3 Big Reasons Why You Should Think Twice Before Starting a Blog

Image via Shutterstock

Image via Shutterstock

Last week I talked about the importance of having a personal brand – that people know you specifically in the marketplace, not just the name of the company you work for.

One obvious way to get your name out, and the one that I used, is to start a blog.

But I also said you should think twice before getting into the blogging game. So before you start your own blog, here are three big blogging negatives you should know about.

1. Writing a Blog Can Hurt Your Career Prospects

You need to understand that for a lot of people, blogging has a bad reputation. So if you are a blogger, people who might hire you are going to look at you funny.

Big corporations are all about risk management. An employee with a blog creates reputational risk for the company. Who knows what you might say on it? And they are going to be wondering if you are spending your days doing actual work for them, or checking on your blog.

Also, the mere act of blogging can get you labeled as a nutjob in some cases. Maybe that’s less true if you write for your company blog or about something like PHP coding. But for the urban space I write in, it inevitably involves public policy, which means politics.

What do you think of the various political bloggers in your town? That’s probably what city and civic leaders think about you if you run an urban blog.

Also, if you are telling the actual truth on your site, you are probably going to end up making some people mad. People who are mad at you aren’t likely to hire you.

In my case, there’s no question that writing a blog has hurt my economic prospects in some places.

But even urban bloggers who are entirely positive and boosterish about their city often find that no one is interested in them for an actual job. I previously talked about the case of one of the people at Urban Cincy. The founder of Urban Cincy was even sued by people affiliated with a political group that opposed the streetcar. They wanted to deny his right to vote in Cincinnati.

There are some examples of people who blog who seem to have done well in the civic space. Phil Kidd of Defend Youngstown comes to mind. So it’s not a universal pattern of bloggers getting dinged. But it is a real risk.

The bottom line: a significant number of people are going to see writing a blog as a black mark against you.

2. It’s Very Hard to Make a Living Blogging

Most bloggers start their site as a labor of love or for some sort of activist purpose or as a creative outlet. I’m no exception – that’s how I started.

Let’s say you are successful. You’ve got tens of thousands of readers. People are leaving comments and telling you how great your stuff is.

You quickly realize how time consuming writing a blog actually is. It’s a lot of work to keep up with and make sure there’s a steady stream of content rolling out the door. Especially if you have a full time job too, which you probably do.

It occurs to you that if you could make even $1/month from all your readers, you could blog full time. In fact, you’d be making a killing!  So you try to figure out how to monetize your site.

Then you discover that making money online is a lot harder than it appears.

There are only a few basic ways to make money from a blog: advertising, referral sales commissions (affiliate fees like Amazon Associates), selling your own product, or subscriptions/donations. None of these have great economics.

Try putting up Ad Sense ads or something like that, and you’ll discover that you are pulling in princely sums like $13.07 a month. You can do better if you get direct sponsorships or ads instead of using an ad network, but then you have to go out and sell them. That’s hugely time-consuming. And are you any good at sales?

Affiliate revenue is nice. I use Amazon’s program for books I review and the like. In fact, you should go there now and buy something using my affiliate link. But Amazon’s commission rate is low. Others can be better, but then you are basically flogging products on your site, which is probably not why people are reading you.

Selling your own product is also very tough. You have to make it and then market it. The obvious way for a blogger to create a product is to put together a self-published Kindle e-book. It’s easy, and the royalty rates are very good (70% in most cases). But the vast bulk of even traditionally published books sell far fewer copies than you might think. E-books even fewer. If you sell even 500 copies over the lifetime of your book, you did great. Half of self-published authors make less than $500 a year.

I know one urban guy who uses Patreon for a “pay what you want” approach to subscriptions to his mailing list. He makes $8,000 a year from that. That’s a good side gig, especially if you are younger. But it’s not a living.

Part of it is that your “conversion rate”, or the number of people who will actually buy whatever it is you are selling, will likely be vastly lower than you anticipate.

As it turns out, the average conversion rate for almost anything is around 1-2%. For online it is probably even lower. From almost all of your readers, you aren’t likely to make even one cent out of them, much less $1/month.

You probably also over-estimate your actual readership. For example, maybe you’ve built a great email list. But the average email newsletter open rate is under 25%.  That means that 75% of the people getting your emails don’t even open them, much less read them. At each stage of your “marketing funnel”, more and more people are dropping off.

There are ways to improve on these basic economics, but most of them involve doing really obnoxious stuff to your readers to make a buck. You know doubt already realize this from the horror show that is the average newspaper web site today.

I run one of the more successful urban sites out there, though my traffic was down substantially last year as I pulled back from posting. I have a solid twitter following too.

I refuse to do anything super-obnoxious to you all to make a buck, but I do sell an e-book called The Urban State of Mind.  I foolishly assumed that Amazon would have good historic stats available, but they don’t. So I don’t know my total sales, but I’d guess around 500. I feel good about that considering it’s a “best of” collection (which sell fewer copies). At a price of $5.99, that equates to royalties of $2100. Not bad, but not a living either. And two years after releasing it, I only sell a handful of copies a month these days.  I also make a tiny amount of money off affiliate revenue too.  If I started putting up ads, I’d make tiny bit more money. I also had my own data analytics product called Telestrian, but it did not pull in enough revenue to make it worth my while to run as a side business, so I shuttered it.

That’s not much in terms of direct monetization of the blog. The majority of my independent income came from professional speaking (indirect monetization). But for most people that’s not a realistic option. And writing a book probably would have been more bang for my buck there than blogging.

If you want to make money online, treat it as a business from day one. And find a topic where there are large number of readers who buy things that you write about so you can earn affiliate revenue.

The classic example is the so-called “mommy blogger” genre. There are many millions of young mothers who are going through similar experiences, and they buy huge numbers of products. Yet apparently even this segment is in decline.

3. You Can Get Trapped by Success

So you start a blog, which can actually hurt your career. Then you become successful at it in terms of attracting readership. People love it and you hear from them all the time how great it is. But you aren’t making much money from it.

What do you do?

From what I’ve seen, people get trapped by the sunk cost fallacy. They’ve come so far and achieved so much, how could they ever turn back now?

A lot of people keep after it and keep after it and end up burning themselves out, or even becoming bitter about it. As Heather Armstrong put it about her blog Dooce:

“I wrote a blog because it was fun, and I loved doing it,” she said. “Then it became my job and I hated it. You never want to get to the point where you’re like ‘Ugh I have to go do that thing that I love? Ughhhh.’”

This is the same risk that plagues anyone who wants to pursue an artistic career where very few people can actually earn a decent professional living, like trying to become an actor or a professional musician.

At some point your blog, if successful, transforms from creative outlet to something with higher stakes. That’s not necessarily a good place to be.

“I Love My Instrument Too Much”

The wife of one of my old bosses is a fantastic clarinet player. I asked one time why she didn’t try to become a professional musician. Her take on that was, “I love my instrument too much.”

She knew that there are only a highly limited number of orchestra chairs for clarinetists. Trying to really have a career in clarinet performance would be extremely difficult to achieve. She saw other people who had gone for it, failed to achieve their goal, and ended up hating their instrument.  So she still practices seriously and even does recitals in her home, but is doing it purely for love of the instrument. (Condoleezza Rice has told basically the same story about herself and playing the piano).

Don’t end up hating your blog.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen to me, but I can tell you that a blog is a huge mouth to feed and there were definitely times I didn’t want to go shovel coal into the furnace as it were.

If you want to start a blog, particularly in the urban space, then by all means do it, but take the time to make sure you understand what you are signing up for.

Being a blogger is likely to hurt your professional prospects in some circles. You’re not likely to make much money from it. And if it attracts a big readership it can end up becoming a millstone around your neck.

Be careful not to let that happen to you.  Think twice before starting a blog. And make sure to keep the right perspective on it if you do.


from Aaron M. Renn


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