Blogiversary IV: How Do Bloggers Make Money?

Like previous blogiversaries, we’re gonna use this week as an excuse to take a look at the business side of blogging (at least as we know it). As you’ve probably gathered by now, we never intended to start a business when we wrote our first post back in Sept 2007, nor did we ever construct a formal business plan. So this whole adventure has been a learn as we go / roll with the punches / adjust along the way / insert more cliches here kind of deal. And just like we don’t claim to be DIY experts or trained interior designers (we’re just two people with a chihuahua and a baby), we’re not about to pretend that we’re the savviest business people out there either. But like everything else we do, we’re just gonna share our experiences in an effort to help someone out there who might be trying to grow their blog… or is just curious about what we do all day. We’ve lightly touched on some of this info in past blogiversary posts, but this year we’ve added a lot more details along with some new visuals: PIE CHARTS. Oh yeah, you read that right. Sherry’s math-teacher dad is about to do the happy dance. So get your fork out and prepare to dig in.

Let’s start with a look at how we spend our time… a slice (har-har) of which was somewhat encapsulated in yesterday’s day in the life post. But this is a more global look at all the things we do as opposed to the somewhat random and always-changing things that we do in a day. Oh and to be clear, this is a look at when goes into running Young House Love (so it excludes things like parenting a sixteen month old and other general I’m-an-adult duties like cooking and cleaning). Behold, a very simplified / approximated breakdown (all the pie charts in this post are very general guesses, btw):

The main thing that might surprise you here is that we actually spend a very pretty small sliver of our time actually doing projects (aka “DIYing”). In fact, some weeks it feels like we barely have any more time to tackle our to-do list than we did back when we both had full-time jobs in advertising (that was pre-Clara too, so we might have had more energy, haha). Our weekends (along with weeknights after 7:30 when Clara’s in bed) are still our most productive days in terms of making house progress because the blog is “quieter” (as we say around here). So we can focus more on tasks and less on answering comments and proofing & posting posts. But that pie chart isn’t complicated enough, so…

Here’s a further breakdown of the breakdown above (yup, we broke down a breakdown) to give you a better sense of what we really do within those general categories:

INTERACTING:

  • Comments: Our philosophy is that if you take the time to read what we write, the least we can do is return the favor. So we manually moderate all comments so that one of us – usually Sherry – can read it before it risks getting lost in the count and so that we can answer any questions that come up (the only exception to this is giveaway entries, which get approved in bulk since they routinely top 3K and actually topped 10K yesterday, and stopped loading, so we had to start a second giveaway post). Yes, it’s time consuming. And no, it’s probably not the most efficient system. But being part of the conversation on our blog is very important to us and we hate leaving any question unanswered. Farming that duty out to someone like an intern just feels too “answering service” to us, so we’re happy to stay grass roots and hands on.
  • Twitter, Facebook & Email: Similarly, we try to be as responsive as possible on other social media. We don’t hover on our Facebook page as much as we used to, but we still try to poke in to respond where needed. And Hootsuite helps us track @mentions on Twitter so we can do our best not to let a tweet question or comment flutter by unnoticed.

WRITING:

  • Posts: Well duh, a blog has to have posts right? We’re wordy and we know it (clap your hands!), so this is another major chunk of blogging. And we write around 35 a month, so it keeps us busy. But we’re not sure how you can be a good blogger without spending a good portion of time on your posts. Plus it’s our first love, along with DIY. Writing posts is what we used to do on nights and weekends after long days of working in advertising just for fun. And we still feel that way – it’s a good time.
  • BabyCenter & Do It Yourself Magazine: We’ve been lucky enough that writing our blog has spawned other writing gigs, like our weekly post on BabyCenter’s Momformation blog and a regular column in BHG’s Do It Yourself Magazine. So between coordinating those with our bosses over there, coming up with ideas, writing them, taking photos (or briefing an illustrator or photographer in the case of DIY), and answering comments (on BabyCenter), they’re sort of a part time job on their own. 
  • Book: We’re writing a 260+ page book (due out in Fall of 2012) full of hundreds of projects and photos (more on that here). Some weeks this slice of pie should be muuuch bigger, and some a little smaller. Now that we have 90% of our manuscript turned in (whew!), this slice may actually get permanently larger since it’s time to actually do all of the projects that we talked about and have them photographed at our house by a pro before Christmas (yes, hundreds of them). Should be interesting…

DIY-ING:

  • Projects: This is the actual doing of stuff to our house, which we then blog about. Most of these projects might have gotten done even if we didn’t have a blog (DIY is just something we love)… but we definitely take on projects sooner, faster, more thoroughly, and with more gusto than we may have if we didn’t have an audience. The fact that you guys are watching adds pressure, but it’s the good kind that keeps us going. Promise. You guys = momentum.
  • Gathering Supplies: This is the part that makes us best friends with the employees at our local thrift stores, home improvement stores, craft stores, fabric stores, lighting outlets, etc. Sometimes running errands (aka: gathering supplies) can take less than an hour. Sweet. And sometimes it can take more than a day to track down something we need. Hunting stuff is always kind of a wild card item on the to-do list. But you know what they say about the thrill of the chase…

PHOTOGRAPHING:

  • Photo Taking: Sometimes this is just taking a few moments during each step of a project to snap a few shots. Sometimes it’s cleaning up and styling rooms for “after shots” or “house tour” pictures (Hurricane Clara can leave quite a mess before we swoop in and straighten up so you guys don’t have to stare at a giant stack of books in front of the new desk that we built). This also includes the technical aspects of photography that still take us more time than we’d like (using the tripod, adjusting the aperture, waiting for different times of day to see which light is better, etc), which is why we have…
  • Photo Editing: These are things like adjusting the color, exposure, size, and the way that our photos are cropped (sometimes even after thinking we’ve mastered the camera things are too blue or too yellow or too wide or off-center, so we try to adjust them so they look as true to life as possible). This also includes uploading and sorting through the hundreds of pics that we take each week. Wish I were kidding about the “hundreds” part, but we usually average 50-200 photos per post (which can tip the scales at 1,200 photos snapped each week). We then boil them down to under 20 per post and size & upload ’em).

BUSINESS RUNNING:

  • Sponsors: This is where most of our money comes from (more on that later) so it involves a lot of fielding advertising requests, notifying sponsors about renewals, sending invoices, and uploading ads to our sidebar. (FYI, we use Google AdManager to serve our sponsors’ ads to our site, which takes a bit of “supervision” but not too much beyond the whole client-relations thing that we do via email).
  • Giveaways: We make no money doing this, but it’s our way of “giving back” to our readers (and a way to deflect the free products that we’re offered but no longer accept). Coordinating each week’s giveaway involves a bunch of emails to confirm the prize details, notify the winners, and facilitate the prize delivery. There’s also the task of being the bearer of bad news to folks since we just don’t have room for every prize that we’re emailed about (and sometimes they don’t feel like the right fit for you guys). Which leads me to our next point…
  • Saying “No Thank You”: We’re people pleasers, so this is a hard one for us, but we get so many requests each week that we 1) just don’t have enough hours in the day for (i.e. attending a local – or not so local – event), 2) don’t really blog about (i.e. “could you pretty please write about my dog walking service?”) or 3) have a policy against doing (i.e. reviewing a product, adding paid text link ads to posts) that we find ourselves having to decline a lot. Sorry if you’ve been on the receiving end of this. We’ve learned that saying no is difficult, but sometimes it’s necessary for reasons of principle and/or sanity.
  • Bookkeeping: Ugh, this bores me too much to talk about. Just pretend I said something interesting about paying bills, filing quarterly taxes, renewing our business license, paying for our own health insurance, managing our site-hosting fees, and organizing receipts. Wish it was less yawn inducing, but it’s a necessary evil when it comes to running your own business (more on that here).
  • Technical Stuff: On a good week this slice could all but disappear, but on a busy week we may be installing updates, dealing with server glitches, craaaaaashing entirely (which gives us approximately 50 gray hairs each time), or even doing a whole blog redesign like the one we did a few weeks back (we probably spent 40 hours total on that over the course of about four weeks). Since we’re not technically trained I’m sure all of this takes longer than it should.

So now that we’ve taken a general look at the time aspect of running our blog, let’s talk money. Before you get your hopes up, we’re not gonna detail how much we earn. Call us old fashioned, but we feel like “how much do you make?” joins “who’d you vote for?” and “are those real???” in a our list of conversations not to be had with the entire planet (anything we don’t talk about with friends at dinner usually = off limits here in blog world). In a general sense, we like to say that we make a modest living (we’re not rolling in cheddar, especially after we pay our business-related expenses like hosting fees – which we outline at the end of this post). But we actually think is a good thing because we blog about living modestly, so it all goes hand in hand. But we’re happy to talk about where our money comes from and how that has changed over the last four years. Let’s do it.

Waaay back in 2009 we spoke on a local panel about making money blogging. At the time we sung the praises of a “multi-channel” approach to earning income from your blog. Because, at the time, we (though mainly Sherry, since she was the only full timer then) got money something like this (again, this is a very general guestimate):

We’ll breakdown some of those terms further under the next pie chart, but let’s talk generally for a second. A few years back, despite our best efforts, money from advertising just wasn’t cutting it. So Sherry branched out and started selling inexpensive art prints that she had printed locally and shipped herself (she’s got a fine arts degree). It was sort of like being an Etsy vendor (but she created a shop page on our site to vend them instead). At that time Sherry also began offering custom mood boards to help readers with their “Design Dilemmas” (and briefly even offered smaller services like paint color advice and even short phone consultations).

When it came to pricing those mood boards out, Sherry did some for free first, just to get interest up and a few under her belt. Then she slowly raised her rate using supply & demand as the guide. After being free for a while they were $30, then $60, then $100, and slowly built up to $250 when supply/demand increased over the years (Sherry refused to sell them for more than that, even when the two per week that she would offer up would sell out within two minutes). Oh, we were also writing for Do It Yourself Magazine and our local R Home design magazine, so that’s where we got the whole multi-channel method thing from. We were doing lots of stuff to make a small income. Which was necessary because ad income alone just wasn’t cutting it (I should mentioned here that Sherry took a huge pay cut to go from advertising to blogging, but she just wanted to see it through, and looking back it was a risk that we’re so glad we took).

But now let’s look at a new pie chart. Times have changed, and luckily for the better. As our traffic grew, so did our ad revenue, which meant that we were able to spend less time on services and selling prints (both of which we discontinued after Clara’s birth in May 2010 out of sheer no-time-at-all necessity). The elimination of these services allowed for more time that we could spend focusing on blogging. In fact, while baking making these pie charts I noticed that our currently weekly Google Ad income is larger than what we pulled in our entire first year via Google. This is not to indicate that we’re making an enormous amount now, but rather that what we started at was so laughably small. Hopefully this encourages anyone who is currently earning a few cents a day to stick with it for four years and 2,000+ posts (if you love it I guess, haha, don’t stick with it for the uncertain years-down-the-line dividends). So now our income sources look more like this (this chart might be completely inaccurate since we didn’t really calculate things so it’s not made up of actual percentages – it’s just representative of the general shift in our income sources):

It’s still “multi-channeled” in a way, but the majority of the channels are advertising-based. We still keep our income split across different sources so that if one falters, we aren’t sent into a panic. And in case you’re scratching your head at any of those labels, here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Google Ads: These are labelled as such on our sidebar or at the bottom of a post (they’re by the geniuses at Google who take words from our page – or hints from your browsing history – to show you ads that they feel are most relevant to you). We have little say in what’s shown here, except for blocking inappropriate ads. But we love that they’re pretty self-sufficient, which means more time for projects and writing posts.
  • Ad Networks: Lots of blogs substitute or supplement Google with ads from a network, which allow for more home improvement specific ads that can also pay more (since they don’t usually have enough “inventory” to fill all slots, we usually use a back-up method that shows Google-Ads when they’re not running). Our ad network is Haven Home Media for anyone wondering, now owned by Reader’s Digest. And they came to us, so we’re not sure how you sleuth an ad network out (in general we believe in focusing on keeping projects/posts great and sponsors/networks will hopefully come to you).
  • Sponsors: These are the ads that you see on our sidebar marked as such (as well as folks who get shouted out in a thank you post once a month). These are people/companies that we work with directly, who come to us because they think we’d be a good fit. If we agree (and have room for them, since sometimes we’re “full”) they come on as YHL sponsors and we send them lots of virtual wet kisses. We have a lot of love for them because unlike the random ads that come through an ad network and Google, these folks choose to work with us directly, which is pretty cool of them.
  • Amazon Affiliate: There are lots of affiliate programs out there where basically bloggers earn a very small cut (usually around 4-7%) when someone purchases a product that they recommend. The most common affiliate links you’ll find are in our “We’re Digging” sidebar column with a label under them that says “links contain affiliates”(we’re sticklers for labeling ads, sponsors, and affiliates to try to keep things 100% transparent). They’re all items on amazon.com that we love (some of which are things that we’ve actually bought ourselves – like a specific book, camera accessory, decor item, or toy for Clara). Occasionally they pop up in posts about things we’ve bought and loved, where they’re also always clearly marked.
  • Writing Gigs: These are the aforementioned BabyCenter and Do It Yourself columns that we write, as well as random things that come our way once in a blue moon (like an opportunity to write an article for another publication).
  • Book: Yup, they’re actually paying us to write a book. We can’t believe it either.

But of course, no business is without expenses. And it easy to assume that blogging is a free endeavor (after all, it was when we started in ’07, we even had one of those free urls with wordpress.com at the end of it). But as our traffic and business grew, so did our costs – such as:

  • Hosting: Between paying for our site (on LiquidWeb <–affiliate link, fyi) and our images (on Amazon S3) we’re headed towards a five figure year when it comes to hosting expenses alone. Yes, that’s tens of thousands of dollars just to host our site so you guys can read posts and see pics. Totally worth it though. Blank blog page = no readers. And we like having you guys around.
  • Taxes: Not that anyone is immune to these, but since no employer is taking out taxes for us upfront, it takes some extra planning on our part (i.e. remembering that about a third of every paycheck needs to be squirreled away because it’s going right back to the government in the form of quarterly tax payments).
  • Insurance: When I left my advertising job last May we were suddenly on our own when it came to securing and paying for our own health insurance. And it’s not exactly cheap, but with a little one, good coverage is definitely worth the peace of mind.
  • Retirement: Without an employer automatically socking away bits of a paycheck into a 401k (or doing any sort of matching for us), Sherry and I each opened a SEP on our own, which we’re responsible for contributing to regularly.
  • Business License/ LLC Fees: Since we’re a legit LLC in Virginia, we pay annual license fees and taxes.
  • Professional Help: I know that sounds like a therapist, but what we mainly mean is that we pay our accountant (who does our taxes) and the occasional programmer to help us navigate technical issues (ex: we crash four times in a week and feel like throwing our computers out the window). Though maybe we should consider the therapist sometimes…
  • Equipment: If it weren’t for blogging, we probably wouldn’t own a second laptop, a DSLR camera, an HD Flip video camera, an external hard drive, or an iPhone (among other items that I’m probably forgetting right now). But it definitely helps to have some decent “tools” for blogging as efficiently as possible, so we’re glad to invest in them (and yes they’re write offs, which doesn’t make them free, but it takes away a bit of the sting).
  • Project Costs: Arguably a lot of these costs would probably have been incurred eventually since we were DIY junkies even before we started our blog (so we would do most of this stuff anyway). But as I mentioned earlier – some of our projects happen (or at least happen at the pace and scale that they do) because of this blog. So we might have done all the things that we did to our current house in two years instead of in nine months if we weren’t home bloggers. Oh and since we get asked this a lot: none of our projects are write-offs since we’re doing them to our primary residence (our house isn’t zoned as an office building, which is a good thing because if it was – and we wrote projects off – we’d owe a big chunk of money to the government if we ever sold it).

If you want more info on the expense side of blogging, we actually wrote about it in more detail last year. But that’s enough out of me for now. Hopefully “peeling back the curtain” helped – whether it’s to use this info as you plan your own blogging business (or other somehow-related venture), or to just help you better understand what goes on behind the scenes around here. It’s certainly a lot more than just doing projects and writing about them, but there’s nothing else we’d rather be doing. Seriously, we’re completely amazed that we ended up “here” and our cup runneth over with gratitude. In fact a pie chart of our gratitude would be 101% full. And now as anything with charts should end – who else is hungry for pie?

Psst- The lady wife did a fun little interview about how our blog has grown and revealed a lot of behind the scenes blogging and book-writing info for anyone interested right here (it’s long, but full of tons of juicy stuff, at least in my humble husband opinion). Some of you may have already listened to this, but we figured it was a good thing to add for anyone who hasn’t since it’s on the same subject.

Comments

  1. says

    Okay – the “are those real” question totally caught me off guard and I actually snorted at my desk. Haha.

    Anyway, it’s nice seeing the whole break down of blogging and how things work. There’s so many pieces I wouldn’t consider but it’s also nice that everything can go smoothly!

  2. Kay says

    first off – Happy 4th blogiversary! and thanks so much for all of the above. i totally enjoy all of your posts but this 1 really allowed me to “peek into the window” of the not so glamorous side-very insightful…

  3. Erin says

    Congrats guys on four years! I am fascinated by your daily posts but especially the post above. I have worked in the advertising business for the past 4 years and so many companies strive to have what you got going on. I have watched it changed from a tv, brochure and printed ad business to a good portion of it going digitally. But one thing that differentiates you from other businesses is that you are not afraid to take risks in your DIYing and in your business, and you easily adapt to what is working and what is not. So congrats. Here is to continually adapting, taking risks and doing what works for your family. Cheers!

  4. says

    I found this so interesting. I actually work in traditional media and so all I’m used to hearing is doom and gloom about how advertising is falling – so it’s so amazing to see that you make so much of your money from advertising and that it’s growing (I’m guessing).
    I think it’s the interaction you do on your blog that really keeps everyone coming back time and time again. So I think you’re right that it’s worth spending that big chunk of time on that bit. But I do wonder if there’s a way to do it that’s less time intensive. Like, paying a moderator to get through the bulk of comments and then flagging others to you… or switching to post-moderation and then responding from the front end… I know you’ll have thought all this through endless times and I’m just talking out of my butt, but those were just some things I think.
    I’ve always wondered what sort of percentage of blocked posts you get? I’m imagining if you get a lot of abuse it’s not something you’d want to talk about, but if there’s anything you could say in general about blocked comments I’d be really interested.

    • says

      Oh when it comes to how many comments we delete because they’re suuuper mean, maybe one a year? I’m really not kidding. I probably shouldn’t jinx us, but YHL is generally a pretty happy place and our readers are the best. We publish the kinda mean ones (ex: this is dumb, this is ugly) because everyone is entitled to an opinion (we know putting ourselves out there means someone who can be anonymous online can have a little fun picking things apart) so we just won’t publish something suuuuper mean that would make our parents cry (like “your baby is so ugly and looks like an alien”). But those are so few and far between. Honestly, around once a year we get a really ugly comment and just click “trash.” Otherwise we’re just deleting spam! That stuff rolls in about 50 a day (and that’s after about 300 get caught in our spam filter). Pesky spam.

      xo,
      s

    • says

      That’s amazing. I guess the trolls know you pre-moderate so they’re not going to be able to cause a huge stink.
      I mean, not that I can imagine who would be mean to YHL, but I know it can happen to anyone if they know they’re going to be able to cause a big old blog drama.

    • Jill says

      First of all I cannot imagine someone would waste their time to say something mean to you guys… and secondly, Clara is adorable and if they really did say she looked like an alien, I would personally go beat them up for you!! :)

    • says

      Haha, that’s actually a real comment that we deleted about a year ago. It caught us so off guard that we immediately trashed it and later decided it must have been submitted by a child or something. You know how you’d write “you smell like cheese” on someone’s notebook secretly in middle school? Haha. Who knows, that was just our best guess.

      xo,
      s

    • Jill says

      One day I’m going to randomly post “John eats his boogers, ewwwwwwwwwwwwww” and see if you catch it. :) haha jk

    • says

      Haha, seriously. Well yesterday someone asked us when we had sex (in our day in the life post) and we posted that comment, just had to plead the fifth on it. I think two years back someone asked if I wore thongs. Also plead the fifth on that. Haha.

      xo,
      s

    • Michelle says

      Glad to hear you guys do not get a ton of hate comments. There is a whole site dedicated to Pioneer Woman…just to be mean. What’s the point of being so mean? What kind of person would say that about a person child? By the way Clara is so cute! My 3 year old son loves the video of her and John with the toilet paper. He can’t stop laughing and he keeps saying “awwww she’s so cute” I think we watched 5 times in a row, haha

    • says

      Wow, that is truly shocking about the Pioneer Woman hate site. So sorry for her. Gosh, some folks spend their time in such interesting ways. Anyway, on to happier things- so glad Clara and John with toilet paper can bring so much joy. Haha.

      xo,
      s

  5. Stephanie Phillips says

    Y’all are awesome. Thanks for humoring our constant curiosity about who you are and what you do. And WOAH, congrats on the comment explosion yesterday!

    Caught one typo: “We’ve earned that saying no is difficult.”

    :)

  6. Katie says

    My husband is self-employed and I am a SAHM, so we need to set up a retirement account. I’m curious since I don’t know where to start, did you and Sherry consult a financial advisor to do this?

    • says

      Yup, we have an awesome accountant and he helped us find a financial guy so we could roll over our old 401K and start a SEP that we could contribute to. Hope it helps!

      xo,
      s

  7. says

    You guys make it look so easy but you work your butts off! On the flip side, you get to spend quality time with your family and avoid rush hour traffic. Congrats on 4 successful years and mannnny moooorrrreee!

  8. Pip says

    Thanks so much for having us at your virtual dinner party – will try and be a polite guest and not talk politics! Is there a ‘planning’ wedge of pie? Where you thinks projects through- or on another level, what’s next business-wise? Or do you reflect on the go as things come up?

    • says

      I would say that we include planning as part of projects, since they all have a little brainstorming and discussion at the beginning- well I guess 90% of them do and we wing the other 10%. Haha. As for thinking about what’s next for the business, we just remember that we never knew we’d be here five years ago so it’s pretty hard to predict where we’ll be in five more years. We just try to hold on and enjoy the ride! Haha.

      xo,
      s

  9. Barb says

    Wow…Who knew? Amazing post. Thanks for the break-down. We have all been curious about this Great, great post.

    Can’t wait for the book to come out. I want mine autographed. Do you think you will be doing any traveling to promote the book? Who is the publisher?

    B.

    • says

      The publisher is Artisan/Workman (who actually published the Design*Sponge book that’s out now – which excites us to no end since it rocks). We definitely hope to do some book promotion stuff when it comes out next fall! We’d love to meet you guys.

      xo,
      s

    • says

      The traveling part sounds interesting, and as a reader I would be pretty excited to possibly meet you guys!

      It could also mean some time off of the blog or some random posts about your experience being big ol famous authors? haha

    • says

      ahhh a book tour! i hadn’t even considered that, but love that you’re open to it! i’ll be the first in line. i’m sure logistics might be complicated, but would love to see you branch out and hit some other major cities. hmmm i’m now seeing another fun road trip time lapse, but this time with Clara and sing-a-longs and lots of other goodies :)

  10. Kati H says

    I want to have my own blog business sooooooo badly. Time and God will tell! For now, grad school and a baby for sure/instead. P.S. – I think you meant under Saying No Thank You “We’ve learned that saying no is difficult…” Instead of “We’ve earned that…” Guess one sneaked through, but I thought you would rather know. (It’s the copywriter in me I swear!) Love your blog, love K