If you’re starting a blog, your first job is to choose a great topic.
Maybe you’ve already picked a topic. Cool. In that case, maybe you’re ready to move to Step 2 (where we make some solid plans) or to learn about what kinds of content to write and how to write that content effectively
But, maybe you have no idea what the heck you’re going to write about, you just know you want to get in on this blog thing. That’s cool, too. In fact, not having a set topic is kind of an advantage when you’re first starting out.
This blog started as a way to talk about how I was building a different blog. When I started that different blog I got a little lucky, because my topic happened to be in a popular and profitable area. I’d like to say I planned it that way, but I totally didn’t plan it that way. If my ready-to-go topic on that other blog had been about Spear Fishing for Carp, instead of a popular and profitable area, things probably wouldn’t have turned out so well.
Read More: The Six Most Profitable Blog Topics
Ok, so if we assume you’re reading this because you have the desire to blog, but aren’t sure what to do next, then we need to get to work finding you a great topic. But to do that, we have to figure out what a great topic looks like. What makes a one topic great and another topic…not great?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that – like most people – you want to start a blog to make some money. I suppose it’s possible that you’re the chief technology officer for UNICEF and that UNICEF really wants a blog about protecting water rights in the Sudan. But, assuming that UNICEF is not looking to aggressively break into the blog space, you’re probably just a normal person who hopes to start a solid side business. Super duper. That’s a worthwhile goal, and an attainable one. But, I’m going to tell you right now – no matter what you may have heard (or read on other sites) getting a blog up and running is not a quick and easy task – it’s going to take some work and some time. But don’t worry, it will be worth it.
If you’re going to put in that time and work, then you need to approach the whole project with the correct frame of mind. If your goal is to build a blog that actually generates a positive return on your investment, then you need to approach the project like you’re starting a business, not like you’re just making a website.
Starting a Blog is Like Starting a Restaurant. Kind of.
If we think about starting a blog like we’re starting a business, then choosing the right topic becomes ultra critical.
See, people who are starting a passion blog about their love of a TV show or their collection of mid-20th-century spoons can afford to write about whatever the heck they want, because they’re not running a business, they’re just indulging in a hobby.
And that’s totally fine. Good, even. But, do you know the difference between a business and a hobby? A hobby costs money and a business makes money. If you’re starting a business, you can’t just do whatever you want. I mean, you can, but you’ll probably lose all your money and end up with a hobby.
When your business is your blog, your topic is your product. It’s like you’re opening a restaurant and have to decide what kind of food to serve. Are you going to be a pasta place, a burger joint, or a steak house?
Read More: Why Great Blog Content is Like Ice Cream
The restaurant analogy is a good one, because it lets us highlight three key ideas that should guide you when you’re choosing your topic.
- If you know that pasta places have really low margins (meaning that most of the money you make funds the business, with only a little bit left over as profit), and that pasta places take an extraordinary amount of skill and experience to run correctly, then opening a pasta place might be a bad idea.
- There’s only so many different kinds of restaurants you can open, right? Well, guess what? You don’t need to completely reinvent the idea of food in order to run a successful restaurant. I mean, we live in a world where McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Five Guys, and a ton of other places all coexist in the “burger joint” space. They’re all derivative businesses. Each one sells basically the same thing, and yet, they’re all enormously successful companies.
- What you definitely don’t want to be is a fried peanut butter and chili (yeah, I said chili) shop. Why? Because that’s just freaking stupid. Even if your mom and dad tell you how much they love your fried peanut butter and chili sandwiches, the odds that you’re going to find a large market for such a…unique…product are vanishingly small. And that’s very bad. Making cash in the blog world isn’t rocket surgery, it’s just a boring math problem, and you need a big potential market to make the math work.
Now that’s a fun analogy, but what does it mean in plain English?
It means that if you’re starting a blog to run it as a business:
- Pick a topic (a product) that has a good profit potential. You do not want a topic that has very limited profit potential or requires a huge amount of expertise to pull off, even if you could theoretically pull it off. Why? If you happen to be a super genius in your topic area, that’s great, but I can tell you, from experience, that even if that’s the case, it’s still a really hard road to walk. Topics that require insane levels of expertise generally have limited markets to start with. Unless that limited market is very special, it means the profit potential is limited, as well.
- You don’t need to be some revolutionary force to succeed. Even the biggest blogs I can think of are just variations of the same ideas that tons of other blogs are doing. And when I say “big” I mean big. Like, millions of dollars a year big. It’s like McDonald’s and Burger King – at the end of the day, they’re both just hamburger joints, right? You can be a hamburger joint and make good money – even though there’s a lot of other hamburger joints – because the potential market for hamburgers is big enough to give everyone a slice. If this makes you feel unoriginal, or lame, or stupid, think of Elon Musk – the guy made his money with PayPal – a company that lets people…pay…for things. Is that an earth shattering idea? Heck no, but the implementation was unique and it solved a problem. The next big thing Elon Musk did was start…a car company. A car company! Is that an earth shattering idea? Heck no, but the implementation is unique and it solves a problem. There are tons of examples like this – the iPhone, LED light bulbs, etc. Derivative ideas are not only fine, they’re great. They’re how most of the world actually works. It’s about refinement and implementation, not about inventing fire for the first time.
- Your product should not be so unique, outlandish, or hyper-focused that it excludes large segments of the population. This chops the top off your potential market and is a limiting factor right from the start. There are some exceptions to this, which we talk about in a couple of minutes.
The Cake is a Lie: What Successful Bloggers Aren’t Telling You About Running a Successful Blog
In marketing speak, what we’re doing right now – trying to find a topic – is called choosing a niche. Your niche is your topic and your topic, remember, is your product. Your niche is the little spot in the blog universe where you fit. Marketers sometimes call it a vertical.
So, now that we’ve talked about the high level rules for choosing a niche, there’s one last thing you need to understand before we get to a list of good potential niches for building a profitable blog/business.
This is actually really important, so perk up those ears and listen:
All that stuff that people with successful blogs say about choosing a topic? It’s a lie.
I bet 98% of the advice you hear from bloggers (or articles on blogs) starts with some variation of “choose something you’re passionate about.” The conversation then continues down some hippy dippy emotional path that sounds like a creepy self-help seminar.
But here’s the hard truth – your passion doesn’t matter at all. Passion doesn’t make products profitable. You can have all the passion in the world for a terrible product and the product will still fail. Because it’s terrible.
In fact, not only does passion not matter at all, I’d go one step further and say that if you truly are passionate about something, the worst thing you could possibly do is make that thing what you rely on to pay the bills. Because that will kill your passion by turning it into work.
Yet, for whatever reason, passion is the kool aid that everyone keeps trying to sell.
Even on the surface, though, it’s easy to see that this doesn’t any make sense.
I mean, come on. Do you honestly believe that people who sell blogging courses and run marketing retreats got into that business because they had some crazy burning passion for doing those things? Do you think that when they were little girls and boys they played with internet-marketer action figures and dreamed of doing search engine optimization when they grew up?
Dude. Of course not.
What actually happened is that they had a burning passion for making some cash and discovered that they were really good at selling blogging courses and running marketing retreats. But nobody ever says that. Instead, it’s all kinds of gooey, sticky talk about “passion” and “following your dreams.” Whatever.
So let’s be brutally honest for a second about what the truth actually is:
You know what I’m passionate about? My life. Spending time with my family. Sailboats. None of those things has anything at all to do with blogs, blogging, niches, or marketing, but I’m still invested in that blog stuff because it enables me to live my life. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t just say it like this, because it’s the truth. At the end of the day, I genuinely want everyone who reads this blog to succeed, because that will make me money. By making you money, my life gets better. Everyone wins, which is the best possible outcome.
To drive this point home (hard), there’s a great podcast from NPR called How I Built This. In this podcast, the host interviews all kinds of people who have built really successful businesses. You should listen to the episode with the dude who started Five Guys Burgers and Fries. This guy wanted to start a business with his kids, and the only thing he knew how to do (that people might actually want) was make burgers. So that’s what he did. And it worked. A lot.
His passion wasn’t hamburgers, or cooking hamburgers, or even building a business. His passion was his family, and wanting to come up with something they could do – together – to make a decent living. Five Guys was just an expression of this underlying truth.
Get passion out of the equation for choosing a topic. It won’t help you choose a great product, and you don’t need it to be motivated. Trust me, when you start to get that first little taste of “holy cow, this is actually starting to work,” that will be all the motivation you need.