The Truth About Blogging for Money
I’m a little bit scared to publish this. I mean, partly because it’s probably the longest thing I’ve ever published, and I basically just dumped my brain onto the blank page, but for other reasons, too. Mostly that I’m writing this in response to what feels like an endless stream of articles on the subject of how “blogging has changed”, and is so much worse now, and I’m going to take a totally different viewpoint from most of the authors of those posts.
I don’t think blogging has changed.
Or not as much as some people seem to believe, anyway.
“But it’s all about the numbers now! People used to just write about their lives, without worrying about how many followers they had! Now it’s all sponsored posts and affiliate links, and it’s so competitive – blogging has really changed!”
– every blogger ever, apparently
So, it’s certainly true that you see a lot more of this kind of thing now – the affiliate links, and the chasing followers, and the worrying about “the numbers”. A LOT more. In the last year or so in particular, it feels like blogging has become a bit of an “It” job, and everyone wants a piece of the pie, so whereas most people used to start blogs ‘just for fun’, now more and more people are starting blogs with the intention of making a career out of them .
I’m not trying to argue that this ISN’T the case, because it is, but I still don’t think it’s “blogging” that’s changed – I think what’s happened is that bloggers’ expectations of what blogging should and should not be have changed, and that they expect blogging itself to change to suit those revised expectations.
When it doesn’t, they blame “blogging”, and they write posts about the “good old days” – posts which all of a sudden reveal that the “good old days” they’re referring to are, like, 2012 or something, and then I’m sitting there feeling ancient, because I’ve just realised that these people are young enough to think that three years is a lifetime, and that the commercialisation of blogging started with the launch of RewardStyle.
Blogging is older than that, though. It’s almost as old as the internet, in fact, if you want to count LiveJournal, and Open Diary, and all those hand-coded “journals” with their scrolling marquees and their animated gifs, and GOD, I’M OLD. It has changed in that time, of course: I’m not trying to argue that everything has remained exactly the same, and that we’re still logging into our Angelfire accounts and trying to decide which colour of text we’ll use for today’s “journal” entry – that would be stupid. Blogs are glossier now, and more like magazines – or some of them are, anyway. Some are actually still pretty similar to those old-style journals. Last week I even saw a scrolling marquee, not even joking. I can still see it now, actually, if I close my eyes. Oh, dem good ol’ days!
But blogging has been around for a while now, and actually, pro-blogs have been around for a long time too. When people talk of the “old days”, they conveniently forget that some of those older style “blogs” had adverts on them, too. Not all of them, and not even most of them, maybe, but as soon as people figured out that you could make money by writing words on the internet, you better believe they got on that. Brands got on it. Then journalists and writers got on it too, because that’s what writers do: they get paid to write, and they saw no reason why they shouldn’t do it on the internet as well as in print.
I was one of them, in fact: I started TheFashionPolice.net in 2006 – almost an entire decade ago – and I started it for what we’re encouraged to believe are the “wrong” reasons, i,e. I wanted to make money from blogging. I didn’t start that blog because I wanted to make friends (I DID start THIS blog for those reasons, but that’s a whole other story...), or even because I cared particularly about the subject matter, but because I wanted to be able to work from home, without having a boss to answer to, and I saw starting a (commercial) blog as no different to starting a magazine, or, indeed, any other kind of business.
A lot of people disagree with that. A lot of people think blogging, or any kind of creative endeavour, should be done first and foremost “for love”, but I don’t agree. I just don’t. Do the people who say these things go into restaurants and tell the wait staff that they shouldn’t be expecting a tip, because they should be waiting tables purely for the “love” of carrying food around on trays? Do they take their car to the garage and feel affronted because the mechanic gave them a bill for the work he did, rather than just soaking up the “experience”, the way he “should” have? Do they tell the checkout person in Tesco that being able to feed their families is the “wrong” reason to work in a supermarket, and whatever happened to just checking groceries for fun? Do they go into the corner shop and tell the woman who owns it that they don’t know why she has adverts running in the local paper, to try to attract more customers: why can’t she be happy just to HAVE a shop? Why does she need people to actually VISIT it, and buy things from it? The shop is for HER! It’s HER shop! As long as SHE likes it, surely that should be enough? Have I hammered this point home enough yet? Hey, is anyone still reading this? Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?
Anyway! I was reading a blog post about the “change” in blogging last week, and someone had commented with something along the lines of, “I see bloggers trying to boost their pageviews, and I just think, ‘is that what it’s about now’?” Cue everyone sadly shaking their heads and tut-tutting over the cut-throat industry that blogging has “become”, and I, meanwhile, am just sitting there scratching my head, and thinking, “Is it just me, or has professional blogging always been like this?”
Honestly? Yes, it has. Blogging for money has ALWAYS been like this. The clue is in the phrase “for money“. Some people have always blogged for money: this is not some new phenomenon. Back in 2006 (and before that, too, I assume – 2006 is just when I personally became aware of it) there were professional blogs: blogs that were written purely for commercial reasons. I owned one of them, and I wrote for a bunch of others – The Shiny Media blog network, which was a commercial enterprise, with swanky Covent Garden offices and an entire team of people employed to wring every last penny possible out of those blogs.
We worried about follower numbers.
We chased advertisers.
We did our level best to increase the pageviews on the sites we wrote for: we were even given targets to meet for this.
We obsessively checked stats, to see what was working and what wasn’t, and then we made changes to reflect what we’d learned.
So much for the good ol’ days, when everyone blogged for ‘pure’ reasons, huh?
It was 2006, and, for some people, blogging was ALREADY a business. I could name a dozen blogs from back then which had been created for the sole purpose of earning money (I couldn’t: my memory isn’t that great. I could Google it, though.), and which were doing it well. No, sponsored posts weren’t really a “thing” back then (although they did exist), and affiliate links weren’t so big either. Social media had yet to take off, so yes, some of the mechanics of pro-blogging were different, but the theory was exactly the same: we wrote and published things on the internet, and we did it in order to make money, so we could pay our bills and eat food and buy 50 pairs of shoes.
So people have always blogged for money: the main difference now is that these days there are a lot MORE people trying to blog for money, and that is partly a consequence of there being a lot more people blogging, period. And yeah, you’re right – a lot of them DON’T do it because they love writing, communicating, photography (The so-called “right” reasons), but because they let themselves be seduced by the apparent glamour of girls being paid to wear clothes and try on make-up (the “wrong reasons”).
So they start a blog, or they start trying to monetise their existing blog, and are just absolutely AGHAST to find that, actually, it’s not quite that simple. Because here’s the thing: those girls AREN’T actually being paid to wear clothes and try on make-up: they’re being paid to try to persuade you to to BUY the clothes and the make-up, and they can only do that if they can somehow get REALLY good at presenting that stuff to you, AND if there are enough of you out there, reading their blogs, to make it worth their while.
If they want to get good at taking photos, styling outfits, applying make-up and writing blog posts, they have to work at it. Yes they do. If you don’t think doing any of that stuff is “work”, then as I’ve said before, I challenge you to go and start up an outfit blog (Head over to Blogger.com and you’ll have one up and running within a few minutes, totally for free), and come back to me once you have a minimum of 10,000 followers, and are pulling in the equivalent to whatever wage you’re making now. If your theory is correct, and blogging is “easy”, you’ll be back in a few weeks, with money stuffed into all your pockets and a trail of brand reps loitering behind you, just waiting to pour OMGFREESTUFF down upon you.
Except you won’t, because it’s NOT that easy. No one is born knowing how to blog successfully. And yes, blogging for a living IS a business, and it IS competitive, and you DO have to think about follower numbers and stats, and whether or not you really want to write a sponsored post about blue-tailed raccoons just to be able to pay the rent this month. You DO have to listen to countless PR pitches, learn how to gracefully decline offers to write about a new brand of toilet tissue, and rebuff people who want you to work for them for free. You have to patiently tell people, over and over again, sometimes dozens of times on the same Instagram photo, that the Topshop shoes you described as “my new Topshop shoes” and tagged as “Topshop” are, in fact, from Topshop. (If you’re a bad person, like I am, you have to resist the urge to say they’re from Zara, just to mess with people…)
“And yes, blogging for a living IS a business, and it IS competitive, and you DO have to think about follower numbers and stats, and whether or not you really want to write a sponsored post about blue-tailed raccoons just to be able to pay the rent this month.”
You have to smile and thank people who give you patronising, unsolicited advice. You have to answer emails from people demanding that you be friends with them, and meet them for coffee, because they read your blog and think they “know” you. You have to learn to live with the knowledge that if you uploaded a photo of a used handkerchief to Instagram, five people will want to know where you got it, and another five will ask for “tips” on how to best use a handkerchief. (And if you don’t reply fast enough, they’ll be furious, and maybe trash-talk you on a hate site. “I’ve been reading her blog for YEARS, but she can’t even be bothered to answer one simple question!”)
You have to get used to being addressed as “Dear Blogger”, and to people talking about you as if you’re not actually a human being, and can’t see what they say (even although they’ve written on your own damn Facebook page or Instagram photo). You have to work out what to say to people who literally want the clothes off your back, or who tell you you should be giving your shoes to them because you have too many of them, anyway. You have to deal with accountants and taxes. You have to behave as though you’re running a business, because the fact is, you ARE running a business.
THAT is the reality of blogging for a living. If you expect it to be different from that, then I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but you’re dreaming. You’re looking at the pretty pictures and the glossy blog designs, and you’re not seeing the hours of work that went into creating them; you’re not feeling the crushing sense of failure that resulted from some of those posts getting zero comments, even although the blogger poured their heart and soul into creating them.
Thinking you can get paid just to go about your life; to wear clothes and take pictures of your cat, without ever stopping to think about whether anyone actually wants to READ that stuff, or even whether they’re GOOD pictures of your cat… well, it’s a bit like going for an interview in a cake shop and, when they ask what you’d do to help bring more customers into the store, saying, “Umm, I don’t really want to be bothered with all that, to be honest: I just really like cake!” It’s like getting a job in a office and then being surprised when you’re presented with a huge pile of typing (or, you know, whatever people do in offices), because you really just wanted to sit around looking pretty, and gossiping by the water cooler, like they do on TV. Can’t you just do that?
Actually, yes, you can. If you like cake, then eat cake, take photos of cake, blog about all the damn cake you like. Just don’t expect to be getting paid for it anytime soon, because if you want to – and I’m sorry, but yes, I’m going to go there – have your cake AND get paid to eat it, you’re going to have to make everyone else want the cake too. That means your photos of the cake better be good ones, and the things you say about the cake will have to be witty, insightful, and ideally like nothing anyone has ever heard anyone say about cake before. Is anyone else hungry right now? Can I stop talking about cake?
This is what professional blogging is like, and it’s what professional blogging has ALWAYS been like. When I see people complaining that blogging has changed, that it’s too competitive now, and that if you want to be successful at it, you have to think about traffic and followers and all that boring stuff, I always want to ask what they expected. That it would be easy? That they’d be able to start a business but not bother thinking about how it would make money? That they could simply build it and people would come? That blogging for money would be just like writing a diary, like it was in the much-vaunted good ol’ days of, ooooh, 2012, maybe?
Well, here’s a newsflash for you: it can be. It can be exactly like that, in fact. Because blogging hasn’t changed (or not as much as people want you to believe): people’s approach to blogging has changed. YOU are what’s changed, in other words – assuming, of course, that “you” are a blogger who wants to make money from it.
“blogging hasn’t changed: people’s approach to blogging has changed. YOU are what’s changed, in other words…”
I think what we’re seeing happening here is people starting blogs as a hobby, realising there’s potential to make money from it, and thinking, “hey, I’ll have some of that!” THEY are the ones who “change”, in that they go from being hobby bloggers to all of a sudden being professional bloggers, and yet they somehow expect everything to remain the same: they genuinely think they can just keep on doing what they’ve been doing, but that now they’ll just miraculously make money from it.
When that doesn’t happen, they say that blogging has changed: that it’s different now, and they don’t like this “different” blogging, so they’re going to take their ball and go home. Actually, though, they’re comparing professional blogging (which they do now) to hobby blogging (which they did before), and the fact is, those two things have always been different from each other.
To give you yet another analogy, it’s like… <wracks brain for analogy>… OK, let’s say I like swimming. (I don’t, by the way.) I go swimming a couple of times a week at my local pool, and it’s just tons o’ fun. I start to make friends with some of the other pool-goers, and we’re all having a whale of a time (groan!). One day, one of my new-found swim buddies tells me there are SOME people who actually get paid to swim, can you imagine that? They are actually PAID MONEY to do this thing that I’ve been doing just for fun! Some of them even get lucrative sponsorships from swimming-related brands, and – GET THIS – the brands actually PAY THE SWIMMERS TO WEAR THEIR CLOTHES. While doing something they’d have done anyway, just for fun.
Seriously, who WOULDN’T think that sounded like a pretty sweet deal? If I told you that you could do something you do anyway – something that you LOVE doing – and that now you’ll get paid for it, you’d jump at it, wouldn’t you? So, in this fictional scenario, I decide that I’D like to be one of those money-making swimmers, too. I’D like to get paid to wear a swimsuit (THAT I WOULD HAVE TOTALLY WORN ANYWAY!) and go to the pool a couple of times per week, so I start to follow these “pro” swimmers, and to see how they do it. First, I realise I’m not going to be able to just go to the pool a couple of times a week any more: I’m going to have to go every day, and I’m going to have to go for HOURS every day. Also, there will be no more sitting around chatting to my swim buddies in the jacuzzi – if I want to make money from swimming, I’ll have to train hard, and learn how to do a bunch of stuff I’ve never really wanted to do, because I was happy just pootling around in the shallow end, and I’m kind of scared of the diving board, if I’m perfectly honest.
My new buddies will now be in competition with me – the friendships might not feel the same. That’s OK, though, because I love swimming, and… wait: now you’re telling me I need to train on weekends, too? You’re telling me I should consider building my own pool? Hiring a trainer? Changing my diet? That sports brand that’s sponsoring me wants me to turn up at their stupid event on Sunday night? But that’s my night off, and the event is two hours away! You know what? I’m not sure I like this any more. “SWIMMING HAS CHANGED!” I tell everyone who’ll listen. “It’s just so different now. It used to be about sitting in the jacuzzi on a Tuesday afternoon, but now it’s all about the money, and being in the pool at 7am every morning. Swimming has changed SO MUCH!”
Of course, the fact is that there are still people sitting in the jacuzzi on Tuesday afternoons, and having just as much fun as they always did. They’re just not expecting to make any money from it, and I am. It’s not swimming that changed – it’s my expectations of swimming that changed. The fact is, I don’t really want to be a pro-swimmer: I just want people to treat me like one – oh yeah, and to pay me like one, too. I want to get paid to hang out at the pool, ignoring the fact that no one EVER got paid just to hang out at the pool.
And, just in case this horse I’m flogging isn’t quite dead enough yet, blogging hasn’t changed that much either: it’s just that, all of a sudden, people expect to make money from something that never actually made money in the first place. The thing I hear most often in regards to blogging having “changed” is that now it’s “all about the numbers”, but professional blogging has ALWAYS been “all about the numbers. Seriously: there was never a time when full-time bloggers just sat around twiddling their thumbs and watching money roll in, without doing anything to make that happen.
Professional bloggers always worried about followers, and stats and sponsorships; hobby bloggers didn’t, because they didn’t have to. (And they STILL don’t have to: if you’re a hobby blogger and you’re spending your days fretting over pageviews and follower numbers, then that’s a pressure YOU’RE putting on yourself: it’s not something “blogging” is doing TO you.)
Now hobby bloggers want to be professional bloggers, but they want to keep on blogging as a hobby. It doesn’t work that way. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn’t. And ultimately, if you want to be a part of this blogging world, you’re going to have to pick a side. You’re going to have to decide what you REALLY want from it, and what you’re willing to do to get it. You’re also going to have to decide what you’re NOT willing to do, and that’s possibly even more important.
(I’m worried that this whole swimming analogy makes it sound like I’m saying pro-bloggers are “better” than hobby bloggers in some way. I don’t mean to imply that AT ALL: I’m just trying to point out that pro-blogging and hobby blogging are two totally different beasts, and that you can’t really compare them. Like, you could be a fantastic swimmer, but if you’re not prepared to enter competitions, you’re not going to make a living from it, you know?)
It’s not all bad news, though. The greatest thing about blogging is that it can be whatever you want it to be. There aren’t really any “rules”. Lately I keep seeing people complaining about all the “blog tips” posts that are out there. “I don’t want to be given lists of rules,” they say. “I just want to blog the way I used to.” And my response to that is always: great – why don’t you just do it, then? If you don’t want to worry about increasing your traffic and followers, don’t worry about increasing your traffic and followers. If you don’t want to go to blog events, don’t go to them. If you don’t want to run adverts or write sponsored posts, don’t accept advertising on your site. Remove the stat counter from your blog. Say “no” when people ask to advertise on it. Don’t join the Twitter chats aimed at helping you grow your blog. Unsubscribe from the blogs that make you feel like you’re not good enough, or that you have to compete with them.
You can do all of this because there are no rules. Those blog tips people write are JUST TIPS: they are not “rules”. You don’t have to read them, and you certainly don’t have to follow them. You can be any kind of blogger you like: the only thing you can’t do is turn your hobby into a career, and think nothing will change. You can’t become one of the “big” bloggers without being good at it. You can’t get paid just to wear clothes and write about your life – you’ll have to do it well enough that people will want to follow you, and you’ll have to reach the point where a LOT of people want to follow you before you’ll make money.
This will change your experience of blogging, but it doesn’t have to. You CAN still blog like it’s 2013 – or whatever mythical year you think of as the “good ol’ days.” There are still people just writing about their lives, without worrying about sponsorships or followers, or whether that photo will get Pinned. You can be one of them, if you want to be. I, for instance, have just written a 4,000 word rant (Which is exactly what the blog tips posts tell you NOT to do…), just because I wanted to. I could’ve sat and edited it down, turned it into a list, made it more appealing to people, and less like the massive stream-of-consciousness it ended up being. But sometimes I just like to write down the things that are on my mind without worrying about whether it’ll get shared, so I do.