The Problem with Monitizing Ideas on the Internet

I’ve been working my ass off this past month. There was the whole blogging platform disaster, plus lots of proposals and meetings for other projects. It has dredged up all sorts of big questions that I typically push out of my mind. What is the best use of my time? What has the most potential to provide income? How much time and money should I invest in a particular project?

I’m an idea and word person. That’s my internet niche. I do throw out some girlie shit with posts about things from time to time, but it’s not really my thing. The problem with the Internet is that ideas are very difficult to monitize.

Websites and blogs that focus on things – cars, computers, clothes, fish, tools and even books – can be monitized. Companies that sell those things can advertize on the sidebar. Readers will click on those advertisements, because they have a high interest in those particular products. Someone with a very unremarkable blog about clothes can make thousands of dollars per month with advertisements from Anthropologie and Target.

There are three big problems with ideas on the Internet. 1. Idea-based websites don’t have a natural connection with any businesses. 2. The audience for idea-based websites are very savvy about advertisements. They don’t click on  ads, even ads that are somewhat related to their lifestyle. 3. Also, the audience for an idea-based website is miniscule compared to the audience for websites that discuss Prince Harry’s latest girlfriend.

This year, Andrew Sullivan tried to get around the idea-advertisement problem by asking readers to subscribe to his website. He did bring in a lot of money at first, but those numbers leveled off fairly quickly. He isn’t going to bring enough money this year to pay himself a salary. If Andrew Sullivan can’t make a living on the subscription model, then nobody can.

So, I’ve written thousands of blog posts over the years. Companies that specialize in the Internet ads write me everyday to ask if they can drop in an ad into my blog, but they only want to advertise on one of the thousands of blog posts. They want to put the ad on a blog post that talked about housecleaners. They represent various housecleaning services and housecleaning products.

Idea-based writers, websites, and magazines have to figure out a way to marry their niches with the more profitable areas on the Internet. It has to be done delicately, because ideas are lofty, pure things that are destroyed by commercialism. I wish I had some ideas about profiting from ideas, but I don’t.


10 thoughts on “The Problem with Monitizing Ideas on the Internet

  1. Monetizing has been on my mind of late. I started blogging years ago when I was seriously in the SAHM parenting trenches. It kept me sane and gave me at least the illusion of professional activity, as in “I’m not getting paid for this, but at least I’m becoming a better writer.” In all those ways – intellectual engagement, skills development, adding some structure to a life style defined primarily by napping schedules and PBS timetables – it has been useful and worthwhile.

    But with an 8 and 11 year-old, I’m looking toward the next phase. My spouse travels frequently and unpredictably for work, and I fill the role of the anchor to which our life is tied. My husband is a very active and engaged parent when he is here, but frequently he simply isn’t here. Having me focused on keeping our family life organized is important to our overall happiness, and I value -and am valued in- this role. But…

    I’m at that point where I need to begin to put a plan in place for when the chicks eventually fly away. With a really perfect school-based position recently falling through due to budget cuts, my focus has come back to blogging. But I am truly perplexed by how I could start making money from something I’ve essentially been doing for free for years. How do you get people to pay for something you’ve previously been giving away? Considering that I have personally never clicked on a sidebar ad leads me to believe they are not a really effective way to monetize a blog that is, as you say, largely about ideas.

    Maybe the true value of an “ideas” blog is to build a readership to support other kinds of writing endeavors. But then the conundrum for me becomes that when I’m keeping up with my blogging (and doing all that parenting/family anchoring stuff) there’s often not much time or energy left over for other kinds of writing.

    Sorry. No answers here. Just more questions.

  2. It’s not true that your blogs aren’t monetized — the problem is that all the monetization goes to Google/Wordpress/aggregators/. . . .

    I am perplexed as well, and personally dissatisfied, ’cause the blogs that can be monetized are not the ones I’m interested (I don’t want to read about celebrities, or blogs that are only about cars). I suppose that the monetization has to be direct to customer (like the app model). I am willing to pay, and have been thinking through numbers based on value, but I think it’s a tough sell to get people to pay for something they are used to getting for free.

    Voluntary subscription models may bring in beer change, but they are unlikely to bring in sustainable incomes. As you said, even Andrew Sullivan (or remember the Stephen King experiment) can’t do it. If Stephen King can’t get people to pay for a serial, it’s hard to imagine how a voluntary scheme for content can work.

    Foundation grants? Charitable donations? Patrons? Seems like those are the kinds of models we’ll need to sustain idea based content. They might be enough, but only if the content providers set their income sites pretty low.

  3. I’ll be the obnoxious one; why do you (plural, generic) expect to be able to make more than beer change from writing about ideas on the internet?

    Opinions, musings, and commentary (even from skilled writers) have become just about as common as can be. I find blogs to be a great value. They are part of why I’m willing to pay for internet service. Yet I can’t think of a single blog, forum, or social website that I’d be willing to pay for individually. There is always a functionally equal blog, site, or group elsewhere on the web. Even if one blog or writer managed to become big enough to be a sort of cultural touchstone that everyone needed to know about the vary nature of the internet would see that blog’s content spread far and wide in other blogs, retweets, and rebuttals.

  4. Yes, that’s why idea blogs will eventually go away and only cat blogs will survive.

    But really, an idea blog, like this one, can be a means to another ends. A more profitable end. Also, it can be fun, in and of itself.

    I guess I wrote this because I’m weighing various proposals. I’m trying to decide where I should place my time. Should I sell out?

  5. From a consumer’s point of view, I do not believe that idea blogs in general (and not just a specific one) will survive if all the value goes to the internet provider/google (what happens when you [generic, consumer] is willing to pay for internet service.

    I’ve seen most of the blogs I started reading 9+ years ago disappear and they have not been replaced with similar ones. Laura’s is the only one of my original list that survives, Instead, I have Pioneer Woman in my reader (and don’t read it, because it isn’t what I want). Dooce dropped out of my reader when it stopped being about a person and became an enterprise.

    Maybe there will be enough content of the kind I want left after all the people who decide it’s not worth their time disappear, but since I don’t read cat, celebrity, or commercial blogs, I find enough of a personal interest that I try to pay where I can. I’ve always paid for the NY Times. Because of Laura (and, really, it was Laura) I now have a subscription to the Atlantic (not just because she published there, but because her blog lead me to the articles, which I now read regularly). I subscribed to the Smithsonian, too, when kiddo said she liked the content and wanted to keep the magazine coming.

  6. Blogs come and go, to be sure. They serve a need or fill a gap and, when the need or gap disappears, so does the blog. But I think there is something interesting in the New York Times model of charging for content. The average blogger can’t command those payments, but I wonder if we’ll start to see more blogging aggregates. Not some corporate entity charging bloggers for admission in order to reap the benefits of greater exposure, but rather groups of bloggers forming collaborative units that can either charge for access, or command higher ad fees collectively than they would alone. Kind of a co-op model. And perhaps these kind of arrangements already exist but I haven’t heard of them because a) I live out here at the end of the world or b) I been too busy packing lunches and doing laundry for the last decade to notice.

  7. I can’t imagine paying for a bunch of blogs – mostly because I’m picky and would dislike most of them and it would drive me crazy to be paying for them, whereas I would totally use a tip jar or whatever here or at the other two or three blogs I read.

    What would selling out look like?

  8. “What would selling out look like?”

    Here are some customized suggestions for Laura.

    1. Sponsored posts from Sylvan and Kumon and Princeton Review and so forth.

    2. Reviews of free kitchen swag.

    3. Offer to do positive reviews of local restaurants for free meals for your entire family.

    4. Product placement posts. It may not work for the big national brands, but the more obscure and/or newer companies might be willing to pay.

    Any other suggestions?

  9. That’s amazing that Sullivan isn’t going to make enough money to pay himself. I think maybe the aggregate model, like with cable tv, would work. Of course I don’t get cable bundles and would probably avoid this one as well, but I would pay about $100-150 a year for the NYT (w/full article access) plus about 10 other blogs, including this one. I think the Times is probably wise to be hosting blogs now (sometimes I read Motherload or Douthat); maybe that’s where they will head. If it could be comparable with my limited cable package (about 25 channels including PBS), which is $15/month, I would do that. But I don’t know how that would be workable.

  10. Late reply here but I had some driving time over the weekend and its when I think.

    I still come down to the question; should there be any expectation that a hobby can be monetized? Is idea blogging the equivalent of something like golf, fishing, or attending Civil War reenactments – a hobby that eats money and time with only intangible personal rewards? I’m throwing this out for discussion because of the “have to” in your final paragraph; I don’t see the need on either side of that issue although I can certainly see the need on the individual level.

    Perhaps I’m spoiled as most of my blog type reading has been in the education area or on hobby based blogs (microcontrollers, gps, making in general, brewing and so on). The majority of these bloggers either feel it is a professional gain to blog or just feel a creative imperative to blog. Some of them use PayPal donation tip jars or targeted ads but its clear that they aren’t making more than beer money. Maybe what you are calling ideal blogs are different but they tend to lead to easily into politics and I know from personal experience that I can’t spend too much time dealing with politics in a blog and comment type arena or I start to go a little crazy. You’ve made the claim that idea blogs will go away but I don’t see that happening on the overall scale even if individual blogs live and die. The way the world is set up now I can’t see us running out of educated people with free time on their hands and internet access in the near future.

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