(Still) Not All Fun and Games
It’s been four months since my affiliate site felt like a well-oiled machine. An especially tumultuous May was followed by a triumphant June, but now July and August have experienced significant decreases in Amazon earnings. At the same time, I’ve been spending more than ever on back-end development tasks.
I’ve noticed that my motivation and enjoyment of the project directly relates to the amount of technical issues I must spend time (and money) on during each month. August left me feeling pretty uninspired.
Given steady traffic I was seeing (~4K visitors/day), I hoped my mid-month earnings check would signal the end of the site’s apparent ‘Summer Slump.’ On the contrary: things looked even worse than July.
What the heck?
I didn’t expect my new high watermark from June ($7K+) would be consistent every month now. But nor did I think earnings would trend downward for the next 60 days.
2021 Goal: Double niche site income within 12 months.
Looking back at historical data, I saw a bit of a decrease in Amazon earnings in July 2020—but August numbers still recovered enough to surpass May.
This year, August 2021 Amazon earnings are down 28% from May 2021. I’m seeing no signs of recovery for that income stream since June. Given traffic has been steady, that really worries me.
Something has shifted, but I can’t figure out what.
This Month in a Nutshell
The good news is that traffic seems fine, and earnings losses are isolated to the Amazon Affiliates Program.
The downside is that Amazon previously generated ~$3K/month, or 50% of my monthly revenue.
While I wait to see how that all shakes out, I’ve been working with the new developer I found on Upwork to check off some backend tasks. From upgrading my hosting service to cleaning up plugins, his work *should* improve the longterm stability and security of the site.
This Month: $5,843.93
Remember that time I crossed $7K for the first time in June? That was pretty darn fun!
Back at the end of 2020, I’d have been thrilled to earn this month’s $5,800. Now that I’m trying to sustain an average of $7K/month for this year, though, it’s harder to view the last two months as “wins” vs. warning signs.
That said, I’m happy to report that ads reached the second-highest level yet (after June) with over $3,200!
To put things in perspective, the ad revenue this month was equivalent to what I made for ALL of August one year ago.
In order to meet my 2x income goal, though, I need the site to earn $250/day. In August, I averaged $188/day—down from $243/day in June and $192/day in July.
(Fun Fact: This month, the site paid for all the development expenses I incurred for August and bulked up the “oops fund” that I keep on-hand for my other business.)
This Month: 125,347
Normally, I’m able to make a fairly accurate guess where earnings will land based on the monthly site traffic. That skill seems to be waning.
A few months ago, I earned more than $7,300 with 105K visitors. In mid-August, I was sitting at $4,700 when the site crossed the same traffic level. That was pretty frustrating.
On a happier note, the site set a new record for single-day traffic with 5,700 visitors on August 7.
I don’t want to have a bunch of knee-jerk reactions based on the traffic/earnings quandary (e.g. August saw six days with traffic under 4,000, compared to July that only had one.). For now, I’m letting things play out and focusing on other tasks.
You might recall that last month I talked about a strange trend with home page traffic. In mid-June, at almost exactly the same time the new site speed company ‘fixed’ our Google Analytics code, reported traffic to our home page jumped.
It hasn’t gone down again, though overall traffic has stayed steady. That either means the reporting is still doing weird things (Please, internet gods, say it isn’t so.) OR a comparable amount of traffic has been lost from other pages.
I have yet to come up with any reasonable explanation for why this might be.
As Doug always reminds me, it’s important to zoom out and remember the progress I’ve made.
In late 2018, when I started the site, I was thrilled to earn $14 TOTAL in my first full month.
I both applaud how far I’ve come—and accept that my standards for “success” have changed. Consistent growth is required to get the site where I want/need it to be now, so it’s also ok to feel a bit disappointed with the past couple months.
Remember: May and June traffic was underreported due to a Google Analytics error.
This Month: $2,064.76
If you’ve been following my journey this year, you know I planned to invest $15,000 in growth-related tasks this year. In August, I officially passed that level of expenses—landing at $15,920.
Now, I have to decide how much more it might make sense to invest in the last four months of the year.
Here’s where my funds went in August:
- $120 | Flywheel monthly hosting
- $25 | Nonprofit donations for our diversity program
- $1,996.76 | Developer hours
- ($300) | Site speed company partial refund
- $119 | Teachable Pro subscription
- $54 | Shopify (6 months)
- $50 | Holiday sprint article copywriting
As you can tell, my biggest expense category was development—by a long shot. It actually makes me gulp to see the number in that list. Yikes.
Not only did I sign on to more than $1,000 extra annual expenses for future hosting, I’ve been shelling out more money on backend (read: not fun) projects.
Activities & Accomplishments
I always like to begin this section with a recap of my plans for 2021. Things are going generally to plan, except I still haven’t put any focus on the homepage redesign or lead magnets—and my first course launch is officially running behind.
Given that I crossed my $15K investment goal for the year already, I don’t plan on jumping into a home page redesign in 2021.
The proprietary math tool and ebook plans will also likely have to wait.
So, what did I end up focusing on most in August?
Focus Area: Upgrading Site Hosting
After this summer’s site speed debacle, it was suggested that better site hosting might be a good idea. I’d been using Bluehost since starting the site, but the amount of traffic has dramatically increased. The site also has a ton of imagery, so a better host should also be able to improve the visitor experience and “perceived” speed.
I decided to go with Flywheel after my developer recommended it. After two weeks (ugh!), the support team finally came up with a custom plan that would meet our needs.
“It has Staging, it’s on a dedicated server, and has all the other Flywheel features. The cost is $120 and it comes with 50GB disk space, 250GB bandwidth, and would handle 150k visits/month.”
The actual migration from Bluehost to Flywheel ended up being a debacle of its own. I had prepaid the site speed company to move the site over, but they tried multiple times unsuccessfully. Eventually, my confidence was so low that I asked the new developer to take over and handle the transition himself.
He was able to get the site moved, and the site speed company refunded me $300 for not handling that piece themselves.
Focus Area: Backend Site Cleanup
You know how when you’re driving along on the highway and think you hear a weird sound coming from the engine? It’s not super loud, and there aren’t any warning lights going off on the dashboard.
You consider just turning up the radio, but then you think better of it.
You take the car into the shop and have it looked at just in case. Then, you immediately regret it.
If you let a mechanic look under the hood for long, he’ll find a bunch of other stuff that needs fixing.
That’s basically what happened to me this month. I have a new developer with fresh eyes and deep technical expertise. The flip side of those benefits is that he discovered a bunch of outdated, insecure, and ineffectual things that should be fixed.
If this was happening during my top-earning month, I would probably feel better about it. But after two months of declining earnings, spending a whopping $2,000 on development cleanup was a real bummer.
Here are the kinds of items my developer worked on:
- Analyzing all site plugins (this was a team effort), removing unnecessary ones, updating useful ones, and troubleshooting buggy ones
- Repairing several database issues (e.g. buggy table rows) that are common in older WordPress sites
- Troubleshooting funky site formatting and functionality issues after moving hosts
He also planned to implement the site speed company’s optimizations (since they weren’t able to migrate our hosting and do it themselves). Sadly, after I got the list of what they were proposing, it was only settings tweaks on a handful of plugins. My developer said very little work was actually done for the amount I paid them ($1400).
In fact, after looking through the list, he said none of them were necessary or would move the needle. Anything the plugins were trying to accomplish, he could do through coding.
The new hosting service should provide the majority of site speed improvement and stability, but I’m kicking myself for spending so much on what ended up being a short list of plugin settings I could’ve Googled myself.
When I asked the developer if there was any good news…
Him: “I will need to do more in depth testing. But, surprisingly, I didn’t even find a single PHP warning. That is very rare.”
Me: “So not everything is a train wreck?”
Him: “Correct, lol.”
Focus Area: Online Course Prep
I made some progress on my tasks for our first course this month, though less than I had planned. All the development tasks (explained above) took much longer than expected, so I’m now hoping to get our course live in September. Luckily, I have my team helping me get everything ready!
The first course will likely cost between $100-200, which means I’ll need to sell 12-25 before breaking even.
I’m also awaiting draft content for our second online course in mid-September. This is being spearheaded by an expert in my niche, though the content is already more than a month behind. I’m bartering with the author, so I’ve had to remind myself that getting good content on the cheap… won’t be fast.
Fingers crossed the time and money invested to create courses pays off!
Focus Area: First Physical Product
This is a good example of the type of project that does inspire me! Creating a physical product is something I’ve wanted to do for more than a year, but it was a lower priority.
When I was feeling bummed about Amazon earnings, I decided to pivot and spend some time on this fun project.
It’ll be an educational deck of cards about my niche, and I finally got one of my freelance writers drafting some of the copy. Plus, I found an illustrator on Etsy who is going to do the packaging design. I’m really excited to see everything come together this fall.
Focus Area: Holiday Content Sprint
SEO-rich blogs are the bread and butter of my site, but I haven’t done a content sprint since the spring. Instead, I’ve been working on things like my online course, the knowledge directory, and our diversity program.
This month, I’m getting back into the content game with a 25-article sprint. Every article is based on my SEO research and specifically geared toward the holiday season.
My hope is to finish this spring by mid-October so the content has adequate time to rank with Google prior to November/December online shopping.
Focus Area: National Brand Collaboration
Speaking of projects I actually enjoy, this is shaping up to be another one! A national apparel brand in my niche reached out about doing some collaboration (e.g. product reviews, diversity program overlap).
Within five minutes of our discovery call, it felt like I was talking to old friends. They clearly knew about my site, what I’m trying to do, and saw value in it. #swoon
The conversation snowballed into a potential freelance writing assignment, which could be super fun.
I spent the following week putting together a fancy (if I do say so myself) pitch about how we might work together more in the future, and I’m really excited to see where it goes.
- New Income Streams: In the four and a half months that I’ve had my knowledge directory and PDF guides live, they generated ~$220. While that’s nowhere near my top earning income streams, it’s shows that it’s possible to supplement outside programs with internal efforts. After all, that’s more than my site made during its first four months total.
- Expert Developer: I complain about the cost and time of development projects, but my new guy certainly has technical chops. He’s been able to address every one of my questions and site issues so far.
- Ads: For the second month in a row, I’m so glad I have ads on my site. Though Amazon affiliate income down, my ad income held steady. Plus, I reached my two-year anniversary with Mediavine, which means I get a bigger loyalty bonus!
What’s Not Working
- Site Speed Optimizations: I was *so* optimistic about the new company I found on Upwork in June. Unfortunately, after paying $1,400, I saw virtually zero output. It turned out they were waiting on me to set up the new hosting service (but didn’t mention that), and their site speed optimizations amounted to a few settings tweaks on plugins. This is the second company in a row that didn’t live up to my expectations, so I’m officially throwing in the towel on site speed agencies. If my new developer finds ways to improve things, great. The time and money (and stress) spent on this issue wasn’t worth it.
- Amazon Affiliates: In June, I earned more than $3,300 from Amazon—a new record. Come August, though, it’s dropped to 68% of what I had been making. This is the issue I spend the most time stressing about at the moment. If things don’t turn around in September, there’s little chance I’ll be able to hit my 2021 goal of 2x income.
On the Horizon
I feel like I’m crying wolf about my online course launch, but I *really* hope it can happen in September. I’d planned to launch it by June, so I’m already three months behind. My team has to wait on me while I’m putting out other fires, but there are only so many hours in a day.
Eventually, this course WILL launch!
Here’s what else I plan to focus on next month:
- Holiday content sprint (25 articles over Sept/Oct)
- Testing home page ads (historically turned off) to see if it offsets some Amazon losses
- A custom ad placement tool that will let me promote internal resources (e.g. knowledge directory, PDF guides) within all my existing blog posts.
- Draft content review for the second course
- Review draft illustrations for physical product packaging
- My attitude! I need to spend less time worrying about whether this July/August downturn will continue, and more time being proactive about new income streams.
As the owner of a traditional service business (6 years and counting), my affiliate website was a mental palette cleanser. Instead of dealing with issues, customers, or operations, I could focus on creative and content.
I think that’s why the past few months have been somewhat disheartening. Spending most of my time in technical weeds like site speed, hosting, and plugins leaves little energy for the things I’m good at.
That’s why I kicked off my holiday content sprint early. It’s why I engaged an illustrator for my physical product. It’s why I spent a week designing proposals for a national brand collaboration that may, or may not, go anywhere.
You have to make time for the tasks that give you joy and keep you motivated!