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Ad-Free Blog Sites: The Future or the End of Blogging?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

The pros and cons of the ad-free blog site model

The pros and cons of the ad-free blog site model

The Blogging Game Has Changed

In the earlier days of blogging, it was relatively easy to create a passive income stream by hosting advertising on a blog with programs such as Google AdSense. But those glory days are gone and not likely to return due to ad-blocking technologies and intense competition for blog content from every imaginable source, including social media.

Plus, some bloggers are fed up with the constant changes to the social media platforms they’ve used to promote their content, especially Facebook. One of the most significant changes was a "demoting" of Facebook Pages posts in users’ News Feeds. In order to get a shot at getting placement in News Feeds, Pages would now have to pay for either advertising or "boosting" posts.

So today, bloggers are seeking new, non-advertising ways to monetize their content and gain web traffic. Ad-free blog sites usually involve some form of gated content that readers pay to consume.

Self-Hosted Blog With Gated Content

Bloggers with self-hosted blogs—blog sites where bloggers host, finance, and control all aspects of the site’s operation—may gate their content, inviting readers to "pay" for access with a subscription or by providing an email address. The content is usually password protected. Sometimes to entice readers to subscribe, a limited amount of free content is offered to non-subscribers, with full access granted with a paid subscription.

This is the most challenging of the models because the blogger must drive traffic to the site through a variety of methods, including SEO (another constantly moving target!), social media, and, ironically, paying for advertising! As well, there has to be significant value offered to entice readers to pay for the content.

Hosted Ad-Free Blog Sites

Bloggers could also park their content on a subscription-based, ad-free blog site that hosts the work of many bloggers. The advantage to bloggers is that their work could be exposed to a larger audience than what they could obtain for their own self-hosted sites.

How do these host sites make money? They retain a portion of the subscription fees for operations and profits. And again, ironically, these sites may need to do some significant promotion—even paid advertising!—to get web traffic.

On some of these sites, readers pay to access each individual blogger’s content. The site may determine the price, or it may allow each blogger to set a price (Patreon allows each blogger to set prices as of this writing). As with self-hosted blogs, the content must be pretty special to encourage readers to part with cash to read an individual blog on a regular basis.

The Popularity Model and Its Problems

Conversely, on sites such as Medium, readers pay a monthly subscription fee to access the entire site and the work of all participating bloggers, with payouts to bloggers determined by the popularity of specific articles. The greater the popularity in terms of views, likes, etc., the greater the payout.

Sadly, the popularity model can encourage bloggers to game the system. I have seen some requests from participating bloggers begging for mutual support to help them get more income. In other words, "vote for my articles, and I’ll vote for yours." Is this genuine traffic? Hardly. And the never-ending quid pro quo situation this creates is tiresome for everyone, and this manipulated support can be short-lived.

Challenges of Pay-Per-View Blogs

Another possibility is a system of just paying per article. Whether self-hosted or hosted, this can create a heavy blog site administrative cost with handling micropayments. Also, once readers hit the paywall, it’s too easy for them to bounce out to some other free article.

I have to confess to doing the bounce-out myself since it’s such a hassle for me as a reader. By the time I handle the payment, I could have read the whole article. And if the article was a disappointment, I’ll feel doubly cheated since my time and money got spent without value received.

These challenges are likely why I rarely encounter this ad-free model in the Internet wild.

But Will They Pay?

The biggest question with these ad-free models is, "Will readers pay?"

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After spending decades of my career in advertising and marketing, I’m biased. But I think that these sites may struggle in the absence of advertising dollars.

Unfortunately, the Internet was built on an advertising model, just like broadcast television and radio, and newspapers. So weaning readers off of the “put up with ads so you can get this content” trade-off is going to be tough, just as it has been for mass media for decades. Even paid cable channels have to advertise because subscription fees collected don’t cover the cost of content programming.

What's worse is that now readers are enabled with technologies, such as ad blocking, that can help them get good content without even “paying” for it. Plus, another free article or video on almost every imaginable subject is available with a couple clicks through a search engine.

What Ad-Free Models Require

So ad-free models will require that:

  • Bloggers’ content be exceptional and worth paying for, and/or . . .
  • Bloggers have a status as influencers with highly committed audiences willing to pay for this content.

Sadly, I don’t think many (most?) blogs would pass either of these tests, and it may not be the bloggers' faults. There is just too much good content available online, and readers have too little time and energy bandwidth to justify the investment.

Bloggers who have an elitist mentality might be most attracted to using ad-free blog sites, feeling that readers should be willing to pay a few bucks to regularly read their content. True, their content may be valuable.

Doing the Math

But let’s do the math. Say a blogger wants to charge just $2 a month for blog access. That’s $24 a year for a reader to access that blog. However, it’s likely that this blog isn’t the only one the reader wants to read.

For example, I read about five blogs a day regularly in my RSS feed (plus several individual articles on other blogs and email newsletters). If each blog charged me $24 a year, I would be spending a minimum of $120 a year for just those five blogs. Worth it? Even if it was half that price, I’d really have to think twice, comparing it to my investments of time, money, and attention for other content such as books, online courses, etc.

The Impact on Reader Behavior and Sharing

I've also noticed this about my blog reading behavior. When I encounter a paywall, I'm less likely to share that link on social media. First, I'll need to pay to preview it so that I know what I'm about to share. Second, I don't want to share a link that forces my followers to pay some money to view it.

Bloggers Face Survival Challenges

There’s no doubt that many bloggers are going to experience survival challenges going forward. It’s sure to become expensive in time, effort, and cost when compared to financial returns. So, as I’ve gotten on my soapbox about elsewhere, know your reason for blogging and be realistic with your expectations!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 25, 2018:

Peggy, you and me both! I agree that we're pretty conditioned now to look past the ads, especially those that don't interest us.

It is a changing world of content. I think we're all, as content creators, just trying to keep up. As I see trends, I'll share them here on HP.

Thanks so much for stopping by and have a terrific week!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 25, 2018:

I would think long and hard before paying to read a blog. Most people (at least the ones I know) would rather put up with the ads on blogs and look right past them to the content. It is certainly a changing world out there!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 26, 2018:

Donna, hobby bloggers are what built the blogosphere. But, as with anything, making a buck is always attractive, especially if you love your topic.

Like you, I read a LOT of wonderful blogs, both hobby and professional. It would be sad to see them go. But I'm not sure how much I'm willing to invest in them.

I hope there is a place for hobby blogs in the future. Thanks for chiming in and have a lovely week!

Donna Herron from USA on February 26, 2018:

I think I'm very naive when it comes to blogging. I assume (though I'm probably wrong) that the majority of the blogs I visit are just a hobby that might generate a little income for the people writing them. I wouldn't pay to read these blogs, nor would I want to give them my email address for access to read them. I'd miss reading these blogs, though. I hope the blogging future you describe still leaves room for the hobby blogger and the casual reader.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 22, 2018:

Ron, you're not alone! There are some things I'm more than willing to pay to consume in terms of content. Others not so much. And, yes, I would agree that most blog content is not worth paying for, especially opinion pieces. I'm more likely to pay to be informed or educated.

Thanks for chiming in to the discussion! Have a great day!

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 22, 2018:

Looking at my own online behavior, I very seriously doubt that any model that requires readers to directly pay for access to content will work for bloggers. I used to be a regular reader of the New York Times site, but since they put in their pay wall I rarely read it any more. Not that I'm not willing to pay for value, but I chose to subscribe to the Washington Post and I won't pay for both. WaPo is the only online content I pay for. I've never encountered a blog that I'd even consider paying to read.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 21, 2018:

Linda, indeed, it's not encouraging. But if I was starting the whole blogging thing again, I'd sure want to know what my options were. I hope I've helped some new blogger wannabe figure out if it's worth the effort.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 21, 2018:

This is interesting and thought provoking, Heidi. The information is a bit depressing, but it's important that bloggers read it and think about it.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 21, 2018:

Bill, nothing wrong with you at all! You're aligned with your goals and your expectations are realistic. I wish I could say that for most bloggers and writers. Some are just hoping for the big, easy payday. So glad you're in my network! Have a great day!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 21, 2018:

Interesting, but not for me. Maybe there's something wrong with me. I'm just not interested in the revenue part of writing. I started out just writing because it made me feel good; I guess I haven't advanced that far. :) Happy Wednesday my friend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 21, 2018:

Mary, if I could make everyone understand "know your why," I'd feel like I accomplished something! :)

True, there are some resources that are definitely worth the money and should be paid for what they offer. But I think we're very selective in these choices these days.

I'm hoping I'm wrong, but I do think that blogging world is in a great state of flux. I can only hope that it's for the better and that it will weed out the junk.

Thanks for adding your thoughts to the discussion! Have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 21, 2018:

Flourish, I think everyone has an ad aversion... until they understand how the system works. Then the light dawns.

As much as I want to support writers, I rarely pay for access either. Like I mentioned in the article, and you agree, there's just too much good stuff out there to make it worth paying for.

Thanks for adding your experience to the conversation! Have a beautiful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 21, 2018:

Sally, it truly is getting tougher to make money from writing online. And being someone with your talents, selling on eBay might be an easier income path. Thanks for adding that aspect to the conversation! Have a lovely day!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 21, 2018:

Know your why for blogging is my take away. Like you, I beg off sites asking me to pay before I could preview. We subscribe to some like The Economist and BBC World Histories but sometimes, we can't access these online in the countries we work in. Anyway, I believe that authors have to paid just like photographers and I cough up once in a while.

Maybe, you are right, this could trigger the end of blogging as it is now.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 20, 2018:

This is excellent. Before writing online, I disliked ads very much, however now I see their value. Nothing is truly free. When I run into gated content, I don’t pay. I find something else to read. There’s just too much competition available and I will put up with ads.

Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on February 20, 2018:

It seems to be getting harder to earn an income from writing a blog. I often think it is easier to sell something on e-bay than it is to earn from writing.

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