people to mention what they’re doing at the end of the show but I do want to talk about your course because you just recently launched a course. Can you give us a little insight into it? What is it and what can it help people get started with?
Ashley: It is a course for bloggers to help create better content. I think the missing link in a lot of these new blogs that are struggling is that they’re not creating engaging, sharable content. I’m in a lot of new blogger groups on Facebook where I talk to a lot of new bloggers and they’re not asking the right questions, in my opinion. They’re worried about how to get people to sign up for their newsletter thinking their opt-in or design isn’t good enough. I just tell them their content isn’t good enough. People don’t care enough about your content in order to engage you on social media or through your newsletter. I’ve seen other ‘How to blog’ courses and just don’t feel like they’re not teaching people how to do the number one most important skill which is creating better blog posts and articles. So the course goes through defining target audience; how they are finding you, what your niche is, how you’re going to help them. You really want to get that super narrow. When you’re creating a blog post the number one thing you need to think about is what your reader is going to get out of it. And to really stay focused on the reader, which is another thing I see a lot of new bloggers struggling with. They focus on themselves and forget about the reader. We also go into some SEO, how to do keyword research and how to use keywords to make your articles better. And then we end it with editing. I give you all the editing tools that I use and my personal editing checklist. At the end you should have a very strong base on how to create professional, engaging articles that are really going to get results for you.
Tom: This reminds me of when I started, partially because I was new and partially just because of the times back then. It would be very common for me to write a 300-word post about why I like something and then spend the rest of my time trying to get more Twitter followers. I get this, completely. I’ve taken these past 300-word masterpiece posts, taken the idea from them and come up with much longer, much more detailed and helpful content. And like you said about being focused on the reader; you’re helping someone with a problem. It’s not about you (at least in the personal finance world). You’re helping them with a problem. Obviously, there may be other blogs that might be truly just entertainment based— celebrity news and things like that.
Ashley: But unless you’re a celebrity, your reader only cares about themselves, not you. Not at first.
Tom: I like that you mentioned SEO which is search engine optimization. So it’s just basically just finding ways to get people to find you on Google. I’m a big fan of this because, again, you can help readers with this. It’s not about wanting more traffic and doing great SEO. It’s wanting people to find my helpful content. If you’re not answering their question as they’re typing it into Google, you’re not going to be found or be able to help them at all. I’m a big fan of SEO for that reason. I like that this gets people started so they’re not just thinking about paying their $10 or $15 for a domain then launching a blog when they don’t really know what they’re talking about. They’re kind of just doing a diary. It’s almost like the older blogs where people were talking about themselves all the time. Now, there are more content websites that are helping people with their problems. Can we go through some of the beginner steps? If someone’s looking to start a blog, what should they do? How do they get started to go from an idea to narrowing that niche down a bit and still keep that reader focus in mind?
Ashley: Once you have a domain, set it up on WordPress, have a theme and you’re kind of ready to go, you want to think about just who your readers are. And you want to have intimate knowledge about those readers. For a lot of bloggers, their target reader is themselves (because they know that particular niche of reader very well). A different example of that might be a nurse in a pediatric hospital. She might have a blog for parents with sick kids. Or perhaps you have a child that has a particular ailment. My neighbor has a blog. Her kids have Lyme disease and she has a blog about Lyme disease which makes sense. But you want to be really, really specific on whom your reader is. You want to create that avatar of your ideal reader. And then you want to be really specific about what you’re talking to them about. You want to end up coming with, “I can help you with this and that…” If you can’t fill that in really concisely, then you’re too wide. Just saying, “I help people with money,” is too big of a niche. You want to say, “I help teachers with getting out of debt.” A lifestyle blog is not a niche. Sorry, lifestyle bloggers.
Tom: One thought I had on this is you mentioned how often it just ends up looking like that person. That’s what I see a lot in personal finance because it’s personal. It’s not that you’re writing about yourself, but you kind of attract people to your site that look like you. Obviously, Maple Money is mostly Canadians. It’s often parents. And it’s sort of in this 25 to 45 range. As I get older maybe it’ll start to creep up and I’ll start covering topics that matter even more. I like the example you made though, where sometimes that’s not the case. If you are a nurse providing information, you’re speaking your specialty but it might not be something that affects you. Maybe you’re a heart surgeon and you’ve never had a heart surgery yourself. It’s kind of different in that case. But in my world, it just starts to look like a bit of a mirror. You’re speaking for people but they kind of end up looking like you in the end.
Ashley: Yeah. It makes perfect sense because you know what your problems are. You know what worked for you and how to solve them. Everybody wants answers that are just for them so you need to really speak to a very specific demographic.
Tom: The other thought I had with that was when you’re covering something you know about, it’s also going to give you a bit of motivation and passion. Like we said, if you’re starting a blog and you’re going to wait 6 months to make a dollar, you better be passionate about it. Don’t just say, “I’m not going to go do some keyword research and find some rare flower isn’t being covered and start a blog on it,” because you don’t know anything about that. Just because you might find a need and a lack of content around something probably doesn’t make it a good fit. Sure, you want to do research to back up your points and stuff, but you also want to have knowledge and passion to even just keep moving on that, right?
Ashley: Yeah. If you don’t have the passion for that topic, you won’t stick around long enough to make money.
Tom: We see that a lot. You can find bloggers that will post income updates saying they’re making six figures a month. You and I know we could never make money as bloggers because these things didn’t exist then. It was a quieter thing. But now there’s this kind of image out there that everybody can make a six figure a month income and that’s not really the case.
Ashley: We see them on Pinterest, how they made $1,000 in their first 30 days of blogging. I’m sorry— but no, you didn’t. There is no way that was your first 30 days of blogging. It may be the first 30 days of the blog (being out there) but you have experience, contacts and knowledge that made that possible. I’m not buying it.
Tom: Exactly. But that probably makes a lot of people skeptical. Like you said before, the more likely the scenario, it can be hard to make money blogging. But back to what we’re talking about, this is something that even if you don’t make money in the blog directly, it opens up all sorts of skills. Can you what that next step is? Maybe someone’s been blogging for a year and income-wise it’s not really going to pay the bills. How can they take those skills and go elsewhere? I know I’ve hired some technical support from Upwork or reached out to bloggers to do freelance writing. Are these the ways to do it? How do you get out there and kind of find that next step where you can get an actual staff income or coach income—something like that?
Ashley: Networking with other bloggers is the absolute best way. If there are conferences in your niche or blogging conferences, you can go to, that is absolutely the best way. Everyone you’ve probably hired has been through somebody you knew. I know that’s the case for me. Everyone I’ve hired and everyone I’ve been hired by has been somebody that I met at FINCON or through the personal finance bloggers community. That is number one. If you can’t actually travel to a conference, there are Facebook groups galore of other bloggers. Just start meeting people. Start talking to people, start helping them, start offering your skills. You might have to do it at a discount at first. That’s fine. That first client you get, you are going to learn so much from. You’re going to get so much more than money out of that first client that I don’t even care what you charge. Charge something just so you get in the habit of pitching your rates, negotiating, charging, invoicing and all the stuff that goes along with that. Just get started. Your next client you can charge a little more. I think every new client you get should pay a little bit more. Not only do you have more experience, you need to get yourself up to market rates. You’ll also start specializing. You’ll find those little blogging niches you love. You’ll get really good at them and charge a little more for that. Every client you get should be charged a little more. Then you can start dropping the lower paying clients as you move up the ladder.
Tom: You mention this idea of finding what works for you. One past episode we had was Bobby Hoyt. His story was, yes, he started out as personal finance blogger. He still has the blog but he was doing really well with Facebook ads so he started teaching people how to run Facebook ads for other people. You’ve got a world of options there with the local dentist, mechanic, or whatever, where you can charge them $1,000. I suggest people look for the Bobby Hoyt episode because it’s exactly what we’re talking about here. You start out doing these 100 different things so you’re going to find out where your strengths are and where you might need someone that does not have those strengths. Again, that comes down to the network. You have to have conversations like, “This isn’t working out for you. Maybe I can help you out there.”
Ashley: And once you get into the network, people are asking questions. Like in our Facebook group, there are questions all the time. You just start answering those questions. Eventually, you’ll get somebody who will pay you to do that thing. Then they’re going to be your biggest advocate. Every time somebody says, “Who does X, Y, Z,” they’re going to say, “Oh, I know somebody. They were great.” It just starts building on itself. We know tons of experts who have created entire careers in these little tiny niches of blogging. It’s really fun to watch. I think its super cool for sure.
Tom: Just thinking of this local angle too, like you said, maybe you can’t travel if your blog and business isn’t really making any money. You’re not going to travel across the country or anything. But there are a lot of local things within blogging. Any major city pretty much has a Word Camp, which is a WordPress local conference. You can check out meetup.com where people are having these meetups about any kind of topic. Literally anything. You could go to a meetup about blogging. You could also go to a meetup about your niche if you are that rare flower blogger or a personal trainer or something like that. There’s probably a meetup group for that. You can look up stuff in your industry but also in your passions and find out where that matches up. Maybe you’re into cars and you’re only doing Facebook ads for different car companies. You can get that mix of passion and skills. Once you’ve done this for awhile, you can find out where those skills actually lie.
Ashley: That’s the thing, you’ve got to get started doing all of the things and figure out what you love.
Tom: So thanks for being on just to kind of walk through how blogging can be a step to more than just blogging. Yes, just having the blog and having that online presence can turn into something for sure. But there are also other branches that continue on from there. Can you let people know where they can find you online and let them know about the course?
Ashley: Yeah. So I am at hitpublish.com. You can learn all about the course there as well as sign up for it. If you’d like to do that or ask me any questions there is a contact there. You can shoot me an email. I will reply to any questions I get. So that’s hitpublish.com.
Tom: Perfect. Thanks for being on.
Ashley: My pleasure. Thank you.
Thank you, Ashley, for sharing so many helpful tips on creating a blog that people want to follow. You can find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/ashleybarnett. If you’re interested in starting a blog and building your own business, I highly recommend you check out Ashley’s new course at maplemoney.com/hitpublish. It’s a resource I would have loved to have had when I started blogging over 10 years ago. Thank you, as always, for listening. Be sure to check out the daily videos at maplemoney.com/youtube and we’ll see you back here next week.