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A rancher and a rabbi turn a blog into a business

(MoneyWatch) There are tens of millions of blogs in the 'sphere, with thousands of new ones popping up every day. Many of their owners dream of turning their blogs into businesses, but with numbers like that, very few do. Judie Stanford and Dan Cohen are among those very few, and I asked them if they'd share some advice on how they turned their site, Gear Diary, from one of countless product review blogs into a leading, multifaceted site with a serious revenue stream.

(Disclosure: My company has done business with Gear Diary. The association has no influence on this article; it has simply given me the opportunity to see, at close range, the growth of a blog from zero to hero in five years.)

Judie Stanford is, of all unlikely things, a rancher by profession. She started Gear Diary in 2006 after writing for one of the earliest tech review sites, The Gadgeteer. Stanford set off on her own to create, as she calls it, "a comfortable and friendly place to discuss interesting topics and a wide variety of new gear -- not just tech." A couple of years later, Dan Cohen, of all unlikely things a rabbi by profession, joined Judie, and became senior editor.

Judie started Gear Diary with little technical web experience and negligible investment; just a passion for her concept and a lot of hard work. Her goal was for the blog to make $1,000 a month within six months -- she hit that goal, and then some.

In the early going, Judie worked her way up to around 5,000 page views per day; respectable for a startup blog, but by no means knocking it out of the park. Fast-forward to today: Gear Diary is a respected review and commentary site with a 600 percent increase in visitors in five years, tens of thousands of daily page views, a growing stable of writers, editors and contributors, access to industry insiders, and a steady stream of advertising revenue. The site has become a very real business, even as Stanford and Cohen continue to tend to their respective flocks.

I asked Judie and Dan to share some tips for people looking to turn their posts into profits. By now everyone knows that "content is king," so that was stipulated. They gave me more than I can fit in this column, but here are some of their key pieces of advice:

1. Don't write for the money. That may sound counter-intuitive if your goal is to generate income from your blog, but don't write what you think other people will want to read. Focus instead on writing what you want and are passionate about. "Write what you would like to read," Cohen says. Being original, genuine and engaging is what builds readership, and building readership is the only way to make money blogging. Blog as a labor of love if you want to have a hope of being paid for the effort.

2. Understand your readers. Writing what you want doesn't mean being arrogant or insensitive to your readers. Get to know them and let them get to know you. In the case of Gear Diary, Stanford and Cohen found that their readers, though gadget-lovers, prefer down-to-earth conversation over hyper-geekiness. So the blog avoids excessive jargon and takes a more personal approach to technology.

3. Be responsive and respectful. Stay involved in the conversation as much as possible, so readers know that you're not just talking at them. If readers write comments that warrant replies, respond; putting a person behind the posts makes a huge difference. Expect and accept criticism -- it comes with the territory -- and if you disagree, do so intelligently and respectfully. Show similar respect for other bloggers; this is an enterprise in which there is usually more to be gained through mutual support than competition. Know that while controversy and confrontation work for some bloggers, it's not for everyone.

4. Operate with absolute integrity. Whether it is dealing with manufacturers on product reviews, handling confidential information, working with outside contributors or making necessary disclosures, never do anything to compromise your credibility. If you do product reviews, don't do them just to get free stuff -- people catch on to that quickly and your credibility will go down the tubes. That said, if you are sent free products, tell your readers, don't write pandering reviews, and whenever possible, give the goods away: use them for contests (readers love that) or donate them to charity.

5. Finally, learn the "operational" elements. Once you've put the pieces in place, use all the tools at your disposal to get yourself out there. Master social media. Become an expert in content management, site optimization and search, the proper way to build links, even getting recognized as a source for other media. And of course, inevitably learn how to turn all of it into revenue, using advertising programs like Google Adsense or blogads, a variety of Amazon offerings, or affiliate programs like Commission Junction.

Blogging as a business is anything but an "if you build it, they will come" proposition. For Gear Diary and others who have succeeded, building the blog is the least of it. Keeping it constantly filled with good stuff, engaging and genuinely loving your audience, establishing relevance and credibility, and doing everything with scrupulous professionalism improve your odds of turning your musings into money.

Image courtesy of Gear Diary.

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