Blog for Nothing? by Alexandra Campbell

June 2, 2016

in Articles, General Interest

An issue close to the hearts of many of us, I think. I wish I could pay all you generous contributors ££££s!

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne Wareham Portrait, copyright John Kingdon

 

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ARE WRITERS BEING EXPLOITED IN BLOGGING…AND CAN WE DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT? by AlexandraCampbell

A debate broke out about this on Twitter. Are companies exploiting bloggers by getting them to write posts for free or for a link that turns out to be almost valueless?

First we need to scroll back a bit and look at media – and the gardening media – as a whole.

I have earned my living wholly as a writer since 1979. I’ve worked for or written for the business press, glossy national magazines, major newspapers, big publishing houses (novels and non-fiction), radio…even a small and unsuccessful stab at TV. Now I am also a blogger (The Middlesized Garden), and I teach blogging to individuals and companies.

In spite of working for many of Britain’s top names, my press work has been paid for (as all journalists’ work is) primarily by advertising. What you, as a reader, shell out for magazines and newspapers would not cover the costs of producing what you read. It never has.

But now the traditional media business model has broken. People use the internet to find information and entertainment. They don’t pay, or not usually. Even people who claim never to read blogs type ‘how to prune roses’ into their iPad. A lot of blogs come up (and YouTube videos etc).

And, as far as the traditional press are concerned, people who know nothing are setting themselves up as bloggers and dispensing their knowledge for free, while…

Say again? If they know nothing…

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Never mind. All you need to know is that the readers are mainly online. Every newspaper, magazine (and even TV programme) has haemorrhaged readers/viewers in the past decade. A friend of mine who has worked for the very top, top, top names says ‘I’m tired of working for frightened editors of failing publications.’

Until 2015, advertising money was still mainly invested in traditional media (print, TV, film). But, according to Campaign magazine, 51% of this year’s advertising spend will be online. This is a huge change and does, theoretically, mean money for bloggers.

However, gardening is the media’s poor but pretty relation. (We are always hoping she will find Mr Bingley, but there is perhaps too much soil under her fingernails.)

My publishing contacts tell me that cookery books can top the non-fiction charts. Homes books do OK. Gardening books make the least money.

My newspaper friends say that revenue from gardening advertising trails behind that of retail, travel and personal finance. Gardening ads in glossy magazines are in the Classifieds, not the double page spreads at the front.

And it’s the same with blogs. A top garden blog probably gets about 20,000 hits – or less – in a month. A top fashion or personal finance blog will get 20,000+ in a week. Gardening is seasonal and people don’t buy plants as often as they do food or clothes. There is not as much money in gardening.

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There has been blogger outrage over the RHS’s recent decision to cut press passes to garden bloggers at RHS Chelsea. If the RHS had decided that ‘Chelsea’ is more a social phenomenon than a garden show, then it would be canny of them to invite the big hitters – the fashion and lifestyle bloggers – rather than garden bloggers.

If, on the other hand, they have been under pressure from the beleaguered traditional media to make ‘Chelsea coverage’ more exclusive, then it’s more Canute than canny (yes, yes, I know the RHS has always had to turn away thousands of etc, etc…).

The fact is that ‘Chelsea’ does not need individual garden bloggers. And garden bloggers do not need ‘Chelsea’ (it’s just nice to be included). That’s because blogs work best in niches. Alternative Eden is a top garden blog which focuses on growing exotic plants in ordinary English gardens. Two Thirsty Gardeners is about making booze from your home-grown plants. Almost everything done to get children gardening is on parenting blogs. And so on.

‘Chelsea’ is not niche. More importantly, ‘Chelsea’ is over in a week. Blog posts live on for years. Your post on Chelsea 2016 won’t get any viewers after the week is over. Your post on ‘how to prune roses’ could go on attracting readers for years. (This is a bit of a diversion, but I think it points up the differences between blogs and traditional media.)

Blogging works to boost visits to your website. It reinforces your reputation as an expert. It can provide a platform for selling things, such as books or photography. It can help you get a book deal. And so on. But actual cash for written words…well, no-one is getting much, so be very aware of what you hope to achieve with your blog, and, by extension, any blog posts you write for anyone else.

That 51% of ‘advertising revenue’ being spent online is no longer going on straight advertisements. The old deal between the magazine/newspaper and the advertiser was ‘you create a bloody good magazine that everyone reads and I’ll pay for advertisements on your pages’. Now the interaction is far more complex. Few blogs are likely to survive on advertising, the way that traditional media always did.

Companies are now paying for ‘sponsored posts’. These must be clearly labelled as such. (Never mind that big deals are done behind the scenes of the national press where sponsorship translates into editorial column inches without the reader being aware…)

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Companies also pay PR and SEO experts quite a lot of money to get their websites further up in the Google charts. One of the strategies is to ‘place posts’ with bloggers. I get half a dozen offers a week from companies saying they will write me a free post which will be ‘tailored’ to my readership and ‘all they need is a link.’

All they actually need is the word ‘no’. Google doesn’t like link exchanges. Lots of posts strung together from ‘content writers’ who are writing about toys one minute and gardening the next will not help anyone except the SEO company who is charging the client.

Google invests a great deal of time, effort and money in preventing people from manipulating themselves up the page. It wants someone who types in ‘delphiniums in Kent’ to get very good information about the best delphiniums in Kent. (And if you are going to pay someone, they’d like you to pay Google, so you might be better off advertising.)

If you want to reap the benefits of blogging as a company, then you need to find the person who really knows about delphiniums and get them to write the post. Pay them. Only pay the PR/SEO to gussy up the post to make it readable and searchable…

Meanwhile if you are a blogger and a company wants you to write a free post, say, in exchange for a link to your blog, ask them for their Google Analytics statistics. How many viewers do they get a month? How will you be credited? You should be fully credited, with a link, in the post itself (like Anne does on ThinkinGardens). How much traffic do they generate on average for their guest bloggers?

Some guest posts can generate you a lot of traffic and are well worthwhile. Most are not. You can tell which is which by checking your Google Analytics. Companies that plan to credit you properly and drive traffic to your blog will be keen to tell you about it. Those that do not will vanish over the horizon at the word ‘statistics’.

This debate on Twitter started with a ‘shouldn’t somebody do something about companies getting people to blog for free?’ Ought there to be a code of practice?

But when you blog, you are on your own. Nobody owes you a living. You have to make all your decisions yourself. You need to run your blog the way you would run a company or a magazine, and that includes setting your own prices or other recompense.

Typically fees for writing blog posts start at about £55-£150 a post. But you should be spending 2-4 hours writing a post if it’s to be really good. That could mean you get much the same as if you were paid to weed someone’s border.

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Media in general is in a huge state of upheaval. There will be winners and losers. Which is why the traditional press are frightened, and sometimes even angry about bloggers taking up space they feel is theirs by right. But everyone predicted the end of radio when TV came along, and radio – oddly enough – is currently flourishing. It’s not over yet.

We will survive – or not – on our own merits, and by talking about uncomfortable things like money. Put a price on the posts you write for other people. Don’t accept anything unless it’s right for your blog, and helps you achieve your aims.

If you don’t value yourself, no-one else will. And if enough of us make it clear that we need to be paid, then we will be paid. So open up your blog today and write ‘I’m available to write guest posts for companies. There will be a fee.’ Or similar.

Now all I have to do is take my own advice and stop writing posts for a company that isn’t crediting me properly and isn’t paying me either…

Alexandra Campbell

Alexandra Campbell in archway by Lisa Valder 1600

The Middle-Sized Garden = ‘Alexandra Campbell’s blog, The Middlesized Garden, is for those whose gardens are larger than a courtyard but smaller than an acre…’

 

 

 

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sally Nex June 16, 2016 at 10:21 am

I’ve been blogging since I started freelancing as a garden writer – in fact I secretly boast (but only to myself) that I was among the very first UK garden blogs as I started writing mine in 2006, just after James Alexander Sinclair’s.went online and he was pretty much the very first one.

It started as a diary, as blogs were meant to do back then: but I realised quite early on that writing a diary publicly changes it. You start to write things you think your audience might be interested in rather than the stuff you would normally include in a diary just for your own use. That’s a good thing – more useful content for readers, higher exposure for you as a garden writer – and a bad, in that you no longer have a garden diary.

I now write my gardening diary the old-fashioned way, on paper in a notebook that nobody else sees: an example of a ‘post’ (entry) from earlier this year is as follows:
“Finished pruning 2nd apple tree – definitely on death row, loads of canker. No sign of life from seeds yet but early days. Started boarding in veg garden. Remember to clear out cold frame!”
You can see why such stuff wouldn’t make it past the first hurdle when it comes to getting onto the blog.

That’s because nobody’s interested in the minutiae of what’s going on in your garden: they want to know about their own gardens. Blog posts, whether you like it or not, whether it’s paid or not, are writing, just like articles you read in a magazine or newspaper. And much as your diary wouldn’t be published (unless you happen to be David Mellor or Ted Heath, both of whom I suspect wrote their diaries for public consumption anyway) blog posts ought to be at least publishable in the old-fashioned sense. That’s partly why they take such a blimmin’ long time to write (and should do, too).

I am lucky enough to have written blog posts for money, both for the BBC and the RHS, and well paid they were too. But the BBC’s blog shut down, and the RHS uses in-house staff nowadays. The Guardian doesn’t pay for its blog posts (which is why I’ve only written one for them). It’s a sign of the times.

Blogs have had their day. It used to be a way of drawing the gardening community together in a kind of big chat around the tea urn, but we’ve all scattered now, most don’t write their blogs any more, and we’ve all taken to wittering single sentences on Twitter or sharing cat videos on Facebook instead.

I do still write my blog – http://www.sallynex.com/blog – but paid work always takes priority and thank goodness there’s still quite a lot of that so that’s why my posts are a bit intermittent. But though I’ve thought hard about giving up writing it on and off (especially when the intermittency is becoming embarrassing) I still can’t quite.

That’s because it’s also a platform for me: a way of saying ‘I’m still here!’ and in my case shortly, ‘I’ve got a book coming out next February!’ And there aren’t any other places where I can say that in more than 140 characters and with any kind of staying power (as blog posts stay there whereas Twitter burps are there for a mere hiccup). So I can never quite give it up.

As for the whole sponsored posts thing: I haven’t time to write for free for other people, nor would I want to. I value my writing too much: it’s the way I put food on my family’s table, as well as my own source of professional satisfaction. I get very hot under the collar when I hear of wannabe writers doing newspaper columns etc for nothing, as it drags down my salary – after all why would an editor want to pay for writing when he/she can get often quite good quality writing for free? But the same argument doesn’t apply to blogging – you never get paid for blogging so nobody’s treading on my toes by blogging for free.

I will now stop as I think I’m in waffling territory and wandering far from the original subject. Interesting discussion – and one I think we’ll be having a few times before the last gardening blog coughs up its final offering.

Sally

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Alexandra Campbell June 6, 2016 at 10:10 pm

Just to pick up on some comments – blogging is also a good showcase for your skills, whether it be gardening or writing. And in the publishing sector I have seen literally dozens of bloggers make the leap from nobody to published author via their blog. But the points everyone makes are very valid – you need to know why you’re blogging and what you hope to achieve.

And one more note on guest blogging for free – the right sort can help attract traffic to your site, which can be particularly helpful if you’re just starting out. Since this post was published five days ago, I have had just under 100 visitors to The Middlesized Garden straight from Thinkingardens. As they’ve come from a good gardening blog, they’re all interested in gardens, so it’s 100 visitors I’m very glad to have. But very few other guest posts have delivered those kind of figures – 20 visits from a guest post, or even three or four is more usual. So thank you, Anne, for hosting the debate.

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annewareham June 7, 2016 at 9:36 am

A pleasure, Alexandra and thank you for writing the piece for us. One great virtue of web based writing too is that it stays. People will be reading this and thinking about it for years: maybe until blogging is history.

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James Todman June 7, 2016 at 5:15 pm

Anne, I notice you have advertising on the Thinkingardens. Can this not cause issues with your authors writing for free yet you make revenue from the site. I don’t mean this to be a negative comment because I really enjoy the website. But I guess if we are discussing guest bloggers writing for free, then it would be good to get the publisher’s standpoint.

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John Kingdon June 7, 2016 at 6:44 pm

James, butting in without being asked…

You will know that it costs money to run this site. There are the hosting costs together with the fees charged by the firm that maintains the site “structure” (the ubiquitous Mr Uku) as opposed to maintaining the site content (Anne – whose input is variable but may involve a few days’ work a week). Advertising is limited and does not cover the site’s costs. Hence the “donate” box up top at the right.

Suggesting that Anne makes revenue from the site is, with respect, pushing things a lot! The reality is quite the opposite.

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James Todman June 7, 2016 at 7:10 pm

Thanks for letting me know John. To be honest I have no idea how much advertising brings in so it’s good to find out. If it covers Anne’s costs then I think it is totally justified as gardening needs a website like Thinkingardens that promotes intelligent discussion about horticulture. And I know how hard Anne works to maintain and promote the site. Just thought I would add this aspect to the discussion because I am sure there are some publishers out who do profit from free guest blogging.

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annewareham June 13, 2016 at 1:16 pm

Thanks, both of you. Xxxx

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James Todman June 4, 2016 at 9:26 am

When blogging started it was designed to be a way for people to share their experiences, like an online diary. The platforms have developed in such a way that people now see them as online publishing tools and want to get paid for their efforts. I blog, but as a way to keep an online gardening journal and aid my self learning. If people read it and give me feedback with their comments, then this is an added bonus. If I had the pressure of trying to make money from my blog then I think I would soon give it up as what I write would not be about my gardening experiences but what I think people want to read and then the whole ethos of blogging would be lost.

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Helen June 5, 2016 at 12:43 pm

I completely agree with you James, the original reason for blogging seems to be lost

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Nic Wilson June 3, 2016 at 9:24 pm

Thanks for writing this interesting post. I’ve learnt a lot as a relatively new blogger. Good to have some ideas about how one might navigate the complex issues surrounding blogs and finance

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Helen June 3, 2016 at 12:58 pm

As a long term garden blogger I have been through the whole heady “wow they really value me and want me to blog for them” to the hard noised “why shouldnt I be paid for my time” to the “oh yet another email requesting me to do something for free which will benefit only them” journey. I am older, wiser and more cynical and I have learnt to value my time.I dont blog for anyone for free nor host others on my blog – life is so much simpler. I have a notice on my blog that says this and I ignore the numerous emails I receive with such requests and also requests to trial things.

I have written for a national garden blog for nothing and yes it drove some traffic to my blog but not enough. I also found it ruined the events I was writing for them about as I spent the whole time trying to think about the angle I would take. I have also spent a number of years freelancing as a garden blogger for an organisation writing two posts a week for £30-40 a post which was good money on top of my full time salary but became a challenge after a year or so to come up with original content.

I have benefited from press passes to all sort of events, the majority of which I decline and I was amused at the ranting that occurred on twitter by some at the change Chelsea had made to its press pass policy this year. I have to say I agreed with the RHS’s approach as there are many out there who have press passes and dont even blog on a regular basis let alone produce some sort of post about Chelsea and Alex is completely right covering Chelsea will pick you up a few more visitors for a week or so but that is it. People visit garden blogs to read about real gardeners and real gardens – my stats support that view as did a survey I did on the blog last year.

If you are seriously considering that blogging is a way into a career into journalism, it really isnt (IMO). It is a very crowded arena with very few outlets and the publications want recognisable names to sell their magazines to a slowly decreasing market. I think it comes down to why you have decided to blog in the first place – if like me you blog because you want to keep a record of your garden, an online diary (which is what a blog was originally) then why bother with all the hassle of guest posts. If however you want to make a brand from your blog or try to establish yourself as some sort of expert then maybe the guest blog is for you but beware of being taken advantage of as very few of them will deliver the benefit to you that they promise.

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Catherine Stewart June 2, 2016 at 11:20 pm

As a publisher of a group blog site cum online magazine at GardenDrum.com I agree with much of what you’ve said, Alexandra. Although GardenDrum attracts over 70K unique visits each month, I struggle to get enough advertising to cover website costs, let alone the full time job for me that it’s become, let alone to pay my authors. To each writer I say “you must have your own business reason for wanting to be published here, as I can’t pay you”. For some it’s the journalism training and feedback I offer to newbies, for others the freedom to write about what they think is important rather than their editor and, for others, the paid opportunities that can open up from the exposure, like TV research work, copywriting etc. For some it’s just being a valued part of a community rather than publishing alone on their own websites.

I hate it. I hate not being able to pay people for quality work. But until the garden industry can be convinced that advertising online is viable alternative to print, what’s the alternative? Companies that have shelled out 1000s on a single page print advert with no measure of its success demand reader stats, click through rates and conversion rates for a run-of-site advert costing a 10th that of print, and then complain that they’ve seen no jump in sales. Apparently lack of sales is the fault of the publication, not the product, or the substandard advert they threw together in Word, or the lack of quality landing page.

And then of course there is the new problem of PR companies persuading product companies to hand over their entire marketing budget as they will get them “loads of free editorial opportunities in quality publications so there’s no need to pay anything extra for advertising”. Of course neither those ‘quality publications’ or the writers that produce the quality journalism in them can continue to exist in this flawed business model, but the PR companies have already pocketed the dough, so what do they care?
Product companies also believe that they can now engage directly with their customers using their own websites, social media, blogs and apps, so there’s no need for independent publishers or journalists. My prediction is that any garden writer who wants to make a living from it should be looking for opportunities writing copy for companies, not independent journalism, as it seems that readers can either not tell the difference, or they don’t care.

So while I agree wholeheartedly that every professional online writer has the right to demand to be paid, unless there are also independent online publishers with an income stream, where will the money come from?
(Anne- sorry this comment is so long but you knew I’d bite!)

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annewareham June 2, 2016 at 11:30 pm

Good to hear from you, Catherine and always great to know you are there, across the other side of the world, battling away at the same task. You give me heart! Xxx

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John Kingdon June 2, 2016 at 7:02 pm

The last person I came across who was trying to make money out of freelance writing for gardening web sites and blogs thought “Foxglove” was a variety of Digitalis and that you should put chunks of broken up polystyrene plant packs into your containers to aid water retention. There’s good writing out there and there’s bad. Perhaps that is the one difference between the print/paid for media and the myriad of free stuff – you just don’t know whether brogwriter X actually knows what they’re writing about.

But who cares? If it’s free it’s free! And feeding your prized lawn with glyphosate isn’t going to harm it, is it?

Most garden bloggers do what they do thanks to a (variable) mix of ego satisfaction and record keeping. Blogs can be a great way of recording the development of your garden over time. And if someone else reads what you post, that’s a bonus.

I don’t want guest bloggers on my blog, thanks, and I don’t want to be paid to review some product. It’s my blog and I want to be free to say what I want to say. Come to think of it, if someone needs to incentivise someone to review their product, that’s a negative. If something’s good, loads of people will write good reviews all over the place anyway. I only had to be threatened with violence twice before I wrote nicely about “Outwitting Squirrels”!

Perhaps we all dream about writing that wonderful post that will earn us a princely sum. Most of us have more chance of winning a lottery jackpot. But good luck to the few who can make some money out of blogging. And good luck to those who want to chase the non-existent rainbows. I’m not jealous at all. Honest!

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