Why You Can’t Make a Living by Blogging

How much can you actually make from blogging?  The question is of more than casual interest to me and to every other blogger out there.  At some point we’ve all wondered how many articles we need to write to get rich, or at least to pay our internet bill.

A couple of years ago Nate Silver, blogging for the _New York Times_, did a rather enlightening analysis  of the Huffington Post’s blog business.  He concluded that HuffPost makes about $13 per blog article.  They don’t pay their bloggers, but if they did they would clearly be paying them less than $13.

Go on Fiverr or similar freelancer marketplaces and you will find any number of people offering to “write a 500 word blog article on any subject” for $5.  I have no idea how many of these they actually book.
What about the rest of us, slightly more casual, bloggers?  Many of us write on Blogger or something similar and monetize through Google Adsense.  What sort of revenue can we expect?

I don’t have access to other bloggers’ data.  I do, however, use Blogger for three of my own blogs.  I started the oldest in 2008 and have posted sporadically ever since.  I decided to see what insights I could glean from my own data.
It wasn’t hard to throw the numbers into a spreadsheet and draw a histogram:

Histogram of actual blog hits.
This distribution might be a little misleading, though.  After all, some of these articles are eight years old, while others were posted this week.  Since blog articles stay on the web forever the older ones will tend to have more lifetime hits, and I needed to correct for this.

Blogger’s dashboard doesn’t give week-by-week histories for individual articles, but I was able to model an article’s hits over time by assuming that it gets 50% of its lifetime visits the first year, 50% of its remaining visits the next year, and so on forever.  If you took calculus you will probably recognize this as an infinite series.  Being a basically lazy person, I avoided doing the math and simply built a spreadsheet to work backwards.  (I won’t go into details.  It involves data tables and lookup functions).  The new distribution, of estimated lifetime hits for all my blog articles, is:

Histogram of lifetime blog hits
By now you will have noticed one of the sad truths about blogging:  for every article that gets a respectable number of hits you write several that hardly anyone reads.

I wanted to come up with an expected number of hits per article.  Since this was a small sample size with an irregular distribution, the best way to handle it was with a simple simulation (statistics nerds would call it a bootstrap).  Returning to my spreadsheet I sampled my distribution 10,000 times.  This allowed me to estimate the expected number of lifetime hits for an article as 1,271, with a 95% confidence interval from 1,192 to 1,350.

According to Adsense, my lifetime RPM (revenue per 1,000 impressions) is $0.96.  I’ve talked with other bloggers, and this seems pretty typical.  By simple multiplication, my expected revenue for a blog article is about $1.22.

One hears stories about people who can bang out five articles a day, every day.  I am not one of those people; I doubt many bloggers are.  When I don’t have any other writing projects, I might be able to manage five a week.  If I did this all year long, I would make about $317.31 from selling ads.  If I sold all of my articles on Fiverr, I could rake in $1,300.  Even if I made as much per article as the Huffington Post, that would still only be $3,380.   Better not quit my day job.  Wait, it’s too late for that.

I think that most bloggers out there are more like me than not, which means that none of us are going to be able to support ourselves from blogging alone.

So Why Do it at All?

The blogging itself doesn’t pay, but it can still make economic sense to blog.  One of the main reasons is to build a writing portfolio that will help you get actual, paying freelance work, or maybe even a regular column.  People have managed it.

Then there are the merchandising opportunities:  You could sell swag like t-shirts and stickers.  Your gross revenue on one bumper sticker is probably bigger than on 1,000 advertising hits.  Or you could try crowdfunding.  Your blog followers are the natural people to hit up for a contribution to your next Kickstarter campaign.

A huge reason for nonfiction writers like me to blog is the chance to post and get feedback on material that will later go in a book.  One of my newer blogs was actually designed from the start to be the first draft of a DIY handbook.  As soon as I hit 150,000 words I’m going to download the whole thing and start arranging it into chapters.

The Lesson

You will never make enough from blogging alone to make a financial difference. However as a writer, blogging might fit into your larger career plan, or help you generate revenue from other sources.

This article was published simultaneously on LinkedIn.

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