Like many of the featured creators here, PJ is no stranger to this blog.
PJ and I have spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of blogging, and she is someone who has truly embodied the notion of re-invention. Three (!!) blogs and countless contributor gigs are proof of that. I have found her professional ingenuity and personal moxie to be a constant source of inspiration for my own blogging journey, and knew that her story would be of interest to many of you who are figuring out current (or next) steps of your own.
If you don’t know PJ, a few quick facts:
She is the wife to a former Air Force officer, and has two young sons (ages 6 and 3). She lives in Maryland, just outside Washington DC.
So let’s get started (portraits credit: Lauren Louise Photography)!
We met almost 5 (!!) years ago at Alt Summit in Salt Lake City. I believe we all shared a car to go to dinner on the first night. I remember loving your business card and the name of your blog – Bunny & Dolly. Tell us a bit about how you started blogging (always my favorite question)! What were your goals for those blogs, and were they the same goals each time or did things change along the way?
I remember those business cards – they had a photo of me and my first-born son when he was about one-year-old. I was so nervous about creating super amazing business cards for Alt Summit and was SO RELIEVED that they seemed to go over well!
My goals for my three blogs definitely varied. When I started Somewhere in Middle America in 2007, blogs weren’t super popular yet – and I definitely don’t think they were making much (if any) money. They still had that diary-like feel to them. I remember reading Design*Sponge and Oh Joy! and loving how they were sharing their favorite people, places and things. I thought that starting a blog chronicling my move from New York City to Omaha would make for an interesting “online diary” and be a good way to share my adventures with my friends back east (in case you’re wondering, the name came from the lyrics to the Counting Crows’ song “Omaha”!).
In 2010 I was working from home as a copywriter for an online retailer and hadn’t told them I was pregnant when I got the job. I couldn’t blog about my pregnancy on Somewhere in Middle America because they read it, so I created Bunny & Dolly as an outlet to write about all things pregnancy-related. Mommy blogs were becoming more popular at that time and bloggers were making money with banner ads. I had a feeling I could grow my audience (and my piggybank) more easily if I focused on Bunny & Dolly baby posts, rather than general lifestyle posts on Somewhere in Middle America. At some point that year I made the switch to Bunny & Dolly.
When I grew tired of writing solely about motherhood, I rebranded as A Girl Named PJ. I used my first name in the name because I wanted to be the face of my blog. I guess I was trying to become an “influencer” of sorts? I was also starting to get more freelance gigs and wanted the blog to be something like a portfolio of all the topics I was capable of writing about. I think I ended up struggling because I didn’t have a clearly defined niche for A Girl Named PJ like I did with Bunny & Dolly. And Somewhere in Middle America could’ve proven to be more successful if I really positioned myself as an Omaha expert/influencer, but at the time I didn’t push myself to get out there and explore.
Hindsight’s 20/20, right? Looking back myself, I know that there were many things I could have done differently to position my blog more effectively. But as I read your process (and followed you personally for much of it), it felt like you always had a plan and were working toward a specific goal. What would you have changed if you could, knowing what you know now? Would you have stayed with one blog over another? And do you feel the struggle between writing about the things that you are passionate about (and are pertinent to the life you’re living NOW), and focusing on what’s “trending” and “SEO-worthy”?
There are a few things I would’ve done differently starting with Somewhere in Middle America. First, I would have really honed my niche: an Omaha-centric lifestyle blog. At the time, I was new to the area and didn’t think I had any expertise to share, but a blog about discovering the city could’ve been just as interesting and eventually turned me into a local expert! To be honest, I think I was a bit embarrassed about living in Nebraska, and bummed that there weren’t as many “photo opps” as say, NYC or LA.
If I had grown Somewhere in Middle America in that way, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt the need to start my other blogs. But again, I regret not really narrowing my focus for Bunny & Dolly and A Girl Named PJ. It may seem counterintuitive, but trying to be everything to everybody is a terrible way to grow an audience! I always struggled with developing my target audience and creating an “imaginary reader”. Somehow that person was always just like me! Not that I don’t think you should write for yourself but….
And I definitely felt the struggle between writing about issues and topics related to my life and focusing on SEO. My problem was that I wasn’t really an expert on anything EXCEPT my life – I liked to decorate but wasn’t a designer; I liked clothing but wasn’t a terribly adventurous dresser; I liked movies but didn’t watch a ton of them, etc. – and my life wasn’t that exciting!
(I realize I’m writing about blogging in the past tense. That’s because I haven’t updated my blog in months….).
Also – and this is random – I probably would’ve devoted more energy into growing Pinterest when it first appeared on the scene. I remember thinking that it didn’t really apply to the type of blogging I was doing, but so many people grew their audience in the early days of Pinterest.
There’s truly no road map for this, is there? All you ever hear about at conferences or on podcasts is that “content is king” – that if you can stay true to your own voice and write from a place of authenticity, then the readers will somehow magically come. But it really doesn’t work that way, does it? And it’s so hard not to feel the pull of those pesky keywords.
One thing I want to touch on is your work creating content for other sites. Can you share with us the sites you’ve written/are writing for, and how those opportunities came about? Were you starting to think about winding down your own blog or was this going to be a way to (hopefully) build your portfolio and maybe expand your reach? What has that experience been like for you?
I always HATED when established bloggers at conferences would insist that “content is king.” Because it’s not. Luck has so much to do with it — almost as much as who you know. Just like in any other industry, connections are so important in the blog world. Money, too. Call me cynical, but I think money does buy readers. Not literally, but when you can invest in your blog’s design and photography out of the gate, you definitely have an advantage. And if you can hire writers, you can churn out content more quickly, and having more content provides more chances to be found in searches. And so on and so on…
That’s not to say that content isn’t important. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to contribute to other sites if it weren’t for my content. I was able to use my blog as my portfolio to showcase my writing, my photography, my knowledge on particular topics, and my creativity. I suppose it was my authenticity (buzzword!) that helped me secure a few of my gigs, at least in the beginning.
I got my first gig in 2008 the old-fashioned way: I applied to a job posting. Actually, one of my friends sent me the listing; I think she found it on Mediabistro.com. It was a contributor position at Lemondrop.com, a new “edgy women’s lifestyle site from AOL,” and it paid! My thinking at the time was probably something like “I can make money from writing online? Sign me up!” Also, I still had dreams leftover from college of one day becoming a magazine writer, and having a byline on a legitimate website from AOL was as close as I had ever come.
Of course, I’m sure I was also hoping for some page views for my own blog!
As for the gigs that followed, I landed most through networking! A quick, likely incomplete rundown:
Craftstylish.com – This crafty website was a spin-off of a crafting magazine where my friend worked. I met the editor when I was helping my friend work the SF Renegade Craft Fair and we brainstormed a column together (at the time, I was considering opening a stationery store).
Elizabeth Anne Designs Living – This was a lifestyle spin-off of a wedding website. I believe I met the girl who ran it at the National Stationery Show; we had a few friends in common. I took this non-paying gig for exposure.
The Neighborhood – Vivint, the home security company, started a blog, and I met the team running it at Alt Summit (Yay Alt!). The post topics I was assigned didn’t have much to do with what I was already writing about on my blog, so this gig I took strictly for the money.
Cool Mom Picks – My sister was working for the father of one of the founders, Liz, and connected the two of us. I was really excited about this contributor position because Cool Mom Picks was (and still is) a super popular website. I was hoping it would establish me as more of an authority in the mommy blog world. It was also the first time I got to work with PR people and test products. Plus, I got paid (but not much…)!
Techwalla – I’m trying to remember how I got this gig… I believe it’s because I met someone from eHow at Alt Summit, wrote a post or two for them, and then they connected me with Techwalla. This was a paid gig that also connected me with PR people. While some of the assigned technology posts weren’t necessarily in my wheelhouse, I pitched a lot of beauty/home stories that I thought might have crossover interest with readers on my blog.
Glitter Guide – Earlier this year I applied for a 6-month beauty contributor position and asked a blogging friend who works there to put in a good word for me! I knew this was unpaid, but I’ve been very interested in writing more about beauty, and I thought this would be a great learning experience and a way to build my freelance portfolio. And it worked! I was able to pitch some posts for Brides.com because of the product knowledge I was accumulating.
Lifetime Moms – this was a now-defunct site from Lifetime Television. I got this job because my dad shared a blog post I wrote about my baby either on his Facebook or in an email, and one of his connections offered to connect me to Lifetime. Thanks, dad!
(This was a super long response to your multi-part question. Did I actually answer? Feel free to edit as necessary!)
You totally answered – and I think that it’s always of interest to learn how other creatives get their opportunities. I get asked that all the time, and you’ve had so many diverse gigs. Did you accomplish your goals of making money and building your portfolio? Which brings us to right now – are you still writing for the sites that are still active? Did those gigs shape your next steps? And what are you doing currently?
Yes, I’d say I met those goals. I was able to put some money into my family’s piggybank and showcase my ability to write on a variety of topics to potential editors. Could I have made more money? Sure. Could I have written for more publications? Probably. But when I was really trying to grow my blogs and my freelance career, I wasn’t able to dedicate the time that would’ve been required. Once I had kids, it became harder and harder to stay focused during the day. There were preschool drop-offs and pick-ups for my older son and music classes and playgroups for my little one. When we moved to the DC area 2.5 years ago, I spent a lot of time trying to socialize and meet new friends. By the time the kids were asleep, I was too tired to write! That’s when I realized I needed to change things up.
In February I started my first full-time job in over a decade. I literally hadn’t stepped foot in an office since before my wedding in 2008! I’m doing marketing and communications for a local nonprofit that offers health and social services to the community. When my younger son started nursery school and I was feeling more settled in the area, it just felt time to challenge myself in a new way. Plus, the cost of living is WAY different than Omaha, and we’re saving to buy a house! The position actually requires my totally random mix of skills — digital strategy, public relations, copywriting, social media — so the nontraditional trajectory my career has taken this past decade was an asset to me.
What I’ve realized, though, is that instead of creating content, I’m just mindlessly consuming it. In the evenings, while watching TV, I’ll just scroll Facebook and Instagram. I’m not even putting in the effort to read blogs! To be honest, it feels like a waste of my time; I could be doing something productive like reading a book or folding laundry! But I just can’t quit the internet. So I’m in the brainstorming phase of a new online endeavor…
I love that the mix of skills you honed over your years outside of the traditional workplace actually facilitated your re-entry back in after a long absence!
Would love if you could share (even just a little!) next steps.
I don’t know why I’m so afraid to talk about my next project! I think it probably has to do with my fear of failure: Once it’s out there, it become real. And what if doesn’t live up to my own expectations?
But since I’m actually past the brainstorming phase and beginning to create content, it’s probably time to start getting the word out and generating some buzz. Consider this an exclusive sneak peak!
I’ve always been interested in productivity and happiness, and my own atypical professional experience has made me curious (and a bit obsessed) about what career success looks like. So I’m launching a newsletter that will focus on ways to make the most of your 9-5 – whether you work in an office, a studio, or your dining room. The first issue probably won’t be full of bells and whistles, but it will be informative and entertaining. If I enjoy the process (and the results!), I’ll create a website and invest in proper branding. In the meantime, I hope you and your readers will join me for the ride! You can find the signup on my new (bare-bones) Facebook page:
This is INSANELY exciting, and I’m beyond flattered that you’re sharing it here! Last question: What – if anything – will you be doing differently with Work BF, based on your prior experiences?
Ooh, that’s a good question. The biggest, most obvious difference this time around is that I won’t be able to devote a whole lot of time each day to the project because I have a full-time job. Whereas I used to view blogging as my job and my primary source of income, the newsletter will be a true side hustle or passion project. I’m doing it mostly to satiate my urge to create rather than as a way to make money.
One thing I learned from working online for nearly a decade is that you need to have a content plan. I didn’t always have one when I working on my various blogs, and I wonder whether that’s one reason I wasn’t able to sustain them or to grow them. As I work on my first issue, it will be helpful to have a more defined point of view and understanding of my brand and my goal.
That said, I don’t currently have all the answers! That’s why my newsletter doesn’t have a proper logo or branding. I haven’t even committed to a name! Should it be Work Best Friend, Work BFF, or Work BF? (Any thoughts?!) But based on my prior experiences, I also know that I have the tendency to sit on potential projects indefinitely if I don’t think the idea is totally perfect.
I don’t want to wait on this idea, which is why I looking at the first issue as a “beta launch.” If it goes well, I’ll spend some time refining the next issue. If that goes well, I’ll tweak the brand some more. And so on and so one until it’s just right – or I want to totally change it again.
I loved this so much and hope you did too. I’ve learned through this series that, while it is on the surface “blog-centric”, it really touches on journeys (and challenges) that are universal. Which is why I am so grateful to everyone who has participated so far.
Thank you PJ! xo