It hasn’t been a good year for the blogosphere .
This week, Mode Media, who handled advertising for thousands of bloggers, abruptly shut up shop, putting staff members out of work and leaving bloggers frantically chasing payments they might never receive. This news comes hot on the heels of the similarly sudden closure of Passionfruit Ads, who provided a payment engine which allowed bloggers to easily sell sidebar adverts – and whose closure was only discovered when they suddenly stopped responding to emails, or making payments.
Just this month, one of my favourite bloggers, Catherine of Not Dressed as Lamb, wrote a heartbreakingly honest post about her problems extracting payment from people she’d completed work for – problems that forced her to consider quitting blogging altogether. Sadly, Catherine’s situation is not unusual: I think most self-employed workers will have run into similar difficulties at some point, but it seems to be particularly difficult for bloggers – and at a time when ad networks are going out of business, brands are refusing to pay, and bloggers are spending more time chasing invoices than they spend working on their blogs, it’s hard not to wonder:
Is it still possible to make money from blogging – or has the bubble well and truly burst?
The short answer? Yes, it’s still possible to make money from blogging: but it’s getting harder and harder with every year that passes, and this week’s news definitely makes it feel like things are only getting worse.
To take the Mode Media situation as an example: I worked with Mode many years ago – back when they were known as the Glam Network, and ran banner adverts on all three (or four, as it was at the time) of my blogs. I made anything from a few hundred to a thousand dollars per month from this, and while I was aware that the rate I was getting wasn’t great, my blogs were much smaller at the time, and I honestly didn’t know any better than to simply accept what I was offered.
As my blogs grew, and the Glam/Mode payments decreased, however, I reached the stage where I realised it just wasn’t worth it any more, so I left the network and started pursuing other advertising opportunities. I tried out quite a few different networks for banner ads in the years that followed, and none of them were any better than Glam had been – in fact, most were worse.
One thing I noticed was that, the more time went on, the larger and more intrusive the display adverts became. When I first signed with Glam, back in 2008/9-ish, the requirement was that you had to have at least one ad “above the fold” – i.e in the top half of your website. I’d thought that was bad enough, but now I was being told that wasn’t enough, and that if I wanted to receive high-paying ads, I had to be willing to allow site takeovers, wraps and pop-ups – basically the largest, most intrusive types of digital advertising you can get.
“the more time went on, the larger and more intrusive the display adverts became.”
I hated those ads, but I desperately wanted to be able to make a living from blogging, and I also really wanted to be able to ditch my other two sites, and focus purely on Forever Amber, so I figured the ads were a compromise I’d have to be willing to make. Unfortunately, they weren’t a compromise my readers were willing to make: at one point I was getting almost daily complaints, so at the start of this year, I decided to get back in touch with Glam – now known as Mode Media – again, this time asking about sponsored post opportunities.
It had become clear to me that banner advertising was no longer working for my sites, and although I hate doing sponsored posts, they were at least lucrative, and I realised I’d only need a couple of them per month to make a pretty decent living. Unfortunately, Mode Media weren’t able to provide that: in fact, they wouldn’t even speak to me at all, ignoring emails, and failing to return phonecalls over a period of many weeks, until finally, grudgingly accepting a call from Terry, during which they agreed to put my blog forward for sponsored posts – but only if I agreed to accept some banner ads, too.
I didn’t want the banner ads, but I DID want to do some more sponsored posts, so I agreed to this, despite my reservations. It took Mode Media over a month to get the ads running on the site: for reasons that were never clear to me, they just didn’t seem able to set up an account for me (even although I already had one, from my previous time with me), and once it WAS set up, they were unable to fill the ad space, which meant I hardly ever had display ads appearing on the site. This would’ve been fine if they’d followed through on their promise of sponsored posts, but… they didn’t.
I was with Mode Media for around three months. During that time, I made less than £100 from display advertising, and absolutely nothing from sponsored posts, or other collaborations. They’d said they were particularly interested in monetising social media, with Instagram and Pinterest specific campaigns, but once the ad code was on my site, I didn’t hear from them again: I was offered no campaigns whatsoever, and, again, all emails went unanswered during that time.
“I was with Mode Media for around three months. During that time, I made less than £100 from display advertising, and absolutely nothing from sponsored posts, or other collaborations.”
When we finally decided to pull the plug and remove the ad code from the site, Terry made a final attempt to contact Mode, letting them know that we had removed their code, and had been disappointed by their failure to attract any sponsorships for the site – which, at that point, was averaging around 180,000 page views per month. The reason Mode gave us for the lack of interest?
My social reach wasn’t high enough, they said.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t pay nearly as much attention to social media as I should do. I currently have 11K followers on Instagram, and 10K on Twitter – which I know isn’t huge, compared to many of my contemporaries. I do, however, have over half a million followers on Pinterest, very healthy traffic to the blog itself, and was recently named one of the UK’s Top Ten Women Fashion Bloggers.
According to Mode Media, however, this just isn’t enough for me to make a living from blogging – or not with their network, anyway.
Now, granted, there may be other reasons for the lack of interest I had from Mode advertisers, which they’re just not telling me. I’m well aware that I’m much older than the average fashion blogger, for instance, as well as much less trendy. I don’t follow fashion, don’t do ‘haul’ videos, and I live in a small village in Scotland, frequently going for days at a time without even looking at Twitter or Facebook. In a blogosphere full of hip young Londoners, I don’t exactly fit in: so does that mean I can’t ever make a living from blogging?
Well, no, it doesn’t: because I DO still make a living from blogging. As I said, though, it gets harder with every year that passes, and these days I find myself having to look to other revenue streams (like my ebook, or affiliate marketing, for instance), to make up for the drop in income from display advertising and sponsored posts. I’m still doing OK: but I won’t deny that the events of the last year have me worried about the future of blogging – and absolutely certain that there has to be some kind of sea change in the industry if we’re ever to move forward.
“there has to be some kind of sea change in the industry if we’re ever to move forward.”
Take those sponsored posts, for instance. I have no shortage of brands looking for me to collaborate with them: in fact, responding to the numerous emails I get every day is almost a full-time job in itself. I’m not saying that to brag, by the way, because the problem is that out of all of those hundreds of weekly emails, all from brands who LOVE my blog, and REALLY want to work with me, most of them aren’t actually willing to pay me – which is a problem, really.
We’re currently stuck at a strange crossroads in the blogging industry whereby brands can see the value in being featured on a popular blog – they just can’t understand why they should have to pay for that. They genuinely seem to feel that bloggers should be willing to work for them for free – and why wouldn’t they, after all, when so many bloggers ARE willing to work for free: or for “exposure”, which amounts to the same thing, anyway?
Even the brands who WILL pay to appear on a blog will most often NOT pay for a nofollow link, which has no value to them in terms of SEO. As bloggers who accept money or products for those kind of links run the risk of being penalised by Google, however, you end up with a complete impasse – the brand won’t pay you for a link that won’t help their SEO; you can’t accept that link without damaging your own. You’re left, then, with only those brands who are paying for a post purely to raise their profile or sell products, rather than to boost their Google rank. Those brands do exist, but they’re few and far between, and once you’ve found one, you have to convince them your post will be worth paying for, then actually persuade them to cough up the cash: both of which can feel like impossible tasks.
The problem, as I see it, is that, although it feels like it’s been around forever, blogging is really still a brand-new industry: and right now, it’s still largely an industry of amateurs. Before you get offended by that, let me quickly clarify: I don’t mean ‘amateur’ in a disparaging sense – I simply mean that the industry is still finding its way, and struggling to establish groundrules and best practice. It is almost completely unregulated, and it changes constantly: there’s so much conflicting information out there, that it’s no wonder people get confused.
“the industry is still finding its way, and struggling to establish groundrules and best practice. It is almost completely unregulated, and it changes constantly: there’s so much conflicting information out there, that it’s no wonder people get confused.”
This is an industry, lest we forget, where almost everyone in it is making it up as they go along. An industry in which many newcomers are in their teens or early twenties (And I mean absolutely no disrespect by that: if blogging had existed when I was in my teens, I’d have been all over it, seriously…), with very little life or work experience, and absolutely zero business or publishing experience. It’s very easy for unscrupulous brands to take advantage of that level of inexperience, obviously, but while we hear a lot about the big bad brands, and their Machiavellian plans to exploit us poor bloggers, it’s also worth remembering that the brands are just as new to this as the bloggers are – and the bloggers aren’t aways innocent, either.
I mean, I’m a member of several Facebook groups for bloggers, and almost every week I’m shocked by some of the misinformation and general lack of awareness I see there. There are bloggers who believe it’s actually ILLEGAL to post a follow link in a paid post, for instance. (It might not be advisable, in terms of Google, but no, it’s not ILLEGAL…) Bloggers who feel they are somehow legally obliged to publish a press release they received from a PR. Bloggers who respond to that PR ripping them to shreds for even DARING to send them that press release, and not offering to pay them, first – even although they just started their blog last week, and it’s had all of 5 visitors since then. There are bloggers who spend all their time obsessing over how they can write for free for The Huffington Post, and others who aren’t even able to log into their WordPress dashboard without crowdsourcing some help first.
I’m not trying to make fun of these people, by the way: I’m really not. There’s no reason they would know any of this stuff, after all: why would they? No one is born knowing how to blog, and as I said, things change so quickly, and so often, that it’s almost impossible to keep up. What’s very apparent to me, however, is that none of these bloggers seem to understand that they’re running a business. They’re SO new to it that they don’t even understand the terminology – and yet they’re demanding money from brands to copy and paste a press release, and publicly scolding them for ‘demanding’ the blogger ‘breaks the law’ by including an ILLEGAL link!
Seriously, can you even imagine going to your bank manager with that business plan? Telling her that you’ve decided to start a business in an industry you know absolutely nothing about, and that if you run into problems, you’ll just ask random strangers on Facebook – who probably don’t know what THEY’RE doing either – to help you out of it?
I hope not. But this is the blogosphere we have right now, and it’s a mistake to think the fault lies solely with unscrupulous brand and failed ad networks. There’s fault on both sides – and there has to be change on both sides too, if we’re ever to find our way out of the current mess.
There’s fault on both sides – and there has to be change on both sides too, if we’re ever to find our way out of the current mess.”
Bloggers need to start valuing the work they do – and not giving it away for free – whilst at the same time understanding that they have to be able to provide genuine value to a brand, too, if they want to work with them. They have to do their best to read up on things like publishing law, Google polices, and how to blog legally and ethically. Most of all, they have to be really damn good at what they do if they want to have any chance AT ALL of making money from it.
Brands, meanwhile, need to wise up and stop taking the crap. They need to stop expecting people to complete hours and hours worth of work, for absolutely no compensation (No, “exposure” is not compensation, and the sooner we get rid of the dangerous idea that it IS, the better.). They need to try really hard to understand what blogging is, and how they can work with bloggers for a mutual benefit – as opposed to seeing us simply as a cheap (or free) alternative to advertising in the traditional media. They need to pay us what they’ve agreed to – on time, and without reverting to radio silence as soon as the post goes live.
Lastly, blog readers have to understand that if they want to keep reading free content from bloggers, they have to be willing to accept the odd bit of advertising in exchange for that. They have to switch off their ad block on the sites they love, stop trying to find ways to avoid clicking on affiliate links, and maybe even just drop the blogger a comment or a ‘like’ every now and then, just so they know they’re not just talking to themselves. These things cost the reader nothing, but can mean the difference between a blog continuing to exist, or shutting up shop for good.
If all of these changes can somehow happen, then sure, I think it’s still possible to make a living from blogging. If things remain the same, however, well, I don’t think Mode Media will be the only casualty…
[P.S. For more on how I continue to make a living from blogging, despite the current climate, feel free to check out my ebook…]