It’s that time of the year again. Last year, sponsorships amounted to about $2000 (not counting the “buy me a coffee” micro-payments, which added another $400). This year, they’ve already crossed the $500 mark without me doing a call.
Sponsorship and “coffee” money represent a fairly small fraction of my income, but on a dumb-money to smart-money spectrum, it is the smartest money I make. I’d trade two dollars of any other kind of income for a dollar of sponsorship income any day. The “smart” in the smart money is the unadultrated goodwill it carries. Though there are no strings attached, I feel a strong urge to reinvest sponsorship income back into the blog and related activities rather than using it to pay the bills. In a way, the money comes with the opposite of a moral hazard attached.
So if you were considering sponsoring this year, consider this your cue and sponsor away.
When I did the call last year, I shared a line (the only line, actually) from my fledgling business philosophy: go where the wild thoughts are.
This year, I’ve added another line: go deep, young man. At 37, I think I get to call myself young man for at least another three years.
Read on for more, if you are interested in my evolving philosophy of blogging. If you are a blogger yourself, chances are you won’t learn much. I am increasingly realizing that my approach to blogging says more about me than about blogging. If you’re not a blogger, this is your annual peek behind the scenes.
Life is Long and Blogging is Young
The big thing on my mind last year, when I did my first annual call for sponsorships, was paid members-only communities, the topic du jour at the time. My big realization was that I really disliked the idea.
At the same time, I recognized that many other bloggers did have a legitimate reason for doing such communities. One of them, Dan Andrews, is in fact one of my sponsors (two years running). He runs a great members-only community, and the model fits what he does perfectly.
But the idea just seemed wrong for ribbonfarm. Thinking about wilderness areas helped me figure out why.
This year, another big thing is on my mind, but I haven’t heard others talking about it: the thought that blogging is very young and most of us in the game have a long life ahead of us to think about. Life is long and blogging is young.
Even Dave Winer (the original blogger in the strict, modern, post-RSS sense of the world) has only been at it for fifteen years.
The original pro-blogger, Darren Rowse, has been at it since 2002, or ten years. He was born in 1972.
Come July, I will have been it for five years. I was born in 1974.
I would guess that the age distribution of pro-bloggers — defined as “people whose financial life depends directly or indirectly on blogging” — probably has its peak in the mid 30s. This means that most of us in this boat have at least another 30 years of financial life ahead of us.
Our personal life futures are twice as long as the entire history of blogging to date. Nobody has yet completed what could be a called a full career in blogging. There are many memoirs by writers, but none by bloggers.
It is a sobering thought. It suggests none of us knows what the hell he/she is doing.
As a useful comparison, when my dad graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1959, the profession had been in existence for about 150 years and mature for 79 years (the ASME was founded in 1880). He knew what he was getting into, and largely got what he expected.
Most of us bloggers haven’t been thinking about the long-term future at all, because it is so uncertain. I don’t even mean this in the retirement planning sense (that’s definitely in the toilet for me, for the time being). I mean in the more basic sense of what will I be doing in 2034, when I hit 60? My dad (and most of your parents) probably had a fairly good idea. An increasing number of us (not just bloggers) have no idea. I could be living in a homeless shelter, or a mansion.
“Blogging” somehow seems like too insubstantial an answer to the 2034 question. It seems more pragmatic to think of it as just an aspect of running a business in the traditional sense. A functional, instrumental activity that falls under marketing as a cost, driving other things like entrepreneurship.
Maybe for some. There are certainly content-marketers, entrepreneur-bloggers, VC-bloggers and others whose readership dwarfs mine. But this instrumental view of blogging still strikes me as far too unromantic.
Blogging doesn’t just feel like an ancillary activity to those of us who do it seriously. It feels like the core activity. It feels like the thing that anchors our economic identity. Calling it “marketing for something else” is like calling book-writing a marketing strategy for the speaker-circuit industry (true in a financial sense for many, but no good book writer I know has priorities set up that way).
I may (in fact I will have to) do other things. Lots of other things if I want to continue to pay the rent. But the core game I’d like to keep playing is blogging.
The Long Game
So what is the state of play? What is the long game that pro-bloggers must work on if they want to be around in 2039 doing something that is a recognizable descendant of blogging?
It is hard to say because so much of relevance to the game has happened even in just the last five years.
Not only is RSS no longer the defining element of blogging, it is not even a particularly relevant element for most end-users (I think in a few years, it will turn into middle-ware technology for various delivery mechanisms).
The rise of the Kindle has already changed the long-form content game and is now taking on shorter forms. My first book Tempo has, in its first year, weathered the decisive overtaking of paperbacks by ebooks. My next book will almost certainly be ebook-first.
The looming rise of active, rich content — animations and zoomable infographics for example — threatens to change the game further. Video is starting to explode. Social diffusion technology is still very unstable. A few years ago, you had to ride the RSS-to-Twitter switch. Then a Facebook presence became important. Now Google+ is changing the nature of organic search.
Mobile devices were mostly irrelevant when I started. Then belatedly, I added a mobile-friendly theme to my WordPress site. Today, mobile-device traffic is over 10% of all traffic. Two years ago, it was less than 5%. Before that, mobile was no more than a rounding error. The change has been so rapid that Wired even proclaimed two years ago, in a nice bit of rhetorical exaggeration, that The Web is Dead.
And don’t forget aging infrastructure. PHP is already an old language and WordPress a mature product. There is a very high likelihood that both will decline and die before most of today’s bloggers do. And in the transition to whatever comes after, chances are, the game will change yet again.
Many people adopt a naively classicist attitude: all that stuff doesn’t matter. Just focus on creating the best content you can and the rest will take care of itself.
Except that it doesn’t.
At least not if you want to build your financial life on top of blogging. Changes in media kill entire generations of content producers who fail to adapt, as many silent movie stars discovered when audio hit the movies.
At the other extreme, there are bloggers who ignore content altogether, and work furiously to keep up with the rapid evolution of the medium. They know all the latest SEO tricks, are the first to figure out every new distribution channel, and experiment with every new idea. But their content stays stupendously crappy in every medium — the same old list posts (Now available as an e-Book and an app!!!) and Three Marketing Lessons from William Shatner type dreck.
Any idiot can toil away at the thankless task of producing great content that the world then fails to appreciate, let alone pay for. Any idiot can get tech-happy and run like crazy to keep up with every tiny development.
It takes serious work to figure out how to balance the two concerns.
Especially if you want to stay in the game for the long-haul: 30-40 years.
Very few will succeed at this balancing act. Heck, most don’t even want to. They’re doing it because they realize they have to.
That might be what makes my situation different. You see, I actually like doing this and want to keep doing it. I actively resent it when other activities cannibalize my blogging energy. I get depressed when I am forced to do things that align poorly with blogging, simply to make money.
A Coffee Date for 2050
I like doing ribbonfarm. I would like to keep doing it for the rest of my life, whatever form the underlying technology takes, be it a website or a telepathic broadcast to readers with the iPhone56 implanted inside their heads.
I would like to spend more and more time doing ribbonfarm. I’d like to continue doing it until dementia and arthritis (assuming keyboards survive the transition to digitally-enabled telepathy) stop me. It is not so much a project as the persistent anchor thread in my life, that stays with me as other projects come and go.
Some of you have been reading this site since Day 1, and I am constantly surprised by the number of people who don’t seem to go away after an initial bout of reading.
Some day, maybe in 2050 if I live that long, I’d like to get together, over immersive-holographic telepresence at my local Starbucks, with the 3.5 people who would have, by that point, stayed with me for five decades instead of just five years. I would like to reflect on the journey with those 3.5 people, and laugh gleefully at the people we’ve managed to outlive. After that conversation, in a lucid hour between bouts of senile and incoherent yelling at my Obamacare robotic nurse (I’ll probably have the Walmart store brand rather than the high-end Roomba branded one), I would like to do one final post and hang up my spurs for good. Some crotchety old reader will no doubt complain in the comments that I never did finish the Gervais Principle, which will at that point, have dragged on to Part XXXV without explaining Toby satisfactorily.
Realistically, I’d put the chances of this scenario playing out at about 10%. Surviving that long in this game is a very low-probability proposition, financially speaking.
I would say 90% of serious bloggers today are not going to be able to make blogging a lifelong calling. I have no reason to believe I am special, so while I’d like to make that 2050 date with whoever plans to attend, and give surviving that long my best shot, it is also going to be a long shot.
My best shot involves going deep.
Back in the the nineteenth century, they used to say, Go West, Young Man.
Today, the best advice I can give myself is Go Deep. What does this mean?
Going deep means understanding the evolving digital landscape in human terms, and situating my actions in a human rather than technological context. It means building interesting relationships rather than Klout. It means paying attention to economic fundamentals — financial and social capital in particular — rather than follower counts and RSS subscription numbers.
This also fundamentally means taking it slow and easy. I have no traffic, analytics, income or sponsorship targets. This grows (or declines) at the rate it wants to, with no artificial acceleration.
I stopped paying attention to the numbers a long time ago. I rarely log into Google Analytics anymore. I only do it when people ask me about my vital stats. If you’re curious, I’ve had 32k visits/22k visitors in the last month and my RSS subscriber count has been hovering around the 4,500 mark for about a year. My bounce rate is 5.3% (this always shocks people who understand what it means), and I get about a third each of my traffic from organic search, referrals and direct visits.
But managing any function of those numbers is like managing the stock price of a company. It will inevitably detract from managing the blog (or company) itself.
I stopped caring not because those numbers aren’t important. They are just not important in the long game. Who knows what surface numbers will matter in 10 or 20 years or what analytics model will measure reader engagement over brain-implant telepathy links?
Going deep is about adding substance, context and narrative to relationships with individual readers and evolving content themes that start out as paint-by-numbers constructs.
On the people front, at what point does a reader initially labeled as (say) RSS subscriber #4482 acquire a name and a voice? At what point does he or she become a memory of a coffee or lunch owed? At what point does he or she become a friend or a co-conspirator on some project?
On the content front, at what point does a average article become a minor viral hit that is worth examining for deeper significance? At what point does a traffic spike change the nature of the comments conversation? At what point does an anchor post like the Gervais Principle or A Big Little Idea Called Legibility turn into the seed of a longer series and eventually work its way into the voice and subtext of a blog? At what point does it give birth to a book? At what point does it turn into a tumor that threatens the vitality of the blog? At what point does it threaten to create an echo-chamber of insider conversations?
Going deep is about cultivating relationships so they transcend numbers. There are obviously natural limits here. I would say I know about a dozen of you quite well by now. Another couple of dozen, I know casually.
I don’t know what blogging will look like in 2050, but I do know that masses of nameless data points won’t really matter. The ones who are more than numbers will be the ones who make this both worth doing and possible to do, psychologically, socially and financially. My limit is probably around 150, but I’ll worry about that when I get there.
I sometimes have conversations with other bloggers where we discuss propositions like “10,000 RSS subscribers is really the critical threshold at which X happens.”
But in a way, I cannot bring myself to care about such numbers games. Perhaps such claims are true. I wouldn’t know. Philosophically I’d prefer to have more stories to tell than graphs to ponder. I don’t have the right psychological wiring to play the mass-market analytics-driven game. I wouldn’t care if my readership plateaued at 4500 RSS readers (or future equivalents), so long as the evolving story kept getting richer and more interesting, with more oddball characters, weird events and strange memories accumulating every year.
Going deep is of course not the only approach to the long 30-40 year game. I suppose many of my peers with equally long views are going for the broad game: building certain numbers across multiple generations of technology, and growing a nameless, faceless, storyless “market” at a clockwork 5% a year or something. But something about that sheer quantitative scaling vision, with no change in the narrative of the Blogging Life, depresses me.
Going Deep in Practice
Back here in 2012, the Blogging Life evolves one year at a time, one tax-return at a time, as you ponder whether to keep at it for another year, or quit the game and look for a job. So far so good. 2012 is shaping up to be a good year for me, consulting-wise, so I don’t think I’ll be forced to quit this year. This also means I am relatively unconstrained in deciding how to use sponsorship money to improve the blog, since I’ve already got rent covered.
Last year, I spent about half the sponsorship money on a new laptop, and the rest on organizing several field trips for readers in the Bay Area. I met at least a hundred readers in person, and made at least a half-dozen new friends. Ridiculous numbers for an introvert. But then, the Web is changing our ideas about what words like introvert even mean.
This year my plans have changed. Thanks to the success of Refactor Camp in paying for itself without much subsidizing, I think offline events can safely be left to fund themselves if money is required. My future plans on that front are to make all such events no-profit/no-loss, and paid for entirely by attendees.
That also makes it fairer, since I don’t want to use global sponsorship money only in the few physical locations where there are enough Friends of Ribbonfarm around to sustain ongoing real-world activities.
So my spending plans this year, depending on the sponsorship levels, will be split between supporting core writing projects and “going deep” experiments.
On the first front, at some point this year, I hope to start my second serious book. I thought of doing a Kickstarter funding drive for it separately, but then I realized I prefer the looser sponsorship model for this sort of thing, with fluid expectations and commitments. After all, with Tempo, I moved my publication date something like six times and got it out the door two years later than I planned. But I got it done.
On the second front, I will be trying out a few online “going deep” experiments. I am not sure what those might be yet. I’ve thought of (or had suggested to me) various ideas like offering paid blogging apprenticeships, holding “online field trips” based on the offline ones from last year, supporting a sort of online coworking studio (free, but with qualifying requirements for members), and a webinar series.
We’ll see. I am open to suggestions.
So with that, I’ll leave you with the link to the 2012 sponsors page.