Welcome back to Flexibility Is Freedom!
First off, if you feel like the world is about to end (amid the non-stop COVID-COVID-COVID-OrangeManBad news cycle), you’re definitely not alone.
At times like these, I think it’s helpful to remember that the Earth will continue to revolve around the Sun… that is, life will continue, perhaps with a few adjustments, but continue nonetheless.
In October, TheDermDetective.com performed very well and set a new record for revenue, beating April levels of $1,167 (when, as you may recall, Amazon Associates brutally slashed commission rates by more than 50%).
In addition, most of the recent gains were driven by non-Amazon affiliate programs, with my overall exposure to Amazon Associates dropping to 44% vs. 63% last month.
In this month’s income report, I’ll discuss the drivers of recent business performance, my new experience with outsourcing, and a few other items.
- Revenue: $1,244 (+76% MoM, +496% YoY)
- Sessions: 10,720 (+9% MoM)
- Revenue per Thousand Sessions: $116.07 (+62% MoM)
- Amazon Risk*: 44% (down from 63% last month)
Overall, revenue increased 76% MoM while sessions only increased 9%, which means the primary driver of revenue growth was higher profitability.
As you can see in the chart below, Revenue per Thousand Sessions (red line) increased substantially due to a greater contribution from more profitable (i.e. higher EPC) non-Amazon affiliate programs.
I’m cautiously optimistic about this month’s performance as I know it can swing back down again. In addition, there were a few big commissions that really drove the outperformance and these could be reversed next month (due to customer refunds).
Dipping My Toes Into Outsourcing
Yup, I’ve finally done it! After months of talking about, I finally pulled the trigger on it.
I wanted to start small so I went with a virtual assistant (VA) agency called TaskBullet (btw, this is an affiliate link) that lets me assign tasks to one of their pre-screened VAs.
I also placed my first content order with SEOButler (where I’ve been buying backlinks for the last couple months) to explore the possibility of outsourcing affiliate content.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)
Before I can hand off any tasks to my VAs or agency writers, I need to create a clear set of instructions for them to follow, also known as a standard operating procedure (SOP).
I briefly considered using a SaaS tool to document my SOPs (like Process.St) but decided it wasn’t worth the additional monthly cost. Instead, I use Dynalist (kind of like Google Keep but with bullet points) to create and maintain my SOP documents.
I also created video tutorials using Loom (100 free videos, 5 minute limit) as an effective way of demonstrating the SOP and providing instructions. I found that this is an amazingly efficient way to communicate as it’s easier to understand and faster to create than a traditional document.
Virtual Assistant (VA)
I wanted to hire a VA for 2 main reasons:
- To practice my outsourcing & management skills. With a VA, especially a Filipino VA, their hourly rate is very reasonable ($10 US per hour or lower). This makes them a great choice for a solo entrepreneur as I can learn more about managing others without paying for a full-time employee.
- To outsource (that’s the whole point) my low-value tasks, especially ones that are manual, repetitive, and recurring. For example, I outsourced the creation of a new WordPress post.
Now, there’s a few different ways to hire a VA:
- You can hire someone directly, either part-time or full-time. Job boards like onlinejobs.ph (for Filipino VAs) are very popular for finding potential candidates.
- You can outsource a task or project through an online marketplace like Fiverr or Upwork by contacting someone with the requisite skills (e.g. admin, design, coding, etc.) or by posting a “gig” and waiting for candidates to make an offer.
- You can hire a VA through a VA agency which has a pool of pre-screened candidates with different skillsets to match your needs (like TaskBullet).
Ultimately, I decided to go with a VA agency because it’s the most flexible and convenient option.
At this point, I’m not ready to hire a part-time or full-time VA because I don’t have a steady stream of work for them to do. In addition, I’d have to design a hiring process (screening, interview, contract), on-board and train them, and take the risk of hiring the wrong person or someone who doesn’t perform well (or disappears altogether!).
On the other hand, outsourcing an individual task on Fiverr is very time-consuming for repetitive or recurring tasks as you’d need to continuously find sellers and wait in their project queue.
While there are a number of different VA agencies, I ultimately chose TaskBullet because of:
- VA Location: where the VA resides generally determines their price, as well as their English abilities, cultural norms, etc. When I was in Chiang Mai, most of the guys I spoke to used Filipino VAs because they speak excellent English (it’s an official language), understand American culture, and can even work in the same time zone (they basically work a permanent night shift to match US time).
- Skillsets: if you need your VA to have particular skills, it’s best to inquire beforehand to make sure they have someone with those skills (such as Excel). Right now, I just have basic administrative tasks so it’s easy enough to train someone to do those.
- Pricing: in my research, I found that VA services tend to cater to two types of markets: i) Executive / Corporate level VAs – very expensive, very experienced VAs at hourly rates of $25 or more (like Time Etc.) that are best for professionals, senior executives, and the like, and ii) Non-US based VAs – cheaper VAs based in places like the Philippines or India that are affordable for entreprenurs and start-ups (like Wervas). Overall, I found that TaskBullet offered a decent price (it varies based on how many hours you buy) of $11 per hour for the 20-hour starter bucket and as low as $6.50 per hour for a massive 240-hour bucket ($1,560 in total).
- Flexibility: as I mentioned above, TaskBullet lets you buy “hours” (that expire in 3 months if you don’t use them) which your VA uses up when they work on a task. Most of the other agencies either required a subscription plan or their lowest tier plan was pretty expensive (like $500+ to get started). In comparison, TaskBullet’s starter plan is only $220 for 20 hours which I thought was a low-risk way to get started. The company also has a refund policy for any unused hours so if I were unhappy with the service, I could get some of my money back.
So far with TaskBullet, I’ve been pretty happy with my VA’s performance. I gave him an SOP, along with video instructions, and sent him small batches of work at a time.
The first time, he made a few mistakes (which is expected, of course!) and we discussed it on the phone and over messages on Basecamp (a remote working software). I was really impressed by my VA’s professionalism and eagerness to learn / improve.
He’s now working on the third batch of posts and has gotten very good at the process with minimal errors in his final work product. ????
My next step is to identify other low value tasks that I can outsource, such as product or content research, and create an SOP for those as well.
Up until now, I have not tried using an agency writer yet. I know lots of other guys use agency or dedicated writers to produce content as it’s far more scalable than writing it yourself.
However, I think there are many important differences between agency writing and “blog” writing (which is what I do), including:
- Substance: the agency writer likely has less expertise in your field and therefore may produce content that “sounds good” but is devoid of genuine substance and facts. This can end up becoming an article that’s full of words but feels “empty”.
- Tone & Style: the agency writer may not accurately reflect the tone of your website or brand, even with adequate guidance in your SOPs (for example, my SOP requires writers to write in a colloquial manner and avoid salesy language). That’s because everyone has a natural way of expressing their ideas (think of “writing” as a written form of “speaking” and you’ll know what I mean).
- Incentives: the agency writer is paid by the word and so to maximize their earnings per hour, they are incentivized to write lengthy sentences while minimizing the research they do (since they’re not paid to research, but to write words). This can make their work full of unnecessary “fluff”.
Overall, I find that agency or dedicated writers tend to be used more by websites with lower quality and mass produced affiliate content. When you read the actual articles, it becomes clear to any native English speaker that it’s not a “quality” product, but something that’s just “passable” in terms of being English and grammatically correct.
Anyways, when my first order came back, I was not super impressed with it, for some of the reasons that I outlined earlier (substance, tone & style, incentives). The content itself was very “salesy” and lacked both topical expertise and brevity.
It reminded me of those group projects during my days in business school when I had to edit my group member’s work, and sometimes you can’t even work with what they wrote and you have to rewrite their part entirely. ????♀️
In this case, I ended up using a little less than 50% of what the writer produced and had to edit that 50% a fair bit as well. I liked that the writer did a little bit of research and followed my SOP template relatively well. However, I just couldn’t use her final copy as it really did not fit with my website’s tone and brand.
You win some, you lose some, I guess.
In terms of price, I paid 8.5 cents per word (SEOButler gave me a 15% discount on the standard 10 cents per word for affiliate content). For a 1,500 word article, this worked out to $127.50 which I think is a bit too expensive relative to what I received.
Ultimately, I’ll have to outsource content at some point. This first attempt did not go as well as I had hoped but I’ll be adjusting my SOP accordingly to provide future writers with better instructions.
In addition, I don’t think agency writers are the best solution for my situation because there’s isn’t really a feedback mechanism as you’re not guaranteed to work with the same writer.
Going forward, I’ll continue to produce content myself but explore hiring a dedicated writer who can create content to meet my quality standards and brand.
Building My Email List with Lead Magnets
Last month, I talked about starting an email list using a lead magnet strategy.
A lead magnet is something that you offer the reader in exchange for their email address, such as a free PDF guide or an exclusive discount (for e-commerce websites).
In this case, I created a PDF guide on how to take care of your skin during a pandemic using Beacon.by (I snagged the AppSumo lifetime deal earlier this year).
Beacon is kind of like Canva (drag-and-drop design tool) but specifically for lead magnets and also comes with a few options to implement a basic email opt-in form.
For example, here’s a sticky footer bar opt-in form:
And when you click on it, a pop-up form shows up:
For sending the emails themselves, I’m using SendFox (I max’d out AppSumo codes for a lifetime plan of 25,000 subscribers). I also created a Smart Page with SendFox:
So far, I have not actually created any email sequences yet. I might do a small “deals” email ahead of Black Friday.
The conversion rate, however, has been very low (<1%). I’ve heard of this problem before and I will look into ways to increase the conversion rate. One possible option is to use more sophisticated and aesthetically-pleasing opt-in forms from providers like OptinMonster (you might recall that I demo’d this product back in July).
So far, I have collected 20 email subscribers. Not much, but it’s a start!
Taking A Deeper Dive Into My Audience
Another one of my outstanding “to-do’s” is to better understand my audience:
- Who are they? (age, gender)
- What do they like? (interests)
- Where are they from? (geography)
Using the data I’ve collected in Google Analytics, I can now easily answer these questions!
Under Audience -> Demographics, I can see the distribution of age groups and gender:
Somewhat to my surprise, most of my audience is actually around my age, with ~50% under the age of 34 (18-24 group: 17%, 25-34 group: 32%).
The remaining 50% is spread across older age groups and decreases with age. This pattern may reflect the overall usage of the Internet to some degree as well.
I previously assumed that my typical reader was an older woman, maybe 30-50s, so this new insight is really helpful for producing the right content and setting the right tone.
In terms of gender distribution, unsurprisingly, 72% of readers are female and 28% are male. I would have actually expected a more overwhelming female distribution (90%+) so this was an interesting observation as well.
Next, under Audience -> Interests, Google has created these “visitor profiles” to describe the interests and preferences of different users.
I’m not sure how Google defines these categories, but here are a few of the most popular ones for my audience:
- Shoppers / Value Shoppers
- Food & Dining / Cooking Enthusiasts / 30 Minute Chefs
- Lifestyles & Hobbies / Fashionistas
- Beauty & Wellness / Beauty Mavens
- Media & Entertainment / Movie Lovers
- Beauty & Personal Care
- Apparel & Accessories / Women’s Apparel
- Beauty & Personal Care / Skin Care Products
- Apparel & Accessories
- Home & Garden / Home Decor
Overall, I didn’t draw any major conclusions from this data. It showed me that my readers are: i) shoppers, ii) interested in skincare / beauty, and iii) have secondary interests in related topics like fashion, media, cooking, home & garden.
The last report I looked at was Audience -> Geo -> Location.
I won’t copy and paste the chart here because the numbers are too small to read. However, these are the top 10 countries by users:
- United States: 55%
- United Kingdom: 7%
- Canada: 6.5%
- India: 6%
- Australia: 5%
- Singapore: 1.7%
- Malaysia: 1.5%
- Philippines: 1.3%
- South Africa: 1.2%
- United Arab Emirates: 1%
This report was really interesting and contained a few very actionable insights:
- The top 5 countries were pretty much as I had expected. For English content, you’re going to rank in the top English language geo’s, namely the US, UK, Canada, India, and Australia. Currently, I am monetizing traffic from ALL of these countries via Amazon Associates (either directly or indirectly through Cuelinks in the case of India).
- The next 5 countries were really not what I had expected. I had no idea that Singapore was a pretty significant traffic source (albeit, only 1.7%). No wonder Amazon launched a Singapore program not too long again. Malaysia and the Philippines are two countries where English is taught extensively as an official or secondary language so it makes sense that visitors are coming from there as well. South Africa and UAE finish the list, South Africa being another English-speaking former British colony, however, UAE really puzzles me – mainly because I don’t know much about the place at all. Interestingly, Amazon also launched a program in UAE so they obviously see a lot of potential in that region for e-commerce.
Previously, in terms of international revenue, I was focused on places like Europe (UK is a huge driver, but France / Germany / Spain / Italy – not so much), Japan (I earned like 150 yen in one month and got very excited, crickets since then), Brazil / Mexico (didn’t see much traffic from those places), and India (I think there’s a lot of potential here, however, I’ve only earned $10 USD equivalent so far from Cuelinks).
Now, I see that Singapore could be a good source of income (just signed up for Amazon Associates in that region today). I also believe that Malaysia / Philippines users will get redirected to Amazon Singapore (or possibly Amazon Australia) so I’m good there.
The last two countries, however, are not monetizable at this time. Amazon does have a UAE program but requires a local bank account in UAE, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia. South Africa does not have a program at this time.
Creating A New “Best” Design
Finally, I’m very excited about a new review format that I’m piloting out:
And here’s an example of the old format:
This new format is cleaner, more modern, and includes more ways to convert users than the previous format. For each product, there are 4 ways for a user to visit Amazon:
- Clicking on the image
- Clicking on Get it @ “Amazon”
- First “Shop Now” button
- Second “Shop Now” button
Overall, I was inspired by the format of bigger competitors that typically write a short summary of each product rather than an in-depth review. I’m starting to think that’s a better approach than my current philosophy which is to provide enough info to help readers make a decision. In many cases, people just want a suggestion when they search for “best” keywords and are going to do their own research afterwards anyways.
With this new format, I’ll be able to include a greater number of products than before while keeping each product review relatively brief and to the point. I think this strategy will lead to an even higher higher conversion rate (my current template already performs quite well with 50-60%+ click-through rates).
As 2020 nears its end (what a freakin’ year, eh?), I am also thinking about the future, both for my current business and for the next stage of my life.
I’m planning to create a second website / digital asset in the near future and document the entire process in a YouTube series on my channel Flexibility Is Freedom.
Especially during this “lockdown” period, I think there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in building an online business and making an extra $200, $500, or even $1,000 a month in side income, to supplement their regular income, savings, or perhaps as their primary income because they’ve been laid off, furloughed, or had to close their business (like lots of resturants, gyms, etc.).
I’m really excited to bring this idea to life, as i) it could help many people make a bit of money during this challenging time, which is perhaps the best thing that I can personally do to help others right now, and ii) it’s a great way to build my second website because it’ll require me to build a repeatable process and explain that process to beginners, which is one of the best ways to truly learn it myself. Also, I’ll get invaluable feedback on my ideas when other people go and try them for themselves.
Alright, that’s it for this month’s income report! Take care of yourself, your family, and remember this week that the Earth will continue to revolve around the Sun!