Blogging Behind the Scenes: How I Make Money BloggingBlogging
Blogging is this weird secret society where everyone likes to show how well they hustle and show how successful they’ve become, but rarely admit what extent of success they’ve achieved or how they’re achieving that success. A monetized blog is a business; businesses are audited, often public, and should be ready to open their ledgers to show how they are running an honest business. While I don’t find it proper to talk specifics in regard to money, since you readers are the reason why I make any money off Wardrobe Oxygen, I think you should know how it happens.
I know some of you aren’t interested in the business behind blogging and this will be a long post so I am going to have a jump so it won’t fill the whole front page.
I’ve mentioned many times before that I hate pitching and when I do try, I usually fail. I also am a part time blogger with a full-time non-blog related job. These two details may make my story and income different from other monetizing bloggers.
What I make from Wardrobe Oxygen is more than if I worked part time in retail, but not as much as my full-time job. It is enough for my husband to not have to work full-time, for us to have additional little luxuries in life like concerts, the occasional bottle of wine over $9.99, replacing our old sheets with the nicest quality ones at Target while not going into credit card debt; but not enough for a new house, a new car, or exciting vacations.
I like to say I work 15-20 hours a week on Wardrobe Oxygen, but really it’s more when you consider social media, outfit posts, and bigger collaborations with brands. I work at least one hour each morning and four hours each weekend writing content, updating the backend (the look of the blog, widgets and indexing and such), contracts and financial stuff, and answering emails. Outside those hours are photo shoots, social media, attending the occasional event, conference calls, and well… more of everything else. Blogging is a very tough job to contain within a set schedule, especially when you’re passionate about it.
Income comes more often than not, through PayPal. A couple programs direct deposit into my checking account, and some payments come via paper checks in the mail. I make money from a few different channels: affiliate links, sponsored posts, guest posts and freelance writing, hosting events, social media campaigns, and selling ad space on the blog. I make money from a few different general categories, I will break them down and then the methods I use and my experience with them:
Affiliate links are when you replace direct links to online retailers with custom links with trackers built in. Depending on the affiliate program, the blogger receives payment per click of the link or a percentage of any purchases made on that site from that click. Most affiliate programs place a “cookie” on the computer of the person who clicks a link; within a certain time-frame (often 30 days) if that person makes a purchase on the site from the click the blogger will receive a commission. Individual companies have affiliate programs and there’s companies who offer affiliate links for a multitude of retailers.
Amazon has a program called Associates; I have been a member for almost a decade. With it you get “Site Stripe,” a ribbon on the top of Amazon that provides ways to make links from pages on the site, tweet a specific page, create widgets and ads, check your earnings, learn what’s new with the program, and access a discussion board for Associates. Your referral rate (the percentage you make from sales from your links) depends on how successful you are with Amazon – the more sales, the higher your rate. Payments arrive monthly; I have chosen to have payments directly deposited into my bank account.
Amazon is great because they sell everything, and often for a better price than other online retailers, and usually with free Prime shipping and returns. It’s also easy to pick good items for posts because of all the customer reviews. The Site Stripe at the top of the site makes it super easy to create links; since I blog part time I am all about using programs that are quick and easy. Amazon will send newsletters notifying you of upcoming promotions and occasionally have promotional increased commissions on certain categories, but they never push you to promote anything. The only negative with Amazon I only realized after joining other affiliate programs – it’s hard to really tell what people actually clicked on to make a sale. Since I can get such analytics with other programs, I now see the benefit and wish I had it with everyone.
For many years I used ShopSense (now known as ShopStyle Collective) for affiliate links. ShopStyle Collective has a website, as well as a bookmarklet to create affiliate links for specific web pages. I could open a page on Nordstrom to a dress, click the bookmarklet, and have a custom link made within a minute. Copy, paste into my blog post, and done. They also have different widgets I sometimes used – there was one I’d put at the end of posts that would share similar items, and one that would create a gallery of images, all with active affiliate links.
Like all affiliate programs, I had to apply (back then it was ShopSense). I don’t recall the process as it was many moons ago, but likely I had to share my blog’s URL, some stats from Google Analytics like monthly pageviews and unique visitors, and possibly the number of followers on different social media channels. ShopStyle Collective pays per click, and depending on various things a blogger can get between $0.05 to $0.20 per click. Through ShopStyle Collective I also received sponsored post opportunities. Either I would be approached directly, or I would apply after hearing about it via a newsletter or email. I would be paid a lump sum for the sponsored post plus be allowed to use their affiliate links. An example of a sponsored post with them is the SOREL one I did last year. They would also offer free product in hopes we would share it on the blog; an example of that is when they sent me a free Popsugar monthly box. They would also send thank you gifts; randomly you could receive a Cuyana scarf or a box of fancy cookies in the mail in thanks for being part of their program. Payment arrives once a month via PayPal.
A couple years ago I applied to be part of the affiliate program rewardStyle (rS). They lured me by claiming I’d make twice as much with them than I would with my current affiliate company. However, rewardStyle is true commission based – I’d only make money if readers actually purchased when they clicked. I tried it on a post or two and didn’t see much result from it. I didn’t think it was such a good fit for my audience and I felt I had a good relationship with ShopStyle Collective so I didn’t really put much effort into using it.
ShopStyle worked for me for a good while, but as time went on I felt it was veering towards a different audience from Wardrobe Oxygen (younger brands, promotions geared towards college kids, etc.). Then I had issues with ShopStyle's tools – links were broken, companies that used to be part of the program no longer were, and my revenue seemed off compared to my traffic. I’d email, Tweet at them and no response. I decided to reach out to rewardStyle and see if their customer service and troubleshooting would be better.
When you’re part of rewardStyle you have an account manager and at least in my experience, my manager is very quick with replying to email questions, no matter how silly. I decided August 2014 to go a whole month using only rewardStyle and see what kind of money I would make. I wouldn’t change the amount of posts or links, just where the links came from. After a month I was floored, I truly was making twice as much.
Not only that, rewardStyle has amazing tools for bloggers. They too have a bookmarklet to make links when visiting online retailers, but it’s easier to use and more intuitive. On their dashboard website, you can create the widgets I have in many posts that are clickable images of clothing and accessories, but you can customize them in regard to size, what is shown, and how they act. You can create other types of tools to showcase content; I’ve tried them in the past but don’t think they’re the best fit for my blog.
rewardStyle is amazing when it comes to analytics. At any time I can log into my dashboard and see what links were clicked, how many sales made from those clicks, and how much commission I made. I can check this for the day, week, month, or year. I can see what items were returned so I know not to link to such things again, and what was most popular, so I can share more of that kind of content. They also have a phone app, where I can see how much I made each day, which items brought the money, how many sales from that item and the total amount of commission made from those sales. This app is what bloggers use to LIKEtoKNOW.it Instagram posts and you can see how many clicks, subscribers, and revenue is made from them.
Through rewardStyle I also receive opportunities for sponsored posts. They offer clear and detailed contracts but a lot of leeway so I can personalize them and make them authentic. The price for each sponsored post varies, but every single one has been a better price than what I've been offered from other affiliate programs. An example of these sponsored posts is my Men’s Cold Weather Accessories post. While I don’t get freebies in the mail from rewardStyle, that’s fine with me. I learn a lot from their blog and weekly newsletters, they offer in-person and webinar trainings, and my rep is great with communication, making it easier for me to do my job. Many find rewardStyle to be a bit cult-like and all rS bloggers to be the same. I do find they favor a certain aesthetic and promote using their tools in a specific way, but I have never been asked to change how I use their tools or how I blog. Payment from rewardStyle arrives twice a month via PayPal.
Commission Junction, Pepperjam Network, Rakuten, Share a Sale, etc.
I am throwing all of these companies together because they essentially do the same thing – affiliate revenue with a direct relationship with brands. Gwynnie Bee, JAG Jeans, ShoeBuy… my commission on sales comes through these programs. The benefit to these sites is you have a direct link to the brand. Usually you have a bigger commission, you can negotiate rates, receive special discounts for your readers, and create a relationship with the retailer that is missing when you use a middle man like previously mentioned affiliate networks.
That being said, I DESPISE using these sites. The sites are really cumbersome, it’s hard to find retailers and build links, and I have to put in at least twice as much time to make links than I do with rS or ShopStyle Collective. It’s not bad for programs like Gwynnie Bee where there’s one link to subscribe; I just copy the link from my sidebar ad and drop it in posts and it never changes. However with other brands I often just go with a “middle man” affiliate program because of the time saved. For these, payment varies but most you can set up to auto-deposit to your PayPal account.
An ad network, like an affiliate network, requires you to apply and be approved. These programs usually offer a variety of ad sizes, and occasionally offer sponsored post opportunities. Many ad networks offer revenue based on the number of impressions/views an ad gets and will quote a dollar amount per CPM (cost per mille or cost per thousand views).
Over the years, ad blocking tools have improved and more use email and RSS tools to read blogs so the money isn’t what it used to be. Ad networks are constantly creating ways to make their ads more visible by providing different formats of ads. Bloggers usually have ads in the sidebar, but with ad networks they can also create code to put ads on their mobile site, between blog posts, at the bottom of blog posts, in a “leaderboard” position above the blog’s title or first post, “wrapped” and in the background of the blog, hovering over images, expanding from the sidebar, popping up over the blog, or showing up under the blog and you see it when you close your browser.
Many affiliate programs offer “creatives” or graphics you can use with your personal affiliate links to make ads. In my sidebar you'll see ads for brands like Gwynnie Bee and JAG which are made from affiliate programs. Payment comes from the affiliate program with a commission of what is purchased by using my specific link. I go through points where I have a bunch and then wipe almost all of them out. I don't make a ton of money from them but I have blogger friends who do so I keep playing around with them to see what works.
I joined the BlogHer Publishing Network seven years ago; I was a member of The Bump and read about one blogger who made $1,000 in a month just from pageviews (she wrote one of those “hate read” type of blogs that people went to just to come back to The Bump to rant). I had a couple sidebar ads through AdSense but it had taken two years just to get a check from Google. To sign up, I had to share what my blog was about, my niche, and basic analytics. Since then, BlogHer has been acquired by SheKnows, which hasn’t affected opportunities, payments, or much of anything administrative except the color and name of the dashboard.
To stay part of their Publishing Network, you need to have at least one of their ads on your blog. It used to have to be above the fold (visible before scrolling), but now they want it in a very visible location where it is seen for more than a hot second. They offer a variety of sizes to best work with your blog layout, and you can have multiple ads and even control what type of content you want to show (no religion, politics, diet schemes, or firearms for me thanks!). These ads are paid CPM (cost per mille or thousand pageviews) so if you have a hate read blog that is popular on The Bump, you can make $1,000/month. For me who has only one ad size and restricts a lot of content, it’s MUCH less.
But I’m not part of the network for ad revenue, I stay for sponsored posts and social media campaigns. Several times a month I receive an email asking if I’d like to take part in a campaign. It will provide the brand, a general idea of the expectations for the post or the expected touts on social media, and the price to participate. If interested you click a link and share a bit about yourself or the blog. By filling out this survey you are essentially saying you will do the campaign if you are chosen.
If you are chosen, you’ll receive an email anywhere from a week to six months later providing more details, expectations, and due dates. In your Publisher dashboard, you will sign an agreement. Here is also where you’ll find all the details for what to write or share, where to enter your post for review, and where to log links for social media shares.
Three years ago, BlogHer was by far my biggest source of income. The sponsored posts were from great brands, the money for each post was good, I received some cool products (hello Kindle!), and I felt they were a good fit for my blog. However, the past two years haven’t been as good. I think the rates for sponsored posts and social shares are really low considering what I receive from other companies, the expectations are greater (video, more social shares, very specific wording to use and a lot of edits to my content, short turnarounds), and I’m finding fewer opportunities that are a good fit (I’m not going to write about dog food, Tylenol, or frozen dinners).
If you use Disqus for comments on your blog, there is an advertising component you can use to make money. I’ve tried it a couple times and while it is lucrative money, I felt it was too busy looking for my blog and I didn’t like that I couldn’t control what was in the ads other than making it less about gossip (the ads are for posts on other sites, and while I could get rid of celebrity gossip I couldn’t get rid of weightloss schemes, political drama, and clickbait). I may use again in the future if they have a better filtering process and more options for layout as the money is actually quite good.
When I was still on the Blogger platform, I used AdSense on the blog. Blogger is also part of Google, so it was really to insert ads between blog posts and in the sidebar. Through AdSense’s dashboard site, I could do a bit of controlling what was seen (no political ads, no ads about weightloss schemes) and create ad code for most any size and colors to blend with my blog template. I sometimes would add another ad to popular content in the archives to increase revenue.
When I switched to WordPress in the spring of 2014, I had trouble installing AdSense. I decided to drop it because it wasn’t bringing enough money in to warrant having cheesy looking ads, intrusive mobile pop-ups, and often ads ended up being the same exact thing as other ad networks and that looked really tacky. Payment from AdSense arrived monthly, and if I recall correctly, was directly deposited into my bank account. AdSense is connected with YouTube, so if I get around to doing video, I’ll likely work with AdSense once more.
RhythmOne (previously Burst Media)
A couple years ago I saw Blair of Atlantic-Pacific had ads on her blog from Burst Media. I think she has a tasteful, carefully curated monetized blog; if she liked Burst they must be good so I decided to check them out and apply. Burst had good customer service, decent revenue from their ads, and started offering sponsored posts. When I realized I didn’t need their ads on my blog to be eligible for the sponsored posts, I removed them (they often ended up being the same ads as other networks, just like AdSense). Burst changed their name to RhythmOne and the sponsored posts started coming through TapInfluence (see below under Sponsored Posts).
Sovrn, W4, Media.net, etc.
These are classic ad networks. Choose the size of ad you want, sometimes have the ability to filter out certain types of ads, generate code and drop it in your sidebar or template and have ads run. These are the ones that seem to read your mind and follow you from site to site, reminding you how awesome that Sephora lipstick or Boden dress is so you may eventually click and buy it.
When I went to BlogHer I met with two different companies who pitched these ad networks saying how much money I’d make and how much control I’d have over the ads. I tried them, and didn’t like them. I’d end up with pop-ups, pop-unders, auto-music and video, and stupid tiny ads covering part of my photos. And the mobile version of my blog was hardly readable. When I reached out they said if I removed all that I’d reduce my chance of money. We’d go round and round and I’d realize these ad networks aren’t for blogs, they’re for websites. I don’t have enough pageviews to make decent money and I don’t want to piss off readers in the process of trying to make a few bucks. And the bucks are few, in one month of ads with any of these programs, I’d make a fifth of what I could in a single sponsored post.
I’ve been a member of StyleCoalition for many many years but have never done anything with it until recently. A blogger friend told me she does well with their ads and they’re great with communication so I decided to try them out. They were great with setup; they went in as an admin to customize them, and when I had issues they immediately resolved them. They've also been quick and really friendly with other communication. It’s too soon for me to give a good review of this program, but so far so good. You need to apply and be approved to be in StyleCoalition, and like most programs like this, entry is determined on your social media and blog traffic numbers and the overall content and professional clean look of your blog. StyleCoalition also does partnerships and sponsored opportunities but I have yet to do any and can't report on that aspect of the company.
VigLink, SkimLinks, etc.
Companies also pay just for social media content, called touts. Bloggers can make anything from a dollar to thousands to share a specific message or image on a social media channel. Legally, these sponsored touts should have a disclaimer, usually in the form of the hashtag #ad or #spon.
Collectively is a program that offers paid opportunities for bloggers and social media personalities. When you become a member you're asked to fill out a pretty detailed questionnaire about your blog and social media. Based upon that, you receive emails for different opportunities. An example of a sponsored promotion I did with them was HP #BendTheRules. They also email different promotions just for members like steep discounts so you can try out the product (and possibly write about it or share on social media). I haven't done a lot with Collectively but so far I have had a positive experience.
As I mentioned above, I became part of TapInfluence through RhythmOne, but they work with many other organizations. I love TapInfluence. I’ve gotten some really great opportunities through them (a trip to Columbus, Ohio, shoes from Payless and Bogs, getting a bra fitting with Soma, I once had this cool opportunity with a car company that was cancelled last minute yet I still got paid) and they are great with communication, details, and even let you choose the date for the post to go live. I’ve only done one sponsored travel post but it was amazing with TapInfluence – they got me in contact with a guy from the city’s tourism department who helped me plan where to stay, where to eat, and more. Payments are quick (direct deposit once a month) and they pay competitive prices and when a post is a giveaway it’s a good prize for your readers. You create a media kit on TapInfluence and you don’t pitch, they come to you (which I prefer). You submit your post in their dashboard site for approval and to be sure you have all necessary components (state it’s sponsored, brand-specific things like mention their Pinterest account), and in the dashboard you note the links for social media shares. The only negative is the stupid comment widget that goes at the bottom of posts. I seriously hate that widget, but honestly that is the only thing I dislike about TapInfluence.
I’ve been with IZEA for a long time. Back in the day, BlogHer only let you do sponsored posts and giveaways on a different website; I’d have a teaser on Wardrobe Oxygen and then a jump to a different site I created for giveaways. Since no one really visited that blogspot URL, I used IZEA to do a lot of sponsored posts on there. I had some good ones (Fossil) and some bad ones (Dollar General) but they were easy to do and decent money.
Since then, IZEA has changed and so has my blogging style. I use IZEA for sponsored Tweets; in their dashboard you will see opportunities – brand, what the topic is, and general rate the brand will spend on the Tweet and you can bid on it. Price varies on your influence and the budget of the brand. If you’re accepted, you write the tweet in the IZEA dashboard, they take care of the #ad or #spon and post the tweet for you (the site is connected to your social media channels). I haven’t done any other social media through IZEA so not sure how those work. You can only apply to a certain number of opportunities per month in their dashboard; pay a very low monthly fee and have unlimited opportunities. This is worth the money if you want to do a lot of sponsored social media touts or have a blog that is all sponsored posts as you can likely get a couple every week.
I still do sponsored posts through IZEA, but not through bidding on the dashboard as I find the brands inappropriate for Wardrobe Oxygen and the rates too low for my time. However, you create a media kit on IZEA as well and they will reach out to you directly and invite you to campaigns that are a better fit and pay more appropriate to your blog’s size and traffic – I did one last year for Vaseline and am doing a few this season for Payless. Like TapInfluence, you enter your post in their dashboard to be reviewed prior to posting, and the dashboard reminds you of items you need to put in the post including disclosure that the post is sponsored. With IZEA, you have to cash out from the site and you need to have a minimum of $50 to do so. I have my cash outs go to my PayPal account.
Direct Brand Partnerships
Brands will contact bloggers directly looking to partner. This can be in the form of paid links or sponsored posts written by the brand (I do not recommend doing either of these – it’s shady, it screws up your SEO, and it ruins your credibility), free product to be featured on the blog or social media, buying ad space, sponsoring a post or social media touts, or creating a more specific or detailed promotion or partnership. Sometimes a single free product placement can build into a long-term lucrative relationship. When you see bloggers always talking about taking meetings and being on conference calls, it’s usually regarding this. The longer I blog the more I see brands wanting to talk to you and if possible, see you. It wouldn’t be crazy for a full-time blogger to fly to NYC once a month to take meetings and still have a dozen conference calls and Skype sessions each week.
This is the best way of making money for your blog because there’s no middle man taking a cut, sometimes these brands will pay you plus let you use affiliate links, there’s more creative control, and more of a chance of building a long-term relationship. Also, a brand gets to know you and your readers and will pay based on results, not how many Instagram followers you may have. Many small businesses are not part of big affiliate programs because it costs brands hundreds if not thousands to join. If you wish to promote indie, ethical, or niche content your best bet may be to reach out to brands directly, pitch, and work to build partnerships.
The thing is this takes time. Time to pitch, to build the relationships, create proposals, take calls, have coffee in person, sometimes travel to visit, to create the content, promote the content… It’s totally worth it if you have the time. As a part-time blogger I rarely have the time necessary to cultivate such partnerships. I have a few relationships with some amazing brands and I treasure them, but they are far more labor intensive than just using an affiliate program.
Bloggers can make a lot of money for hosting events, participating in fashion shows, speaking engagements, leading sessions at conferences, traveling to a location to visit their headquarters or be part of a photo shoot or event, and other public appearances. Payment can range from a free outfit to wear to the event to several thousand dollars, depending on the size of the blog/fame of the blogger, the size of the business, and the time and effort placed on the blogger.
I don’t do a lot of public appearances since I am a part time blogger with a full time career and family. I will on occasion if I really love the company or brand (like hosting a happy hour for Gwynnie Bee or the reopening of the Talbots Women department at Tysons Corner), if it's a really unique experience (like going to NYC to style a photo shoot for Foxcroft), or if I’m able to do or talk about what I love or is close to my heart (closet organization with IKEA).
Gifted Product (c/o)
A big part of blogging is getting free product in exchange for brand exposure. At first it can seem awesome to get free stuff in the mail – every day is Christmas! But then you realize the work it takes to promote that content; it’s not fair to get free stuff and not share it with your audience (and you don’t want to get bad reputation with PR companies and brands). Also, whether you want to admit it or not, these are not really gifts. The IRS considers an item a gift only if nothing is expected in return. If you accept a gift in exchange for providing exposure, this is bartering, and bartering is a form of income that should be noted on your taxes with the full market value of the item. I’ve learned over time to say no far more often than I say yes.
Free product can come in a variety of ways. Most of the time, a brand reaches out and offers free product in exchange for a review on your blog. Sometimes, brands ask for your mailing address and will send random things in the mail hoping you’ll share them on the blog or social media. If you write about a brand without them asking, it doesn’t hurt to share the post with them as they may offer to send free product in thanks. Sometimes brands pay you or thank you in the form of gift cards, store credit, or steep discounts. Whatever method of receiving the product, a blogger should state it was received as a gift; most bloggers use “c/o” to state the item was free and provided by that brand or retailer.
While discussing gifted items I’d like to bring up the controversial topic of bloggers selling items they are gifted. My feeling is that if they bartered for that item, they have the right to do with it as they see fit. It is a form of income, it should be noted on taxes as income, and just like a paycheck the blogger should be able to spend that income in the manner s/he chooses. I try to choose gifted items that I actually want and will use on a regular basis, but I have been known to sell gifted items on eBay and Poshmark.
Other Ways to Make Income as a Blogger
Bloggers know how to hustle, and they are constantly finding ways to make the most income for the least amount of labor hours. Videos, podcasts, selling products, writing books and PDFs, freelancing, guest posts on other sites, hosting seminars and training sessions, creating or collaborating on a product line, or creating a business from your blog (such as web design, social media or marketing consulting, or personal styling). Many bloggers use their audience as a way to promote their outside business (Stella & Dot and other direct selling companies, book author, photography, etc.) or find it is a gateway into modeling, acting, being a columnist or guest expert or host on television. A full-time professional blogger always has multiple avenues for making money and knows not to put all of her eggs in one basket. The longer I blog the more impressed I by my peer's methods for gaining income and exposure. There's far more to fashion blogging than getting your picture taken!
If you have any questions regarding monetization of blogs, feel free to ask in the comments!