A decade ago, a writer could set up a WordPress site, build an audience, and monetize it any number of ways.
But the web is not the same place it was in 2009. Attention and advertising dollars have moved from blogs to social media networks and YouTube. Instagram celebrities rack up follower counts in the millions and make thousands of dollars from endorsements. We watch more videos than we read articles. RSS is on life support, having been supplanted by Twitter. Does it even make sense to start a blog in 2019?
A blog is unlikely to route you to great riches, but that doesn’t mean that a blog can’t make money or that blogging is dead. In fact, it is very much alive.
Why Start a Blog in 2019?
A blog based on a self-hosted application like WordPress or Craft CMS has benefits that social media, YouTube, and other platforms do not. The blogger controls the platform and the content. The audience bloggers build are their audience; they aren’t working to build an audience for a platform like Medium.
It may not seem like platform control is important, but changes to social media networks and publishing platforms have burned creators often enough to make self-hosting the smart choice. Facebook’s decision to prioritize personal posts over pages in the news feed decimated audience engagement. Medium is not so much pivoting as spinning as it searches for a revenue model, forcing dizzy creatives from the platform in droves.
When bloggers control the platform and domain, they can monetize it in a way that suits their audience. They are not beholden to the decisions of a platform whose interests may not align with those of the writers and other creators. They are free to choose their branding, design, application, and hosting provider.
Ownership and control of a publishing platform do not prevent a blogger from using Medium, Facebook, or any other tool. Instead of being the primary channel, they become secondary distribution channels, funneling traffic to the blogger’s site.
While all of that sounds good, freedom from social media and traditional publishing platforms is worthless if bloggers cannot turn their work into money.
Making Money from Blogging in 2019
Display advertising is the traditional way to make money from blogging. The blogger finds a niche, creates some high-quality content, sprinkles on a few AdWords units, and waits for the money to come rolling in.
In reality, it has never been that easy, but, in 2019, the chances of making a living from display advertising are slim. CPM rates — the amount advertising networks pay for a thousand clicks on an ad — are so low that bloggers need millions of views to make a reasonable living.
If display advertising is not an option, than what is?
Sponsorships are a valuable marketing opportunity for businesses that want to reach a niche audience. Sponsorships typically take the form of a bundle of promotional content that might include a blog post, advertising in the blog’s RSS feed, and promotion via its social media channels.
Daring Fireball sponsorship costs $8,000 per week, for which sponsors get a display ad on every page, a sponsored post, a follow-up post at the end of the week, and social media promotion. There is only one sponsor per week.
Daring Fireball’s audience is large: 2.5 million views a month. That’s not an impossible goal. For bloggers who can live with monthly revenues below $32,000, Daring Fireball-sized audiences aren’t necessary to make a sustainable income.
Many online retailers and service providers run affiliate marketing programs. Bloggers can add product links to their pages, and, when someone clicks on the link and buys something, the blogger gets a percentage of the sale price. Amazon’s affiliate program pays the bills of thousands of bloggers. Review sites like Tools & Toys rely on revenue from Amazon’s affiliate program.
Apple was once a favorite revenue source for bloggers in the technology niche. But last year the company announced that apps and in-app purchases would be removed from its affiliate program, devastating the Apple blog ecosystem. Bloggers should not put all their eggs in one basket; it’s better to take advantage of a variety of revenue streams.
A blog can be an excellent promotional platform for premium content. There are several different revenue models based on premium content, which might take the form of paywalled articles, ebooks, or newsletters.
- Blog and premium newsletter. Stratechery is the blog of technology analyst Ben Thompson. Content published on the blog is free, but Thompson also sells subscriptions to “The Daily Update,” a thrice-weekly, in-depth newsletter. Newsletter subscriptions are $10 per month, and it’s estimated that Stratechery generates around $200,000 per year.
- Blog and educational courses. Shawn Blanc is the master of diversifying income from online content, but here I want to highlight the way he built an audience with his personal blog before leveraging that audience to sell premium educational courses such as The Focus Course (which has its own blog) and All The Things.
- Blog and ebooks. David Sparks is a lawyer with a sideline in podcasting and ebook publishing. Sparks’ blog and podcasts serve as a marketing hub for premium content aimed at the same audience. The MacSparky ebook range covers Apple-related topics like 60 Mac Tips, the Hazel Field Guide, and the Siri ShortCuts Field Guide.
In 2019, a blog that relies on display advertising is unlikely to generate a sustainable income, but blogs are one of the best platforms for building an engaged audience that attracts sponsorships, follows affiliate links, and buys premium content.
A blog is also the best way to control your content. Social media networks grow, change, and die. VC-backed publisher platforms are expected to make money eventually, and no one who publishes on their platform has a seat in the boardroom.
A self-hosted blog, however, is yours forever. You get to choose what it looks like, how it is monetized, and where it is hosted.