Type ‘how to make money blogging’ into Google and you’ll choke on a pile of spammy-sounding search results telling you how, if you’d only give up your e-mail address or credit card number, you’d learn the secret to living like a billionaire on your pajama-based blogging income.
I’ve been making a living publishing a blog (my full-time income, supporting a family of four) since 2008, and as a supplemental income since 2006, and blogging as a hobby since 2003, so I guess I’m as qualified to speak on the subject as anyone else. Plus, I don’t want your credit card number.
The bottom line: there’s no secret to making money on a blog. It’s the same as making money from anything. It’s mostly perseverance, hustle, and the willingness to keep trying.
Starting a DIY/Design Blog
When I started Curbly in 2006, my background was in journalism, public relations, and web development. In other words, I could write and make computers do things for me.
The blogging landscape was much different then. For one thing, Facebook was still only open to people with .edu addresses. There was no Pinterest. Digg was the largest news aggregator, and usually the surest source of a traffic spike.
There also weren’t really that many other blogs out there. Most of the big media networks had online presences that were pretty half-assed. The TV networks (i.e. DIY, HGTV) would just take screenshots of episodes they had aired and republish them as blog posts.
For people to find your blog, you either had to rank really well in Google, or you had to get referral links from other, more established blogs. We managed to do both, but not with any great degree of purpose or foresight. We just got lucky.
How Content Gets Distributed Today
Now, content distribution (the means by which most people hear about a news item or blog post) has become much more consolidated. Today people get to their online reading material from a small handful of sources: Facebook, Pinterest, Reddit, NYT.com, and other social networks (Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat).
What this means, for publishers, is that there are new gatekeepers to your content. People don’t type in Curbly.com anymore, they just go to Facebook to see what’s new. So we’re at the mercy of Facebook’s algorithm, or Pinterest’s search index, or whatever distribution channel happens to command the most power with respect to our readership.
This has been a bit of a double-edged sword. In many ways, the online media landscape these days is more friendly to publishers, not less. There’s a lot of more advertising money out there, there are more people (readers) online in general, and the complete explosion of garbage content (see first paragraph) has meant anyone creating solid, decent, reasonably high-quality content has an easy way to stand out from the crowd (i.e. your content doesn’t suck).
The technical constraints have also loosened. When we started, we had to rent a server that costs hundreds of dollars a month and could barely handle traffic spikes that, today, we see on a daily basis. Today, it’s almost trivial to deploy a site that handles tens or hundreds of thousands of visits per day. There are literally one-click solutions that will have a site running in five minutes. Scaling up to handle large amounts of traffic is a question of paying for a little more capacity.
Must have: plenty of Sharpies, and golden scissors.
The Mobile-first Challenge
But there are challenges. The shift from desktop to mobile is almost complete. More than sixty percent of our traffic now comes from mobile devices, and that number is growing. The mobile format imposes some hard constraints; lower bandwidth, less real estate, and (for now), lower advertising value.
Lower bandwidth means decreased tolerance for slow loading pages. For a site that relies on showing lots of images, that’s a hurdle.
Less screen real estate means less space for our content, navigation, branding, and of course, advertising. Those last two, branding and advertising, are important.
Branding is the little design and content details that make the reader know which site they’re on, and (hopefully) makes them develop an affinity for that site over others. The constrained mobile format makes it a lot harder to implement good, clear branding, and effectively makes lots of mobile sites look the same. Notice how almost all mobile sites have that little three-line “hamburger” icon for the navigation menu (yes, we have it too)? Weaker branding is a big blow to publishers in an age when there’s no shortage of options, and (as I said before) distribution is consolidated among major players.
Advertising is the way publishers make money, and mobile sites can’t show as much of it. So publishers have fewer monetization opportunities in a mobile environment. Fewer options means less control, less flexibility, less leverage.
And for now, advertisers are valuing mobile inventory at a lower rate (probably because it’s not as well understood, or because people don’t buy things on their phones – yet – as readily as they do on a desktop).
Monetization (i.e. How do I make Money?)
Today, it’s much easier than it was ten years ago to make money from a blog. The overall trend (economy-wide) is that more ad dollars are moving online, so that’s good for anyone who runs a web site. But the way those dollars are moving isn’t predictable.
Let’s talk more about advertising. It sucks, right? Everyone has known this for a long time, but it appears that we are finally starting to do something about it. What are we doing? Well, pricing, for one thing. Ad prices, expressed as CPM (cost per thousand ad impressions, impressions=times an ad is shown), have been going down for decades (crazy that you can say decades at this point, but it’s true).
In a very broad sense, if the price of ads depends on the supply of ad space, it’s logical that the price has been ever-trending toward zero, because the supply is always going up. Online advertising is inherently deflationary. The number of web pages on which ads can appear is always going to grow, to infinity and beyond (well, no, just to infinity).
Obviously, all of that ad supply can’t be high quality (porn, spam sites, eHow, etc.). So publishers who can offer ad space on high quality content, which is served to a legitimate, targeted audience, will still have something of value. But the overall trend dominates.
What else are people doing about sucky ads? Blocking them! Ad blockers are becoming way more common, and it’s only a matter of time before major browsers and mobile platforms build in some form of ad blocking by default. Publishers can respond by trying to outmaneuver the blockers, or by trying to charge for content, or hiding content from ad-blocked users, but those aren’t great solutions.
Outmaneuvering ad blockers will never work – it’s just an arms race on which publishers will waste money not winning. Charging for content might work for some, but not most. And if you’re a publisher who could make money charging for content, you’d have been doing it years ago, regardless of blockers. And hiding content from a chunk of your audience, just because they don’t want to see stupid, annoying ads you yourself find annoying and stupid … well that’s just dumb.
So publishers look for other ways to make money. One is sponsored content: when brands pay publishers to write stuff about them. But while sponsored content can be lucrative, legitimate, and even interesting to readers (in its best forms), it’s also dangerous.
When a publisher gets paid to write content for someone else, they’re changing the nature of what they do. Historically publishers have paid other people (y’know, writers? freelancers? photographers?) to make content for our readers. By letting a brand pay us to create content for them, we’re transforming ourselves into the freelancers. We become (to some extent) a content studio, or a pseudo-marketing agency.
And anyway, I don’t think sponsored content scales very well. All your content can’t be sponsored (or you’d just be a full-time spokesperson). Can it be fifty percent? Thirty percent? There’s a limit, obviously, after which you can’t (or shouldn’t) make any more money doing sponsored posts.
Then there’s affiliate revenue. This is when a publisher puts links to products on their content, and gets a cut of the sale when readers click through and buy stuff. Some publishers are making a huge amount of money this way. Just look at The Wirecutter, which just got bought by the New York Times for a reported 30 million dollars; obviously there was a lot of value there.
Trust me, almost every product photo or product link you see on blogs these days is there so the publisher can make a little money if you click it and buy (don’t believe me? Look for things like rstyle.me, anrdoezrs.com, shareasale.com, etc. in blog post link URLs). Amazon is probably the biggest of these. I dare you to find an Amazon link on any reasonably-sized site that isn’t tagged with an affiliate link.
Which is OK! I actually don’t have a problem with this. In a way, it’s a better way for publishers to make money than sponsored posts, because it’s more scalable and (done right) more useful to readers. By making a legitimate, well-thought-out product recommendation, you’re helping the reader out, and a product link is way less intrusive and annoying than a display ad.
A lot of the ‘how to make money from blogging’ sites out there will suggest that you make and sell a product, like they do, and then all will be golden, money will come pouring in, and you will just be rubbing in your armpits to pass the time.
But most of those sites make money selling products about how to make money blogging. In other words, if you’re not going to be writing a blog about how to make money blogging, it’s not actually all that simple. Coming up with a content-based product that is actually monetizable is really hard.
I should know: we’ve tried. Several times. I’ve explored eBooks, printed book, paid downloads, software, and more. That’s not to say selling products isn’t smart, or that it won’t ever work (trust me: we’re still working on it). Only that IT. IS. VERY. HARD. You can expect your armpits to remain un-moneyed for some time.
These are uncertain times for content producers, but there’s also great opportunity. Great content still matters, and it’s still really hard to produce it. That’s a good thing! That means if you’re willing to work hard, find a new angle, make something unusual, it will be worth something.
That’s what we’re doing at Curbly: creating content that makes us stand out. The way that content is packaged and distributed will definitely change. It might not be a blog post on our website anymore; it might be a 360 VR video distributed on Facebook. Or maybe it’ll be an in-person event at our studio, or even a (gasp) product that we try to sell.
But the actual content is still the same: DIY design & decor for people who love where they live. And we’re more committed than ever to making it awesome.