Wednesday, June 12, 2024

An update on our newest media brand 18 months and $289,000 later.

This article is a continuation of our initial story on launching FinMasters and spending $477,924 to do so, make sure you read that one first for context. Here’s an overview of what I intend to discuss:

  • An update on what we did for the past 18 months
  • Google & publishers
  • What went wrong? If anything? #

But why even write this in the first place?

There is a lot of misleading content about what it takes to build an online business, very little on this particular scale, and even less so about bad bets.

FinMasters journey

The last report ended with those 2 scenarios: 

  • Downscale and keep the loss to a minimum while hoping that there will be some growth later on.
  • Continue to double down on the good things and extend the timeline by one more year while committing $150,000 more to the project.

The traffic looked like this:

It’s not hard to guess that we chose the second option. We continued with what we have been doing, working with the most reputable and knowledgeable writers we can afford to hire, both for the site and for our freemium newsletter: and we ended the year generating around $7,000 per month in affiliate revenue.

We were still struggling to get any traffic for general personal finance topics due to a lack of authority, so we decided to continue building our library of content, while at the same time introducing two new types of articles:

  1. Write the best research posts possible, e.g. https://finmasters.com/consumer-debt-statistics/, the best data available & best presentation, to differentiate ourselves.
  2. Fun, easier, and cheaper to produce articles, like: https://finmasters.com/weird-jobs-that-pay-well/, which would give us short & medium-term gains, until we build out authority. We decided to work with an agency on those and edit in-house.

We’ve continued to invest in marketing as well, we started doing more PPC to promote our new research posts here is our traffic from November 2022:

Financially, towards the end of 2022, we were losing around $15,000/month, but the traffic was growing. We continued with the same strategy in 2023, but it was more about execution, without trying a lot of new things. Milica who managed the project moved to manage all our media projects.

We also acquired a smaller site on Flippa on a topic dear to me, logical fallacies: fallacyinlogic.com, if you want to read more about fallacies: https://finmasters.com/logical-fallacy/.

Here is what our costs looked like for 2023:

While the traffic was growing, our revenue was not, to continue growing more sustainably, we decided to experiment with display ads and join Raptive.

Right before joining Raptive, we had our first “surprise”, Google HCU came and we lost around 30% of the traffic, 2 weeks later, another update came and we lost another 30%, here is the chart again:

I was honestly surprised by the October update, which affected almost all our sites and was something that I haven’t seen happening in the past 13 years, Google specifically hitting sites that engage in affiliate marketing, no matter their history and reputation. For E.g. WPBeginner, which is the oldest and largest WordPress site, based on Ahrefs lost around 20+% of the traffic as well.

Pretty much all our affiliate income was gone and what we thought would be around $6,000/month in ads revenue, turned out to be $2,000. I was on my 3 months sabbatical, and I think in a bit of a shock, not recognizing nor accepting the new reality.

I think it took me maybe 6 more months to accept the new reality, for some time I was just thinking that this was a temporary thing and things would turn around. As I look at it now, is maybe the situation from 2-3 years ago that was atypical in terms of how good we’ve been doing.

Before coming back to our story, let me share my answer to the question: is Google hating small publishers?

No, Google is just simply serving its users, employees, and shareholders as always; it’s also aiming to maintain competitiveness in search against other information sources. 

For a long time, Google had a lot of unique but incomplete content, with bloggers sharing random thoughts on their sites, comments, and forums, and they encouraged long-form, in-depth content summarizing that information. However, now they don’t need that anymore. This is because they already have too much similar content, and AI can now effectively digest and summarize a thousand unique viewpoints. What Google truly needs now is to bring back the internet from 15 years ago – forums, discussions, and comments.

Now let’s get back to our story and what we decided to do further:

Focus on what you can control

Since we can control only our content and how users engage with it, we worked on coming up with multiple data points to figure out what articles need improving, besides bounce rate, we measure how many users and how long users are scrolling, if they click any resources or if they hit the back button.

On top of that, we run various user tests like: https://www.codeinwp.com/blog/content-quality/, to get more qualitative data on how we can improve UX on the sites.

Based on those we had our whole content team do a round of quick updates, particularly making sure the intros are more useful to users.

While our content engagement numbers improved, the traffic didn’t follow.

What we should be doing now?

Currently, as I’m writing this, there’s another significant Google update in progress. It seems we’re facing another -25% drop in traffic. However, given how far we’ve diverged from our original plans, this decline doesn’t affect our current strategy much.

Our immediate plan is to maintain our content library at a minimum level. Additionally, we’re considering splitting the site into two parts, with our investment-focused content moving to a new site. This move should make it easier for us to establish a more specialized brand, especially since we already own optionistics.com in this domain.

Overall, we’ll need to review our entire publishing approach, is still early to tell about the changes we’ll make.

What went wrong? If anything?

I believe decisions shouldn’t be judged solely in hindsight with a bias. A good decision might lead to a bad outcome, but what matters more to me is the process behind it. It’s easy to label it a bad idea now, considering we’ve lost about 90% of our investment. However, to evaluate it properly, I would revisit my initial thesis.

“Heads I win; Tails I don’t lose much.” This is the principle which guided my assessment of this investment. I reasoned that by investing in high-quality content, even if we didn’t achieve the desired return, the downside would be limited, while there was a slim chance for a significant upside.

In hindsight, we’re far from experiencing minimal losses. Reflecting on what could have been done differently, I realize that overconfidence was likely the biggest mistake. I relied too heavily on past success in our content business, without adequately adjusting to the current market conditions.

A question that I failed to ask for some time, especially when approaching the personal finance niche, where there is a huge amount of content written: What we’re bringing new & unique to what’s already there? The answer is that honestly, very very little.

While I was aware that market dynamics would change, I underestimated the urgency, assuming the window of opportunity was wider than it was.

Confronting past mistakes isn’t enjoyable, and in the past, I often avoided it by not even measuring our efforts in the first place. However, now that we do it, there’s no reason not to seize the opportunity for reflection.

For context, since I don’t want the post to sound like a complaint, we’re still running a profitable company, we didn’t rely on external funding for this venture. FinMasters represented a significant but not the largest portion of our investments, accounting for roughly 20%.

We’re still looking to acquire online businesses, if you’re interested in doing so, here is how we’re different:

We come up with a fair contract for both buyer & seller, without unnecessary restrictions, and we’re transparent with what are the prices we usually pay, those can still vary a lot, but for non-growing businesses is between 3-4x yearly revenue.

You’ll not be dealing with a layer of assistants, you can email me directly at [email protected] and have an answer in a day. We can usually close in around 2 weeks. We are not asking for a million things that we can usually find ourselves.

Some products will grow, some will stay as they are, and some will die, but in all cases, we’ll be trying to find the best solution for the existing users and do the best we can to not cause damage to the work you’ve done.

A lot of people trusted us with their projects so far and we’re happy to provide references. We acquired products like PPOM, Multi Page Generator, Optionistics, imgbot.net, and http://blog.cathy-moore.com. Usually, people who want to move on to other things.

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