His barbecue site generates $100,000 a month
Smoked Barbecue Source became one of the leading search results in Google for those who wanted to learn how to grill.
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Joseph Clements did what a lot of people do when they start a new blog: he wrote a few posts, got bored, and largely abandoned it.
But then something happened that pulled him back in. He logged into his analytics dashboard and saw he had received a few thousand hits from Google searches. The blog, Smoked Barbecue Source, served as kind of a beginner’s guide to cooking barbecue, and apparently a lot of people were stumbling upon it while conducting research on Google. What’s more, several of them had clicked on Amazon affiliate links and purchased expensive grills, which meant the site was already producing passive income.
Clements was hooked. Now, a few years later, the site generates millions of pageviews and tens of thousands of dollars a month. I interviewed him about why he chose barbecue as a topic, where he sources his content, and how he diversified his revenue so he’s now a lot less reliant on Amazon.
How and when did you first get interested in barbecue?
Growing up, my dad was a strict vegetarian (so no chicken or fish or anything). While Mum cooked meat every so often it was definitely a treat and something I always wanted more of!
In New Zealand, barbecue means something very different. It's more what you would consider grilling in the US.
So I never even knew about proper barbecue until my mid 20s. A few of my friends were into Football, so one year for our Super Bowl party I attempted to do proper barbecue ribs. They turned out pretty bad. But it motivated me to learn how to cook them properly.
I got a hand me down old Weber Kettle, and started teaching myself. This would have been around 2016 so there were a few good videos on YouTube to learn from and lots of articles on the web but also lots of conflicting advice
Even though I'm not from the US, I got really interested in the history and the process behind cooking traditional "low and slow" style barbecue.
What made you start thinking about creating a website dedicated to this newfound interest?
I was already working in the web design industry, working for a web design company helping customers with marketing. Mostly small service businesses and ecom stores.
I really wanted to create my own website, but I didn't know that you could just build a business around content, so I was always thinking I needed to come up with an idea for a product to sell.
I was keen to set up a website for myself, and since I was just getting more into barbecue, I thought that would be a good topic to build the site around.
Originally I thought I would just use it to practice writing, learn some new skills with WordPress and different plugins, and have a playground to experiment with different marketing tactics which I could apply to my real job. That was if it ever got any visitors. At that stage I had no idea how to go about driving traffic or the power of SEO.
What did the early posts look like?
I didn't have much of a strategy in place. In the early days I would research other blogs and read articles about content marketing for inspiration. Then I would try and apply that to barbecue.
Because I wasn't an expert, I made the decision early on to position myself as an amateur trying to get better. So a lot of the early articles would be about something I was just learning, and I would essentially research the topic and document everything I could find.
Because I wasn't an expert, I put a lot of effort into gathering quotes and opinions from reliable sources, and combining a lot of info into a single easy to read piece. Looking back I think this really helped the site gain some early tracition with Google.
I also did some original recipes, taking my own amateur photos. Some of them are still doing quite well even today!
Luckily the standards aren't as high as your typical food blog in terms of having amazingly staged, professional photography. Although that's something we are doing more now.
After a few months the site would have had a few informational guides, some recipes and resource pages. I also did a few product reviews and recommendations based on what I was using and the research I did into what products to buy.
You kind of got bored with it after writing a few posts and took a hiatus, right? What made you come back to working on it?
Like most new projects I got really into it for the first few months and probably published about 10 articles, and then life and work got in the way and I stopped publishing.
At some point in that initial burst I had come across the Amazon Associates program, and decided to sign up even though I didn't think it would ever really make any money.
After a few months of not touching the website, I checked my account and realized I had made $2 that month.
I thought that was crazy, but was still busy so didn't do anything.
The next month I sold a smoker worth $300 which paid a $24 commission at the time.
I realized that if a tiny website only a few months old could make $24, I could probably put some real effort into it and maybe turn it into a little side busy earning a few hundred a month.
So I got stuck into publishing new articles.
Where were you getting your audience in those early days?
It was almost exclusively coming from Google.
Just a trickle in those first few months. By around six months in the site hit 1,000 pageviews
And by that Christmas it had grown 10x to 10,000
Still almost all Google.
So what changed after you decided to take it more seriously? How often were you posting? How did your coverage evolve?
When the site started making money I got really interested in affiliate marketing.
It had quite a stigma attached to it, but I realized lots of the biggest, most reputable websites were using affiliate marketing so I spent a lot of time learning more about it.
During that time the coverage shifted to cover more products. I would spend hours researching different products and pulling together different buying guides where we would recommend the best product across different categories.
In many cases I couldn't physically get my hands on the product. Living in Australia (I moved from NZ soon after the site was launched) lots of items just weren't available.
But I came up with a process where I could still add value by combing through forums, Facebook groups, and reading thousands of product reviews on different ecommerce websites.
At that stage I was probably posting about two articles per month
I aimed to keep a split between information articles, guides, recipes, and product reviews.
There were a lot of websites at the time doing blatant affiliate marketing with no educational content or real branding. I wanted the website to actually be helpful and to eventually build a following so I was always careful to strike a balance.
With more frequent posting and more affiliate content, the traffic and earnings grew rapidly to the point where I could start hiring writers. I was still working full time doing marketing for a local bank so at this stage it was still an evenings and weekends project.
You eventually diversified beyond Amazon to other affiliate sites and display advertising, correct?
That's right. After the first Christmas when the site made almost $2,000 we were hit by a large change to the Amazon affiliate program.
I started reaching out to other manufacturers who had their own ecommerce websites.
I started to use Amazon as more of a testing ground and then once I could see that a product was selling well I would try to build a relationship with the brand and link directly to them.
I also set up display ads through Adsense initially, which paid next to nothing. Once the site hit the 100,000 monthly pageviews point I was able to sign up to Adthrive and I believe my RPMs went from about $4 to $16 within a few months.
Nowadays Ad revenue pays more than any one single affiliate, and makes up about 25% of our total revenue.
While our buying guides and reviews remained a crucial part of the site, the Ad revenue opened up a lot of opportunities to publish on a wider range of topics
So over the next two or three years after founding it, how much did your traffic and revenue grow?
Both traffic and revenue were at least doubling every year.
By the end of our first year we had received 28,000 pageviews
By the end of the second year it was 800,000.
End of the third year 1.6 million.
We were lucky to ride a wave with barbecue becoming more popular, especially with the younger audience. There is definitely a strong "hipster" element to the scene now.
Our content strategy also did very well with Google.
What does your workflow look like today? Is it still just you producing content? How much are you producing on a weekly basis?
Learning how to manage an editorial team has been a slow process.
After the site had some initial success I started hiring freelance writers, but without much of a system in place the initial results were mixed.
I was also such a perfectionist that I would still spend several hours tweaking the freelancers articles.
Today we publish about 16 articles per month. We have a dedicated editor who helps me manage our team of writers and someone dedicated to uploading and formatting content in WordPress.
We have five writers contributing currently, and one person dedicated to product testing and reviews.
We've also recently brought someone on board to produce videos for the site and YouTube.
Everything is a lot more streamlined and templated. We use Asana to manage everything and keep quality consistent.
Our focus now is to find people from different backgrounds who are creating amazing barbecue, but who don't have a platform of their own.
We have people writing for the site that have competed in barbecue competitions and won awards.
I don't do much of the actual content creation any more. I still like to do a final check over most of the content, but most of my time is spent hiring and working with our new content creators to come up with ideas for future articles.
I also spend a lot of time on the business side, working out deals with different manufacturers, and looking at growing alternative channels like our Pinterest, email, and YouTube.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.