today’s biz ladies posts are taking a special turn today to focus on advertising- from both the perspective of buying and selling. and we’re keeping it in the family- i’m going to be tackling advertising 101 for bloggers and my sweet husband ac will be handling advertising 101 for artists, designers and shop/business owners. he’s actually a digital marketing expert (that’s his day job) and he also handles the ad program here at d*s. but don’t worry- he won’t be talking about d*s, but rather breaking down the terms, details, and how-to for advertising your work on any website, social networking service, or network.
but first, i’m sharing my guide for starting, running and maintaining an advertising program on your own blog. i’ve been running my own independent ad program on d*s for almost 5 years and i’ve seen the best and worst that it has to offer so i thought it might be helpful to share a detailed guide of do’s, don’t, and how-to’s i’ve learned over the years. i hope you’ll find it helpful! stay tuned for ac’s guide to buying ads at 12:30 pm today.
CLICK HERE for the full advertising 101 for bloggers post after the jump!
The Blog as a Business: How to Stay True to Your Site and Still Make a Living
By Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge
First things first- If I was writing this article two years, or even one year ago, I would be writing with a slightly different tone. But to be honest, making a full-time living off of a blog is a somewhat difficult prospect in our current economic climate. And it would be irresponsible of me to suggest anyone leave their job to live solely off of a blog right now. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good tools to learn, tips to be shared, pitfalls to be avoided, and income to be made. The same techniques and ethics that applied pre-recession still ring true in our economic slump and can help you build a thriving web-business from your blog.
When I started Design*Sponge in 2004 the last thing I had in mind was turning the site into a profitable venture. My goal was two fold- to help me find my voice in hopes of applying for jobs at design magazines, and to give my boyfriend a break from my incessant design chatter. But about 6 months into running the site I started getting frequent requests to advertise on the site. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with running ads at first, but then I started to realize that there was something to be said for finding a way to tastefully integrate advertising into the blog in a way that allowed me to finance a redesign and hire freelance writers that would be beneficial not only for the site, but for the audience as a whole.
I began by adding monthly and weekly ads to the site for flat fees like $25 and $50. In 2004 there were only a few design blogs online so we were all feeling our way around trying to figure out what pricing was fair and what sort of terms were ethical for blogger and advertiser. I wish there had been a guide when I started (It certainly would have saved me a lot of headaches) so I hope my tips can be a jumping off point. I hope to share how I went from running a few monthly ads on my own, to having a three-person in-house team that runs a successful independent ad program with a deep client base.
I. Advertising: Getting Started
I always like to remind myself of a great Merlin Mann quote (That AC told me) when I talk about making money from a blog. Mann said “Starting a blog solely to make money is like learning ventriloquism to meet girls.” If you’re starting a blog with the sole purpose of making money, stop right now. I feel strongly that blogs should be about discussion and the sharing of one’s interests, not finding a way to turn a quick buck. So if that’s your number one goal, I’d suggest taking a step back and focusing on creating the best content you can. Traffic, advertising and press always follow great content.
That said, here are some good signs that you’re ready to start advertising on your blog:
- You have established your voice online and have built up a few months of content
- You have a daily readership of at least 4,000 readers per day
- You have at least 2 hours a day to devote solely to dealing with advertising duties
- You have a good idea of what your site’s goals and missions are and feel comfortable with your own values and ethics when it comes to sponsorship (ie: what you will and won’t do for money)
Some of these will be self explanatory, but I’ll break down my reasoning for this.
Having a few months of built-up content means that not only can you better promote your site to build traffic, but you’ll be able to establish a readership, build up comments and perhaps even conduct a small reader survey so you can give your advertisers information about your audience. It’s hard to tell where a blog is going with only a page worth of posts.
Readership. People might be irked that I picked a readership jump-off point of 4,000 readers a day, but to be honest, it’s important to hit a level like this because this is when, for me, advertising starts to be worth the time and taxes you’ll pay on your profits. (Neither of which are insignificant amounts)
This touches on the next point, because the second you start advertising, you’ll have advertisers emailing you daily with requests (sometimes they turn into demands) for information, wanting to change ads, needing help with ad creative- it gets time consuming. So plan on spending a few hours a day making sure they’re happy.
- Here’s a good way to think of it: If you imagine how much you’d pay yourself for the time you spend on managing advertisers, imagine how much you’ll need to make after taxes to make that worth your while. Taxes will take at least 40% of what you make, so if you’re charging small amounts for ads because readership is low, you might only make $20 off of a monthly ad. If that’s worth your time, then be my guest. But it’s always better to pay yourself fairly for the extra effort you’ll be putting into managing the ad program, and taking away from the content portion of your blog.
Lastly, it’s important to know what’s important to you. Readers trust bloggers who feel genuine and honest, and if you start accepting paid promotions, offering excessive give-aways, and allowing advertisers to demand a certain amount of mentions per month in exchange for payment, your readers will figure it out. Audiences are savvier than most people realize and I always advise bloggers to trust their gut and keep advertising and editorial content separate. This is the reason I hired an ad team to run our ad program- I was having a hard time fighting off aggressive advertisers who wanted me to run content on them so I hired people to deal with them so I could focus on writing. Every day I wake up I’m glad I made that decision. If you can find a way to work in sponsors with editorial content in a way that doesn’t compromise the writing and voice of the blog, then go for it, but always be cautious of advertisers who want to push you to write about them for money.
PITFALL TO AVOID: Letting advertisers buy posts from you. I get approached about this on a weekly basis and am surprised at how many companies try to buy editorial mentions (or entire posts) on websites. I’ve never accepted a paid post on Design*Sponge, and always make sure to note when we’ve had sponsorship behind any editorial content (ie: the D*S Scholarship or a DIY contest). If you do choose to have sponsored content of any sort on your site, be sure to be 100% transparent about the post/contest/event being sponsored by a company. Readers have become more understanding of bloggers’ need to make a living (I remember people calling blogs that had ads “sell outs”), but when you’re lying to your readers, you’re selling them out.
*One quick update- I forgot to add in a note about sponsored content that people sometimes forget: Amazon affiliate programs. If you’re part of an Amazon affiliate program that gives you a fee or percentage of profit for the books you promote/sell please make that clear for readers. It really irks me when I see sites promote books endlessly on Amazon, and then not divulge that they’re getting a cut (albeit a tiny one) of the sale. There’s nothing wrong with making a cut, just be sure to be honest about it
II. Advertising- You’re Ready. Now what?
Let’s get down to details- you’re ready to start advertising on your blog. What do you do first?
1. Find out about your audience. Advertisers will want to know how many unique readers you have (the number of individuals who visit your site daily/monthly), how many page views you have (how many times the site and its pages get loaded daily/monthly), and demographic information on your readers. There’s one tool that will do all of this for you and it’s called Google Analytics. If you don’t have an account sign up right now– install the code in your site and you’ll instantly have most of this information in your hands. As well as some detailed info like how long people are on your site, which pages are the most popular, etc. (all of this will help you if you choose to run targeted ads on certain pages).
*Note: The larger advertisers and buying agencies we’ve worked with pretty much demand stats be delivered with Google Analytics because it’s one of the most accurate traffic counters available. I found out the hard way when I switched from StatCounter.com to Analytics that Stat Counter can’t always differentiate between repeat readers, giving you a higher number of pageviews and uniques than actually exists. Not fun- so stick with the lower and more accurate numbers.
2. Create an Advertiser Information Kit. Combine your readership information (numbers, demographic info) with some basic info about your site- what sort of site you are, what you talk about, any awards you’ve won, and any press you’ve gotten so far. Advertisers are most swayed by print press so blog mentions won’t be quite as valuable here (though mentions on highly trafficked websites is definitely helpful). Also, if you have any testimonials from people you’ve written about in terms of how many products they sold after being written about you, include them here. Once your program has been established, swap those out for testimonials from advertisers- they’ll be more accurate for your advertising clients.
3. Set Your Prices. This is the toughest part. There is no set of rules for what is fair and right to charge for ads. All I know is I wouldn’t charge less than $100 for a monthly ad because you’re only going to keep about $55 out of that $100 after taxes. The more people you have paying small amounts, the more people you have to keep happy. After almost 5 years of running my own program I can safely say I’d rather have fewer advertisers paying a slightly higher rate, then try to keep up with 30 people paying $30 each. In general, look to the market demand to set rates. If you’re overrun with booked ads, that’s a good sign that you can afford to raise rates a bit to help cut back on the amount of visual clutter. Readers often complain about flash ads (which is what most advertisers want to run) so keep them in mind before you ad 45 flashing cubes to your site.
*Situations where you might want to consider raising rates: when you see a sizable and sustained (15% or more for several months) increase in traffic and when you receive a sizable increase in demand for advertising. Just don’t change rates more than once a year. Advertisers hate that. You can always phase in new rates with new advertisers and keep existing loyal advertisers on a slightly lower rate system.
4. Establish how you’ll charge for ads. Most advertising networks, online publishers, and large blogs charge on a CPM basis these days, which basically means they’re paying per impression, or page load. So if you want to charge monthly or weekly, keep in mind that as your blog grows, you may want to move into this system. (You’ll need to use an ad server to serve ads this way. We use Google Ad Manager, but there are lots of great program such as OpenX that are similar and free)
PITFALL TO AVOID: Advertisers will want to sign you to a yearly or even longer time period of advertising if their spot does well. It’s a good sign that their ad is doing well, but if you agree to let them pay for a year (or more) up front, that doesn’t allow for price increases or a change in demand for ad space. I did this initially and really paid for it when I realized those advertisers were paying, once I broke it down per-month, 1/3 of what advertisers paying a monthly-rate were paying. And they’d locked down a better spot. So don’t lose new money for the sake of locking down a sponsor for a year. Instead offer them a yearly plan that allows you to check in and renegotiate at 6 months. Offer them a variety of ad placements and ad sizes so you’re not locking down the top spot for a whole year to someone paying a greatly discounted rate.
III. Advertising- You’ve got your kit, how do you get people to advertise?
I’ll be up front about this. Until very recently, we didn’t do advertising outreach on D*S. The advertising plan grew organically due to requests we received for advertising space, so I’m not an expert on this. But in general it never hurts to do competitive research (see who’s advertising on similar sites) and contact them with a polite email and your ad kit.
PITFALL TO AVOID: Beware of poaching advertisers. When I started out I had a few blogs go down my list of advertisers and promise them big discounts to leave my site in exchange for advertising on their site. Advertisers usually tell bloggers these sorts of things, so if you want to do competitive research, just be polite, give them your information and give them space and time to decide if they’d like to try out your site as well.
*When working with to advertisers, it’s always good to provide them with a screenshot of your Analytics data or access to your Google Analytics account. I think it’s extremely important that advertisers can verify your traffic and aren’t going solely off of a number you give them. Trust is always important.
IV. Advertising- Selling Ads on your Site.
When it comes to selling ads you have two choices- sell them yourself, or sell them with an Ad Network.
A. Ad Networks: I’ve never chosen to join a network because I value having complete control over the ads, clients and creative (ads) we work with. If I don’t like the way someone treats me, I can decide to not work with them. If they want to run a tasteless or inappropriate ad, I can say no. (some networks will let give you veto power over ads like this, which is great). And most importantly, I don’t lose a big chunk of my revenue to the third party’s cut.
That said, many ad networks can save you time and effort by serving ads for you. Meaning, you sign up, and they pitch your blog to their clients and then take care of the ads by themselves. You just let them insert code into your site and then sit back and collect a check every month or three months. Sounds great, right? It can be, but make sure you’re being paid accurately, on-time, and that your percentage cut is fair. Sometimes it’s worth it to go on your own if the clients they bring in represent a group of people and an income number you could pull by yourself.
Here are a few networks that are popular with bloggers (there are tons out there, these are just a few that I hear about on a regular basis):
- Google AdSense: You know those little “Ads by Google” signs you see on people’s site? That’s AdSense. This is a great option for new or smaller blogs looking to get started with a network. AdSense don’t require a certain level of traffic and it lets you get started serving text and/or image-based ads quickly. You can even serve ads to your blog’s RSS feed with AdSense. (Even the NY Times uses AdSense so it’s a great option for an online publisher or any level.
- Federated: This is one of the larger ad networks out there. They tend to work with larger sites and look to fill certain areas of content that they’re interested in representing. If you have a site with a moderate level of traffic in a popular niche (Mommy blogging, design, music, food, etc.) this is a good place to consider. Not everyone is accepted into the network so if it doesn’t work out, there’s always another network to try.
- Glam: Glam is another network that you’ll see a lot in the design blog sphere because they represent a large number of home, fashion, and lifestyle blogs.
- Platform A
PITFALL TO AVOID: If you choose to go with a network, be sure you read your contract closely- sometimes they have tricky clauses about payment, transparency of pricing and whether or not you can work with another network (including Google Ad Words) at the same time.
B. Running your own ad program: When I started the site I ran the ads entirely on my own- answering email requests, helping people design ads, uploading and changing their ad creative on my own and managing the payment structure and taxes/billing. But after a year or so it got to a point where my time working on the ad program was cutting into my time to work on the editorial portion of D*S- bad news. So I decided that I needed to bite the bullet and admit I needed help.
How did I do it? Here’s how:
1. Find someone you trust : (they’ll most likely have access to your site, your email, and your company PayPal account) and help them set up an independent email address so they can handle outreach and management for the ad program. I lucked out and happened to be married to someone who works in digital media, but you can find help on Craigslist or ask around to local small business advisers and see if anyone is in need of a part time job. (You could even find a business/marketing intern from a local college)
2. Figure out your pay structure: Your ad team will be doing a lot of work, so you’ll want to compensate them fairly. You may want to consider a percentage-of-sales model that allows you to pay them a percentage of whatever they bring in on ad sales.
3. Creating and Managing the Actual Ads: If you choose to go it alone, it’s worth it to hire a coder (We’ve worked with Kate at ThreeSquareDesign.com for years) who can build an ad section into your site and teach you how to upload images and text ads to your site (Most blog software has these sorts of things built-in now). It’s a minor investment up front, but for me, paid off in the long run because I wanted more control over how my ad section was displayed.
4. Ad Payments: We use PayPal to accept ad payments (and pay a lot of our business expenses) and it’s been pretty helpful so far. They take percentage of each payment that comes in, but it’s still smaller than what a network would take so I try to chalk it up to being part of the game. We require payment before an ad runs (I got burned badly not doing that before) and have a cancellation policy built in that allows us to not lose out on ad revenue because someone backs out at the last minute. Cancellation policies are always a good idea because if someone books ahead of time and then cancels a week before their campaign starts, you may lose out on that income because you told another interested advertiser that the spot was taken.
5. Taxes: I’m always surprised by bloggers who don’t think their ad income, at any level, is taxable. The bottom line is- it is. Never ever avoid paying taxes because you think you’re not making enough, or that it doesn’t count as income. You’re going to have to give a sizeable chunk away so always put away at least 40% into a savings/tax account so you can make your tax payments and not overspend with money you don’t actually have
*Note: I hired an accountant I found on the Freelancer’s Union website (I wanted someone who understood what sort of business I ran, and the specific needs I would have) and he’s been great at getting me organized, tax-wise. Everyone’s state self-employment tax is different so get informed about yours ASAP. I waited too long and get stung by a vicious late fee. Ouch.
V. Advertising- Taking it to the Next Level
Now that you’re running advertising on your site, how to you take things to the next level?
One way to grow your ad program is to integrate advertising on targeted pages. Ie: do you have DIY section of your site? Then sell separate ads on that page and reach out to shops like Michaels and Joannes where people can buy craft supplies for those projects.
Geo-Targeting– Google Analytics will tell you where the majority of your readers are. Have a big Dallas readership? Try reaching out to local stores and vendors in Dallas to show them the readers they could be reaching online.
Contests and other sponsorship forms: I’m always wary of integrating advertisers into the editorial section of a site, but if you can find a way to have an advertiser sponsor a prize for a related content and pay for the ad space in that post/section, it can work out for both of you. A mention in the editorial section of your blog will always do better than an advertisement in the right hand (or left hand) column, and, if done tastefully, can heighten the connection and trust your readership has with this other company in a meaningful way- while also rewarding them with a prize or reward for the content.
PITFALL TO AVOID: Sites that do weekly giveaways are often falling prey to the easiest advertising scheme ever: Advertisers give away a moderately priced item in exchange for valuable editorial space and frequent mentions. It’s wonderful to reward your readers with gifts and discounts, but don’t forget- advertisers are getting tremendous value from you for the small cost of a prize or two. These giveaways are attractive to bloggers because they often lead to bursts in traffic- but they don’t always lead to advertising revenue. If an advertiser is willing to donate a prize, they should also be willing to pay you for the advertising value they’re receiving. We rarely do giveaways on D*S any more for this reason.
I hope this information will be helpful in building your advertising program. It’s been a long ride for me in terms of building an ad program that we feel good about on D*S, but it can be a worthwhile endeavor if you do it right and hold true to the reason you started your site- to share your love of a subject with other people. Good luck and best wishes for a successful advertising program!