blog advertising, make money blogging
Creative Entrepeneurship

MAKE BOSS: HOW TO MONETIZE YOUR BLOG

I knew I wanted to write a Make Boss post this week, and when I checked my (growing) list of topics,  blog monetization was looking extra sparkly. I’ve been thinking a lot about it over the last two weeks as a result of working with a new ad network, so today’s the day.

As you may remember from my post about how and why I started hosting ads on my site, making that leap forward was a huge decision for me. The vast majority of craft and DIY blogs are ad-free (we are one of the last pure bastions of the web, it would appear) and I was very conscious about doing it with as much integrity as possible, while still capitalizing on the energy, time and thought that goes into making this a place people like to come visit every once a while. I’m constantly making adjustments and fine-tuning the details, but I’ve learned a lot over the last year and am hoping some of it will be helpful if you are considering monetizing your blog content in any way.

There are a number of ways to generate revenue from your blog. Here are the big ones.

PAID SIDEBAR ADS

This used to be the most common way to generate blog revenue, but it has changed dramatically over the last few years (you can read more about that in Grace Bonney’s State of the Blog Union post here). Generally this form of advertising is very niche oriented, with advertisers reaching out to blogs with audiences who they think would connect with their product or brand. Advertising clients are looking for blogs with large readerships, so I don’t think this type of sponsorship is really an option unless you are generating at least 75,000 – 100,000  page views a month. This is my preferred form of blog advertising, because it lets me support and promote other small businesses that are directly relevant to the interests of my readers.

There are a few ways to handle the actual hosting of ads:

  1. Self hosted. This would mean either invoicing clients per ad, or creating Paypal checkout buttons on your blog with advertising rate options, and then having clients email you their ad artwork in a separate transaction. I quickly rejected this option for myself because of the amount of additional coordination and admin work it required, but it is definitely the most affordable option.
  2. Passionfruit is a paid service ($9 a month) that handles all the back-end point of sales for blog advertising. You create a profile on their site that describes your blog and readership; presumably advertisers can find relevant blogs by searching through categories. What I like about Passionfruit is that it takes all of the effort out of the transaction; clients upload their artwork, set their time frame, and pay for the ad. You drop a little bit of code on your site where you want the ads to appear and they start and stop automatically. It also offers stats functionality so customers can see how their ad performed over the course of the month. They do take a small cut of the sales but I think it’s worth it to not have to mentally manage the admin side of things each month.
  3. WordPress Plugin. If you’d like to do all the ad hosting from your own dashboard (and pay a onetime fee as opposed to a monthly one), I would recommend a plugin like Adsanity. It does all the things that Passionfruit does, including providing performance stats, just without the social network aspect.

AD TRADING

One way to help promote your blog and build your own readership is to exchange sidebar ads with fellow bloggers. Ask in your community or look for blogs that run these in their sidebar. It’s free and mutually beneficial.

SPONSORED POSTS

This seems to be the new direction of modern online advertising. All of my favourite professional blogs do sponsored posts regularly, and most of the time they’re successful because the blogger is really good at integrating the sponsored product in an organic, natural way. A sponsored post should still feel connected to the blog’s vibe and content, so up until now I haven’t considered the vast majority of “opportunities” I’m emailed about every day, especially when they want it done for free.

Companies may want to send you a product for free to review; I don’t consider this a sponsored post since you’re not being financially compensated to share your opinion.

AD NETWORKS

By and large, the vast majority of ad revenue being generated from blogs these days happens through ad networks. Rather than individual advertisers working directly with bloggers, they place ads with much larger commercial networks who then display ads on participating blogs; ad networks are essentially advertising middle men.

Networks vary greatly in quality, distribution and targeting. Some work with “premium” advertisers and will only work with blogs with large readerships (at least 100,000 hits a month). Some, like Martha’s Circle, (the Martha Stewart ad network) are very niche focused and extremely selective about who they will admit. BlogHer is an ad network focused on women’s blogs. Rivet Media is DIY focused. And of course, the ubiquitous Google AdSense, which I recently started using (more on that in a minute).

When you work with an ad network, you set up ad modules and decide where they will be located. Some networks require you display a minimum amount of ads in order to participate (for example, Rivet requires three), often with one mandated “above the fold”, meaning it’s visible before you scroll down the page. The most common locations for ads are above or below the masthead, in the sidebar, at the end of posts, in between posts, and increasingly in the middle of posts. It can be a turn off as a reader to see a blog you follow become positively overrun with ads so I think it’s important to think carefully about placement.

Networks pay for ads in one of two ways:

  1. CPM (Cost per 1000 impressions): These ads pay a flat fee based on CPM. For example, an ad with a $1 CPM rate would mean a $100 payout if you received 100,000 hits that month. This is more common among premium networks.
  2. CPC  (Cost per click): In this case, you are paid an amount for each ad a click receives. It’s obviously less lucrative than CPM, and is the typical payment model for Google AdSense.

If you don’t have a lot of page views per month yet, Google AdSense is the way to go since you can basically start serving ads immediately; they’ll work with any size blog, not just ones with large followings. I just start working with AdSense and have figured out a few things that may come in handy if you decide to try it out.

  • Block all “sensitive” categories so you don’t host ads about sex, gambling etc.
  • You get 50 blocks for “regular” categories (out of hundreds). Use them to block the most irrelevant topics.
  • Decide on whether you’d like text or image/display ads, or both. I’m not fond of the way Google text ads look so I’m not using them on my site for now, but it is more lucrative to use a mix of both.
  • Review & block individual ads daily. It is insane what kind of stuff will show up at first, and the last thing you want is for someone to see one of those terrible “How to look 50 years younger using this weird old trick” pieces of garbage. I say this having realized a bunch of terrifying ads were showing on my site when I first got started, and some still slip through the cracks every once and a while (sorry guys). Why these boneheads don’t at least hire a decent graphic designer is a story for another day. You can block individual ads or block ads from specific accounts; I’ve blocked TONS of ads that are weird, ugly and/or irrelevant but again, it’s apparently less lucrative to do that since ads are posted by advertisers bidding the highest amount to be there.

I am struggling with what ad networks to use right now. I signed up with Rivet a while back but the more premium networks don’t give you as much control over what ads display on your site, despite netting more revenue. My first ad with Rivet was an actual Coca Cola commercial and I immediately deleted all the ad code because wtf Coke commercial. For now I am sticking with AdSense since I like being able to nix irrelevant ads (even if it does take a half hour to review every day), although that may change in the future. Most of this process is just trial and error and finding what works for you over time.

AFFILIATE NETWORKS

There are many affiliate networks, most of them representing different groups of companies. When you join a network, you create a profile and apply to be an affiliate for the companies in the network that will appeal to your readership. If you are approved as an affiliate,  you’re provided with tools like ads and links to use on your site. You are not paid on a CPC or CPM basis, but rather earn a small commission on sales or sign-ups.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of affiliate networks and some of the companies they represent:

In my experience, affiliate banner ads don’t really generate any revenue. I’ve found the best way to use these resources is when you’re organically linking to content or providing discount codes to your readers. I’ve observed affiliate marketing being used really inelegantly and I try to only link to something that I would have linked to regardless of whether or not I was earning a commission. In my mind, my audience is more of a priority than a small cheque in the mail once a month.

In the end, making the move to monetization is a big one and I hope the process is a little more clear. My advice is to check out established blogs that you admire to see how they’re handling the process. For example, my decision to occasionally host ads at the top of my page was inspired by Design Sponge, the ne plus ultra design blog. I figured if Grace Bonney is doing it, I should probably stop being hard on myself for maximizing real estate too. It definitely feels a little strange at first, but having an additional source of income (however small) is no joke, and it’s strangely gratifying to be financially compensated for all the hard work you put into your blog.

Do you have any wisdom to share on advertising, ad networks or affiliate marketing? Are you interested in hosting ads on your own blog? If you’re currently monetizing, what’s your experience been like?