Ad-Free Blog Sites: The Future or the Beginning of the End for Blogging?
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 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 which 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.
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?”
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.
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.
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 bloggers’ fault. 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.
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 5 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 5 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.
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 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.
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!
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© 2018 Heidi Thorne