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Essay

State of the Blog Union 2017: How The Online World Has Changed

by Grace Bonney

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 In fact, discussing only blogs feels a little outdated on its own.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 

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Comments

  • Grace, it took me a few days to read this amazing piece, thank you, it explained a lot that I was curious about. I am trying to remember to click through a lot more. Before Instagram, etc. I used to look forward to the Design*Sponge website, trying to set work goals every day before I was allowed to log in as my reward. I am essentially a design-moron with limited taste so Design*Sponge has let me explore so many areas in a way that was approachable and achievable. Too many other websites have content that is too perfect and hard, and has no political content if that makes sense. I frequently search back through the site to look for advice on gray paint colors, wallpaper, how to hang a painting, to spray paint in a box, etc., so I was wondering about reposting, there are so many great entries, I know I would be happy to see some of them again. What other website explains to you how to repaint and fix thrift store paintings? In terms of paid content, I would be happy to see what you would pick at Nordstrom’s or Crate and Barrel, etc., you have such great taste and I am always completely overwhelmed by shopping choices. I have bought many things over the years from the Best of the Web, my favorite being some hand-blocked fabric from England and I wish I could purchase more yardage. I also like to see the projects you and Julia do on your house, again, they are not so perfect that I click away as something that would be impossible for us. I kind of forgot that website traffic was important, I feel badly about it actually, and I am not so into the houses although I always take a quick look. So any way I don’t know if this is at all helpful to you, I hope you and Julia have had a lovely vacation, and thank you for all that you have added to my design life, it is huge.

  • Thanks for this post- it’s very insightful. I am among the few who thinks the commodification of everything in the blogosphere is selling out. I didn’t realize that few other readers felt that way. I appreciate the D*S focus on diversity and inclusion. Keeping that focus maintains the authentic character of the blog, even if there is more sponsored content. With many of my other favorite design blogs that I have been reading for years, it is apparent that *everything* is now an advertisement, which goes too far. Best of luck and thanks for what you do.

  • What a length, but great post. I am currently also thinking a lot about the state of blogging and where things are heading – also for my quite old, but still very small blog – so this was definitely very helpful!

    Thank you, also for keeping up the great work with Design Sponge.

    A faithful follower.

  • This was an incredibly interesting read. I try not to focus on page views, because I don’t market my blog very aggressively. I use Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest. But I am not dogged about promoting my blog the way I should be, probably. I paired down to writing only essays, wiped out everything else I had as far as content, and have given way to the reality that the only thing I really care enough about to sustain a blog is long-form writing. At the moment, I consider myself to be a personal essayist. I don’t really know what to do with that on Facebook because I just don’t have the following or the funds to make the algorithms play in my favor. And Instagram is getting to be just as a bad. I don’t use Twitter nearly as avidly as I used to, and Pinterest even less so. Right now, I think it will be smarter to just focus on getting essays written and then formulate a game plan for social media marketing when I have enough content to peak people’s interest. As of now, I only have three essays. Anyway, your essays always make me think more deeply about the state of my own blog, so then I feel compelled to hash out my thoughts in a comment. Thanks for inspiring me to do that! <3

  • Really fantastic post, Grace. Thank you for your honesty in sharing some of your struggles dealing with running a business in today’s digital world. While not a blog, we can sympathize with many of the struggles you are going through as we embark on our own online journey. I hope your strength in your values and what you deem is important wins out over time. That’s what we’re focusing on, with the knowledge that even if it doesn’t work out 100% to plan, we’ve done the best we could 😉

  • Phew! What a fantastic, thorough, and thought-provoking reflection. Thank you for this, Grace. And thank you for working so hard on D*S over the past 12 years. I’ve been following from the very beginning!

  • I think social media is killing it for me, but maybe I’m going about it wrong? If I post something on Instagram and Facebook, it will only reach a small amount of people compared to the number of followers I have, then the “promote” button pops up. Is it necessary for Facebook and Instagram to squeeze every dime they can out of everyone? Now they have new policies for working with/tagging brands. It’s too much for me- someone with a small blog, anyway. I can’t find the number of Pins on a post in Pinterest anymore. Why won’t Pinterest show how many times I’ve had one of my projects pinned? Ever since I’ve noticed these recent changes, my traffic has dropped. I feel like being a blogger on a limited budget just won’t cut it anymore, and digging through the garbage is becoming harder, too. Blogs seem like a dime a dozen now, but finding ones with good content that are beneficial is becoming difficult because others are using it as a popularity contest, posting link parties just for fast content (I have seen some with good content, but not often), and writing stuff that isn’t interesting. That’s hard to pull through on the internet, which is why it can take good-quality bloggers YEARS before they really get anywhere. I love what you wrote here and THANK YOU for reminding others that sites like Pinterest are not valid sources for photo credits. It may not seem like a big deal to most people, but I have had it happen to me many times and it’s so frustrating that someone would use all the hard work I put into one project or photo, for their benefit only.

  • I have read your blog for years. I think I got into design blogs about the time you started this, so you were one of my gateway drugs. I have never ever commented on anything but reading this post is such a breath of fresh internet air that you deserve a big high five. Speaking honestly connects us!

  • Hi Grace,
    Thank you so much for sharing all the little details…I used to write a furniture and lifestyle blog called Pink Pianos that I started back in 2007 (maybe 2006)…I remember contacting you once with a submission and I fully expected to hear back from a member of your huge team, back then, you wrote me personally and said, it’s just me! I still remember that:) It was amazing to me. Fast forward, 10 years, and I still enjoy reading DS.
    I launched a new artists blog and site, where I am trying to learn from everything that came before. I sell products that I design and offer Los Angeles based textiles workshops. I too am attempting to grow and evolve with the times online. I find myself teaching more, which is awesome (hopefully not for lower rates!) and I have embraced affiliate marketing, from what I can see, it is essential to the survival of most blogs. As a product designer and part-time art teacher, the new model seems like it could be better suited to my strengths. That is as a far as I have processed at the moment. I am bookmarking this article, b/c I really appreciate your wisdom, insight and advice.

  • I am a long-time hobby blogger who has watched the shift in blogging and social media with fascination. Even as someone who isn’t looking to make a living from my blog, I still have felt quite pressured to fit into these new models of blogging — which really just isn’t me. While my readership is down, I’ve come to value what blogging is for me — a fun hobby without all the strings attached and without all the pressure.

    Thank you for this post and your reflection on some very important topics in the world of blogging!

  • For what it’s worth, from a decade-long on-again off-again reader: if you offered a pay option, either for some sort of premium content or even just because, I have a feeling you’d get some takers. I’ve seen both – Put This On (a men’s fashion blog) does a weekly email roundup of sales and ebay finds and I’m happy to pay for it, and Andrew Sullivan for a period just had a ‘pay what you want’ model and I think put together a pretty decent revenue stream out of it. Food for thought. I don’t like that the internet content ecosystem has so devalued writers and producers such that they feel it’s improper to ask their readers for money.

  • I really enjoyed reading this, and I learned a lot. I have been a D*S reader for years, and yours is one of the few blogs that I have not abandoned. I like your taste…I think that’s the short answer. The longer explanation…I’m not sure I can articulate. Your blog has introduced me to many artists, homes, movements that I wouldn’t have discovered without you. I purchased a painting after seeing an artist (Nikki Cade) on D*S; it brings me a lot of pleasure. I think the main reason I stay with D*S, though, is your open and generous spirit. Politically we are very different. I have ditched several blogs in the last couple of years because of their strident political posts. While you and I have different views, I have the feeling that I could sit with you and be heard. And I could hear you. It would be a civil discussion. We could still like each other. Does that make sense? I know your stance, but there is a gentleness about it. It makes me feel that I would be accepted. That’s a pretty big thing to accomplish in a blog. I’m glad you’re continuing to make it work; weblife wouldn’t be the same without D*S.

  • An amazing article. Really well-thought out and well-said piece. I have been following your work since college (when I used to browse “pretty” blogs during boring classes). As an attorney who helps creatives and influencers navigate the business logistics of their businesses, this bird-eye-view is incredibly helpful. I love what you said: “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.” YES! This is so important in the digital age. We have so much information — it is our burden to be good stewards and analysts — which includes being smart about copyright, content, plagiarizing, attribution, “sharing is caring” and all of the good, bad and ugly in between. I am bookmarking this for all of my clients. Good luck with all of your waxing and waning adventures — and for being real and graceful with the seasons of change that come to all of us both personally and professionally.

  • Very interesting read. While I love seeing pretty pictures on instagram (and spend countless hours scrolling through them), I still much prefer content like your home tours that have a story to go along with it. Those home tours and your voice keep me coming back year after year. It seems like your are doing more family related home tours and that is so nice as I age into that phase of my life too. Keep up the good work!

  • Dear Grace,
    I remember the day I came across a flyer in 2004 (maybe 2005), while visiting Park Slope, at a bakery. It had an interview with you in it, I packed it in my suit case, read it when I got home, and have checked in nearly every day since. You, my dear, have by far, been the biggest influencer of my career. Hands down. From ’05 when I was remodeling my first home as a young 20 something in Florida, until 2017, when I now own and run a Interior Design firm in Santa Fe. I poured through your Biz Lady posts, listened to After The Jump while I was filing fabrics when I finally jumped myself, and took my first interior design job, after having a baby… but, your honesty, reliability, and groundedness, through your interviews, kept me steady and believing I was on the right path. In a world where things change so fast, I’m so relieved to hear that you are doing what’s right for you. In the long run, you will be better off for it. People will stick with you for your consistency, and loyalty. It’s why I’ve been here all these years. So much love to you, Grace. And thank you for all the heart you put into your work. It is so appreciated, and literally changed the direction of my life. So thank you!!!

  • I am always so appreciative of your honesty and keeping it real on both the good and the bad. I think I will come back and read this piece again and again. You are an inspiration!

  • Is there a way to see all of the comments on this post? I think I’m only seeing “page 2”, with comments starting on August 30th and I can’t find a link to see previous comments. When I visited earlier, there were more comments posted in the immediate days after the post. Thanks!

    • Hi Annie

      Can you tell me what system (browser and version, phone vs. laptop vs. deskstop and what type) you’re using to view this post? Do you not see the comments if you scroll all the way down?

      Grace

      • Hi Grace, on a laptop and I tried with both Google Crome and IE. I can see comments posted between August 30-Sept 5, but I thought there were comments posted before August 30th and I don’t see any place to click “see more comments” or “previous page” or anything like that to see the full comment section. Maybe there were no comments before Aug. 30th? Or I’m just missing something!

        • Annie

          Oh no! We’ll get to the bottom of this. Can you tell me which versions of each browser you’re using? I’m testing on Chrome 60.0.3 and can’t replicate the error. I’ll have our tech contact test on IE for me to see if we can figure this out. Thanks for your patience :)

          Grace

  • Yours is the only design blog I’m still reading on a regular basis. I love that the homes you share are beautiful but accessible. Just ordered your second book (I bought copies of your first book for myself and my mom – love it). Hope you’ll be writing more books as well! Wishing you much continued success in the future.

  • Thank you for sharing not only a powerfully honest piece, but your heart with us every single day Grace! Your courage and candor are a blessing and just as inspiring as your design picks. I have been a reader since 2006 (did I just date myself?!) and have been inspired so much by both the lofty and DIY design ideas you shared from the beginning, whose influence we see today in retail stores and design trends, even a decade plus later! An eye for real style never goes out of style :) I firmly believe that if we do the right thing, every thing will turn out right…and I know the perfect next plan will unfold into place for you and the entire d*s team. Props to the pioneers!

  • Grace, what an amazing post. Thanks for that. I’ll share it with some travel bloggers (I’m one of them…) as I think this applies to us too!

  • I really appreciated this piece!

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading D*S and a (now shrinking) list of other blogs. I have always been fascinated on how exactly it was monetized on a large scale or how or why people put forth the effort for little to no money sharing their ideas or selling their homemade products, or just telling their private relationship/family business, generally.

    Interestingly, I rarely comment on any blog because I don’t see conversation happening, but I didn’t really think bloggers or other readers really cared much what I thought. I presume that they would still do their own projects/recipes/design/trips/family in whatever way worked for them and my commenting wasn’t going to make a difference to them or the blogger did not engage with the audience in the comments section. (I can only think of two blogs I follow where this isn’t true.)

    I can’t remember a time when comments – just as you wrote – weren’t in the two camps – “I love it” (it = what you wrote, what you DIY’d, what you cooked, your travel destination, your child-rearing opinions) or the opposite “I don’t like/hate it and you.” (I cringe even typing this.) I imagine many reading my comment now would agree that typically a negative response warrants a barrage of commenters coming to the defense of blogger and criticizing a contrary opinion telling them to go away, stop reading, etc. While I absolutely subscribe to the idea if you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything, bloggers are really only left with a polarized community of people who only love what they do.

    It does seem as though blogs are caught between a choice of (occasionally relentless) ads/promos (sometimes I can’t even see the content on some blogs, particularly on a mobile device, because of ads) or a quasi subscription model. From what I hear/listen to lately podcasts are up against the same trick now.

    Regarding attributing credit – Establishing boundaries is so hard but worthwhile work to help save creative efforts/endeavors that are out there. I don’t think most people realize that there is an unprecedented level of stealing on the internet by not correctly sourcing, but most people perceive it as harmless…argh! How to stop it?!

    Anyway, thanks for many years of reading enjoyment!

  • I have been following design sponge since the beginning. I have always admired your transparency and your willingness to listen, learn, and adapt. I am very grateful for this insight – it explains so much about what I have felt but have been unable to put my finger on in the digital world. Regardless, there are many ways that you and design sponge have actually change my life – the way I create, the way I DIY, the way I create my home. I, for one, am very grateful.

  • I’ve always appreciated your honest and thoughtful critique and commentary on all things especially the online world. Thank you for this article! I am not a blogger but I am fascinated by the industry and the shifts in it as well as how it all connects us as well – so I find reads like this particularly enlightening.

  • Thank you Grace for this thoughtful post! You observations are spot on. I started my food blog, http://www.bijoux.com, in the good old days, 2010. I garnered a large following. My photography, cookbooks, and recipes are ‘little jewels”. I tried ads but I wanted my blog space, quiet and elegant, I am a designer by training.
    Fast forward today. Creating quality curated original content is not of value and to keep your blog noticed, it’s crazy the steps you must take. I guess I can take heart that a blog like DS is facing all the same challenges.
    Thank you for taking the time to share you thoughts and experience.
    Best, Lynn

  • This was such an interesting and insightful read – thank you for it. It’s given me a few things to reflect on when it comes to my own blog and the idea that readers are used to seeing ads/a mix of content is reassuring.

  • Thank you for posting this. I respect your assessment and I thought it was really honest look at what the blogging industry was and has become. As someone that is new to the social media scene and interested in starting a blog of my own, this is an eye opener. I do think a lot of blogs get carried away with trying to monetize every bit of content and it takes away from experience and authenticity of the content being shared. I always thought this was just something I was noticing because I’m a bit “old fashioned”, but It helps to understand the mechanics and pressure that bloggers feel to produce.

    Thank you again for the post.

  • I’ve been saving this post until I had enough time to read the whole thing at once, and I’m so glad I did.
    I love reading your essays, they are always so well thought out and full of intention. Like many of your readers, I love beautiful pictures of homes/design, but my favourite part is the meaningful content that you put out along with it.
    Thank you for doing what you do and for sticking with what’s true to you, I believe that is what makes your website one that I will continually look forward to reading and coming back to.

  • This post has opened my eyes. Like most people, I started blogging because it allowed me to express my creativity and have some accountability towards being a maker. I think I had a feeling that blogging was turning but I just haven’t been in the game long enough. Social media, especially Instagram, is starting to become a big of a monster and time-waster.
    Videos seem to be the next big change (I have noticed this more and more on social media). At the same time, your point about Generation Z watching rather than making is actually quite distressing as a society.
    Thank you for such an honest post.

  • Thank you so much for writing this beautiful piece. A lot of what was said on how the blogging industry resonated really hard with me. As someone who just stepped away from style blogging after 7 years of doing it, I felt every piece of devaluation of creative work towards the end of my tenure. It is absolutely heart wrenching to know that REAL people with REAL values and creative skills are being seen as a commodity that can be wooed without a price tag. At some point, I started to feel pressures of “well if I say no to this free stuff in exchange for 8 hours of unpaid work, [this company] will just move on to the next blogger who will work for free and I’ll get left in the dust.” Reflecting on this very sentence made me realize that the current state of blogging and my blogging focus were no longer bringing me the joy that it once did. Pivoting never felt better and I now write only for myself… if it resonates for someone else, that’s awesome! No more FOMO and having other make me feel like my work is not enough.

    Thank you for your honesty and rallying the blogging community.

  • Hi, Grace:

    Your name suits your honesty and beautiful site. I’m a long time reader and lover of DS. I had to comment on your State of the Blog Union piece. It has to be the most complete, authentic and open piece on blogging in 2017 that I have ever read. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read anything, anywhere as comprehensive and insightful as this article. I’m a compulsive reader and saver to Pocket so I have a pretty good grasp of what’s out there. I also read all the “teach you to blog better” sites since I am planning on launching a blog sometime over the next year (the URL below points to a coming soon page only0> Recently, I’ve been combing the net looking for articles on the future of blogging and new trends. This post sums it up! It comes at the perfect time for me – it will help me “get my mind right” about what’s out there in the big unknown for another small blogger. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Grace.

  • Happy to support you in the long haul. Your insight and honest, inclusive presence makes me glad and teary at the same time! thank you, thank you.

  • I’m not a regular reader of d*s, I just landed here a few days ago after looking up how to clean some stubborn stains on a cast-iron bath, then looking around the site to see if I liked it better than Apartment Therapy (I do! *Tons* better)

    I’ve kept this post up on a tab for a few days, re-reading bits, because it is a lot of food for thought! In some ways it’s super validating because a lot of these are things I’ve noticed or even just suspected, ~sensed~ if I may use a slightly woo-y term, but couldn’t quite put into words myself, for a few years now. Certainly not in such a cohesive, contextualised manner as you did here!

    It occurs to me, reading your post, that the devaluing of content creation that you describe in your post is sort of an amazing bait-and-switch on creatives, that exploits one of the core traits they have in common whatever the medium or type of activity they work in, from artsy photographers to personal essayists and architects to event planners: the need for an audience, for someone to enjoy the product of their work. I think that comes even before the being paid for it. I reckon for a lot of creative people, especially starting out, if you offered them a choice between having their work seen/experienced by 100 people and paid $10, or paid $100 but be seen by 10, they would choose the former unless they already have an audience.

    I guess that describes a bit of an ideal setup for anyone looking to get something for nothing, right?

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this rapidly evolving topic. I really appreciate your honesty, insight and authenticity. I enjoy the quality of your content and agree that everyone wants something for free. People are curating their own lives through Pinterest boards and other sources (often poorly credited), acquiring their expert advice through You Tube Videos and other Facebook live and blog content–to most all are viewed as free sources of information. Purchase decisions are often made on the basis of lowest online price for same product or knock-off or imported reproductions of lesser quality. Everything seems to be turning into a commodity. People don’t see value-added through blogs, are not willing to pay for content such as magazines or books because they say they can get that “all for free” on the Internet. What a difference it would make if your blog had (fully disclosed) underwriters similar to NPR –where you had less ad pressure over content and where folks who enjoy and identify with your voice could support you in a visible way consistent with their strategy. Definitely tough waters to navigate….

  • This is such a well written post – your experience mirrors my own in so many ways. I’ve been blogging since 2009, my blog was monetised in 2010 and back then, wow, CTR was unbelievable and people were literally throwing money at you! These days, the online advertising world is unrecognisable from the space it was back then and we have to work so much harder to secure long term relationships.

    I’m really proud of how my team and I have adapted to the changes (I am constantly referring to the social media environment as the ‘shifting sands’ ). We have waxed and waned just like you have, lost some big clients (when their own market share has diminished, thanks to the phenomenal success of apps like Instagram) and gained back some more. We too are seeing a return of interest in the banner advert and are working on creative ways we can make this work for new clients. We have recently taken on a huge international bridal fashion brand who has never worked with bloggers before and their CTR is looking amazing thanks to the creative advert placement, but we’re providing a lot of wrap around support too.

    In terms of diversifying – we’re actually setting up another blog! A lifestyle blog to serve the incredible, loyal community of 95% females that visit our blog and love its warm, honest and inviting vibe. For us, prioritising this community has been absolutely KEY this past 12 – 18 months. We have established private groups in Facebook and made a lot of time for our readers. We now have a whole community of ambassadors raring to shout about our new blog when it launches next month. And I have a newfound sense of meaning and reward as a ‘blogger’. I’m finally connecting with our audience in a deeply meaningful way. The Facebook groups really have changed everything.

    Our new blog is also going to focus more on long form storytelling because I truly think there’s a space for that – and allowing every day readers to write about and contribute their own life experiences.

    What I can say, with all sincerity is that I’ve felt a much more positive shift this year. Throughout 2015/16, I found myself asking myself many times, what is the future of blogging? I’m not sure I ever had an answer back then but now, I feel much more positive and hopeful. I’ve really felt a shift this year in attitudes and perceptions. It’s difficult to articulate, but it’s almost as though advertisers are going back to basics – like you say, a return to the banner advert. It’s as though the penny is finally dropping and they realise how important that ‘word of mouth’ recommendation via a blog that you refer to, actually means. We’re really buoyed on by this shift – and, the incredible feedback we’ve had from our community ahead of launching a whole new blog. Sometimes I think I must be insane but I’m also incredibly excited to have the opportunity of monetising a blog from scratch again. It’s sure going to be a very different experience from the one I had back in 2010!

    Thank you as always for creating a feature that so eloquently provides a talking point for those of us earning a living from blogging. For information by the way, just to contextualise – I support my entire family (of 4) on my blog earnings, employ 2 administrators (amounting to around 40 – 50 hours a week) and hire 5 freelance writers. I also pay a site developer monthly and am about to hire a strategist to help us launch our new blog. I adore my job and am thankful every day for the amazing opportunities it has brought me (which like you have included having a book published, only not near as successful as yours!). I adore your In The Company of Women Book and recommend it all of the time – as you will see here! >> https://www.instagram.com/p/BRDMEYsA-1s/?taken-by=annabelbeeforth

    Today, I am very hopeful for the future of blogging.

  • Great insights! Thanks for sharing.

    Watchers vs. Doers extends to the creators out there too. Often, I’d spend a full day creating a well-crafted post. Lots of thought put in to my words, images, etc. Then someone other person who considers themselves an online curator would tweet or share or whatever, and essentially get the same amount of credit as I did for doing all the work. It got to be where I just don’t care enough to produce :(

    I think the game is building and giving to your audience, then making a big ask once a year or so (in your case, a book), and any advertising money, paid speaking, etc. coming in is gravy.

  • How about podcasts? That seems to be an area where online publishers are receiving solid advertising revenue. It also seems an able to roughly compete with the very large media organizations.

    • KatyP

      Which podcasts are receiving livable podcast revenue? Most indie pods (ie: not part of a huge network) don’t make enough $$ to support the team needed to create them.

      We had between 250k- 1 million listeners per episode of our old podcast and struggled to find a single advertiser…especially any willing to spend over $2k (unless we made THEM the only guest). Which, after taxes, is barely enough to support the cost of production and equipment. :(

      Grace

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