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You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You

June 17th, 2009 · by Jake Seliger · 32 Comments

The Wall Street Journal published a misleading article by Dennis Nishi called “Early Transition to Blog Pro,” about BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder. It has two major problems: it implies that many more people make money solely from blogging than actually do, as though one can make a quick career of blogging (“How You Can Get There, Too”) and it doesn’t discuss how people actually use their blogs to make money, which is by selling ancillary services.

Problem One: No Money

Frauenfelder says that his blog does “make enough from advertising alone to cover costs and salaries,” but that “it’s hard to grow on just advertising.” Other bloggers—whose blog is a cornerstone of their career strategy—have already dealt with this issue in almost the exact language that he uses. As Penelope Trunk writes in “Reality check: You’re not going to make money from your blog,” people whose blogs are their income are very much the anomaly.” Right: even she doesn’t derive her primary income from blogging. Google ads pay almost nothing. Banner ads are worth almost nothing, and the market for advertising has cratered with the Great Recession.

Notice her first point: “Big bloggers come from big media.” She wrote a syndicated column before Brazen Careerist. If you’re not already involved in big media, you’re even less likely to make money blogging.

The experience described in “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest” is probably more common: “Many people who think blogging is a fast path to financial independence also find themselves discouraged.”

First-Move Advantage

Frauenfelder has a first-mover advantage. Notice this:

Not long after [Frauenfelder's magazine distributor folded], I discovered blogs and loved how easy they made it to publish, so I turned BoingBoing into one in 2000. It had already become a web zine (so) it seemed like a natural evolution.

He started nine years ago, before anyone on a newspaper staff had even heard the word “blog.” BoingBoing is now one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, in part because it covers technology, which is perhaps the most pervasive topic on the net. Very people are going to get there, even if they do work as hard as he has. Even then, I’d love to see Frauenfelder’s tax returns, because I bet he’s not making all that much despite running one of the Internet’s most popular blogs. Virtually no one is making any money directly from web advertising except Google (more on that later).

Lying With Numbers

The sidebar to “Early Transition to Blog Pro” claims:

Salary range: According to Henry Copeland, founder of BlogAds.com, a Web advertising concern based in Carrboro, N.C., self-employed bloggers in 2007 took in between $2,000 and $10,000 a month from ad sales.

I’d love to see what those numbers are based on, how Copeland defines self-employed, and so forth, especially since the numbers come from a person with an interest in making them appear high. This is a classic example of bogus data appearing in newspapers, and it’s the sort of thing that makes people doubt the news; this statistic could be an example in James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy.

Paul Graham explains how bogus numbers get into newspapers in The Submarine, which concerns how public relations lurk beneath much of what you read and watch. In one example, he says:

Our greatest PR coup was a two-part one. We estimated, based on some fairly informal math, that there were about 5000 stores on the Web. We got one paper to print this number, which seemed neutral enough. But once this “fact” was out there in print, we could quote it to other publications, and claim that with 1000 users we had 20% of the online store market.

Copeland did the same thing to the WSJ, which is unusual—not because he tried, but because they bit. Without real metrics, Copeland’s numbers are garbage, and I doubt they’d stand up to, say, peer review. You can see the same kind of twisting in data about, say, job creation through government spending.

Still, Blogging Isn’t a Waste of Time

That being said, Trunk also argues that “Blogging [is] essential for a good career,” which is true for the reasons she gives and one she doesn’t: it sends a powerful signal of your intellectual engagement and prowess. You can’t fake enthusiasm and knowledge on a blog, where what you know and how you express what you know is available for all to see; Geoffrey Miller discusses extensively in his book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.

Note, however, that Trunk’s article doesn’t map to “you’ll make a lot of money from blogging,” which is the subject of the WSJ story, and the likelihood of it being one’s primary income source is, again, low.

Problem Two: How People Do Make Money Via Blogging

They sell something else besides ads on their blog. If they run XKCD, they sell T-Shirts. If they run Ph.D. Comics, they sell… T-Shirts. If they run Joel on Software, they sell software. Trunk began a startup around headhunting.

Far more seem to make money by showing expertise and then selling said expertise. In other words, they’re producing something useful for the world.

To be Fair…

I wrote an e-mail to expressing some of these concerns Nishi, who replied:

Most of the people I interview for this column probably have some advantage or more sheer will than most people. But they do represent exceptional examples and are meant to inspire and show what’s possible. So if I interview Bill Gates, it wouldn’t be an instruction guide about how to create a software giant. It’s more of a glimpse into what it took to build a software giant, hence the name of the column.

(The name of the column is “How I Got Here”).

Bill Gates isn’t a very good analogy—if you told someone you could be like Bill Gates and get rich selling desktop software in, say, 2001, you would’ve been misguided at best: the world was (and still is) moving to web-based applications. Hell, even if you said that in 1989, you would’ve been wrong: between then and now, the only companies that have really made money from shrinkwrapped software are Microsoft and Adobe. Everyone else folded. His timing advantage isn’t just “some advantage”—it’s the advantage that allowed him to massively succeed.

Nonetheless, Nishi has a strong point. But the tone of the story differs from the tone of his e-mail. Look at the first line of the story: “When blogs first came to the Internet over a decade ago, nobody believed they would make money,” which implies that now some of them do make money. Which is correct—but it’s probably an astonishingly small number relative to the number of blogs out there, especially given the (cratered) advertising market. Look at the aforementioned sidebar: “How You Can Get There, Too.” Lots of people build blogs about subjects they’re passionate about and will never make money from them, as Trunk observes.

Tags: Advice · Blogging

32 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Amer Kawar // Jun 17, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Great post. I agree. Blogging and AdSense cannot be considered as a major source of income and spend years of work based on that assumption.

    Since I started my business – just 3 months ago, the blog is simply our reputation and our community, and it helps us keep up with news and stay on edge. But, it’s not the main source of income for sure. We aim to create simple Web apps as a main source of revenue.

    I read an article on the AdSense website once, that said a 60 million page view site, makes about $2000 a day. I strongly doubt that number, but even this number means that a good blog with 1 million page views a month will make nothing!
    A little maths gives us $33 USD per day, for 1m page views per month – assuming 60m pageviews make $2k/day. Don’t you need a good full time blogger to maintain 1m page views? And not just anyone, a blogger with great ideas and great research and argumentative skills is the one that can get people interested in coming back and reading more! This blogger costs money!

    That said, I agree, yet another time! Unless you have a plan B to make money off your blog, like selling t-shirts, do not put your hopes too high, and do not quit your job hoping to make cash off a blog!

    I know most blog owners do not appreciate links in comments, but if I may, I’d like to share an article we wrote about methods of monetizing Web services from micro-payments, subscriptions to advertising:
    http://blog.thoughtpick.com/2009/04/endless-web-monetization-summary-table.html

    Thank you for the great post!

  • 2 Anne // Jun 17, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    Wow.. you couldn’t be more wrong.

    I run a group of online entrepreneurs, and am a member of another, and between the two groups there are well over 200 people, a majority of whom are pulling down 6 to 7 figure incomes based *primarily* on the advertising on their blogs, not by “selling ancillary services.”

    Of course, you have to be dedicated and know what you’re doing, but it’s not that difficult.

    Just because it doesn’t work for *you* doesn’t make your thesis true.

    [Disclaimer - I run a business as well as derive separate income from my blogs, but my blogs easily pull in what most would consider a substantial income on their own.]

    Anne

    Anne P. Mitchell, Esq
    CEO/President
    Institute for Social Internet Public Policy
    http://www.ISIPP.com 
    Member, Cal. Bar Cyberspace Law Committee
    Professor of Law, Lincoln Law School of SJ
    Author, “The Email Deliverability Handbook”

  • 3 Matt Galloway // Jun 17, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Jake,

    For the most part I agree with you – for 99.99999% of folks setting out to make a living form blogging is a pretty stupid idea.

    That said, I do take issue with your dismissive treatment of Henry Copeland of BlogAds.com. It’s been years but I’ve talked with Mr. Copeland on a couple of occasions and he’s a super smart and reasonable guy. While he’ll be the fist to tell you that he’s in it for the money, he’s not the type to skew the numbers to make a buck. Instead he’s worked hard year after year to show when advertising on blogs does and doesn’t work, who reads blogs and exactly what’s in it for both bloggers and advertisers. He’s pretty transparent.

    You assertion that Mr. Copeland stands to profit from making pro blogger profits “look high” is unfounded. Making pro blogger numbers look artificially high would create a lot of short term flash in the pan bloggers (because as you pointed out it’s a lot harder than it looks). Mr. Copeland benefits from long term engagements and scale – not flash-in-the pan get-rich-quick types.

    Where do his numbers come from? I don’t know for sure but, knowing something about Mr. Copeland I’d suspect it comes from his own survey data of the bloggers with whom he places ads. One of the reasons bloggers use BlogAds is because they pay significantly more than Google – which also might help explain why the numbers are higher than you might expect.

    What is a more valid question is what percentage of Mr. Copeland’s blogger clients consider blog advertising to be a primary source of income. I suggest you contact him and ask – he’d probably tell you… you know, if you hadn’t already attacked his character.

    Sincerely,

    Matt

  • 4 Pam // Jun 17, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Anne-

    6 to 7 figure incomes? What are some of these blogs?

  • 5 Lisa Irby // Jun 17, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    I love articles like this that are real and squash myths. I make a full time living online (6 figures) with my websites (4) and blog combined but I have been out here for 11 years and put many, MANY hours into this. Because blogs are so easy to create people think it’s easy to get rich quick. Not true at all. Unfortunately only 1% of people who set out to make money online make any worthwhile income. It’s an ugly stat, but very true.

  • 6 Roblogger // Jun 17, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Anne,

    Care to give us the URL’s of these blogs that pull down 6-7 figures?

    Thanks,
    Roblogger

  • 7 A Nonny Mouse // Jun 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    I’m going to stick up for Henry Copeland, at least a bit, here. I have a blog that uses BlogAds as an advertising service, and in 2008 I made about $1075 a month from BlogAds (though there was significant month-to-month variation over the course of the year).

    Now, admittedly, that’s half of the low end of the range cited in the WSJ article — but, to be fair, the figures cited are not in a direct quote from Copeland. The figures also cited convey almost no information at all — which self-employed bloggers? All of them? (Obviously not.) With what traffic? The numbers might make sense if, say, Copeland was giving $2,000 as some kind of average (mean, median, etc.) and $10,000 as a top end. Without the direct quote we have no idea what was actually meant. I’m kind of surprised that the WSJ didn’t press those numbers further to explain them better.

    As for my own numbers, it’s true that $1,075 a month isn’t enough to live on, but it’s also true that I’m at the low end of BlogAds bloggers — I get around 30,000 pageviews a day, and my site doesn’t focus on stuff that really gets ad money, like gadgets, politics, or celeb gossip. But it’s also important to note — as the author fails to do — that my numbers, while low-end for BlogAds, are pretty good when compared to all blogs everywhere. BlogAds isn’t a service where just about anyone can sign up, like Google AdSense. Your site is vetted by a real human for potential advertising interest, and there are minimum pageviews and posting requirements. In other words, you have to build up your blog’s audience to a fairly high level before you’ll even be considered for BlogAds. If Copeland’s numbers have any basis in reality, it’s for BlogAds publishers, not “professional self-employed bloggers” (however you define that).

    Anyway, just writing to add my thoughts because I’ve always been pretty pleased with BlogAds. And I don’t see how it’s in Copeland’s interest to make those numbers seem higher than they really are. If you follow his blog, he’s constantly fretting that there are too many publishers competing for ad dollars, so he’s not trying to convince more people to start cashing in on the blogging gold rush or anything.

    Oh, and Amer, very interesting numbers on Google. For what it’s worth, I make around $130-$150 a month from AdSense — again, that’s at 30,000 pageviews a day. This is actually close to five times higher than the estimates you derive from that 60 million pageviews/$2,000 a day number — though it’s clearly not enough for me to live on, nor even enough to justify the time I put into my blog. I also sell ads via Project Wonderful, sell merchandise, and twice a year just flat-out ask people for money; all these sources combined worked out to about $26,500, two-thirds of it from ads — not bad for one guy working about half-time on a blog with 30,000 pageviews a day, focusing on not the most ad-baity-friendly subject. But it’s definitely not some kind of panacea or get-rich-quick-scheme — 2008 was my best year ever in terms of blog revenue, but it was also my fourth year of blogging. Income has built over time, and I wouldn’t have started doing it if I didn’t enjoy it for itself, not just as a money-maker.

    Also important to note is that I made an additional 11,000 in 2008 from writing gigs that I netted entirely because people liked my blog. One of the “ancillary services” you’re selling as a blogger is your own ability as a writer.

    (I’m posting this anonymously because it’s probably violating my terms of service to reveal my income like this. Believe it or don’t.)

  • 8 Jeremy Lichtman // Jun 17, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Some quick math based on webistes I’ve run in the past that used AdSense:
    - Average click through rate if you place the ads well is around 3 – 5%
    - Average value of a click through is highly dependant on the topic (insurance quotes can earn somebody $12 per, but most topics are $0.10 up to $1 per click)

    With a bit of work and patience pretty much anyone can build up to 1000 unique visitors per day. That implies a daily earnings of anywhere from $3 to $50. This is for a website that’s been around for a while and posts regularly (and on topics that result in well paying ads being placed).

    Black swan type effects are definitely at work here though, so the average blogger probably makes next to nothing, while a few people make a lot.

    I personally only know one person who makes a lot of money purely from blogging, and it took him three or four years of very hard work (and minimal pay) to get there.

  • 9 Lichtman Consulting» Lichtman Consulting - How Much Can a Blogger Earn? // Jun 17, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    [...] saw an interesting article via Slashdot today on how much bloggers make. Couldn’t resist throwing in my two cents. The [...]

  • 10 Amer Kawar // Jun 17, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I’m going to repeat Pam’s question. 6 – 7 figure income?!

    Mouse, regarding AdSense, the number I derived was $33 USD per day – not per month, so the number Google advertised is about 6 times more than you make off AdSense.

    May I ask – as long as your speaking anonymously here, what advice do you have for a startup blog other than good content, build readership and reputation, then applying to BlogAds? Thank you :)

  • 11 Joe Anderson // Jun 17, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I ran a site providing movie links to streaming films for over 3 years. It was a pretty good site and evolved over that time to include reviews and trailers and lots of other goodies.

    I had great fun doing it. I learned a lot and generally it was a great hobby.

    One day I took a hard look at my numbers. I was garnering over 10,000 unique hits a week. Those are pretty good numbers and certainly served to inflate my ego.

    So, I started to place banner adds and affiliate links on my site. I never made a single penny. Not one dime.

    So, in retrospect, I took a really good site that I enjoyed running and bastardized it in the hopes of making some money that never came. So much for believing the hype.

  • 12 A Nonny Mouse // Jun 17, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Amer — ah, I was misinterpreting your numbers — I thought you were saying that 60 million pageviews a day gets you $2,000 a day. (Who gets 60 million pageviews a day? Anybody but Google?) But you were saying that 60 million pageviews a month gets you $2,000 a day — $60,000 a month, in effect. That’s $1 CPM (cost per thousand impressions), and that’s pretty high for Web advertising, in my experience, certainly not with Google. (For reference, over the last 7 days I’ve made $0.16 CPM with Google.) Maybe that’s what you get for the high-draw stuff (gadgets, gossip) but it isn’t the norm for everybody. You also, kind of ironically, get higher CPMs the more traffic you have, because a more prominent site commands higher premiums, so your income doesn’t scale linearly with traffic.

    My advice really is: good content, build readership and reputation, then apply to BlogAds (or one of the other higher-end ad networks). There isn’t a shortcut, or a shortcut worth taking if you care about the quality of your site. You should love what you write about, because it will show if you don’t. You should cultivate your readership, because they really will come through for you — I was shocked at how much I made when I first started just flat-out asking my readers for money.

    You should also pick a topic that’s unique, or a structure or angle that hasn’t beend done before; most get-rich-quick types just want to imitate something else has been successful, but in a lot of niches there’s really only room for one prominent Web site. Nobody was doing what I do before I did it; now there are several sites like mine, but none are anywhere near as successful.

  • 13 Instapundit » Blog Archive » WELL, DARN: You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Jou… // Jun 18, 2009 at 3:07 am

    [...] WELL, DARN: You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells Yo… [...]

  • 14 Beth Donovan // Jun 18, 2009 at 3:40 am

    My husband and I have both been blogging for years. We started blogging because the local rag (Kansas City Star) quit printing any of our letters to the editor when they hired a very liberal editor – our blogs are our outlet to express our opinions.

    Now, my husband’s blog, Argghhh! (http://www.thedonovan.com)has some pretty good traffic. He has just recently accepted advertising, and it looks like he will garner about $1,000 a month from it. (He is a niche blogger – a combination Milblogger and gun blogger).

    He is not going to quit his day job for that amount of money, believe me!!!

    I am on my second iteration of my blog – extremely nichy – about our farm – and I don’t have advertising. I don’t even have a blogroll this time around. But, I do hope to be able to sell products from our farm on it eventually.

    Anyway, I think of blogging as a place to exercise my right of free speech, and that alone makes blogs worthwhile.

  • 15 bob // Jun 18, 2009 at 6:39 am

    there was an article a while back which disclosed boing boing was making 100k a month.

    since they serve up about 200-300k uniques a day that number is not implausible.

    this post reeks of sour grapes.

  • 16 Roblogger // Jun 18, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Yes, *some* people such as the boingboing guy make a lot of money from blogs. Just like some actors make a lot of money from the movies and some sports players make a lot of money in sports.

    The problem is people attempt to apply those extremes to an average blogger, and think almost any blogger can make decent money.

    Unfortunately, that is not the case. There are a lot of actors in Hollywood who need to have a day job (such as waiting tables) as do a lot of sports people. The same is true for blogging.

    Unless, you already have built up a following in other media or are well-established because you got in the game early and your blog was unique, most likely, you will end up making only a few hundred dollars a month – if that.

    This does not mean that you should not be blogging. If you have things to share or whatever, go ahead blog away. May be your blog will become a star and you will mint money. But, as in Hollywood and major league sports, the probability of that happening is low.

    The original WSJ article failed to mention the above.

  • 17 Amer Kawar // Jun 18, 2009 at 7:21 am

    Bob, this number does not make a lot of sense to me. You’re saying (or quoting an article which says): if you have 250k uniques a day, you make $3k+ in that day via just ads. So, every blog, article or link on Digg’s first page (which supposedly drives about 250k users in <24 hours) makes $3k in just one day?

    I strongly doubt it. Something does not add up! Otherwise, the real gold mines are Digg, Reddit and Delicious.

  • 18 PK // Jun 18, 2009 at 8:47 am

    I think the earning potential for a blogger will vary widely – especially depending upon what types of advertising they take in, along with what their topics are. Depending upon your topics your google adsense clicks can vary anywhere from .10 cents a click up to $12-15 a click. What you’re writing about will have a big effect on what you make I think.

    For my site, I get around 1500-2000 unique visits and about 2500 Page views a day, (60-80k/month) and from advertising on my site alone I’m making in excess of 2k a month. Granted, the niche that I blog in has some good high dollar clicks for adsense which allows me to pull in over 1k/month for adsense. I know a bunch of other bloggers in my niche that are able to do the same. For a site to have 60 million page views in a month and only make 2k a day, it is way under-monetized in my opinion. Not that I wouldn’t take 60k/month mind you. :)

    I blog part time, and am set to make about 30k this year part time blogging. I know I am more the exception than the rule, but it is possible for people to do well, as long as they are dedicated to it, they write well, and they choose a niche that pays well. Just my 2 cents.

  • 19 bigyaz // Jun 18, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Anyone who believes anything from that self-promoter Anne P. Mitchell, Esq (Esq!!! — how pretentious) is making a giant mistake.

  • 20 Consumed Consumer // Jun 18, 2009 at 11:59 am

    Blogging is like MLM. There are some making real money, but they are at the top of the pyramid. Evreyone else will end up losing money, even when you don’t consider potential earnings from the 9 to 5 they had to give up.

  • 21 Daily Pundit » I Do It For the Big Bucks // Jun 18, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    [...] You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells Yo… The sidebar to “Early Transition to Blog Pro” claims: Salary range: According to Henry Copeland, founder of BlogAds.com, a Web advertising concern based in Carrboro, N.C., self-employed bloggers in 2007 took in between $2,000 and $10,000 a month from ad sales. [...]

  • 22 How to build a blog/online business - Millionaire Entrepreneur Forum // Jun 19, 2009 at 5:51 am

    [...] IOW, the blog itself is secondary. There was even a discussion on here a few months back about it. Here is one such article. "The possible has been done – the impossible will be done." – [...]

  • 23 Sam Sall // Jun 20, 2009 at 7:04 am

    I think blogging is great for business it is a very effective marketing tool but it can not be a source for income especially not a way to get rich fast sure there is an exceptional cases but they probably have a unique situation put them there and they have been blogging about it for years

  • 24 Sam // Jun 20, 2009 at 7:06 am

    I think blogging is great for business it is a very effective marketing tool but it can not be a source for income especially not a way to get rich fast sure there is an exceptional cases but they probably have a unique situation put them there and they have been blogging about it for years.

  • 25 Thai // Jun 20, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    I agree blogging won’t make you money right away. Think of it as a ‘trapezoid’ scheme. Eventually enough people you get to buy into what you’re peddling, it will have a snowball effect and you’ll get something out of it. Just don’t quit your day job, tell your boss off, and lay there drinking cool-aid while wearing Nike shoes.

  • 26 Rob // Jul 4, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    From the very first day I blogged, I made a living income from it. I came directly from an entry-level reporting job at a local newspaper to the web, and was a “late mover,” starting in 2006.

    The reason most don’t make any money is because they lack talent, experience, or an interesting voice.

  • 27 Jake Seliger // Jul 5, 2009 at 7:57 am

    So many of these comments come from people like Rob, # 26, or Anne, #2, that are obviously wrong. If both are really making money from blogging, why don’t they even include a link to their websites in their comments so readers can judge for themselves? They contribute to the (mostly false) impression that people make money blogging while failing to pass anything even vaguely like the smell test.

  • 28 Jeff Elkins // Jul 12, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Thanks Jake, I’m passing this one around!

    I recently had a conversation with a colleague who began to argue about other benefits to blogging (which you cover well in the “Still…” section) – but I recently found this excellent blog post on a related subject: ROI.

    http://thebrandbuilder.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/roi-and-social-media-101-financial-vs-non-financial-impact/

    … which may be helpful should the discussion devolve!

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