The Business of Blogging
By Kasia Grobelny
Video: Behind the Blog- The Story of Crystalin Marie
Editor’s Note: I’ve updated information in this article to reflect 2016 statistics.
It’s a sunny Monday morning in San Jose and Crystalin An is sitting in her home office. Flanked by a pale gray and white striped wall her and a DIY bookshelf turned shoe closet to her right, An’s surroundings reflect a lifestyle that is the subject of Crystalin Marie, her popular blog that covers fashion, food and life with her boyfriend and dog.
The bright office houses the “must-have” accessories for a style blogger: gallery wall with artsy pictures and inspirational quotes? Check. Gold-colored accessories placed throughout the room? Check. Lucite tray housing sparkly jewelry? All-white westie-poodle mix named Lola lying quietly by her feet? Check and check.
An is perched behind her 27-inch Mac desktop computer, scanning Pinterest for blog inspiration.
“Blogging is my life,” An said. “I’m constantly thinking about it, constantly on social media.”
After moving to San Francisco in 2009 from Santa Barbara, where she worked as a waitress while searching for a job in social media, An decided to launch a blog as a way to document the new phase in her life. She writes about a variety of topics including shopping, fashion, dining and fitness. But the blog mostly centers around another style blogger staple: outfit posts, where she posts photos of her outfits taken in various settings and shares where she purchased the items pictured.
“I had no idea that this was a thing or that it would have grown into whatever the industry is now,” An said, reflecting on her humble blog beginnings.
“Even when I first started, I read like 5 blogs,” she said. “At the beginning you want to get yourself out there.” She added that visiting other blogs and commenting on them – old fashioned “link love” – was one of the early tools she used to try and gain followers.
In addition to not being familiar with many blogs outside of her own, An didn’t realize that blogging could bring in a significant income.
“I didn’t know that it could make money…real money,” An added.
How to make it as a blogger?
An isn’t alone in her desire to turn her lifestyle into a blogging career. Over the years, the lifestyle blogging industry has taken off and even given rise to the “blogging celebrity.”
Emily Schuman, founder of Cupcakes & Cashmere has parlayed her popular lifestyle blog that covers fashion, food, and décor into a best-selling book, “Cupcakes and Cashmere: A Guide for Defining your Style, reinventing your Space and Entertaining with Ease.” A second book, “Cupcakes and Cashmere at Home” was published in 2015. Schuman also is involved in consulting, brand partnerships and most recently a design collaboration with fashion retailer, Club Monaco.
Then there’s fashion blogger Aimee Song. Thanks to impressive social statistics that include 4.2 million Instagram followers and a combined 1 million plus followers or likes on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook; Song of Song of Style, has incredible reach and become a leading “influencer” in the blogging world.
After launching her blog in 2008, Song quickly gained the attention of top brands like 7 For All Mankind, Macy’s, True Religion, Piperlime and more and has worked on everything from ad campaigns to hosting events. In a 2012 article in Women’s Wear Daily, Song noted that her fees ranged from a couple of thousand to up to about $50,000 for a collaboration deal with a brand. Though bloggers tend to shy away from disclosing exact figures, since that article appeared, Song’s reach has grown tremendously. It’s likely her rates have, too.
Though it’s this kind of prosperity that keeps An at her keyboard, Schuman and Song’s stories are the exception to the rule. Despite the fact that monetization options exist and many are making money from blogging, most bloggers aren’t exactly able to quit their day jobs to pursue blogging as a full-time career.
While two-thirds of bloggers surveyed for Technorati’s Digital Media Report stated that they make money from blogging, only 11 percent make more than $30,000 a year. And only four percent responded that they make more than $100,000 annually.
Success and transparency
Since blogging is a relatively new way of earning a living, many of those who read blogs may wonder about the earnings potential of bloggers and how it all works behind the scenes. Some bloggers are choosing to share their knowledge (and their finances) to educate their readers about what goes into running a blog as a business.
Lindsay Ostrom of Pinch of Yum, a blog documenting her love of cooking with recipes, tips and posts about her life is one of the few, if not only blogger, to publicly disclose exactly how much she and her tech-oriented husband Bjork earn from their blog via monthly earnings posts.
“Bjork really wanted to a) track our progress in an organized way and b) share what we were learning and start the conversation with other food bloggers about how to make a full- time income from this weird and relatively new profession,” Ostrom said.
After launching her blog in 2009, her first income report from September 2011 showed a mere $21.97. However, the elementary school teacher — who just eventually left teaching to pursue blogging full time — earned a monthly income of more than $40,000 in November 2016, thanks to a combination of ads, product sales (her e-book), affiliate marketing and sponsored content.
While the success of Schuman and Ostrom – or simply the free clothes and trips – might entice some lifestyle bloggers to launch, the realities of running a successful blog paint a different picture.
“It is not easy,” said Hallie Wilson. In addition to her day job as a content creator development manager for Glam, the style vertical of Mode Media, since 2011 Wilson also runs Among Other Things (formerly known as corals + cognacs,) a lifestyle blog focused on style and travel.
“It’s really not as glamorous as it looks, at the end of the day, I am a blogger but what that entails is that I’m a writer, I’m an editor, I’m a photographer, a graphic designer, an accountant, an unpaid intern,” Wilson added. “There’s just so much work that goes into it that a lot of people don’t see behind the scenes.”
Show me the money
So how exactly do bloggers make money? Several ways, it turns out.
First, there is the traditional banner ad. Rates for these types of ads depend on the reach and popularity of the blogger and there are several companies, including Federated Media who represent bloggers and negotiate ads with brands.
Technorati Media’s Digital Influence report shows that most bloggers reported income was a result of advertising, with 61 percent coming from banner ads and 51 percent coming from text ads.
“Those banner ads are still valuable,” said Neil Chase, vice president of content at LifeLock and former senior vice president at Federated Media, one of the first ad networks to connect up-and-coming bloggers with like-minded advertisers. “There’s lots of great innovation, there’s a lot you can do with banner ads.”
Other monetization options for bloggers include sponsored content (24 percent) and sponsored product reviews (19 percent.)
However, the monetizing tool that is growing in popularity —with 41 percent of income coming from this source — according to Technorati’s Digital Influence Report are affiliate programs.
Affiliate programs negotiate with brands and retailers to develop a commission rate on products. When a blogger is a part of an affiliate program, they have access to all the same products you’d traditionally find online. However, linking them through the affiliate programs gives the added bonus of having pre-negotiated commission rates. Once a blogger is signed up, they can access product links and post them on their site.
There are a multitude of programs that bloggers can choose from. At Skimlinks, a backend code automatically converts all existing links into a trackable affiliate link when clicked on. When a reader clicks on a link and makes a purchase, the blogger earns a commission.
Other programs work a bit differently. Affiliate links through RewardStyle or ShopSense have a URL that contains the ID or username of the chosen affiliate. The affiliate program then tracks this URL and bloggers earn their commission either pay-per-click (where each click earns them a nominal fee) or pay-per-purchase (where each purchase results in a pre-determined cut of the price to the blogger.) Bloggers then manually plug these into their posts and cha-ching!
RewardStyle came on the blogging scene in 2011 and seized the opportunity to help popular fashion bloggers monetize their blog content. Amber Venz, the 27-year-old president of RewardStyle, started the company to address her own blogging needs.
She used her personal shopping background to develop tools that would bring that same shopping experience to the online world. Venz wanted all her advertisers in one place, so she could compare commissions between stores and make her decisions about which links to include in her post based on those prices. The invitation-only web tool helps bloggers or what they refer to as “publishers” find and monetize their content.
After getting invited by a fellow blogger early on in RewardStyle’s history, An is a fan of the affiliate program.
“I mostly use RewardStyle because over time I see that that’s generating the most revenue,” An said.
A recent post on An’s blog featured her picks from Nordstrom’s Half-Year Sale. A blink and you’ll miss it URL beginning with “rstyle.me” pops up as you navigate to the retailers site, meaning that the items An featured were linked through with RewardStyle.
So what would happen if one clicked through the link and actually purchased one of the items An recommended? She’ll earn a commission. The commission rates vary from retailer to retailer, but some, such as shopping site Shopbop or Nordstrom, have rates as high as 20 percent. So that $254 Sam Edelman jacket you bought just made your blogger a cool $50.
And those links can quickly pay off.
Julia Engel, the blogger behind Gal Meets Glam, a San Francisco style blog focused on fashion and beauty, began blogging in 2011. By mid-2013 she had risen to the top 10 ranks of RewardStyle publishers, a rank she said she earned after making more than $18,000 a month in affiliate link commissions. Today Engel is in the top 5 publishers on RewardStyle and though she declined to state her current earnings, she did add that almost half of her blog income comes from affiliate links.
“It has been a great source of revenue for me,” Engel said. She noted that the recommendation nature of affiliate links appeals to her. “It’s not sponsored, it’s just the things that I’m wanting to talk about but I can still make money off it because I can make a commission.”
To keep up with the changing landscape of blogging, Venz and the RewardStyle team have also introduced a new monetization strategy for bloggers utilizing mobile — LiketoKnow:It.
If you like an Instagram with an LTK link in the caption, you’ll be sent an email with links to the products featured. If a user buys items from those links, the blogger will receive a commission. And monetizing content through affiliate links has spread far beyond bloggers, VOGUE recently became the first print magazine to sign up for the service.
In the case of Crystalin An, Glam Media (now known as Mode Media) was key to changing her path from amateur to professional.
Glam is the style vertical of Mode Corp., a media company that partners digital content with relevant brand advertising, was founded in 2004 with an immediate focus on women’s style — a move that has paid off. According to the company’s internal data from June 2012 it is the #1 lifestyle media company in the U.S. and host more than 250 million unique visitors worldwide. Mode has more than 6,000 content creator properties across seven verticals that cover style, parenting, food, living and health.
Mode is one of several networks including Federated Media and BlogHer, among others, that all have the aim of using the growing influence of bloggers by connecting them with like-minded advertisers.
An says that Glam has a “professional way of doing things.” That includes helping her set up a recent sponsored content partnership with Target and Adidas, which helped An generate revenue while focusing on her content.
Hallie Wilson, a content creator development manager for Glam says that the company has strict criteria that bloggers must meet before they are accepted into the network.
Wilson notes that pretty clothes and photos aren’t enough to make it in the competitive blogging world.
“Definitely sustained content strategies,” Wilson said. “We really look for publishers who seem to be telling a consistent story.”
She adds, the Glam package that the company looks for in bloggers also includes good writing, a clean, simple aesthetic, a strong presence on at least one social media platform and organic engagement with their audiences.
“I think that bloggers that rely on outfit of the day posts without much context, they’re great and they’re fun to look at, but the way that the digital industry is shifting, our market is so oversaturated it’s going to become all about the rise of the online influencer,” she said.
Wilson and others say what they look for most is influence – and connecting brands and sponsored posts to those “influencers.”
“I think the reason that we are working with bloggers these days is that it’s just a way to get to a much wider market,” said public relations executive Amber Appelbaum. “In such a digital age when everyone wants information instantly it’s a way of getting to people without taking a pause.”
According to Technorati Media’s 2013 Digital Influence Report, blogs are now the third-most influential digital resource for consumers when making purchases, lagging only behind brand and retail sites.
Blogs also edged out online magazines, forums and even brand sites when it came to online services that people trusted most.
“I think the personal connection that bloggers have with their audience is huge,” said Ostrom, the blogger behind food blog, Pinch of Yum.
“If there is a person who lets me into their life through stories and photos and consistently good content, I will be really likely to take seriously their recommendation for certain products,” Ostrom adds. “I think that personal trust paired with a brand endorsement is what makes blogs a powerful tool for marketing.”
And that marketing relationship – as Ostrom has demonstrated – can mean big bucks.
Like Ostrom, Schuman has also risen to the top ranks of blogs and now is featured on Fohr Card, a company headquartered in New York City that connects high-end brands with bloggers.
“She’s so big,” said James Nord, co-founder of Fohr Card, said of Schuman. “If you want to work with Emily, you know it’s going to be expensive.”
For an annual fee of $12,000, Fohr Card members have access to bloggers’ verified data including real time analytics of OAuth verified traffic numbers, social media engagement and trending statistics predicting a blogger’s influence. Instead of brands wasting time looking for bloggers to reach out to, Fohr Card compiles all this information and creates a verified ranking (including more than 3,000 blogs and 50 filters such as category, location, social media engagement and more) of a who’s who in the fashion blogging industry.
Fohr Card was developed as an essential tool to help brands connect with bloggers and vice versa and the influence of its members can’t be ignored.
“Take the top 15 people from our platform and add up the amount of people that read those platforms and their content everyday, it’s vastly larger than Vogue,” Nord said. Though preferring not to disclose names, Nord did emphasize their audience capability. “Our top five is probably larger than Vogue’s reach.”
“You look at all of our bloggers together, everyday they’re reaching as many people as watching the SuperBowl,” Nord added.
Brands need to capitalize on reach
But there’s even further to go for brands and retailers to capitalize on bloggers’ extensive reach.
According to the Digital Influence Report, 68 percent of influencers (bloggers) said that an affinity for the brand is an important component, while 61 percent noted that they have an audience that the brand wants to reach.
“Working with brands is amazing from a blogger’s perspective,” said Wilson.
“I think it lends a certain credibility to your brand when you have the opportunity to partner with some of the brands that you integrate into your lifestyle on a day-to-day basis,” Wilson added.
Technorati’s report states that across all influencer types, 70 percent of influencers or bloggers receive nearly 10 opportunities to work with brands a week, with a majority of the inquiries (37 percent) coming from PR agencies.
While partnerships between brands and bloggers are on the rise, there still is a disconnect between the two. According to the report, despite the ever-increasing influence of bloggers on the digital landscape, brand spending on social only makes up one tenth of brands’ total digital budget.
For their part, brands do want to invest in bloggers, hoping to capitalize on their growing influence, however, they’re careful in their decision-making when it comes to spending marketing dollars.
“For a brand, it’s really important that we have a limit,” said Andy Griffiths, vice president of marketing at 7 For All Mankind at blogging conference Lucky Fabb in April 2014.
“What you pay and what you get back isn’t always a great value. Money for us is not first consideration it’s more about personality, the narrative, what we’re asking them to do,” Griffiths added.
While spending may be on the rise for brands, with 60 percent of brand marketers surveyed for Technorati’s report predicting that there will be an average increase of 40 percent on social spending for 2013, Griffiths added that bloggers have to be open-minded and realistic when it comes to collaborations.
“There’s been a huge acceleration in terms of financial deals, brands do have their limits and bloggers have to have awareness of what those limits are,” Griffiths said.
Neil Chase, vice president of content at LifeLock agrees, saying that while bloggers may have posted rates they’d like to earn when working with brands, everything is always negotiable.
Still, there are limits and ethical boundaries and bloggers need to be “authentic.”
Wilson says: “It’s really all about authenticity.”
Picking a Brand
As she makes the leap from hobbyist to career blogger, that authenticity is something that Crystalin An is striving for.
“I really try to pick brands and campaigns that work well with my blog and that would be great for my readers,” An said.
As the middleman, Glam connects bloggers to potential advertisers by first sending out information about potential brand campaigns to bloggers that they think would be a good fit.
Interested bloggers can then apply to work on the campaign and the company sponsoring the content has final say over who they decide to work with.
To remain authentic to her readers, An is picky when it comes to deciding which brands to work with. “They email out a lot that I decline, it’s more of a no versus yes,” An said.
She’s also overcome trepidation about “sponsored posts” — or posts that she generates as paid content on behalf of a company or brand – as part of her collaboration with Glam.
“I was a bit nervous at the beginning to start doing those,” An said. “A lot of people had said bloggers sold out.”
However, An said that she hasn’t had any negative responses or decline in traffic due to her sponsored content. On the contrary, it’s been an organic way to grow her blog into a moneymaking enterprise.
An recently worked with Glam on sponsored posts from Target and Adidas, brands she purposefully chose to work with because they are in line with her blog content. For Target, An wrote about affordable fashion finds, while the Adidas posts were centered around fitness. Since these two topics are often discussed on her blog already, the collaboration was a good fit.
These days An currently works from home. In addition to the blog, An’s main income comes from working as a quality rater for Google Product Search, where she maintains quality standards for the product search feature and the shopping tool for Google search. This allows her the flexibility to focus on her blog as well.
She’s moved beyond the early days when she learned the ins- and- outs of blogging — first by approaching small mom-and-pop stores asking to feature their content, then slowly selling sidebar ads on her own. She says she’s realized that the business side of blogging was as, if not more, demanding as maintaining creative and growing traffic.
Her recommendation? Connect with a network. “Once I started seeing more bloggers have Glam on their site I reached out to a girlfriend that was working with them, she got us connected and I’ve been with them ever since,” An said.
Bloggers across the board agree that blogging — while a great way to share with the world — is still only one aspect of a person’s life. “What you see is only what somebody is choosing to share with you,” said Mara Ferreira, blogger behind M Loves M, a fashion and lifestyle blog that chronicles her Los Angeles life with her husband. “You don’t really see their day-to-day and what they’re going through.”
With such slim chances of financial success, what draws the thousands of wannabe bloggers out there to invest their time and energies into creating blogs?
“People are still starting blogs because they personally love whatever they’re blogging about, whether it be fashion or cooking or whatever it might be,” Nord of Fohr Card said. Though Nord acknowledges that some blogs such as fashion blogs Man Repeller, which gives a humorous spin to serious fashion and Style Girlfriend, a style guide for men from a female’s perspective — do launch intending to be a business from the get-go, most begin as passion projects.
“I think most people just start it for themselves,” he said.
Despite the stacked odds against her, San Jose blogger Crystalin An remains cautiously optimistic about her blogging future.
“Obviously I want my readership to grow and grow and become something that I can live off of,” An said. “If it is at that point then I will continue to share,” she added. “But there will come to a point where I decide, OK am I making enough for this to be my future or do I need to kind of take a step back and go get a more traditional job?”
(Since the writing of this article, Crystalin An has become a successful full-time blogger.)