The other day I bumped into someone who told me she was working on a novel about a lifestyle blogger, and it occurred to me that 'blogger' has now become a real, legitimate job title. You can even write a novel about it! But it wasn't always that way; for years I had to explain what blogging was before I could get to talking about my job as a blogger. Still, it's not a profession most people know a lot about, or understand well, so I decided to make a little video explaining how Curbly works, from a financial perspective.
Banner ads are kind of the scourge of the internet, but they're also largely responsible for its evolution. When you see a 300x250 pixel rectangle alongside a piece of content, that's a banner ad. The banner ad was supposedly 'invented in 1994 for the launch of HotWired.com (now just Wired). Here's the first one:
(So tiny! It's funny that we started the internet age with tiny screens, moved on to huge desktop screens, and now were back to tiny screens again)
Although these types of ads are generally annoying, they also revolutionized online publishing (and advertising) by allowing publishers of all types to monetize their content. That opened up a huge new opportunity for lots of people: the ability to make money by creating content online.
How Banner Ads Work Today
Although this type of advertising started out with large publishers and ad agencies acting as the intermediaries, when Google launched AdSense in 2003, all of that changed. AdSense allowed anybody to offer ad space by simply putting a little piece of code on their web page. It also let advertisers buy ad space on a much, much larger number of pages.
Today, the bulk of the banner ads you see are actually transacted through big advertising networks (Google's is still the largest). There's not a lot of direct contact between the publishers and the advertisers ... it's almost entirely automated. Ever notice how you'll be looking for a pair of shoes online, and then the next day (and for weeks after), every other web site you visit is showing you ads for those shoes (or some similar ones)? That's called re-targeting - the advertising networks use your browsing history to show you ads they think will be more relevant to you. Sometimes it's creepy and annoying, but other times, it works really well ... you get shown ads about things you might actually care about (instead of totally irrelevant ones).
Sponsored content is where publishers (like Curbly) get paid by brands to feature their products or services on our site. It arose largely in response to the diminishing effectiveness of banner ads around the beginning of this decade (2010). Advertisers wanted to find a better, more engaging way to get their messages in front of a targeted audience, and publishers needed a way to make money that could offset the declines in the banner advertising world.
Sponsored content can be pretty controversial, but I think it's all about how you execute it. We do a lot of sponsored posts at Curbly, but we try incredibly hard to make them interesting, educational, inspiring, and relevant to our readers. The money we make from those sponsored posts helps us pay for the costs of creating all the other (FREE!) content on the site.
Here are some sponsored posts we've done recently that I'm proud of:
- Father's Day Gift Guide: Tools He Doesn't Even Know He Needs
- Adding Charm and Relaxation to a Backyard with a DIY Pond and Fountain
- Our National Painting Week Project: A Kids' Art Crawl Extravaganza
- Take a Look Inside this Clean, Modern Living Room Makeover
However, for publishers, sponsored content has a downside, which is that it's really resource-intensive to produce (at least, if you want it to be really good). Basically, that means it takes a lot of time. So it's difficult to scale up. For a smaller publisher like us, that might not be a huge problem, but for bigger publishers, it's difficult to scale up the amount of sponsored content revenue to match their expenses.
The other issue with sponsored content (that I see) is that there's just so much of it. If you're on Instagram at all, you'll notice that it seems like every other post is 'sponsored by' or 'in partnership with'. How much it too much? I'm not sure. But it's another reason why we work hard on every sponsored post to make sure we're bringing as much value to the readers (and the sponsors) as we can.
When you click on a link on almost any site (blogs, news sites, Pinterest, etc.) and that link takes you to an online retailer, and you end up buying something, I can pretty much guarantee you the owner of the page you clicked from will end up with a cut of the sale. That's called an affiliate link.
Affiliate links have been around for a really long time (almost since the start of the web), but they've experienced a resurgence in the last five years. Like sponsored content, they're a way for publishers to get some money when they promote a brands product. But unlike sponsored content, they have the ability to scale well. There's a ton of examples of web sites doing really nasty things to drum up revenue via affiliate links, and that's too bad, because, when done correctly, they can be an effective and (I think) ethical way for publishers to make money.
See, as a publisher, if we can provide our readers with an in-depth product review (like this one we did about glass bottle cutters) or a curated gift guide (like this one about budget gifts for groomsmen), then we've saved those readers some time, and provided some inspiration or education. That's valuable for them, and valuable for the retailers who may end up selling a product as a result. So I think it's natural that the publisher should be able and willing to monetize that exchange.
But that means we publishers need to be honest and engaging with our audience; building trust and connection with the readers is the single most important thing we can do. Without that, blogging has no business model.
What else do you want to know?
Thinking about getting into blogging (either as a hobby or as a job)? Wondering how social media plays into the whole equation, or what bloggers do to keep organized and effective with their editorial calendar? Let me know what you'd like to hear more about, and I'll try to get to it in my next post.
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