Blog project: Monroe on a Budget

monroe on a budget blog headerFor other portfolio pieces, go to the links on my home page.

By Paula Wethington

One of the key pieces of my professional portfolio is Monroe on a Budget, a personal finance blog and website written for a southeast Michigan audience that I ran from January 2007-March 2015.

It was launched at a time when The Monroe News in Monroe, Mich., encouraged its newsroom staff to contribute to our newly launched community blog network. I pitched a couple of topic ideas to get involved; and this one was immediately accepted. My co-workers were big fans from the start even though it was a few months before readership noticeably picked up.

During its run, Monroe on a Budget was part of my work duties and hosted on our newspaper’s servers. I treated it as a reporting beat, newspaper column, and mini news site while I discussed topics relevant to families who were getting by on tighter budgets than usual. With about three to five hours a week devoted to the project, I built up quite a library of posts and pages with statistics from economic studies, Q&A sessions with coupon experts, show and tell snapshots of bargain brags, list of thrift shops in our community, tips about applying for college scholarship money, and links to headlines of the day.

Monroe on a Budget consistently ranked as our most successful in-house blog in terms of page views, and eventually beat even our most popular community bloggers as the top-ranked site in the network.

The website tracking stats I have recovered do not include late 2011 and most of 2012 as we had used two different systems and records from that time frame is lost. But I was able to retrieve data that shows a solid run of more than 20,000 page views a month from summer 2009-sumer 2011. The peak month was October 2013 with 50,000 page views as I discussed the federal government shutdown and resulting impact on pocketbook issues.

Along the way, I built up Facebook page fan count of about 1,500. My Twitter followers topped 4,000. My most popular Pinterest pin on a budget topic had 416 repins with a discussion of how much it costs to host trick-or-treat.

As the recession worsened, I was linked to by the Monroe County Library System in their collection of local resources. I asked to be a panelist three times at a county-wide social workers conference, my speaking engagements in the community included keynote speaker at Monroe County Fair Ladies Day show in 2010, and I was a recurring guest on WMIM 98.3 FM‘s morning show. Monroe Bank & Trust, a local bank, also honored me with Green Apple personal finance award in 2014.

And as the personal finance, frugal living and couponing genre exploded on the Internet to include thousands of voices, Monroe on a Budget consistently earned top 200 spots in national blog rankings as compiled by WiseBread and MoneyCrashers.

Monroe News page featuring Monroe on a BudgetThe highest daily traffic on my site came with my 10 rules for playing fair with couponing feature; a spike that happened after the piece was quoted and linked to by the MSN Smart Spending blog. About two weeks later, I turned that blog piece into a Sunday feature for my newspaper.

The reason I pulled such high numbers compared to others that were in my network or in my genre is that I learned by experience how to succeed in the digital world. Here’s what I did:

  • I noticed that headlines or articles that were based on search engine keywords would bring in more readers on that topic. Because of that, I made reviewing incoming keywords part of my content planning strategy.
  • I linked to sites and articles I liked on blogs and sites that had similar topics because I thought that would be useful to my readers. By the time I learned search engines see inbound and outbound links as an indicator of credibility, those connections were solidly established.
  • I picked up ideas about layout, content and formatting from other frugal living websites.
  • I adopted Twitter and later a Facebook page as a way to talk with my readers, soon realizing social media was a marketing strategy in addition to community outreh.
  • I adopted writing styles long used in print media; realizing that formatting details such as subheads and bullet lists worked well in digital as well.

Monroe on a Budget newspaper columnAlthough Monroe on a Budget was primarily a digital media project, some content did make its way into the newspaper. The first such feature was in March 2009; in conjunction with my first two speaking appearances in the community. A weekly newspaper column launched in 2012 and the column continued until the project wrapped up in early 2015.

The topics that appeared in the newspaper included explaining the “Obama phone” program, a playlist of popular songs that talked about money issues, and Q&A sessions with personal finance authors and speakers.

The 2010 back to school series that I co-hosted with another blogger included print and digital media cross-promotions that doubled my website traffic that week. I also produced a public service project every year in keeping with Michigan’s severe weather awareness campaign.

The end began when Facebook changed its news feed formula in late 2013.

I would write a blog post and then link to it on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest as usual. But niche topics were hit hard by Facebook’s news feed formula change and reach dropped dramatically. This led to a spiraling drop in traffic to my website.

By late 2014, I had about 4,000 page views a month on the site. That’s still remarkable for a blog; but the expectation at the time is that freelance bloggers needed 10,000 views a month to get sponsors.

I wasn’t the only one affected by Facebook’s shift. I noticed a panicky mood among other frugal living, personal finance, small business and parenting page admins as they tried a variety of content and linking strategies to boost their reach. I watched fan count growth grind to a screeching halt on the newsroom’s other spinoff pages such as the reporter personality pages and our parenting section page. Clearly it was not a content problem when Facebook Insights showed I had picked up the correct demographics and geography and 2014 was a huge year for The Monroe News‘ main Facebook page. This was a news feed problem.

I couldn’t find any research in 2014 to show that paying for promoted posts or like campaigns would have a long-term impact in restoring reach and driving traffic to my site. It seemed like a waste of money when there was limited opportunity for return on the investment. Therefore, I never set up a Facebook advertising account and assumed the marketing opportunities that once existed in that platform were done.

However, I was running out of alternatives. The weekly email subscriptions never were more than 100. The personal finance blog communities’ partnership projects that drove traffic to participating websites such as mine were disbanding. I no longer did the radio station interviews; as my husband had been hired at a competing radio station. I never wrote a book or e-book; reason being that money-saving strategies are so reliant on “here and now” details that even my standard speaking engagement script needed to be rewritten about every six months. I couldn’t launch a local coupon and sales matching database as other sites did to bring in subscriptions because my target geographic area  was too small to support that.

Mobile view of Monroe on a BudgetI also realized from the economic statistics that the issues my local audience faced were more chronic than immediate. The phrase I started to hear by 2014 was “suburban poor.”

The solution is reliable, good-paying jobs in the communities where people live.

My tips and tactics could go only so far.

I concluded Monroe on a Budget was back to the niche topic I launched in 2007.

Then in early 2015, the newspaper sponsorship was dropped amid staffing and content changes in our newsroom. There wouldn’t be time in my work week to spend on the project. I wrapped up the last topics I wanted to write about, gave my last couponing class and wrote a closing piece. Over the next few months, I archived selected content and stats offline and rebranded my social media accounts. The blog itself went down in early 2016.

It’s fair to say that eight years of handling a reporting beat or topic that I had never previously tackled, resulting in both local and national recognition, is a huge accomplishment.

What did I learn from this effort?

  • How to launch a project and run it, from experimental startup to a graceful finish.
  • How to use WordPress’s tools and formats.
  • How to use search engine stats and keywords for content decisions.
  • The pros and cons of relying on organic social media as a key marketing strategy.
  • The shady side of SEO marketing, as well into late 2016 I continued to get unsolicited and unwelcome pitches from third parties asking for me to add links or guest post content to their site.
  • The fact that readers are more likely come to your site because a headline for a specific article gets their attention on email, social media or on a search engine page; than because they went to your home page for the latest posts.
  • Why a “call to action” at the end of your article or links to related content is important in encouraging first-time visitors to come back or look around.
  • That a journalist’s research, skills and experience can make a digital project stand out from those run by hobby or just for fun bloggers.

What other work have I done in communications and media? Take a look at the links I have on this site, including my social media portfolio page.