When most people hear that we are bloggers for a living they immediately fire back with the question, “Umm, so how do you make money blogging??” This is from sheer astonishment that a middle class family can comfortably support itself (with plenty of disposable income for extras) through such a business that doesn’t actually sell any tangible goods. And then there are the bloggers that ask us that same question, but through a totally different lens. They want to see what is working (and what isn’t) so they can perhaps apply this knowledge to their own businesses.
We’ve got the three part answer to this question down like an elevator pitch. So while there are many different ways to make a full-time income blogging, this is how we do it over at 100 Days of Real Food. Oh yes I did just plant that Montell Jordan song in your head!
How We Make Full-Time Income Blogging (x2)
First of all, I want to explain that our primary channels of income are just what we have grown into. Your site may be better suited to monetize through other methods, some of which I’ll mention at the end of this post. Diversification is key and we are still working on adding other methods, but these next three pay the bills (and then some!). It’s also worth pointing out that we have considerable expenses each month/year (staff, hosting, legal, accounting, etc.).
To make the concepts easier to understand, I’ve color coded the monetized areas of the site. To see more detail, click on the image below right to open it in another tab/window and reference it as you read along (you may need to zoom in depending on your browser).
Method #1: Network Ads
I love running network ads because once you have them setup, payment is automatic. You work so hard at writing great content (at no cost to the end-user) and promoting it, and you should get rewarded when you are able to send traffic to your site! Over the past quarter (September – November) ad network revenue has accounted for a whopping 55% of our income. Historically network ad income is low in Q1 and ramps up toward the end of the year, but regardless it is consistently our top earner.
I’m going to write a detailed post on ad network basics later, but I’ll quickly share our current setup. We have 5 network ad zones (highlighted in red) consisting of two 300 x 250’s, one 160×600, one 728×90, and one 650×300 collapsible ad zone between the blog post and comments. That last one is a gold mine! Although I’ve experimented with all sorts of configurations (and my current config is actually more complex than what I’m sharing here), for now I’ll just keep it simple and say for the most part our premium network, Federated Media, gets the first call and Adsense fills the remaining impressions.
It’s worth noting that our income really jumped when we started working with a premium network, with 82% of the last quarter’s total network ad revenue coming from this one source. We also have a lot of traffic, averaging 3.7 million pageviews per month over the same period. If you are just starting out, you won’t have enough traffic to work with a premium network, but you can work with Adsense to earn money or sell your own ads (more on this in method #3). It’s also worth noting that we’ve been careful not to “sell out” to get this higher income. We have refused to run the following:
- pop-up ads
- pop-under ads
- low quality ads (like belly fat ads or other link bait)
- ads in the header of the site
- almost all food, pharmaceutical, or restaurant ads (unless manually reviewed first)
I pulled some stats from another food blogger and estimate we forgo about $60k a year in income from that last bullet point alone. But it just wouldn’t feel right to have processed food ads on 100 Days of Real Food!
Method #2: Affiliate Ads and Links
Affiliate income is the bomb, and accounted for 23% of revenue last quarter. I love it because IT IS SO EASY! About 13% of our revenue last quarter was through Amazon (via Skimlinks at first, but now directly with an Amazon Associates account). Another 10% (net) was through affiliate relationships set up through our Sales Manager for individual products or deals. The latter requires more overhead, but is advantageous if we find a product not available on Amazon that we think our audience would really like or if we are able to work out a special discount for our readers.
On the site screenshot you’ll notice quite a few areas in yellow (indicating affiliate links). The product mentioned in the top post has affiliate links, and I’ve highlighted a few navigation links that are heavily monetized, including the recommended reading carousel. I also have a few small ad zones that I allow our Sales Manager to, um, manage. We also promote some products on Facebook, typically by mentioning a product and linking back to a post on the blog that discusses it in further detail.
Although this is not a “how to” post today, I do want to make it very clear that you’ll serve your audience and yourself best by only promoting products you personally use or can otherwise vouch for and that you feel would be of interest to your readers. You also don’t want to overdo it, and you must share appropriate disclosures (you are safe to assume any links to products on my site are affiliate links!).
For example, if you find yourself sharing products on Facebook just to earn an income, you don’t have your audience’s best interest in mind. However, if you authentically want to share something and realize you can monetize it, that’s a much better way to roll (and how it’s usually done on 100 Days of Real Food). I know that sounds like a fine line, but it’s pretty easy to listen to your gut. If you don’t take this seriously, you risk losing the credibility and trust of your audience that you have worked so hard to earn.
Method #3: Sponsorships (Sold Direct)
The areas highlighted in blue are reserved for our sponsors. We sell sponsorship packages that include ad impressions and Facebook or blog “shoutouts” to 8 sponsors or so per month. We also have some sponsored post options (about 1 per month). All of this together has resulted in 22% (net) of our revenue over the past quarter. This method allows us to connect some great sponsors with our audience, but is definitely not automatic, and carries some extra overhead:
- Management – All sponsored content is tracked and limited through a monthly inventory spreadsheet, which allows our Sales Manager a little freedom in what she books each month but also ensures we don’t inundate our audience with sponsored messages all the time. There is only so much promo juice to go around each month!
- Accounting – Lots of individual payments, calculating our Sales Manager’s commission pay, collecting past due payments, etc.
- Admin – Ad trafficking (this is done by our Sales Manager using Adzerk, which I set up for her).
If you are just starting out and have some direct sponsorship prospects in mind, you may want to consider charging the equivalent of about $1 CPM (cost per thousand impressions) for each ad zone. In the very beginning we used widgets to run ads, but very quickly moved to a free ad server (DFP at first, but then we moved to Adzerk because it is way easier to set up). Although you can sell by impression count, we sell ads directly on a flat rate monthly basis.
When we first started placing some ads on the site we were rather haphazard with the layout. I then came across a blog that was doing quite well and got some inspiration from their layout, not to mention I got busy adding up numbers in a spreadsheet, figuring more ads = more $ (remember this was the time period when I was doing everything I could to monetize the blog and quit my corporate job). The result was the “May, 2012 layout” shown on the right. As you can see, it is very busy. Over time we found all of those ads were causing ad blindness in our readers, which doesn’t bode well for our sponsors (and repeat deals), not to mention pageload times (which hurts the user experience and SEO). So we have found balance with the current layout shown above, at least for now.
As mentioned, it is important to have multiple streams of income if you are to weather various seasonal, behavioral, and technological business cycles. You also have to find the sweet spot where you are earning money for your hard work, but not chasing people away with a gagillion blinky ads or pop ups on your site and constant requests of your audience (the “right hooks” if you are familiar with Gary Vaynerchuk’s new book).
It would seem obvious that constant giving and no taking will result in faster audience growth and conversely that trying to “cash out” too quickly or too aggressively will hinder growth and, ultimately, total earnings over time. Balance is key, and reader feedback can help you find it. I also like to look at other people’s sites and gauge my gut reactions to what I see. I then look at Lisa’s site to see how it compares, adjusting as necessary.
Future Plans to Monetize (More)
Here are some things on my to-do list to make more money and further diversify at 100 Days of Real Food.
- Improve ad revenue by introducing one or two additional premium ad networks to the mix.
- Raise prices for sponsored content to keep up with our recent growth (and put the data in an easily digestible format to share with sponsors so they see it is justified).
- Release XXXX (top secret…still working through legal stuff).
- Monetize video (we recently shot 5 videos, but I have yet to figure out how to make much money from them).
- Monetize email by changing how we use our email newsletter and also adding some drip campaigns. Our email list currently costs about $600 a month to service, and we are in the red on this one. I feel this has huge upside potential.
Do What Works for You
There are tons of other ways to make money online with a blog. I know some bloggers that make the brunt of their income off of small email lists with eBooks and others that are mostly video-centric. Here are some online money making methods off the top of my head.
- Drive people to your blog that showcases your real life product or service. Lisa actually does some paid speaking gigs, but it’s not a focus since it takes time away from the family. Some people sell their photography work, others provide coaching, organization services, consulting, etc.
- Sell an eBook or online course in your area of expertise.
- Produce a large video library and monetize it on your site and YouTube (as mentioned I’m still trying to figure that one out, but it can be done).
- Focus on product reviews (which could be heavy on the affiliate marketing).
- Utilize your site as a platform for a published book (Lisa has a book coming out August 2014, but I treat that as separate income from the blog).
And the Most Important Thing
Lisa didn’t start her blog to make money. She started it to help people, and that is also what drove her to increase her traffic. She had (and still has) a strong desire to get her message out. As you become successful, the numbers get bigger, and while big numbers are great, some can have kind of a hollow ring to them. But what doesn’t change is the feeling you get when you hear how you were able to help people improve their lives in some way.
So there you have it! That’s how we do it at 100 Days of Real Food, at least for right now. If you’ve monetized your blog in some way, what’s working for you? How about sharing your top methods in the comments below?