2013 was the most difficult year of blogging I’ve ever had. It felt like everything changed at once. But in fact, it had been changing for long time. Readers, bloggers, the financial system that supports every blog and just about every other aspect of the internet as a whole seemed to hit its tipping point and flip overnight. Jason Kottke, a trusted writer and web commentator, declared that 2013 was the year the blog died. All of these pronouncements and changes were difficult, but nothing was more difficult than the emotional adjustments that needed to be made to adapt to the changing online climate. I’ve been writing little snippets and thoughts about the changes in the blogging world on my laptop for the past six months: things I was struggling with, things I was excited by, challenges we’d have to unpack and solve. And then I read a comment discussion between bloggers on Twitter and realized the discussion was already happening among friends, but not necessarily online. So I decided to sit down and tackle the issue.
Tonight the country will watch the 2014 State of the Union address and today I’m sharing my own state of the union- the blog ‘union’- and how we’re doing as a community. This is my 10th year of blogging and this year in some way feels like the first all over again. I feel like bloggers are up against some of the biggest challenges ever, but after a year of trying to wrap my head around all the obstacles (and it really took me a full year), I’ve finally come down to one conclusion: these are changes that will make us better, stronger and more well rounded people. Not just bloggers, but people.
Please join me in the full post after the jump to share your thoughts, experiences and feedback on the state of our current blog world. I’m so glad to finally talk about some of these changes and challenges openly and learn from the experience and ideas of our community as a whole. xo, grace
It started as a little whisper last year. Are people commenting on your posts anymore?
And then those whispers found other whispers from trusted blogging friends to join. Oh they’re not? Yeah, mine either. It’s like people just stopped talking.
Last year seemed like the year that comments died (RIP, comments). From the newest to the oldest blog, comment sections started to wither and disappear. But for a lot of people, traffic and readership weren’t disappearing as dramatically as comments. So what explained the change?
Without noticing it, a lot of us were experiencing the huge tidal shift in the way readers were engaging with blogs. After years of having the luxury of running websites that were the sole place to comment, participate and engage on a certain topic, we were no longer the only outlet. Social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest offered new options for people. They not only offered new options, they offered completely customized options that made it easy to pick and choose the content they liked and take it into their own (online) backyards to comment and curate as they saw fit. Instead of coming to hang out at our houses, they were dropping by quickly, taking a few key pieces with them and leaving to comment and discuss those things in their own living rooms.
This change was huge for a lot of us that thrived on feedback (both good and bad) from readers, but it was a symptom of something much bigger: the blog as a platform was no longer the sole way we would be communicating and engaging with readers. And if we didn’t change, we would be left behind.
I’ll be honest, this was a difficult change for me. It was wrapped up in a bigger issue I was struggling with: perceived ownership of content. I’ve watched over the past few years as importance of crediting died. And I don’t mean a simple link back, but rather a true acknowledgement and appreciation of the time and work that goes into original content. Over the past five years, original content has come to be the norm on blogs, which is a fantastic growth and change. But then almost immediately, the internet became used to seeing such a wealth of original content that it started to care less about where it came from, who made it and what was behind it. I associate this change with Pinterest culture (the main reason I hesitated to join originally), but I now see that while Pinterest is the most visible expression of this change, it’s only one of the main contributors.
The internet is no longer a place where there is divide between those who make and those who consume. The culture of blogger and reader is obsolete. In the same way that blogs opened up publishing and turned readers into writers, social media and micro-blogging platforms like Tumblr gave the remaining blog readers that weren’t already blogging a platform to become their own bloggers, curators (though I won’t open that whole can of worms debate here right now) and content hubs. Someone that would have typically read a blog, left a comment and moved on now reads a blog or any other content platform and can take content (anything from a photo to a bigger concept) and carry that back to their home (be it a Pinterest board or an Instagram feed) and make it their own in some way. Or they can just carry it back and re-post it there without any commentary. Like it or not (and I spent most of last year sulking about not liking it), this is the way the internet has changed and we all have so much to learn from this trajectory.
Here’s are the major lessons I see in these changes:
- Reader attention spans have gotten shorter. The 2-3 minutes someone might have spent leaving a comment are now spread among other forms of engagement like Pinning, sharing or clicking a ‘like’ button.
- The concept of a homepage is becoming somewhat obsolete. Readers will consume content where it is most convenient to them. So it is up to bloggers to now track down their audience and find them wherever they are (on Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
- Early Adoption is KEY: Those that adopt a new platform or technology quickly and early have chances to gain bigger numbers that are incredibly difficult to achieve later on. This is seen most clearly in the form of Pinterest and Instagram. There’s often very similar content being created by people with 1 million followers and people with 10,000 followers. The difference is often (but not only) when someone adopted this new platform or technology.
One other factor that’s a major player in these changes is advertising. The lessons that print media had to learn over decades of publishing has been learned and experienced by bloggers in only a few years. Advertising went, over a very short period of time, from a seller’s game to a buyer’s game in a major way.
Six to Eight years ago, most bloggers were living in our own version of the ‘Conde Nast heydays’ without knowing it. We were getting great rates for advertising, having to do (relatively) little to get those ads and could keep our advertising and content wells completely separate. Some people diversified and taught classes or wrote books, but most of us build our homes on the same platforms that ended up sinking home magazines in print. And like them, that toppled and changed last year. In what felt like a single month (but was in fact spread out over a year), the online ad industry was so flooded with so many options that they gained much greater control over the market. Rates dropped dramatically and some of the major ad agencies that support blogs stopped selling traditional banner ads (those things you see blinking on the right side of everyone’s screens) entirely. They were replaced with what is now referred to as ‘native advertising’- otherwise known as sponsored content.
Those posts that people like me railed against and swore to never do were now the only option. Well, the only advertising option. There are still banner and text ads to be sold, but they represent such a small portion of income now that bloggers had to choose quickly whether they would accept sponsored content or downsize quickly.
I chose to do a little of both- accept sponsored content that I could (somewhat) control and post transparently and downsize to focus on our core team and the overhead we really needed. Even with these changes made, the industry continued to change. The sponsored content deals we felt (again, somewhat) comfortable making were, after only 6 months, seeming impossible to secure and were being sold at lower rates. In short, the advertising world went from boom to a form of a bust pretty quickly.
Advertising is still supporting most blogs, including this one. But I think most bloggers have started to realize that they need to change in order to survive- and quickly. It’s a theme that runs through all of these major changes: blogs will need to diversify, run with a light footprint (in terms of overhead and team costs) and constantly change to stay alive.
I pondered all of these changes really heavily over the holiday break. I spent time on my couch just thinking- really examining all the ways we work, engage with our audience and what truly makes us happy. And I finally came to one conclusion: the changes I had been so terrified and paralyzed by were in fact the things that would free us to be better writers and more well-rounded people.
How? Here’s a quick rundown:
- With shorter reader attention spans, we can post smaller-scale updates that allow us to be more informal and operate in a more real-time world.
- Without the structure of planning content and ad campaigns a year ahead of time, we were now free to test out new columns, pursue content only when it interested us and try things out for short periods of time.
- With reader engagement spread across different platforms it means each of our team members can find a way to connect with our community in a way that suits them best.
- With all of these new makers and voices popping up left and right, we’re able to discover more inspiring people and content- and start new collaborations- on a daily basis.
- The concept of permanence is fading, and with it, our need to hold on to things that are no longer working. If a section or column in our site isn’t exciting to us, we can shelve it for a while and try something new.
- The need to create new content in different areas (on the blog, on Instagram, on Facebook, etc.) means we get to think of creative ways to offer content. What was once a simple home tour can now become images online, a quick video on Instagram and a series of product boards on Pinterest inspired by the home. More platforms = more content = more inspiration = more people connecting and enjoying what you produce.
- If the advertising system is unstable or no longer ideal, it gives us the opportunity to be creative again. To think of ways to support ourselves that help us connect to people, learn new things and utilize skills or talents we haven’t yet (like teaching, speaking or creating new product lines).
Is all of this scary in a way? Yes. Is it also exciting and thrilling to have so many new opportunities and places to be creative and connect with people who share the same passions and interests? Absolutely.
Bloggers have a lot of challenges and changes in their future, but I think they’re a blessing in disguise. We’ve all gotten comfortable and used to the daily systems we know so well (editorial calendars, predictable comments, the schedule on which we publish), but it’s time to shake that up a bit. Try something new, engage in a new way. Open yourself up to the idea that your voice and your vision are the true strength you have to offer. And if that voice no longer lives only on your blog, all the better. The internet is constantly expanding and offering new outlets to people who want to communicate and connect. Do these changes mean you have to do every new thing that comes your way? No. But it does mean that technology and an increasingly savvy online reader are giving you new ways to express yourself- along with the ability to change that expression when you see fit.
The only consistency in our web world is change. It’s no longer a clear cut 2.0 / 3.0 world. It’s a constant stream that evolves on a daily basis and benefits us all. In the same way that each of us grows and changes on a regular basis, so does the community around us. Embracing that change and finding a way to make it our own will be the daily task- and joy- of all of us online. It may have taken me a while to get here, but I have never EVER been more excited to come to work each day. I feel like I let go of a burden I didn’t even know I had and feel so inspired and ready to create something new. Here’s to a bright, exciting and ever-changing and evolving online future for all of us. xo, grace