Earlier this summer, my co-worker Caitlin traveled from her home in West Virginia to our’s in New York so we could work together in person. Our goal was to spend a week planning the next year or so of content and projects for Design*Sponge, but we ended up spending most of our time talking about how planning that far out now feels obsolete and irrelevant.
Never has it been more evident that the state of the blogging world has completely changed. In fact, discussing only blogs feels a little outdated on its own. While most of us working online used to agree that blogs were essential for brands, it’s become clear that what works right now is very different from what worked two years ago — and what will work two years (or even two months) from now.
My last State of the Blog Union post was written three years ago, when all of the changes in our community were really coming to a head for me. Drastically shifting expectations from sponsors, dwindling comment sections, pressure to immediately adopt (and dominate) every new platform that comes along, and the need to diversify content and income sources was a lot to process after spending 10 years following the same path. But things change, and few things change as much (and as quickly) as the Internet.
So today I’m sitting down to have an open and transparent discussion about the current world of blogging, social media and publishing online. I can only speak from my perspective, but in the past year I feel like I’ve learned just as much as I did in the past 12 years combined. It’s been a fascinating 13-year journey at Design*Sponge so far, and while I don’t feel the same hopefulness I used to about blogs alone, I feel open-minded and curious about all of the interesting and unexpected paths these changes will lead all of us down.
For anyone unfamiliar with
our backstory, here’s how we got started (here’s a peek at all our old website designs, too).
- I started D*S in 2004 (when I was 23 years old) as a hobby. I wrote during my lunch break (while working as an assistant at a PR firm in Brooklyn) and posted 4-6 times a day, mainly about individual products. The blog was mentioned in a NY Times story and helped build our initial audience.
- In 2006 I was offered a job as House & Garden Magazine‘s web editor, so I left my full-time day job to run Design*Sponge (mostly) full-time and work freelance for the magazine.
- I hired my first freelance editors in 2007 (Kristina Gill, Derek Fagerstrom, Lauren Smith and Anne Ditmeyer) and started expanding the types of content we featured and the depth of coverage and writing. We launched a guest blog, a shop (where we sold work from independent designers, who took home 100% of the profits) and started a scholarship for design students.
- From 2008-2010 most of the shelter magazines I was freelancing for closed (I had brief tenures at Domino and Craft Magazine and wrote a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer for two years) and I focused on D*S full-time, with help from the aforementioned writers, as well full-time team members Amy Azzarito and Aaron Coles (who ran our advertising program). This was one of our best eras of business, with ad sales booming and traffic rising quickly. We added new content about women in business, DIY, makeovers, essays and much more. I also took the Biz Ladies series across the country for an eight-city tour (self-funded) and Caitlin joined our team.
- In 2011 we released our first book, Design*Sponge at Home, and did a 30+ city book tour that allowed us to receive press mentions in a way we never had before. Traffic grew and ad sales did the same. We published a free newspaper (delivered entirely by a street team of volunteers). We used that economic growth to get an office and hire more writers. The office would turn out to be a draining financial investment in the long run.
- 2012 – 2014 were more challenging years, with social media really starting to grab hold of market and audience shares in a big way and introducing the idea of social media followers as currency (though it rarely turned into actual currency). I started teaching classes at a co-working space near us in Brooklyn to diversify our income sources. I also started my radio show, After the Jump, although that was mostly an unpaid venture as well. We looked into product designs of our own but ended up realizing that our strength was in content, not products. Toward the end of this time period we started to add more freelance writers, and copy editor/team manager (Kelli).
- 2015- 2016 were learning and growth years that I am truly thankful for. In 2016 we released our second book, In the Company of Women (which became a NY Times Best Seller) and refocused the blog on interiors and essays/discussion about more serious issues (race, culture, inclusivity, etc.) and how they connect to design. These changes have made me feel more connected to this community than ever, especially after struggling to find a way to connect, personally, with the sometimes capricious world of social media and online publishing.
- We have always been a small, independent team with no venture capital funding. People have offered to buy our site but we’ve always passed and chosen to stay independent (more on that below). Our team has waxed and waned to reflect the economy and our content needs; at our largest, our team was comprised of five full-time employees and 15 freelance writers and at our smallest it’s been one — just me. These days we are a team of two full-time employees (myself and Caitlin) and about 7 freelance writers/editors.
So now that you know more about us, here’s what’s happening in our design blogging community at large…
- Every part of a blogger’s life and work has been commodified. From personal stories and children to wardrobes and homes, everything is up for sponsorship and editorial discussion.
- Advertisers (and readers) want more and more for less and less.
- Profiting from all of the above is no longer seen as “selling out” by most readers. It’s become expected to share a lot and turn “real life” into content.
- So much of the “real life” content being shared has become more like scrollable “reality TV,” chockfull of beautiful images that don’t reflect most people’s practical or financial “real” life.
- Content is readily mixed with advertising/sponsorship and people are used to it. It’s rare to see a website/magazine/show without sponsorship in some form.
- The age-old practice of “crediting” has turned into another vehicle for selling/profit. Links to other sites and roundup mentions are now offered as advertising options and affiliate marketing went from frowned upon to expected on most blogs (and is necessary for survival for most blogs at all levels).
- Social media has added algorithms that make it very hard (and expensive) for a blog or brand’s social media feeds to reach their full range of followers.
- It’s become even more difficult to get people to click on and read content that doesn’t come with a click-bait headline or some association to celebrity.
- Advertisers and readers want different things. While sponsors are asking for publishers to produce video (which is expensive), most readers still prefer to read or scroll, rather than sit and watch.
- One group not following trend is younger readers (Gen Z and younger Millennials). They often watch endless hours of how-to videos in all categories, but don’t follow through to make anything. The act of watching has replaced the act of making/doing for a lot of younger readers.
The overview of these changes can sound bleak. When I reread them, they make me feel a little woozy and wistful for the early days of blogging. But here’s what I know for sure: today’s new online publishing (including social) has given rise to more unique, fascinating and truly revolutionary voices from diverse points of view and backgrounds. Though it may be cruelly mercurial at times, the Internet has provided so many people ways to access, understand and share their voices and stories. And for that, I am grateful. I don’t need to be the loudest or best known or most relevant voice — I am proud to be one voice among a chorus of people discovering just how powerful the web can be for anyone with an idea.
So, let’s get into some details….
The primary system that supports most blogs is still advertising. While sponsored posts took over a few years ago, display ads (those static or moving banners from Blogging 1.0) are now coming back as people realize it can be harder track the efficacy of some product placement posts. That said, digital display ad spending has been reduced from previous levels as huge companies like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever are reducing digital spending and insisting that ad agencies become more transparent about their costs for campaigns (which includes the cost of content creators and agency fees).
So what we’re looking at now is the Wild West of online advertising. Networks specializing in blog ads have come, crashed and (mostly) gone. They’ve been replaced by a mix of big ad companies, in-house ad teams at big brands and middle men who act (with varying degrees of success) as a go-between. Here’s the problem with the “middle men” development: in our experience, these middle men come to blogs and request detailed pitches and content previews, only to disappear, use them with someone else or to later reveal that those requests were never shown to the client, so now the client wants to see something totally different. What that equals is a ton of time working on pitches and ideas and RFPs (request for proposal) that don’t turn into a paid campaign.
Another player in the sponsorship world is the realm of social media “influencer” networks, that pair people with sizable social followings with brands to “partner” with. Here’s where things get sticky. Partner can mean “paid” and partner can also mean “for exposure” or “in exchange for product.” Now, whether or not a blogger accepts free product as payment is up to them, but at the end of the day, you can’t pay a team, or your rent, in free product.
The other huge variable with blog and social advertising is which field you’re in, or can cross over into. The industry of furniture and design may seem like it’s awash in money, but it rarely is. Fields like beauty and fashion have brands spending millions on advertising, so those are often the blogs/influencers making the most.
The pricing and “worth” of this social content is really difficult to quantify. Some people can post something (think Kim Kardashian) and millions of people will buy it immediately. Some people can post something and and then, poof, nothing. Finding the right blogger to match with the right product and the right audience isn’t easy — and then finding a way to tell how much impact that post had is equally sticky. Are you looking for new followers? Purchases? “Engagement?” It’s all still up in the air until advertising professionals come up with standard measurements that both advertisers and advertising pros agree on. A lot of advertisers have talked about how they’re now going back to traditional banner ads because they can track them more simply. (Just reading this overview, you can sense this is a complicated, longterm process that doesn’t help blogs or online publishers create realistic, longterm cash flow estimates.)
So that leaves us back in the ad land we were used to a few years ago, but with ad rates going down and down while the asks (what they want from bloggers) continue to rise. Here’s an example:
A few years ago we heard from a brand that wanted us to use a product branded with their logo; they wanted us to use it for a full day, document it and post it on the blog and turn it into a video. We agreed to an amount and were happy with the result. The next year they came back and wanted the same post, PLUS social posts (on all channels) and wanted to drop the price in half. So more than twice the coverage for half the price with an audience that had grown in size.
This has become all too common as brands realize they can skip higher traffic blogs (which typically ask for higher rates and fewer restrictions) and focus on a long tail method. That means instead of investing in a few posts on sites with higher traffic numbers, they’ll invest the same amount (or less) in a larger number of blogs with lower traffic numbers. There’s no problem with that method, except that it seems to devalue the content in the eyes of the client and advertiser. If they can get one blog to do something for $1k, why shouldn’t all blogs do that? It seems to rarely translate that with a larger or more engaged audience, the cost of entry rises.
Lastly, advertising isn’t inherently bad — real people design real products that help solve some of our problems or fulfill our desires. But the route companies have to take to bring those products to their potential customers is a complicated one. Essentially, blogs today are the new “word of mouth” and because it’s often difficult for online publishers to make money, let alone a profit, the eco-system gets a little cluttered with products of varying quality. At D*S, before we even work with sponsors, we go through an internal vetting process where we ask ourselves what problem does this product or service help our audience (or a portion of our audience) solve, along with a list of other criteria and questions. This, in and of itself, can be a time-consuming process where you have to weigh your need for survival against staying true to your mission. It’s a fine, fine line and one that requires a lot of energy.
Whether this means teaching classes (although this is becoming one of the places where content creators are devalued the most), writing books and magazines, speaking tours (note: most conferences still want people to speak for free), designing product lines, freelancing for outside companies — getting a few irons in the fire is always a good idea. Some will last a while, others won’t. The goal is to always be testing things out. It takes a lot more work and effort to always be changing, but in an industry that doesn’t sit still, adaptation and evolution are requirements.
One part of learning to deal with changing economies (that most people don’t want to talk about) is downsizing. I feel more comfortable being 100% transparent and honest about these moments of waxing and waning, because businesses are rarely a steady line from start to success. It’s a journey of peaks and valleys and times when you have to grow and edit to survive.
I had a meeting with my accountant earlier this year where he basically told me that if we’re going to stay independent and have full-time employees with healthcare, we need to “pare down the tree.” My gut took a huge punch, but he was right. I’d gotten used to running a business based on advertising rates from earlier years and needed to edit down to the business I could afford to run now.
Once I stopped tripping over my ego, I realized it was a good chance to cut down and see what we really needed and what we didn’t. People on our team? Yes. But tons of different services and apps and software tools? Nope. I went through six months of bills (and taxes) to ensure everything we were paying for on a monthly basis was needed (it wasn’t) and made cuts there, too. Now we’re running like a lean machine and it’s nice to focus more on making sure I’m making informed business decisions rather than leaping off a cliff and hoping we make enough that month to cover it.
One other financial option for bloggers is to look for investment money or a loan. I know people who’ve done both and for me, it boils down to: to each their own. I don’t like the feeling of loans or debt, they keep me up at night. So if I can avoid them, I will. And, for me, venture capital means putting a lot of pressure on a business to grow quickly (and so often the first cuts made when people don’t meet goals is the creative/editorial team) and introducing people who get to have a say in the decisions I make. I’m a stubborn, stubborn person, so for me, these options just mean giving up too much control over the thing I love so much. But they’re out there, and for anyone who can turn them into something big and wonderful and navigate that new world, they’re great options.
The major changes I’ve seen in the online community have been building for years. People don’t typically have long conversations in the comment sections anymore. They save those points of view for their own platforms (blogs or social media feeds, etc.) and tend to swing to the extreme ends of spectrums when they do comment. Meaning, it’s all “I love it!” or “I hate it and you and here’s why…” I’m not sure where that all-or-nothing comment style came from, but I think the general tone of online commenting has taken a difficult turn.
One of the things we’ve noticed hinges on the idea that most people seem to momentarily forget they’re talking to real people online. The things they say to each other online are rarely things they would say in person. I’ve actually confronted someone before (after seeing them in person at a trade show) and my personal consensus is most people freak out when you call them on their behavior in real life. But I think for a lot of people, those other commenters they’re talking to aren’t “real” in that moment. They’re just a brand or an avatar or a handle, so telling someone they’re a sellout or a jerk or that you want to punch them is no big deal because they’re just an online personality, not a real person.
I’m not sure how, or if, this will ever change. My gut feeling has always been that as more people move into running their own feeds of some sort, they’ll experience negativity online and that experience will give them greater empathy and understanding and change they way they speak to others. It’s definitely done that for me and thankfully I’ve learned now not to say anything online I wouldn’t say to someone in person or that I wouldn’t want read back to me in court.
The final bit of community behavior that connects to all of this is the idea that all content is something that belongs to everyone, for free, whenever they want. That concept is a tough one for me to stomach. It’s led to the devaluing of content and content producers (artists, writers, photographers, stylists, etc.), it’s made finding and crediting original sources difficult (Pinterest or Reddit or Instagram are never valid “sources” for a photo credit), and it’s created a really inaccurate perception of how the things we enjoy and devour are valued. It’s also changed the way content makers receive traffic from those images. Creative images, styled backdrops and graphic/illustrative projects now just circulate through the web in the course of a few days and by the time someone tries to find the artist (if they even want to), it’s nearly impossible because so many people have shared it without attribution. That may seem petty to anyone not producing content online, but when you make your living as some sort of content creator, being credited for work is crucial (it’s how they make sales, get job offers from people who like their work, etc.).
From my point of view, blogs are shifting into a few different camps: huge network sites that have hundreds of employees and venture capital funding, mid-range blogs that stay small and manage small teams (usually with other full-time jobs), and one-person blogs that have such a small overhead that they can skirt most of the major issues related to the ad world.
Larger network-style blogs tend to be, at least currently, operating under the idea that providing the widest range of content to the widest range of people is the best idea. I have my own theories about how this is poor advice from venture capitalists who just want to see the most “key demographics” covered as possible, but what it sometimes leads to is a site that feels disconnected and confused. Strong core voices can get lost among aggregated content (usually pulled in from sites that are also in the brand’s network), but in general this “more is more” mentality seems to be ruling that niche of blogs.
We are living in the now, while keeping a close eye on what’s important to us and what’s actually working with our audience. Home tours will forever be the core of what we do — that intersection of design and real life is integral to our website — but we will continually use the fast-paced, changing nature of the web to allow us more freedom to experiment with content and how we communicate.
Right now, I’m fascinated by the way social media allows us to connect to very different audiences. The main people commenting here at the blog are very different from the people that talk to us on Twitter and Instagram. Facebook is a whole different universe of people. I still haven’t been able to fully connect with and understand Facebook from a professional perspective. I mainly use it to talk to my parents and friends in different parts of the world, but I’m always trying to keep an open mind to how it could be a useful and meaningful platform in the future.
I’ve always been someone who figures out what I want by figuring out what I don’t want first, so things are no different when it comes to Design*Sponge these days. I don’t want to be a site that takes direction from people in an office who have no connection to our community on a day-to-day basis. I don’t want to give up control to sponsors and lose our ability to be honest and talk about things beyond pretty houses.
But I do want to support my friends and co-workers who share their voices here. I do want them to know their jobs are safe and their health insurance won’t go away. And I do want to create a safe space where people can learn and talk and share and understand themselves and others better.
And to do that, I have to find a way to play the current ad game. I also need to keep trying out new projects to see how I can combine things that matter most to us and feel in line with our code of business ethics while still producing enough income to ensure the people who work with us can take care of themselves.
So I’m here to do the work. I’m listening. I’m learning. I’m trying new things — some work out, some don’t. But I will never stop trying to help this business to grow and evolve into something that feels even more meaningful, important and useful. And since day one, we’ve had all of you to thank for that. This business, in any form and on any platform, would not survive without your support. So thank you. Thank you for hanging in there while we work through growing (and sometimes downsizing) pains. Thanks for understanding when we need to try new things that don’t always work out. Thank you for embracing our new chapter of growth and change and allowing us to share more of our full selves, our full interests and our full hearts here. We are so thankful to be a part of this community and of each other’s lives online. xo, Grace
Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg