How I built that blog: Doug Nordman of The Military Guide

Doug Nordman looks like he’s living the life that everyone whoever starts a blog dreams of. Nordman lives in Hawaii and only writes for his site, The Military Guide, when he feels like it. He also handed off a lot of the boring aspects of running the blog — like fixing broken links and negotiating ad rates — to Curtez Riggs in 2013. Nordman sold the site to Riggs because he promised the largest donation to the Wounded Warrior Project. Nordman is not in the blogging business for the money but rather for the cause of helping his fellow veterans. The Military Guide has a particular niche — it is for veterans who are figuring out their retirement plans. A former submariner in the Navy, Nordman started the site in 2010 and he has managed to save enough for a comfortable retirement. Nordman spoke with us recently about the genesis of The Military Guide. Below is an edited version of that conversation:

 

Doug Nordman for USAA Magazine

 

 

The Blog Blog: As mentioned, the idea behind this blog is to kind of reconstruct how people create successful blogs and I know in your case, it’s a little bit complicated because you’ve been worked with, you’ve been working with Curtez Riggs and he’s took over. I think he said from 2013-2016, right?

Doug Nordman:  Yeah. He’s taken over as of 2013. And we had a three year earn out on that and since that left in 2016, I’ve continued to do the majority of the content.

TBB: Can you take me back to, how do you first started the blog?

DN: I started the blog to market the book manuscript I just sold. And I sold it to a traditional publisher. We had to wait the usual eight months between the selling the manuscript and actually seeing the book available for sale on Amazon or shipped to book stores, so I started the blog to market that while we’re waiting for the book to be available. Today, of course, I do it completely backwards. I do it the other way around. I start a blog and create content on the blog, and after a while I use that content to write a book. But back then that’s what we did, and that market of the book, and I just kept on going from there.

The advantage of the website is that you can go into great detail about a number of niche topics that just would never stand on their own, nor add any value to a book. That helps a lot. I’ve just kept on writing and kept on marketing the book and just about every post has an ad in it for the book, either at your library, or through Amazon’s Kindle ebook sales. I donate all the revenue, all the regular revenue, I donate all of that to military friendly charities, so that helps people feel comfortable spending the money on the book.

TBB: What year did you sell the book?

DN: I sold the manuscript in 2010. We started talking about the book in 2004, 2005, right around that area. I spent a lot of time leisurely writing a book. It was published in 2011. It’s been selling ever since.

TBB: That’s when you started the blog, 2011?

DN: 2010 actually. The day after I sold the manuscript and shipped that off I started the blog cause I knew I would have to get this blogging thing figure out. And get ready for the book launch.

TBB: Did you know much about blogging at the time? How did you get into that?

DN: I didn’t have any blogs of my own up until that point. I, of course, been reading a lot of websites and online stuff and started reading blogs, probably 2005, 2006. Before then, I spent the majority of my time on Usenet or internet forums over the years. I got computer experience. I’ve got a computer science degree and I was pretty comfortable with figuring it all out.

TBB: Did you go to like WordPress, or work with one of those companies?

DN: Oh yeah. First thing we did was start with WordPress.com, the posted version of WordPress that they host there. That way I could do that max marketing for the minimum amount of money. And in 2012, when I was ready to start using the site to earn money, I took that out to WordPress.org with Bluehost. It just ran from there.

TBB:  What was the traffic like in the beginning? Did you have a following in the beginning or did you have to build it up over time?

DN:  It was a stereotype where your mom is the only person who reads your blog and she leaves a spam comment. But, the site, the traffic grew over time. And part of that was because I was already doing a lot of posting to internet forums and as we talked about that, I would put up a blog post and say, “hey, tell your friends, go read this blog post”, that sort of thing. I had written a book with the help, with contributions of over 50 different service members and veterans and family members and I sort of had that group of people who either helped write part of the book or edit, or whatever they contributed with their stories. That word kind of spread as the blog got started. I started ranking, I think the first time I started hitting the first page of search results was probably around 2011, late 2011. After I had been writing for a year.

Part of that was the keywords military, personal finance, and part of that is because the Department of Defense keeps scrapping all their URL’s and building new websites and starting all over again. They don’t have to care about search engine ranking or anything else. Over the years, longevity has paid off for me.

It was a stereotype where your mom is the only person who reads your blog and she leaves a spam comment.

TBB: Was there a moment like one blog post really broke through, or was it just a slow build up over time?

DN: It was a slow build up. Sometimes one post would get a little bit of traffic. Some other blogger would link to something that I had written like, one comment that military retirees always worry about is, “What am I gonna do all day?” Every once in a while, someone would discover that and link to it. A post that’s taken over and become the most popular post, consistently, every month for the last five years, is a post about the Reserve and National Guard retirement calculation. It’s horribly complication and poorly understood and everybody sits down one day and says, “Jeez, I’m gonna retire from the Reserves and the Guard, and I have no idea what I’m doing. Let me search for National Guard Retirement.” And when they do, usually, they’ll find military guide within the first page of results.

TBB:  Do you have any competitors on this topic? Or do you pretty much own it yourself?

DN: Oh, no. I don’t see that so much as competitors as I see them as friends. I got probably another dozen people I know of that are full time military personal finance bloggers. The difference, I guess, between me and many others, is that I’m doing this for, mainly paying it forward, and for charity, and I’m donating all my money. Some of them are doing it for profit. It is probably, at least a dozen of us that are longevity of five years or more that are really big in the space and then there’s a whole bunch of newcomers in the last couple of years. That’s part of the growth of the whole general financial independence movement. Also, part of it is it’s just become easier and easier to blog every year and more and more people are starting a site.

 

Doug Nordman for USAA Magazine

TBB: What about social media? Is that a big part of your out-reach as well? Like Facebook, Twitter?

DN: Yeah. Again, back when social media used to be, Usenet, I started back then, in forums, and kept on going with whatever’s available. Things that have worked best for me have been the big three. Facebook, and LinkedIn, and Twitter. I have a Pinterest account. I’ve pinned some posts on some of the boards on my Pinterest account. I’ve paid no attention to it. I do not do Instagram or any of the other 300 different splinter social media pieces of accounts. If LinkedIn, or Twitter, or Facebook shutdown overnight, I’d probably find something else to move to. But, there’s really no need to.

TBB: It sounds like SEO is a big part of your, you’re on the first page of Google results, probably accounts for a lot of your visibility.

DN: We talk about that at financial conferences and blogging conferences. The biggest part of search engine optimization, is you gotta write stuff that people want to read. And the posts that I write tend to be fairly long. It takes me 200, 300 words just to warm up. My typical post is 2,000 words. Short posts are 1,500. Detailed posts go to 3-4,000 words, so I will end up with a post that’s got, I don’t deliberately sit there and say, “Gosh I need to use a keyword now.” Instead, I write a post and then when I’m done I make sure that it does have the keywords that I’m looking for. I also make sure that I link back and forth to other posts in my site or link to the references. It’s pretty straightforward to figure out where you’re going with references from the Department of Defense or Federal Law. I’ve grown more familiar with those over the years since I’ve hung up my uniform. I’m able to quote references to people that are on active duty or reserves, they’ve never heard of.

The blogs got authority in there and it’s a big function too of longevity. We estimated once that, at a financial conference, that attrition rate of personal finance blogs might be as high as 70% per year, if that’s the case then that means that in two years you’re in top the 10%. Give it a couple more years and you’re in the top 1%.

TBB: That’s a good way to look at it. I know you’ve said, I think in the email, that Curtez would be the person to talk to about traffic and what kind of income it pulls in at this point. Do you know, in 2018, what kind of traffic you’re getting right now?

DN: Yeah. We’re getting about 2,500 visits a day. That translates to about 800-1,000 uniques. I usually have somebody that visits the site either finds exactly the post they’re looking for or, then goes and clicks through to a few more posts. Average two to three pages are viewed by one visitor, and I’d say the time on site is probably two or three minutes.

TBB: You have advertising on the site. Is it, can you say what kind of revenue that brings in?

DN: Yeah. I haven’t checked with Curtez on that, and he’s either very busy with the conference he’s planning or just hasn’t gotten around to looking at it lately. Neither of us lately. Several years about, I’d say two or three years ago he was pulling in $2,000-$3,000 a month. It was certainly a living wage at that income level. It’s probably just gone up since then. I’ll be honest. One of the reasons I sold the site in 2013 was because I thought this blogging thing had turned into a great big bubble and was gonna implode any day now, so I decided to cash out while I could. The biggest reason I sold is because I was spending an hour or two a day maintaining a website and I’d rather write. I didn’t have any fun or fulfillment from just maintaining the blog.

One of the reasons I sold the site in 2013 was because I thought this blogging thing had turned into a great big bubble and was gonna implode any day now, so I decided to cash out while I could

TBB: When you say maintaining the blog, what do you mean by that? What took more than two hours a day?

DN: You always have the latest plug-in to look at and decide if you want to use that. You’re always looking at the site to fix broken links, or cleaning up the spam. You’re looking at the site to see if you need to add blue theme, or you’re negotiating with somebody over an advertising rate. Or figuring out how they want to do something. Those are things that I know how to do, and I’m proficient at it, but on the other hand, I’d rather write. And it was the kind of thing that I found myself spending more and more time doing things I enjoyed less and less, and when that happens, I’m smart enough to know that I need to find a different way to do it. It worked out very conveniently.

The other thing is that military veterans, we, some military veterans, and I’m one of them, has a reputation of being control freaks who have a difficult time letting go. For me to see the site and not turn it into some kind of profit or some kind of revenue sharing thing, for me it was an exercise in letting go that I wasn’t really very good at. I learned a little bit from that. It’s actually been kind of liberating. I don’t have to sit there and look at revenues or visits or figure out what kind of revenue split Curtez and I were gonna have. It’s just, “Hey Curtez, make a large donation to Wounded Warrior Project,” which he did. And once he donated that money to Wounded Warrior Project, I turned over all the passwords, and he keeps all the revenue. He’s totally motivated to keep the site up and running because it’s all his money. He’s getting 100% of the revenue share. I get to advertise the book in every post that I write, put up there, and he’s thrilled to have the content. It works pretty good.

We’re slowly moving toward a portal, really, for military personal finance that has multiple authors. I tell service members and veterans that if they want to write a guest post and tell their story, and give some advice and lessons learned, do it anytime. They’re welcome to write a guest post any time they want. We’ve, over the years, had more and more people drop by and some of them write one or two posts for us and move on. Others stick around and contribute two or three posts a year.

TBB: What motivates you to keep writing? What do you like about it?

DN: I can’t stop. You probably have heard of Erma Bombeck, she used to tell people, that if you have to ask whether you’re a writer, you’re not a write. It would never occur to you to ask if you’re a writer. You just can’t shut up. That’s pretty much the way I am. I’m always writing about something. And, so now I found my niche where I can focus on one topic and dig down pretty deep and learn a lot about it and share that knowledge.

TBB: Final question: What do you attribute your success to at this point?

DN:  In blogging, I contribute the success mainly to persistence. And by persistence I mean I sit my butt down in that chair every morning and write for at least 20 minutes a day. There are some morning where I’m less motivated than others. I’ve learned that if I sit down and write one paragraph that it’s probably good enough. If I write and enjoy what I’m writing, I’ll probably spit out 5,000 words before I settle down. I don’t try to put up a post every week. I try to put up a post when I have something to say. I’ll probably end up putting two to three posts up a month but they’re a product of writing every day and having that habit and having that persistence, that’s what really makes a blogger successful in the long run.

 

 

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