After the Jump: 14 Ways to Financially Support an Online Publication

by Grace Bonney

This week I had a rough couple of days at the office where I found myself reminded of that old expression, “You can get hit with the carrot or you can get hit with the stick.” After a few clear taps with a carrot over the past year, I’ve been aware that the method of supporting blogs, online magazines and other digital publishing ventures was probably going to need to change- or at least diversify- but it took a couple bumps this week to make me feel like I’d finally been hit with the stick and needed to make some changes.

When I am struggling the most with the bigger picture issues at work, I tend to turn to my radio show. Much like the Biz Ladies articles that I used to write on my own, these longer form outlets give me a place to talk about issues, work through pressing concerns and brainstorm about possible solutions. So rather than letting a stumbling block become bigger than it needs to be, I decided to go on-air with Amy yesterday and discuss the realities of financially supporting an online publication.

Whether you’re a new blogger, online magazine writer or social media expert, these issues and ideas affect all of us. Even if running an online publication is old-hat to you now, technology and expectations are constantly changing and I think it’s time that all of us in control of online businesses take a good look at the way the traditional system (online advertising) works for us. Not just how it affects our editorial content, but how it affects work flow, our happiness and our audience’s perception of our publications.

Rather than just air a bunch of issues, I decided to share 14 different options (and combinations of them) that we’ve seen tested out in the market. From producing print content to licensing, subscriptions, donations, public speaking, book writing and crowd-funding, Amy and I discussed all of the ways we’re seeing people test out in an effort to diversify their sources of income and support their businesses.

We’d love to hear your thoughts, as readers and business owners, on all of these different support models. Do you tire of advertising? Would you prefer subscriptions for blogs? Would you prefer people posted less online and provided more varied content options like print magazines, videos and events? We’re curious and fascinated by it all, so please feel free to chime in! xo, grace

LISTEN: You can download the podcast on iTunes here, or stream it here on Heritage Radio

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  • I’m all for subscription fees. The D*S team provides an amazing amount of excellent content and I’d be happy to pay for it. I’d be even happier with a subscription fee if it meant fewer or no sponsored posts. Not that your site is overloaded with sponsored posts — but they stand out and feel a little gross. I’m not a big fan of being advertized to through content.

  • i don’t have a ton of opinions on this topic (though im very interested to read / hear more about it), but i will say that i’ve really enjoyed the way DS has lately been delving into “behind the scenes” issues and very visibly growing / evolving lately. very cool thing to witness from a long-time fav read of mine!

  • I would also be ok with a subscription fee if it was reasonable. I do not mind the ads however I can only imagine the work and dedication this site takes. A thought for new readers though, I would want there to be a way new readers could have a short limited access to your full site so they know how great the content is and that you don’t lose a potential audience

    • Sara and Martine,

      You’ve raised an incredibly important point I didn’t consider- new readers. I hadn’t thought about how a paywall or subscription would drastically affect the percentage of new readers a site gets. It would definitely require some sort of free time built in for new readers or an amount of free things you get a month. I don’t know much about the technology of that (but I know there are a lot of ways around it) but I’m curious if that would really hurt traffic. So much interesting food for thought- thanks for weighing in, everyone.


  • A few thoughts…

    Love After the Jump and would be happy to pay a yearly subscription fee for more of these types of podcasts.

    You all do such a great job discussing and teaching entrepreneurial type content. I’d love to have more of this and would pay for tools, document, online classes, etc.

    Your book is one of the few design focused books I own. Something about having it in the printed format is so luxurious. If there was an opportunity to subscribe to some kind of printed material that came monthly and was a recap of your blog over that month, I’d be thrilled and pay for it.

    You mentioned desktop wallpapers – every since Max described how he had a clean desktop and just a piece of fabric as his background I’ve been trying to recreate the same thing. If I could pay to download it from you I’d jump on it.

    Last thought – if you told me that all my light bulbs had to be one kind because they were the best, I’d buy them. Perhaps there is something you’d like to endorse!

  • I just launched my own blog so I found this podcast episode to be very interesting and helpful. It’s a tough question for sure. I would probably be willing to pay a subscription for a blog, but it’s easier to say that when you’ve already developed the trust and appreciation for a blog for years when you were getting it for free. In other words, that would make it harder to get new readers for sure, and you would be dependent upon the loyalty of your current readers. It’s not ridiculous to ask people to pay for quality content; we have all been spoiled by the amount of free content on the Internet. That said, if I stumble across a blog and every single post is sponsored (in a way that does not feel sincere) or a giveaway, I leave. I like blogs because they are personal, so if every post is geared towards a paying sponsor, that gives a much different feeling. That’s just some food for thought for you from my perspective. Good luck with this issue – I would hate to see D*S disappear!

  • The sponsored posts always interest me as much as the other content. I think that your choices have been careful and as a reader, I appreciate that. I also understand that this is not a free service simply because I don’t pay for it. I would gladly pay to see the content on your site. My wife and I remodeled an old house this year and without your content and ideas, there is no way it would have turned out the way it did. I needed daily and weekly inspiration, color palates, other people’s homes to goggle at so I could make educated and savvy decisions about my own. I look every day and I would gladly pay. Thanks.

  • I don’t have a problem with blogs that have advertising on them–although I do hate the ones with animation or that suddenly start blaring music/spiel when you mouse over them by mistake. I don’t usually care for sponsored posts but most blogs are upfront about them so its easy to skip over them if they are not your cup of tea. I subscribe to one blog and although I do love it, and the subscription is very cheap, it doesn’t seem worth it. There is very little difference between the content you can get for free and the subscriber’s only content. I plan to give it a year. Depending on what you charge your subscribers you should make sure they feel like its worth it.

  • The “free content” on the internet thing is a huge problem to creative people. Recently I read a comment on a blog post that compared an old form of publication to the creative endeavor on the blog and ended with: “but this is free!”I don’t think the writer even realized that might not be a positive to the writer (and illustrator) of the blog post.
    I would definitely pay for Design*Sponge because I like so much the writers and recognize and appreciate all the work you do. (And I love the link it forms between generations as we send links back and forth with favorites.) I used to love House Beautiful in the print format – the Dee Hardie and other essays – the editors with fine writing voices and firm hands for design – was so glad to see it arrive each month. We are spoiled rotten with the possibility of treats and treasures and heartfelt writing from D*S every(!) day. I wish there were a simple solution – and I look forward to listening to the podcast (maybe my favorite D*S feature – I hope it would be included in the subscription). Thank you for all you do – for Grace’s vision in the beginning and for a wonderful (and appreciated) team effort!

    • thanks katy

      i don’t think a subscription is right for us, but thanks to you and everyone who said they would pay one. that’s incredibly sweet.

      i just don’t like the idea of putting things behind a wall. that said, i think if we find a way to become more efficient (we’re already pretty lean and mean, seriously) we could find more time to produce and sell different types of content that people might like. we’ll see. at this point (and especially at this time of they year) we’re all worked to our breaking points. ;)


  • I love this site. I think you guys have enough solid content that a few sponsored posts dont bother me, hell if they are in line with what you are doing i might even be interested in them. You do what you must to survive just don’t let it overwhelm the site.

    To be honest i probably wouldnt pay for a blog subscription, however if it came with a print subcription thats a different story. I know its old fashioned but i like print and i like to feel the things i pay for, but thats just personal opinion.

  • I have a different, but similar, challenge: I work for a non-profit arts org that provides professional development services to visual and performing artists. We are constantly coming up against the issue what people don’t want to pay for the information they receive (or bristle at $5 for a two-hour long one-on-one) — they feel very entitled to it. We’re considering developing some sort of tiered structure (and are also exploring online courses in order to implement this). The idea being that the “basic” or 101 skills/information are available to anyone, free of charge, but then more advanced or tailored experiences are available for a fee, whether it’s monthly or per session.

    We haven’t gotten past the brainstorming stage yet, but I wonder if something like this could be applicable for D*S. I also love the podcasts and the blog very much, and have been wanting to say for quite a while that I’ve noticed the way you’re approaching integrated/sponsored content and I think you’re doing it really well. I’m in the same boat as one of the commenters above — I’m really interested in and drawn to the products that are featured on the site, and go on to purchase a lot of them (be it from advertisers or just something linked in a house tour).

    • jessica

      the idea of “everything should be free!” is one we’re all struggling with. i think the best way to stop it is to have everyone stop working for free as much as possible. it’s hard, but it’s something i’m trying to stick to. i hope people with skills to offer keep valuing their work and people with a platform keep promoting them and explaining why it’s worth it. the cult of free makes it so difficult to be a living and working artist of any kind.


  • If a blog starts charging a subscription fee, people will be more opinionated about the content and will demand every post be high-quality and relatable to their lives. Design*Sponge is already consistently creating high quality content, however, some readers may prefer the voice of certain contributors over others. I know I identify with one voice of this blog more than others and read posts based on who wrote it some of the time. Perhaps if the cost was low enough people will not be bothered will posts they aren’t interested in. On the other hand, you should be paid a fair price for your vision and definitely don’t want to sell yourself short. But, when prices raise so do expectations.

    • emily

      i agree. if someone is paying for something, they should expect a certain level of content. but i think like any publication with multiple writers, it’s the job of the publication to keep that voice consistently GOOD, even if the voices are different. but i do like when there are different voices for different people to enjoy :)


  • I’m a writer and editor, specializing in technology topics. (In fact, I edited a book on blog design this year.) I understand the need for blogs to host ads in order to make money. I think ads on blogs work best, whether as a sponsored post or just a box for the ad, when the ads are relevant to the readers and clearly labeled as ads. In other words, sponsored posts are not a turnoff for me. With regards to selling, I think some posts you do, such as the Living In posts, lend themselves to affiliate links. Also, I’ll reiterate what another commenter mentioned, which is you do an excellent job of educating readers about entrepreneurship. I believe that’s an area you could leverage into a course that might organize the Biz Ladies posts into a print or eCourse product for readers who want to explore a small creative enterprise more deeply or have this content as a reference. That type of product seems to fit squarely with your voice and mission and might help diversify your revenue stream, especially if you offered it as a subscription. Or perhaps your audience is big enough that self-publishing would enable you actually make money off a print product. Good luck sorting through these questions. I’m curious to see how your site evolves as you find your way through these questions :)

  • Hi DS Team,
    I offer this and hope it’s helpful:
    I would welcome ad rates like the folks at Uppercase Magazine provide their readers. I saw their rate page and immediately placed an ad because they made it easy to buy an ad.
    I realize that this is one tiny piece of the big-picture puzzle but sometimes the small things add up.
    Thanks for all your great work.

  • I’m still fascinated my the model Domino (“magazine”) has chosen to employ in its new incarnation. One of the posters above made me think of it when she mentioned she’d buy light bulbs if you endorsed them. I don’t know if the Domino store is going to be successful enough for them, but the idea of developing great content, and selling elements featured in that content – and I might be naive but would hope they’re not paid endorsements as well – seems a novel, yet potentially successful approach.

  • Grace, this was a really interesting discussion, although it’s disheartening to know that even the most successful and thoughtful creators are struggling to find a financial reward for their efforts. I struggled with a slightly different, but related problem, for years with my small but relatively widely read blog: I realized after years of trying different things that the only way I was really successfully luring readers to my site was by offering them free stuff (specifically, free printable designs). I could “afford” to do that because I had a full-time job that paid the bills. But I struggled with how dropping a glut of free stuff into an already saturated online design marketplace was hurting artists and designers who needed to sell their work to make a living. Also, I was not interested in having low-quality tacky ads all over my site to take advantage of the value of my traffic, and so the demands of constantly producing new content (I hate that term) to entice readers began to wear me down. So I slowly, and with real heartbreak, let my blog go into what appears to have become a permanent hibernation.

    With all that said, perhaps I have an idea that builds on some of what you talked about in the show (sorry for the word dump, but this stuff is complicated!):

    I have only ever bought into a paywall once–for the NY Times. And even that wasn’t for years. I didn’t do it because there were no work-arounds—there are many; I did it because my conscience caught up with me. I do contribute when I can to NPR, and I think you’re right about the sense of urgency that motivates a lot of folks to do that.

    My interests are pretty catholic, though, and so I have resisted subscriptions to single-focus websites. For example, I am a politics junkie, but I can’t justify spending the extra $$ ($50/year) to subscribe to Talking Points Memo Prime, as an example, for two reasons. One, I the “extras” for Prime members just don’t turn me on. And two, I have way too many other interests to divert that much cash to one site.


    What if there were some subscription model that was based on a conglomerate of sites, sort of like cable-TV bundling, whereby you can get access to tons of independently sourced content and subscribe to a personally chosen set of “premium” channels? There are things about the cable model that wouldn’t work (and that are bad for consumers and specialty content providers), but as a jumping-off point, I think it’s interesting.

    I mean, I get that groups like Federated Media have already done something like creating a network, but it’s still based on advertiser support, rather than reader/viewer support. If readers and viewers are who we want to serve, it seems like a fool’s errand to continue to base our income streams on advertisers.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking show.

    • Cameron

      I think networks like that are in the works, but they run the same risk as mentioned above with losing the % of new readers blogs need to keep attracting. That said, I think a network of sites like that is definitely an interesting and practical way to go. For example, I would happily pay $50 a year to read all of my favorite food blogs for an entire year, etc.


  • Hi Grace,

    I’m struggling with the same issue (aren’t we all?). I used to offer a monhly illustrated e-zine (previously “We’re in Panama!”, now “airing from Lisbon”) and got to the conclusion that it meant about a week’s worth of work given away for free.

    Now I’m publishing it every second month; I try to mention my own paid products there; and I hide it behind a opt-in form. It’s still free, but readers must subscribe to my mailing list to be able to download it.

    What has been working for me was to create a new, subscription based product, the AIR Embroidery Club, where members pay a 6 month or 12 month membership fee and receive 6 or 12 different embroidery patterns, one per month.

    So, what has been working for me was to create a new, subscription based product, instead of having the rest of the content move from free to paid content.

    I hope this is helpful!

  • Personally I would hate it if blogs started using a cableTv model. With cable, I have to pay a large fee to have access to a ton of content, 90% of which I never use. I stopped cable service 3 years ago and now I use Netflix, Hulu or iTunes, where I can buy individual episodes of shows I want to watch. If there were an iTunes version of blogs that would be better. I could pay as I read, and I would expect that payment to be very low – a few cents here and there, paid by accepting the fee with some sort of permission when I landed on the page. If I had to pay 10 cents to see the site, I’d agree. If I had to sign up and subscribe for $5/mo. I wouldn’t because who knows when I’ll be back to this page?

    And while I like D*S, I’m not a daily reader. If I hit a firewall here I’d regretfully stop visiting.

    I don’t mind static ads or sponsored posts, but I absolutely hate ads that have audio or activate when rolled over. I sometimes make an effort to click through on some ads to make sure the blogger gets some credit for my visit.

    One last point — remember when cable tv first arrived, the selling point was that there were no commercials. That system of course didn’t last long.

  • Hey there Design Sponge. I’m a big fan and have been for years. I’m also a writer and own a company made up of more than a hundred current and former journalists, so as you can imagine, we talk about this stuff a lot.
    After years of listening to both writers and clients, one thing keeps coming up: if you can find a way to make your content deliver practical information, that’s how it makes money.
    So what does that mean for design sponge? For starters…get detailed with those posts. You showcase the best use of many different products in homes of every stripe. Build a catalog, starting with the most popular pieces that are showcased in the homes you cover. For example…West Elm Parson’s desk. If you had a way to tag every house tour that showcased a parson’s desk, you could then approach west elm and say…hey, we’ll tag every photo that showcases a parson’s desk…in exchange, you consider that advertising and pay per photo (or by volume), or whatever.

    Second, and this is where my expertise is…your readers are your best asset. In this case, you have a dedicated and receptive audience. And they want to buy what your potential advertisers are selling. Your task is to bring them together in a meaningful way. Get different “groups” of vendors together. For instance…I’ll use rugs as an example. Step 1: round up 3 rug sellers willing to pay for access to readers that demonstrate an interest in buying rugs. Step 2: interview the afore mentioned rug sellers. Step 3: write an article that is vendor neutral and as practical as possible, but also makes use of the knowledge gained from your vendor interviews: top 10 things to consider when buying a rug. Step 4: ask readers to click through jump. Step 5: display ads from the three rug vendors on click-through and charge according to click traffic.

    *note* this sort of approach doesn’t have to replace or take away from your current content, it can be clear that it is vendor-supported writing. In my experience, if it is presented as supplemental information, and is actually useful to the reader, it’s an effective way to sell eyes on the page while delivering a useful service to the reader.

    Those would be my suggestions. Good luck and I hope some of that was useful!

    • andrea

      we write detailed posts on a regular basis. that sort of exchange you’re talking about is called native advertising- it’s all that sells these days but it’s not something i’m comfortable with AND it doesn’t pay well. it’s a lose lose for me- i write content that’s sponsor-driven (which i don’t like) AND i don’t get paid much for it.

      the click-through traffic scene is pretty dead. everyone does it, and has for years, and the price for it has been driven to the bottom, sadly.

      i appreciate your thoughts, but sadly those are ideas we’ve all been dealing with for years- and advertisers just aren’t willing to pay prices for them that are fair.


  • Both the NYT and the WSJ have models that compromise getting paid for content while still allowing casual or new browsers some access. The NYT has a model where 10 articles/mo. are free to view, more require a subscription. The WSJ has a model where some articles are free, others are behind a paywall. Both models have their advantages and disadvantages. Neither model gets rid of advertising.

    One option for D*S, following from the WSJ model, might be to offer the basic content on DIY projects for free, but also produce more detailed, instructive tutorials about the projects or techniques in the post, which people could buy or pay a subscription fee to read if they want more instruction on how to implement the project in their own home. A technique-based tutorial series might be better than a project-based approach to start, as you only have to make the tutorial once, but it may be relevant to (and therefore marketed and sold in) several DIY posts. The content would have to be more informative than what can be found for free, though.

  • As Kelly pointed out, a cable-based approach would have me leaving immediately. I know this is a capitalistic society, and who doesn’t want to make money doing what they love? Unfortunately, those who are unable to pay what may seem reasonable to many, have to give up any happiness they found in places like Design Sponge. I fall in that category. Being physically limited leaves me poor and trying to find a way that I too, can bring in a little cash. And your questions are being asked by a lot of bloggers. Places I have enjoyed very much are now turning into little Hulus; you used to get this free but now you have to buy each one at $5-$10 each OR in other cases, you now can pay a monthly fee of around $20 a month for all of these you want. I can afford neither.

    So I find myself in a peculiar situation. I have to give up all the free stuff that would have aided in my being able to sustain a blog (and I’m talking about blogs who got THEIR content offered to them free of charge from “designers” wanting to be noticed and basically advertising their blogs via their free contribution). These designer’s have helped me whittle down my interests helping me to get closer to a clearer definition. So, amen to all bloggers hoping to be more or just maintain an equilibrium. But I think this trend will be the end of many new bloggers because it’s getting too complicated and too costly. I think we will lose many brilliant people who see the blog world as an even playing field and gathered confidence from that fact.

    I will be one of them who not only can’t carry on (I’ve put a good 5 years into learning all I could, everywhere I could) but also won’t be able to afford anywhere near what I enjoy today. It’s like all jobs these days, I guess. You may be brilliant and a hard worker but if you don’t have that diploma, you can’t work here. So much for future Bill Gates-types. I guess the blog giveth and the blog taketh away, depending on which side of the tracks you live on.

    Sorry for the length! Thought I would put a more human, impractical view up for thought. ;-)

  • I’m gonna quote Alesya (her post is way up there)
    “Your book is one of the few design focused books I own. Something about having it in the printed format is so luxurious. If there was an opportunity to subscribe to some kind of printed material that came monthly and was a recap of your blog over that month, I’d be thrilled and pay for it.”

    I would definately pay for a subscription for a print book, mag or an ebook . That type of subscription leave it open for new readers to join without having a cost too. And there is just something about a book type format that makes it seem so much more important.

  • Although I love your design and lifestyle topics on After the Jump, I’m also enjoying the business and life balance discussions too.

    As an avid reader, I would be willing to pay a subscription fee for good and reliable content like D*S but I may not be able to pay for all the blogs I follow. Similar to periodicals, I would have to be more selective about what I read. The downside with a blog subscription is the inability to buy just “one issue” like I do with mags when the mood strikes although you could do an article charge as well. I have paid for NYT but the thing that bugged me about their model is the separate charge for different platforms. It shows a lack of understanding of how people consume and manage their content now and if they provided just one digital price that included all platforms, I think that’d be better psychologically for most readers. Presenting tablet access as an additional charge turns people off. Even if you had to charge one higher price that included everything, it would be better received than charging more merely for using a different device. I’m pretty sure an internal control minded bean counter, not a creative, had something to do with that setup. They were thinking less about their readers needs, wants and reading habits and more about preventing people from sharing their login with others. I’m a bean counter by day and a creative by night so I can say that.

    In regards to the online shops with content, I think it’s fine for certain genres including design/décor/fashion, etc. I don’t think consumers are just buying something because it was featured in Domino but because they like it. You go to Domino and Refinery29 because you like their aesthetic not because they are “telling you to buy it” and the publisher is making it easy for you to buy something you spotted in an editorial. It is merely taking the idea of the Japanese shopping magazine one step further into the digital age. Now if you’re consumer reports or writing reviews of something or a shop smart deals publication where durability and reliability or value are the key buying decision factors (i.e. washer/dryer), then no, the reviewer needs to keep an arms length from the brand they are reviewing.

    I’m in the old school sponsored posts camp but I have relaxed on that recently. I’ve seen some do sponsored posts well (Design Mom comes to mind). If there is a sponsored post occasionally where the blogger is still writing original content for the post but merely featuring a sponsored product and it matches the taste level/aesthetic of the blog, it’s fine. Sponsored posts written by the brand and merely posted in a blog is not ok. Mediocre bloggers who are constantly raving about stuff they got for free and little else turn me off as well. Non-disclosure is also not ok as well as against FCC regs of course. So an occasional sponsored feature that still has a good DIY or other original content in the post doesn’t bother me as a reader.

    Another way to make income, which I think is brilliant, is Holly Becker’s Blogging Your Way courses. I’ve taken a number of her courses and they are addictive. It’s like a burst of creative energy. It’s less technical and more about unleashing your own style and creativity. You feel like you’re taking the class live and the tuition is priced low enough I don’t even think twice about signing up again and again. She’s also built a community around the courses although that organically evolved (I don’t think she planned it that way). Speaking of a community, I do think having a community of like minded people can also help along with a subscription/membership model but that’s a whole other ball of wax from a back end site perspective.