Here’s a picture that accurately describes my first 3-4 years as a financial blogging “professional”.
I’m a natural contrarian. When everybody tells me the world is round, I’ll go looking for evidence it’s still flat. When everyone started wearing glasses again, I switched to contacts. And when the rest of the blogging world started taking the medium extremely seriously, I punctuated my posts with dick jokes and pictures of bikini-clad ladies.
These days, I take it a little more seriously. We still have fun around here, but I’ve toned the jokes back considerably. I used to be like George Carlin, not giving a crap what anyone thinks. Now I’m Jon Stewart — edgy, but with a bit of a softer side.
Does that analogy even make sense? Damned if I know.
Over the years, I’ve made some observations about the financial blogging world. I normally try to avoid talking about blogging, since I realize most of my readers don’t actually have financial blogs. Most of you couldn’t give two craps about the inner workings of the FU machine. You show up for the hot takes and stay for the mad art skillz.
But I also realize many of you might be interested in how the business works. Unless you’re my dad (KNOCK FIRST, DAMMIT I’M PROBABLY NUDE), you probably read other websites that aren’t mine. So let’s talk a little about it.
Here are ten observations that are hopefully as interesting to non-bloggers as the bloggers.
Regular readers don’t matter
I crack a lot of jokes about how my dad/mom/wife/cat are my only readers, but the fact is there’s a small army of people that show up on a semi-regular basis.
And y’all are dirtbags.
Regular readers never click on any of the ads and rarely buy any of the products I kindly recommend. They show up, consume the media, maybe leave a comment, and hit the road. Imagine if you were a grocery store and your best customers did that. You’d be out of business in a week.
The real money is made with search engine visitors. If somebody searches for a product I’ve reviewed or something I’ve talked about, they’re pretty clearly interested in it. These are great customers.
Think about it this way. If a regular reader buys something from a blog, the author has to convince them it’s a good product, and then convince them to click on the referral link. The author only has to convince the searcher to click on the link since they’re already interested in the product.
Ad-based is a bad idea
Financial blogs tend to make money on ads. It can be Adsense, other display ads, or even selling text link advertising. The latter is the most popular and the most profitable.
There are a number of issues with this type of model though. Selling links is a boom and bust business with very little consistency. And Adblocker is the most popular app in about six different stores. Something like 30% of the readers here never actually see an ad. Only 1-2% will actually click on something, and blogs like mine don’t command great rates for display ads.
That’s not the kind of economics a business is built around.
So what does that mean? You’re likely to see a lot of blogs coming up with their own premium content. This could be in the form of things like ebooks, courses, or exclusive content. It’s the most effective way for them to leverage their audience.
Which brings me to number three…
Most of that content won’t be great
I don’t want to crap on anyone’s hard work specifically, so I’ll just say this.
In just about every paid course on investing, blogging, writing, or on any specialty topic, you can find equivalent (or, in many cases, far better) information out there for free. No matter what you’re talking about, there are already two dozen other guys who are also talking about it for free.
And remember, paying $99 for an investing course when you have $10k in capital is not a smart use of 1% of your portfolio. Hitting the library will be infinitely more profitable.
It’s a business, first and foremost
I touched on this a couple of weeks ago when I talked about how to start a profitable blog.
Every blogger starts out the same. They write something they’re passionate about, content with the feeling of getting their words collected in one place. That lasts for a little while until they realize nobody is reading. Most quit at this point, while a select few power through.
After a while, even if someone is getting traffic, the mindset changes. They just get tired of giving away content for nothing. So they monetize, doing stuff like throwing up ads, taking sponsored posts, or writing for other blogs.
And almost always, they’ll get a few snarky comments about “selling out,” which is complete bullshit. You’ll notice these always come from readers who have no ideas about the reality of having a blog. And like I mentioned earlier, regular readers aren’t the ones paying the bills.
Every now and again (especially at Motley Fool, where I do a hell of a lot more writing than I do here), I’ll be accused of having a “click-bait title,” like that’s some sort of bad thing. I used to be just as bad at this as anyone.
I’ve since softened my stance. Your attention span is probably about as long as a hamster’s. I know the majority of my articles are only skimmed, probably since I insist on looking at things from all angles. (I almost wrote “quality analysis” there like a tool. We all know you’re here for the giggles and thinly-veiled insults towards other bloggers.)
Blogging is competitive. If I write headlines that are interesting and promise something good and if you then click on that headline, I’ve done my job. You come here to be entertained and informed. You’re neither of those things if you don’t make it past the headline. The headline is part of the experience.
The seedy underside
When personal finance bloggers get together, you’d think they would geek out and talk budgets, investments, and maybe ways to get blog readers.
You couldn’t be more wrong. When PF bloggers get together, the number one thing they do is talk shit about other PF bloggers. Naturally, women are worse for this than the fellas, but we’re hardly immune. The number of cliques that have formed is unbelievable. I know other bloggers who have been punished simply because they’re not part of the right clique. I’ve heard stories about fights, perceived slights, and other shenanigans that would make you think the whole genre is just like high school.
This may seem ironic, coming from me. Hey, at least I do it publicly. If I think someone’s content is hot garbage, they know it.
Personalty will always trump cold, hard, facts
A reader e-mailed me a week or so ago to tell me about the fall of Dividend Mantra, one of the biggest dividend growth investing websites out there. Thanks, anonymous reader whose email address is apparently firstname.lastname@example.org.
The condensed story goes something like this. Jason, the guy who was blogging about financial freedom from dividend income, sold the site to some company. Jason was supposed to stick around and write for them, but for whatever reason it ain’t happening. The new owners tried some other stuff, which was soundly shouted down by the faithful commenters. (Again, without irony. No, commenters, you aren’t the key to a successful blog)
The reason why Dividend Mantra was successful in the first place was because of Jason’s personalty. He was always optimistic, positive, and completely faithful in the virtues of dividend growth investing. He responded to every comment and every email. The attitude was infectious.
People like knowing a real person with real feelings is behind the keyboard. Jason was a pro at that, even if his outrageously optimistic outlook drove me nuts sometimes.
Let’s wrap it up
A few years ago, I penned a piece where I questioned whether blogging was in a bubble. It pointed out that the text link advertising market might be unsustainable, and that using blog networks to fool Google into ranking new blogs higher would be a trend that would go away.
I was right, especially about the Yakezie challenge stuff. And yet, the world of financial blogging is bigger than ever. Big money is starting to enter the space. Look at all the startups for robo advisors, mortgage rate comparison tools, and the approximately 9,302 websites out there selling stock investing newsletters.
It’ll be interesting to see how the medium evolves from its humble beginnings of some guy with mediocre web skillz to the point where big business really starts to get involved. There are still thousands of financial planners/investment advisors in Canada with barely any web presence at all. These guys have actual marketing budgets to throw behind providing online content. Canada’s banks and credit unions haven’t really entered the space either, which could be a huge game changer. Imagine if one of the banks decides to spend $10 million on financial blogging?
The genre is essentially divided into two forms now. The first is a model that’s used as advertising for a premium product. Think of the business models of the mortgage comparison sites as a great example. It’s all lead generation. The second is the more traditional model, where some guy just writes and hopes for the best. It’s going to be harder and harder for that guy as time goes on.