What’s the Shill with Food Blogging?
A few weeks ago, a food writer and blogger that I’ve read for years posted an interesting open letter on his site that really took me by surprise. In short, his post summarized that after a decade of food writing and blogging, he can no longer make a full time income off of his blog.
I’ve read his short post about a dozen times now and talked about it with many other writers (food and otherwise). There’s one line that stuck with me long enough to eventually write this post.
I think this phrase stuck with me because I’m pretty sure Adam would consider me the worst of both worlds. Namely, I don’t do this full time, but he would probably also consider me a shill.
I feel the need to respond and defend myself (and all the other shills out there), but also I’m curious what you all think or if you even care?!
This post will get into the nitty-gritty of food blogging, which many of you couldn’t care less about, but I think that it will hopefully touch on some important aspects of how the Internet is changing these days.
Who’s writing what and, more importantly, who’s paying for it?!
Food Blogs – A Short History
When I started writing Macheesmo about eight years ago, there were a decent number of food blogs out there. There were the pinnacle success stories like Pioneer Women and Smitten Kitchen, but there were plenty of other scrappy writers out there just writing because they loved to write and loved to cook.
It should go without saying that the atmosphere has changed drastically.
Today, there are literally millions of blogs on the Internet. A good chunk of those are food related. There are so many flavors and varieties of food blogs that it’s hard to even define them. Some write about cooking and recipes, some write about restaurants, some write about food news and current events, some are sort of an amalgam of these things.
The point is that the sheer number of these blogs (and their overall quality, in my opinion) has skyrocketed in the last 2-3 years.
How Do Blogs Make Money?
Believe it or not, there are a lot of expenses with running a site like this and it also takes a huge amount of time. I would estimate I spend about 40 hours a week working on Macheesmo. At some point, I had to start thinking about making some income off the site to pay for expenses but also to justify the huge amount of time it takes.
When I started Macheesmo in 2008, most blogs made money by a single source: ads. In general, an ad network would pay a certain amount of money per 1,000 views of their ad code on your site.
Depending on placement of the ad and many other complicated factors, this number used to be fairly high. Many sites were even getting $5 or higher for 1,000 views. That means if you can get 10,000 views a day on your site, you make $50/day on that one ad. Not bad.
As any intro economics student will tell you though, there’s this little thing called supply and demand. Years ago, the supply of quality food blogs was fairly low so those sites could demand top dollar for their ad space. Now though, the supply of quality food blogs is beyond comprehension.
This has driven ad prices down to basement levels. As an example, my ad income in November of last year fell by around 40% even though my traffic was one of the highest months ever.
What this means is that to make a living based just on ads in today’s online world, you have to have a lot more ads on your site and you have to get a lot more traffic. When Adam says, “…wildly successful…” he means get a wild amount of traffic. Millions of views per month.
But, these days there are more ways to make money on a food blog than just ads. And that’s where the second part of Adam’s statement comes into play.
My Name is Nick and I’m a Shill
So, if ad dollars are on the decrease these days, what’s a blogger to do? Well, there are a few options that bloggers tend to try:
- Ramp up ads. Not only are blogs showing more ads, but they’re placing more creative ads. Ads over photos, ads disguised as links, auto-play audio ads… you name it and someone will pay you to put it on your website.
- Create something and Sell it. Write a book. Sell a premium service. Or, find something someone else has made and help them sell it for a cut of the money.
- Sponsorships. Work directly with brands to showcase their products and the brands pay you.
- Donations. Straight up ask for money.
In my opinion you can do any and all of these in a positive and negative way. None of these methods bother me (except the auto-play ads) as a reader as long as they are done thoughtfully.
For example, I ran a sponsored post on Monday. It’s for a company, Bob’s Red Mill, that I truly like. It featured a product that they make, but the recipe doesn’t have to use their product. I worked for weeks with them to feature a recipe that I think my readers would actually like. It wasn’t just some recipe that a PR team sent me.
I turn down, no joke, 39 out of 40 sponsored post opportunities. Every post I write could be a sponsored post if I wanted it to be. That, of course, would be terrible though. (THIS LETTUCE WRAP POST IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY WEIGHTLOSS PILLZZZ LLC!)
For me, the trade off for having a few sponsored posts (never more than two a month in my case) is that I have less ads (and smaller-sized ads). Personally, I think this makes for a better reading experience and it’s my website so I can do whatever I want. NANNY NANNY BOO BOO.
According to Adam, doing the occasional thoughtful sponsored post instead of having huge ads (the traditional way) makes me a shill.
The Big Picture Thing
Bringing this all back to Adam’s post… I get his sentiment. Adam had a guaranteed ad rate for The Amateur Gourmet, which I’ve never heard of, and I can see how having that get canceled would create some panic.
But, I thought it was a bit petty for him to assume that everyone who makes money online in a way other than he does is a shill. I work incredibly hard on the posts I write and I don’t think that partnering with a respected brand occasionally makes that work less valuable.
I know dozens of bloggers with shiploads of integrity that create meaningful sponsorships with brands. These shills are doing what they are passionate about and making a small amount of money from it to support their websites and time.
More importantly, what’s better from your point of view? I write words on the Internet. I view my primary goal as a resource, but my close secondary goal is to entertain. The vast majority of people who read Macheesmo will never make a recipe off of it so creating a positive viewing experience might be the most important thing.
What do you think? As a reader, would you rather a website have more ads or the occasional sponsored post? Either way, I have a feeling sponsored posts are here to stay friends.