Bloggers Bring in the Big Bucks

Bloggers Bring in the Big Bucks

How a personal obsession can turn into a popular favorite and maybe even a full-time job

pileofmoney.jpgEric Nakagawa, a software developer in Hawaii, posted a single photo of a fat, smiling cat he found on the Internet, with the caption, "I can has cheezburger?" in January, 2007, at a Web site he created. It was supposed to be a joke. Soon after he posted a few more images in the same vein: cute cats with funny captions written in a silly, invented hybrid of Internet shorthand and baby-talk. Then he turned the site into a blog, so that visitors could comment on the postings. What happened after that would have been hard for anyone to predict.

"We just thought, O.K., they’re funny,"Nakagawa says. "Suddenly we started getting hits. I was like, where are these coming from?"

An Accidental Entrepreneur

He saw traffic on the blog, I Can Has Cheezburger, which he runs with his partner, "Tofuburger" (she refuses to disclose her real name) double each month: 375,000 hits in March, 750,000 in April, 1.5 million in May. Cheezburger now gets 500,000 page views a day from between 100,000 and 200,000 unique visitors, according to Nakagawa. The cheapest ad costs $500 for a week. The most expensive goes for nearly $4,000. Nakagawa, an accidental entrepreneur who saw his successful business materialize out of the ether, quit his programming job at the end of May: "It made more sense to do this and see how big it could get."

Cheezburger’s story is unusual in the upper reaches of the blogosphere in that the time between launching and reaching a critical mass of readers who sustain the site is so compressed. But many of the most popular bloggers have similar tales of starting out with a niche idea—an inside joke, a particular obsession—and watching it explode. Of course, most blogs linger in obscurity and are read by only a handful of people, and few ever reach the level Cheezburger has. What about a blog like Cheezburger lets it break away from the pack?

The initial appeal of the blog may have been a fluke, but its growth since then has been part of a tightly controlled experiment to help answer that question. Nakagawa and his partner constantly tweak the site to see what draws readers and what leaves them cold.

"We basically have a playground where people keep coming to play, so we’re trying to create new games all the time,"Nakagawa says.

Building a Community

To drive traffic, they try to time their new posts with when people are most likely to be reading: in the mornings, on their lunch breaks, or in the evenings. Early on, when Nakagawa saw the site getting 1,000 page views a day, he added a widget that allows visitors to rate each post on a scale of one to five cheeseburgers. That helped boost traffic to 2,000.

Readers don’t just rate or comment on the posts. They create them. Cheezburger depends on its fans to submit pictures, write funny captions, and send them in. Nakagawa has built a tool to let readers select a ready-made photo or upload their own, add and position captions, choose font styles, and submit a finished product. Any visitor can vote on the submissions, and the most popular ones make it to the main page. The function saves Nakagawa from having to find funny captions for photos, and it creates a lasting bond with readers.

That kind of interaction helps make I Can Has Cheezburger as much a community as a blog. A post by one user will inspire another to play off the theme, forming a narrative. "It’s like you’re creating a story supplied by people in the community, and then the people in the community supply the next part of the story,"Nakagawa says.

From Inside Joke to Job

The idea of building a community around content supplied by users sustains several top blogs, and most put the idea of community ahead of making money. For Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, who lampoon celebrity fashion on their blog, Go Fug Yourself, the fact that ad sales on their blog now pay their salaries has not changed what they set out to do from Day One: have fun. "It was one of these inside jokes that we thought was going to just stay an inside joke,"says Cocks.

Part of it has to do with the nature of the medium: Blogging creates a direct connection between authors and readers, a conversation with distinct voices carried out in comments and e-mails and other blogs. Nakagawa wants to see how big that conversation—not to mention his business—can get. "It’s kind of like, how far can you take it?" he says.


How Top Bloggers Earn Money

Cat pictures, gossip, tech talk, politics—there’s lots of ways to rake in the dough online

By John Tozzi

 From cat pictures and celebrity gossip to tech news and politics, the stars of the blogosphere earn plenty of dough, regardless of subject. Some bloggers start their sites intending to make big profits. But most of the bloggers we talked to had more modest expectations, and saw their blogs unexpectedly turn into businesses as traffic picked up and ad dollars rolled in. Here’s a look at how some of the most popular blogs make their money.







Launched: January, 2000
Revenue: Over $1 million a year

 BoingBoing, a "directory of wonderful things," might be the king of moneymaking blogs. Always at the top of Technorati, in June the site garnered 22 million page views from 2.6 million unique visitors. Advertising costs range from $350 to display a small button ad for one week to between $2,000 and $3,000 for the minimum 170,000 impressions on banner ads, all sold exclusively through Federated Media. Frequent posting—the four authors update the site 20 to 40 times each day—drives high traffic to the blog, which Mark Frauenfelder and his wife, Carla Sinclair, started as a print zine in 1988, to write about comics, science fiction, computers, and technology. "BoingBoing’s viewers just continued to grow and grow and grow, for reasons we still don’t completely understand," Frauenfelder says. "Now it’s at the point where it actually becomes a business." And a good one at that: BoingBoing’s ad sales top $1 million a year.



I Can Has Cheezburger?

Launched: January, 2007
Revenue: Estimated $5,600 a month based on ad rates and self-reported traffic data

 This blog, consisting of silly photos of cats, and even sillier captions, rocketed to the top of the blogosphere a few months after a Hawaii-based pair started it on a lark. Since its launch in January, Cheezburger’s traffic has doubled each month, and the blog now gets half a million page views a day, accounting for a third of the traffic on the WordPress blogging platform, according to Eric Nakagawa, aka Cheezburger. "If you hit a niche and you can build a community, you might not have a $1 million idea, but you might have a $10,000 or a $100,000 idea," says Nakagawa, who gave up his job as a software developer to play Cheezburger full-time. (His partner, "Tofuburger," still has a day job.) A week of ads on Cheezburger, via Blogads, starts at $500 and tops out at $5,400 for a premium position. The site also sells through Google AdSense and AdBrite platforms. It recently ranked No. 26 on the most-linked-to blogs list on Technorati.





Launched: October, 2005
Revenue: $12,000 a month

What better way to make money online than to write a blog about making money online? Jeremy Schoemaker, a 33-year-old Web entrepreneur, did just that. The half hour he spends each day writing ShoeMoney attracts 20,000 unique visitors daily, brings in $12,000 a month, and gives him a platform from which to launch his own Web products. His other Web businesses—AuctionAds, which displays ads for live eBay auctions on relevant sites, and, which sells ringtones—are his main ventures; the blog accounts for only 3% of his company’s revenue. Other companies selling to businesses find a ripe audience of aspiring Web entrepreneurs reading ShoeMoney, which consistently ranks among the 100 top blogs on Technorati. Schoemaker had no ads on the blog until January, 2007, and the five spots sell out quickly. "We’ve never had an open advertising spot," he says. "We have a waiting list."




Overheard in New York

Launched: July, 2003
Revenue: Estimated $8,100 a month based on ad rates and self-reported traffic data

Software developer Morgan Friedman and five editors work part-time, running Overheard in New York, a collection of anonymous comments submitted by readers that range from the hilarious to the outrageous. Started in 2003, the blog is profitable, but Friedman says revenues can fluctuate by a factor of 10 over six months. A small one-week buy on Blogads costs $375, and an ad with Flash in a prime space costs up to $6,000. Overheard draws 6 million page views a month and gets 100 submissions from readers each day, says Friedman. A book was published last year, and four more blogs in the same vein now make up the Overheard network: Overheard at the Office, Overheard at the Beach, Overheard Everywhere, and Celebrity Wit. The site’s core audience, Friedman says, is young women and gay men—tastemaking groups that advertisers covet. Although Overheard brings in cash, he says, "I’ve always approached it more as a community than a business. I want to make enough so we can invest more to grow. I’m not trying to build a Web 2.0 company that I can sell for millions of dollars."

Launched: March, 1998
Revenue: Estimated $5,300 a month based on ad rate

S elf-taught Web designer Jason Kottke hosts a single ad on his design blog, which he bills as the "home of fine hypertext products." The ad is sold through the Deck, an ad network that offers limited buys on 18 premier design-oriented sites. Kottke began blogging in 1998, on 0sil8, a site he built to profile his design work. The blog moved to its current domain in 1999, and now gets 250,000 to 300,000 unique visits a month—enough to pay him a monthly salary of around $5,300 before the ad network’s cut. He ranks in the middle of the 100 most-linked-to blogs on Technorati. As one of the earliest blogs, with a committed audience interested in design, Kottke attracts advertisers looking to reach Web professionals and creative types. And he wants to keep his niche appeal, rather than try to maximize profits by littering the site with ads, and changing the content to boost traffic. "I’m doing a lot of things to deliberately limit my income," he says. "Providing a good site and a good service for a smaller group of readers is really what I’m shooting for."




Launched: November, 2000
Revenue: Estimated $45,000 a month based on ad rates and self-reported traffic data

 Political reporter Josh Marshall grew his blog, which he started during the 2000 election recount, into a small media company with a Manhattan office, three spin-off sites, an editorial staff of six, and a reputation for digging up stories that major papers ignore. The shift from a blog of mostly commentary and analysis to a network of sites more focused on original reporting began after the 2004 election, Marshall says. He started accepting ads at the end of 2003, when Blogads approached him. Now ad sales are a mix of site-specific direct buys and mass buys through third-party bureaus. (All political ad sales are through third parties, to avoid conflicts of interest.) Sales bring in tens of thousands of dollars a month. "The challenge for a very small business like ours is to be able to monetize and support our original reporting, to make it work in business terms," he says. High traffic—weekday page views approach 500,000—combined with a desirable audience helps. "If someone advertises with us, I guarantee you that a substantial number of people in every big-city newsroom around the country are going to see it," Marshall says.



Perez Hilton

Launched: September, 2004
Revenue: Estimated $111,000 a month based on ad rates and self-reported traffic data

Celebrity gossip wag Perez Hilton revels in his role as one of the most-hated figures in Hollywood. He may also be the hardest-working blogger making fun of show business, with 24 posts on an average day—and as many as 40 on a day with talk of a Britney Spears meltdown. "Advertisers come to me because I get a lot of traffic. I get a lot of traffic because I work hard," says Mario Lavandeira, Perez’s creator. By "a lot" he means as many as 4 million unique visits a day, according to Lavandeira, although independent estimates put his traffic much lower. How much does that translate into cash from the Blogads on his site? Lavandeira stays uncharacteristically mum on the subject of exactly how much cash he rakes in, but Blogads lists a one-day "takeover" (all three banner ads on the site, plus a custom wallpaper) for $40,000.





Gothamist (and 13 other sites in the "-ist" network)

Launched: January, 2003
Revenue: Monthly average of $50,000 to $60,000 over the past 12 months

 Gothamist, with estimated monthly revenues of $250,000, evolved from two friends writing about New York City to a full-time news operation and a network of local blogs across 14 cities on four continents. Publisher and co-founder Jake Dobkin, who owns the company with co-founder and editor Jen Chung, sells ads direct to maximize revenue. They’re on the verge of hiring a full-time ad sales director to complement their team of five full-time editors in five cities, part-time associate editors, and paid contributors. Together they generate 20 to 25 posts daily on their most popular sites, and draw 7 million page views a month. Advertisers like the demographics: young, educated, and often wealthy readers. A real draw for the city-based sites is the ability to target online ads geographically: "It’s a benefit that some of the other independent publishers or blog networks can’t offer," Dobkin says.




Launched: June, 2005
Revenue: $200,000 a month

 Another blog that always tops the Technorati list, TechCrunch became Michael Arrington’s full-time business in 2006, with $200,000 in monthly revenue from job boards and ads. Arrington began blogging about startups two years ago. The blog has since spawned a network of spin-offs for gear, mobile technology, and sites for Britain, France, and Japan. Federated Media handles ad sales for the sites, which get a total of about 5 million page views a month: $300 buys a small text ad for a week; banners start in the thousands. "Our advertisers are people who want to reach a tech audience and an early-adopter audience," Arrington says. "It’s a targeted audience that spends a lot of money." In addition to ad revenue, the company has sponsored parties, and in September plans to host TechCrunch 20, a conference in San Francisco, where 20 startups will launch their products and a panel of judges will pick one to receive a $50,000 prize.



Go Fug Yourself

Launched: July, 2004
Revenue: Estimated $6,240 a month based on ad rates and self-reported traffic data

Last year, this blog, devoted to ridiculing celebrity fashion, made enough money through ad sales that its two authors, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, quit their television industry jobs so they could mock full-time. The Los Angeles-based duo insists that the blog’s title uses the verb form of "fantastically ugly," their term of art for stars’ over-the-top outfits. The mechanics are simple: They take celebrity photos from a wire service, add snarky comments about the getups, and click "publish." The result? Some 3.5 million unique visitors a month, a book coming out in February, and two full-time jobs. All the ads are sold through Blogads. One week of a bare-bones text ad starts at $60, and deluxe banners top $3,000. Cocks says what started as a goofy joke between friends three years ago has become a successful company: "Suddenly our inside joke was turning into a business, and it caught us completely by surprise."




Launched: July, 2005
Revenue: Estimated $166,000 a month based on ad rates and self-reported traffic data

 Pete Cashmore started Mashable two years ago, to write about the emerging trend of mashups, which he defines as "the fusing of multiple Web services." Now it’s more than a full-time job. "Bloggers don’t get much sleep," he says. Mashable, a Technorati favorite that ranks in its top 15, focuses on social networking and other online trends. With 4 million monthly page views, Cashmore says it’s the most-trafficked blog on the subject. But he didn’t expect to make a living from it when he began. "The idea that top bloggers would be making large sums was laughable," Cashmore says. "The folks who held on, however, are doing pretty well these days." Mashable uses Federated Media for its ad sales. Text ads start at $100 per week, banners at $2,000.



Problogger (multiple sites)

Launched: November, 2004
Revenue: Over $100,000 a year

The top question people ask Problogger author Darren Rowse is how much money he makes from blogging. He doesn’t disclose the details, but across the many blogs he writes, he clears six figures a year from a mix of private ads, affiliate deals, and ads sold through platforms such as Chitika, Google AdSense, Text Link Ads, and Amazon Associates. An Australian minister who discovered blogging in 2002, he has written sites devoted to religion, digital photography, camera phones, the Athens Olympics in 2004, and, of course, blogging. “Like most small business operators, I fall into the temptation of doing more than a full-time load from time to time (it’s tempting when you love your work, and when you work from home),” he writes in a FAQ on his site.





Michelle Malkin and Hot Air and launched: June, 2004
Hot Air launched: April, 2006
Revenue: NA

 Between her eponymous blog and her video blog, Hot Air, conservative author and columnist Michelle Malkin gets more than 220,000 visits per day, but says her sites still operate at a slight loss. “We’re doing what few other blogs can do. We serve up terabytes of bandwidth,” Malkin says. “I’m shelling out for gold-plated servers. That’s expensive, and we want to be able to withstand huge traffic surges.” Hot Air, a group video-blog, in particular needs the bandwidth to stream videos. The rest of her ad revenue, which Malkin declines to detail, supports a small staff and a basement studio to produce original video clips. Malkin also sees the blogs as promoting her print media, and vice-versa. “Blogs have been the most recent development in my career, but my bread and butter has been the newspaper column that I’ve had since 1992. The integration has been really interesting, and I think that attracts people as well.”





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