It's no secret that personal blogs--once thought to be the purview of online diarists and hobbyists--are serious businesses now. Bloggers not only command huge readerships--they've also become celebrities in their own right, publishing books, starring in ads, collaborating on collections, and even hosting TV shows. Thanks to affiliate link programs, they're also making bank on all the products and brands they recommend on their site. The Internet might have scoffed at Scott Schuman when he recently said he makes "seven figures" off his blog--but actually, that's not that hard to believe.
So just how much money are bloggers making right now? We did a little digging to find out, and the short answer is: A sh*t ton.
The main reason bloggers'--particularly personal style bloggers'--incomes have sky-rocketed is the development and growth of affiliate link programs. Affiliate links, for those of you who don't know, allow bloggers to make a commission off the products they recommend or feature. Here's how it works: When you click on an affiliate link (which, for the most part, looks just like a normal product link), the program drops a cookie on your computer. If you purchase anything from that site--even if it's not the same product that the blogger was originally featuring--the referrer (aka the blogger) will make money off of it. And thanks to affiliate link companies like RewardStyle, which have partnered with nearly every major retailer (ShopBop, Nordstrom, Barneys, etc.,), bloggers can find pretty much any product they could possibly want to feature on the program. The idea is that they'd be featuring the products anyway; now they're just making money off of it. (Full disclosure: We also use an affiliate link program in our market stories, as do Vogue.com, WhoWhatWear, Into the Gloss, and many other major fashion sites.)
Unsurprisingly, for personal style bloggers who recommend up to 30 products a day, affiliate links can bring in serious money.
Chelsea Cain, an account consultant at RewardStyle, told us: "In Q4, we expect our top style bloggers to earn upwards of $50k/month with rewardStyle." Though she added, "like the larger retail industry, there are seasonal fluctuations in performance."
Cain declined to say what percentage of her clients fell into that "top style blogger" category, but considering RewardStyle works with 10,000 publishers globally, we can assume that even a small percentage could mean hundreds of bloggers.
Tina Craig of Snob Essentials (Bag Snob, Jewel Snob, Shoe Snob etc.,) told us that affiliate links still make up the bulk of her income. "Because it's constant, [whereas brand partnerships are usually a one-off]," she said. And, even better, making money off of affiliate links doesn't actually require any extra work, provided you already have an audience in place. "There was a sale recently that came in the middle of the night from the Middle East--someone bought a $46,000 handbag," says Craig. "So I was making money while I was sleeping!"
Craig and her peers can expect the cash to continue to flow. According to Cain, RewardStyle's sales will have increased threefold by the end of this year.
"We expect to drive over $175 million in sales to our fashion, lifestyle, and beauty retail partners this year, our second full calendar year of operation," Cain said in an email. "This will be a significant increase over 2012 retail numbers of approximately $60M."
In July 2013 alone RewardStyle drove more than $14 million in retail sales for bloggers. That's over triple what they did in July 2012, when sales were approximately $4 million.
And that's just what bloggers are making on affiliate links. Then there are brand partnerships, event-hosting, spokesperson gigs and collaborations.
"A blogger with a bigger audience, and prominent persona, she'll make the bulk of her income from brand partnerships," says Vanessa Flaherty, Vice President of Brand Development at DBA.
According to Flaherty, a blogger could be paid anywhere between $2,000 for a small-scale one-off gig (like hosting a party, or writing advertorial) to "six figures" for a longer partnership, like "a year-long ambassadorship or major full-scale advertising campaign."
Of course, not every blogger can command that kind of money. "The six figure deals are more rare but they're definitely happening," Flaherty says. She estimates that about one-third of DBA's clients pull that kind of cash. "I can't speak about industry standard," Flaherty says--but it's safe to guess that DBA's clients (they rep Kelly Framel of the Glamourai, Aimee Song of Song of Style, and many more) are making much more than the average blogger.
"It would have to be someone [whose site] gets loads of page views per month," to command six figures for a partnership, says Flaherty.
Though she adds, it's not a "simple conversion of lots of traffic equalling dollar signs."
"Some people have a larger profile and a greater influence in certain spheres and can just demand higher rates than someone who [gets less] traffic," Flaherty says. And for brands that are hoping to drive sales--rather than just raise brand awareness--it can be more beneficial to partner with a blogger who has a smaller, but super active, following.
Even if it's only the cream of the crop of the industry making those kinds of deals right now, the opportunity for them is growing--and fast. Flaherty says she is contacted hundreds of times of day by brands hoping to partner with a blogger. As the power of bloggers grows, that number will no doubt increase.
"I think that things are definitely going to compound exponentially," says Flaherty. "I don't think that any of this is going to go away."
That being said, Flaherty agrees the blogging industry is over-saturated right now. There are hundreds of thousands (millions?) of bloggers out there--the majority of which probably won't make a living off their sites. But, Flaherty says, "some people are going to rise to the top."
And for those who continue to rise, more riches await. On top of robust rewards from affiliate link programs and lucrative brand partnerships, Flaherty thinks the next level of blogging will be that "bloggers are going to evolve into their own full-scale brand, whether that means products on the shelves, or a television series, or books." These won't be design collaborations or partnerships--these will be licensing deals in the style of celebrity clothing lines. And it's already kind of happening. Three of DBA's clients have struck lucrative licensing deals: Both Bag Snob (rebranded as Snob Essentials) and Mrs. Lilien have partnered with Beanstalk Group (the gold standard in licensing agencies--they work with the Olsens, Salma Hayek, Jaguar) and food blog Spoon Fork Bacon has a deal with Brand Central LLC.
DBA will soon be unveiling a "new licensing model" that will help facilitate even more blogger/brand deals like this. "It's really more a brand partnership/venture than a traditional licensing model, with major manufacturing channels involved," Flaherty says.
And we can't forget about the original source of income for all bloggers: Advertising. Craig says that when she and business partner Kelly Cook first began their blog as a sort of online journal in which the two bag-obsessed women could share their musings on purses, they "put up a few Google ads" with the hopes of "breaking even" on their new hobby. Now, the two (mostly Cook) sell their own ad space to luxury brands like Net-a-Porter, generating significant profit.
If a top blogger is pulling $50K a month, plus a handful of brand partnerships--some in the six digits--and thousands of dollars in ads, you could easily be looking at yearly revenue of about a million dollars a year, with the potential to make even more. What's more, unlike most businesses, bloggers have virtually no overhead.
Craig, who founded her site on just $20 (for a domain name), explains: "In business school at USC, we learned that an ideal business should be one with low overhead, no inventory, minimal labor requirements, not limited by personal output (we make affiliate sales when we are sleeping), is portable (we can work from anywhere) and has an unlimited global market. I believe blogging is the perfect business!"
Even though Craig's costs have increased from that $20, she says that thanks to her's and Cook's hands on approach, their "costs are still very low compared to most businesses."
Having such low costs means that most of that potential $1 million revenue goes straight into a blogger's pocket.
So...are you ready to start your blog, sit back, and and watch the money roll in? Not so fast.
Yes, there's a lot of money to be made in blogging. But while it may look easy being a successful blogger (I know, how hard could it be to take a few well-lit pictures of yourself, right?) it's actually pretty arduous. Brands aren't actually after bloggers--they're after their readers. If you don't have a sizeable base of dedicated, active and engaged readers, well then, don't expect to monetize soon. And getting readers' attention--especially in this over-crowded market--is no easy feat.
"If you want people to take notice, you're going to have to have a really unique and concise point of view," says Flaherty. "Even if it's niche."
A small but engaged audience can be a powerful thing. "We’ve seen that niche bloggers with small and loyal audiences can earn more than a blogger with higher pageviews and a larger social media following," says Cain. Having a focused niche is also appealing to advertisers, who are trying to reach a specific demo.
"My number one piece of advice to aspiring bloggers is: Don't start a blog to make money at it or become famous, because then your goals are different," says Craig. "[Cook and I] always say, if it's not teenage love--if it doesn't make you crazy, happy, giddy--then don't blog about it. Because if it's boring to you, it's going to be boring to your reader."
Once you've got your burgeoning blog, Craig "highly recommends" you take a business course. "It'll really help you to understand the marketing of your business," she says. "The best blogs, the blogs that have been around the longest, are run like any good business."
If you dream of being the next Leandra or Bryan or Susie, pick a topic you feel passionate about, hone your point of view, share it in the most genuine, original way you can think of and then...wait.