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Between Alt Summits: My Journey From Casual to Full-Time Blogging

 Photo from AimeeRoo

 

Alt Summit 2011 is over and I’m finally starting to calm down from all the excitement. It was quite the conference…very packed with talent and energy…and I have to say that it was a much different experience attending Alt Summit 2011 than it was Alt Summit 2010. Part of that was because the conference itself was bigger and had a lot more going on, but another part was that I’ve changed a lot as a blogger since my first time as an Alt attendee. So, you know, I thought I’d blog about it.

(Non-blogging family and friends can feel free to skip this one. It’s a little blog heavy. I’ll go back to posting pretty pictures soon…)

Starting Out

I’ve been blogging for years, but didn’t have a “popular” blog until I started planning my wedding in 2007. Over the year between starting the blog and actually getting married, I gathered a readership that included our friends and family, as well as about 100 Internet strangers who were nice enough to stop by and peek in on us from time to time. That number doesn’t seem like a whole lot now, but at the time it just amazed me that there were one hundred people out there somewhere who didn’t even know me and they were interested in our lives. Some of them were Disney brides, like I had been, but a lot seemed to just be nice people who liked to follow our story. We even got wedding presents from three of them, which just might be the three most fun surprises I’ve ever gotten in my entire life.

For six months after our wedding, I kept the blog up. I recapped our trip, covered our home receptions, and then started sharing the weddings of other Disney brides who were getting married around the same time. My readership started to grow a little bit, but after a while I lost momentum and started posting on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. I even did a “goodbye letter” twice to close up the blog…only to sneak back and post again when I found another wedding I wanted to share. There was just something about it that was so fun, I couldn’t let it go.

Oh, and in the meantime I graduated from law school, passed the Ohio state bar, got hired by a state agency, and was there when the economic crisis hit and most people in Ohio lost their jobs. Which is pretty much how I found myself living with my husband in my parent’s house in Utah just eight months after our wedding.

Broke and Blogging

After our exodus to Utah, my husband found a good job quickly and since my parents were letting us crash with them until we found a new plan, I suddenly found myself in a weird work-limbo. On the one hand, adults are supposed to go out and earn a living in this country. I had a great education and a lot of work experience, so it would have made sense to get licensed and go back to work. On the other hand, I really, really, really didn’t want to keep being an attorney, and with my husband supporting us and my parents letting us live rent free for a month or two, there was nothing to force me into going back to work. So, I thought I’d take some time off to figure out what I wanted to do (i.e. raid my parent’s fridge and watch their digital cable).

After about four weeks, it became apparent that I wasn’t making any progress. Promises of freelance work that was supposed to follow me from Ohio had fallen through and job leads that had drawn me out West didn’t take me anywhere. I started making a little bit of money picking up some freelance writing jobs on the Internet, but that was hardly a career and I had to drag myself to the computer to do it, since most of it was legal-based crap nobody else wanted to write.

The only thing that I ever felt like doing was blogging…but nine months after getting married, it seemed a little pathetic to still be writing on my wedding blog every day. Plus, I wasn’t making any money off of it. I had added Google Ads to the sidebar, but the payout was so limited that I only brought in about $3 over that first year. (Yay.) Every now and then I did a sponsored post or review that got me a little cash or something free, but getting paid in bracelets, printers, and $25 checks is no way to make a living. So, I didn’t see the blog as a money-maker.

 

 

Going Commercial

About one month before the first Altitude Summit Design conference, I saw a book at the library called “Problogger: Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income“. To put this in perspective for you, I was at the library in the middle of the day just to take a break from being home by myself looking through job listings. So, I was basically the perfect market for this book. The only thing that would have topped it would have been a book called “How to Go Back in Time and Not Get a Law Degree Because That Was a Stupid Idea.”

The book got me excited about blogging and I brainstormed a bunch of ideas for money-making blogs. One of the first things that you learn as a blogger is that money-making blogs are a dumb idea because if you don’t love it you won’t stick with it and it will never make you any money. Unfortunately, I was very new at this and didn’t grasp that concept. I started three blogs and they all fell flat because I got bored within a week. They were awful ideas too, including a blog devoted to stickers from the eighties. I’m not even kidding. I got as far as scratch-n-sniff and then realized law school was a great idea in comparison.

So, as a last resort, I brainstormed a list of ways that I could increase the size of my blog about Disney weddings and maybe turn that into something that could finally earn a profit. I bit the bullet and bought the dot com, changing the name of the blog from The $20,000 Disney Wedding to The Disney Wedding Blog and started putting together a list of things that I would have wanted to read about when I was planning my wedding. I got a few new readers, but figured that I would just focus on content and hope that people somehow found me on their own, like the readers had when I was planning our wedding.

Then Princess Lasertron blogged about being sad because she couldn’t attend Alt Summit 2010, which was happening in Salt Lake City. This blog happened just a few days before the conference. And, because I love her site and admire her intensely, I decided that if she wanted to be there, it must be worth attending. So, I went downtown on the first day of registration and signed up, trying to ignore the fact that I had a nothing blog and no clue about anything.

 

 

Alt Summit 2010

Going to Alt Summit was a lot like walking into your first day of the seventh grade…except maybe a little more intimidating. There were bloggers everywhere that I recognized from seeing them online and I knew that these people had advertising deals with big companies and many of them had written books or opened up galleries. Some had been on Martha Stewart and Oprah. Terrifying. Luckily, everyone was buzzing with excitement and they all wanted to chat. I found a group of locals who also were star struck and most of whom only had family blogs, so we sort of huddled together and played “Name That Celebrity Blogger”.

The Early Bird Session was a panel on favorite up-and-coming blogs and in the first twenty minutes I could tell that this was a life-changing moment. Basically, four talented and much-followed bloggers did a presentation on some of their favorite new blogs and why they liked them. They talked about whose banners really caught their attention, the use of white space on the page, the different fonts, the way that the blogger used buttons to tie a page together and make it easy to navigate, etc. I scribbled notes down so fast that I have pages of unfinished sentences and when I went home that night I went to every blog they had talked about, took a screenshot, and proceeded to spend about three hours analyzing what worked aesthetically and how I could use the same design strategies in my blog.

And that was just the early bird session.

It would be too intense to even try to recap the whole next day of the conference, but every session I hit rocked my world and filled my notebook with inspirations and revelations. Here’s a quick list of some of the lightbulbs that ended up having a huge impact on The Disney Wedding Blog:

 

  1. Advertising shouldn’t affect content. If you wouldn’t write it unless someone was giving you the product, you shouldn’t write it because it hurts the authenticity of your site and breaks down your credibility with your readers.
  2. It isn’t enough for a site to be busy with constant posts. It needs to be aesthetic, entertaining, and useful. If you have a post that isn’t any of those three things, don’t bother putting it up.
  3. It’s not a one-sided process. Bloggers (unlike other writers) have an intimate relationship with our readers. You need to talk to them, respond to them, listen to them, and think about things from their perspective. Respect the members of the community you’ve created.
  4. Competitive blogging is pointless. You get much more out of cooperating with other bloggers and supporting them. Working with them will do a lot more for you in the long run than trying to take their traffic, beating them to breaking news, and reusing their material without crediting the source. Being nice pays off…but more importantly not being nice will only screw you in the long run.
  5. Your blog is not a style-free zone. If an ad, photo, or other image doesn’t fit and disrupts the aesthetic of your site, it shouldn’t be there, regardless of how commercially beneficial it is. Same goes with having too many ads or putting too much content on the front page.
  6. Everybody who gets anything has asked for it. People asked to speak at Alt, people ask for relationships with ad networks, people ask for book deals and promotions…if you are professional about it and know what you want, there’s no shame in asking for things.

 

After Alt

Not surprisingly, I went home from the one-day Alt Summit 2010 conference with a massive headache and about twenty pages of scribbled notes. (Oh, and I also went home with my awesome swag bag, a new letterpress kit that I won in a drawing, and about thirty of the cutest business cards you’ve ever seen.) Three days later, I had recovered enough to start working and I basically spent the next week ripping the blog apart so I could put it back together again.

First, I changed the entire aesthetic of the site to make it look more like sites that I had seen/loved at the conference. Then, I created lists and categories full of useful information. I contacted wedding photographers and asked them to send me their best work. I canceled all giveaways that didn’t fit in well with the blog (such as the diaper giveaway I was supposed to do that week) and reached out to wedding sellers on Etsy who were making things that I admired. Oh, and I stirred up the readers and told them that I was taking the blog seriously and hoped they were willing to hang on for the ride while I made some big changes. They were.

Thanks to Alt, I made huge changes over the next six months, with these three being the biggest:

 

  1. I started both a Facebook Fan page and a new Facebook profile to use exclusively for The Disney Wedding Blog. The profile gave me a way to interact on a personal level with my readers without giving everyone access to things like my law school photos or my little brother’s FB profile. I went through and found groups for people who were planning Disney weddings and added them as friends, since they were my target audience. At the moment, those FB friends make up about 30-40% of my daily traffic and it’s my primary way of getting reader requests and sharing new posts.
  2. I contacted other bloggers, podcasters, and social media people to do guest posts and interviews. It brought in traffic, but also helped my credibility since I was expanding the number of people working in the field who knew about me and the site. Since Disney weddings have a huge stereotype to overcome, I figured anything I could do to get more information out there definitely couldn’t hurt!
  3. I blogged daily, trying hard to get posts out in the morning when people were most likely to log in. I stopped talking about our wedding (mostly) and focused on how-to articles, styleboards, and spotlights of real Disney weddings. I also did theme weeks, such as a whole week on Disney cruise weddings or a week on Tokyo Disney events. It ended up being a great way to drum up post ideas, especially for things that I wouldn’t have usually covered, and gave me a good core of posts that came up when people Googled for information on those topics.

 

I was working part-time through all of this doing odd jobs here and there, since I still wasn’t making much money through my traffic (even though my traffic increased more than ten times just four months after the conference). The nice thing was that I was able to pick up more and more work as a freelancer since I could use the blog as an online writing resume, so we were able to make ends meet and finally move out and get our own place. I knew that it would be nice to just write and blog full-time, without the part-time jobs, but couldn’t quite figure out how to make the leap. Finally, I realized that I needed two things: payments from wedding vendors who wanted publicity on the blog and a relationship with a good ad network.

Last summer, I got both of those things, quit my part-time job, and started full-time blogging and writing at home. So far, I have to say that it’s been pretty awesome. I have four sites now, two of which make money and two of which are just for friends and family. It’s important to note that we’ve made lifestyle adjustments to fit my new income, just in case anyone else is thinking about making the jump into full-time blogging. For example, we only own one car at the moment and try not to eat out more than once a week. Could I make more as an attorney? Very, very likely. Do I ever think about going back to the field of law? Never, ever. Ever.

 

In Orlando with Carrie Hayward (co-host of Inside Disney Weddings)
on my first blog-funded “business” trip to Walt Disney World

 

Alt Summit 2011

This year’s conference was amazing, but it was nothing like last year’s conference. Instead of being intimidated and overwhelmed, I was just thrilled to be back in the world of my crazy-talented design friends. It was extended this year to two full days of sessions and an extra dinner, so I spent about two and a half days being giddy out of my mind. Just for the social aspect alone, I think the conference is worth it. There’s nothing like being in a room of hundreds of people who do nothing but create beautiful things and celebrate beautiful things and try to put more beautiful things into the lives of other people. They just get it. And I love them for it.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure if I would be learning anything this year. Since the conference rocked my world so much as a newbie, I thought maybe I had an over-inflated memory of how helpful it was and this year I’d just be listening to a rehash of stuff I already know about blogging. Well, I’m happy to say that I was completely wrong and ended up just as inspired and electrified as last year. I have pages of notes and lists of things I’m planning on changing on my blogs to make them better. Best of all, though, I feel like I got a huge dose of inspiration and a big reminder about how much fun this whole thing is and how I need to make sure I’m having fun with it every day.

I’m a really lucky person. I love the stuff I get to work on every day and I love that I’ll be working on it from home after this baby is born, so I won’t miss a minute of the other important stuff in my life. I love that my blog readers show up and participate in the community and give me a happy, lovely audience to write for. And I really love the people who showed up for the Alt Summits (both #1 and #2) because they inspire me and change my life without even knowing that they’re doing it.

And I can’t wait for Alt Summit #3. (Or BlogHer. Or Evo 11. In fact, if any of you bloggers want to get together next week, I’m totally game…)

 

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