In Mad Men, season 4, the episode called “Blowing Smoke”, “Don Draper” finally vents his fury at the tobacco industry and shows his exasperation with having to produce mediocre work for a product that people will buy regardless of how bad it is for them, because they are addicted to it. The wording of the opinion piece that Don writes for the newspapers goes like this:

Recently, my advertising agency ended a long relationship with Lucky Strike cigarettes.
And I'm relieved.
For over 25 years, we devoted ourselves to peddling a product for which good work is irrelevant,
because people can't stop themselves from buying it.
The product that never improves, causes illness and makes people unhappy. 

But there was money in it. A lot of money.
In fact, our entire business depended on it. We knew it wasn't good for us, but we couldn't stop.
And then, when Lucky Strike moved their business elsewhere,
l realized here was my chance to be someone who can sleep at night
because I know what I'm selling doesn't kill my customers.
So as of today, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will no longer take tobacco accounts.

We know it’s going to be hard. If you’re interested in cigarette work,
here's a list of agencies that do it well: BBDO, Leo Burnett, McCannErickson,
Cutler Gleason and Chaough, and Benton and Bowles.
As for us, we welcome all other business,
because we're certain that our best work is still ahead of us.
Sincerely, Donald F. Draper, Creative Director, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce”
(Script for “Blowing Smoke” written by Andre Jacquemetton and Maria Jacquemetton.)

Likes, schmikes!

It was a noble sentiment, this ending of the easy money and low standards, but it meant that “SCDP” almost went bankrupt. It is likely that the script writers  – who worked many lessons on advertising into the series – wanted the viewer to recognize that “popularity” is not and should not be the most important aspect of running a business.

These days though, it’s often the other way around from the situation in Mad Men: you get more business because you are popular; you don’t get popular because of your business. Watching this episode made me think about those little “like” icons that mean so much these days.
The aim of online communications is to prove yourself “popular”, and you grow your business from there. Basically, you have to accumulate a heck of a lot of likes in order to qualify to host advertisements on your blog or video blog (vlog) – it varies per platform.

Seth Godin wrote an astute comment on the real scam of ‘influencer’, about this issue of wanting to be popular on social media for business purposes.

“Part of the scam is that the pyramid scheme of attention will somehow pay off for a lot of people. It won’t. It can’t. The math doesn’t hold up. Someone is going to win a lottery, but it probably won’t be us. And a bigger part is that the things you need to do to be popular (the only metric the platforms share) aren’t the things you’d be doing if you were trying to be effective, or grounded, or proud of the work you’re doing. When there’s a single metric (likes/followers), we end up looking in the rear-view mirror when we should be driving instead.”

This amassing of hits, views, likes and subscribers comes at a price.

A really hard goal to achieve

Apart from Seth Godin’s blog, I follow another two, one on the Archaeology of death, “Archeodeath”, another on Mining and Geology, “Urban Crows”. Both are often hilarious and are written by experts in their fields who put a great deal of work into their blogs and produce high quality information. It disturbed me that both of these writers have voiced their need for more “likes” – and I sensed a level of frustration with this endeavour. I can only think of one reason for doing this – because of monetization, in other words, they are hosting advertising on their blogs, or because they want to get to the point of being able to monetize it.

Professor Howard Williams of Archeodeath wrote, in frustration:

“I’m entering a crisis. I’ve been blogging for over 6 years on this WordPress site and I’ve been struck by the growing realisation I’m doing this social media academic engagement thing all wrong. Let me be specific. I realise it’s futile to write on blog-posts about places I visit including public art and memorials, funerary landscapes, mortuary architectures and material cultures, supplying lots of photographs and contextual information. […] None of this is what social media public wants from today’s public-facing academic mortuary archaeologist, so I need to stop. Nobody cares, nobody is learning, no one is interested! So what do people want from me instead? Perhaps nothing, and maybe that’s just as well. But if I do continue, I guess people really need me to articulate more outrage at injustices disconnected from my actual expertise and knowledge-base.”

Yes, Prof. Why are you surprised? This is exactly how the blogosphere works. The professor has since waded into controversy. I hope it had the desired effect for him.

The Mining and Geology blogger, Ralph Rushton, has a sense of humour about his aim to gain subscribers. He writes, with a dash of wit, at the end of every blog post, for people to like and subscribe to his blog. He wrote in June 2019 of a significant achievement:

“In other news, welcome to my new subscribers and a big thanks to everyone who read my blog piece “What is a geologist”. As of this moment, it’s been read 7,600 times since I posted it, by readers in over 100 different countries. This is beyond any readership numbers I could have hoped for. Many thanks for the support.”

Wow. Yes, that is a lot of hits, congratulations. Now, Mr. Rushton, how to keep that up?

The ugly truth

Looking beyond the requirement for likes and subscribers and the small and large gains bloggers may have, the truth is darned ugly:

1. It’s a long shot that you will ever make any decent, sustainable income off the ads on your blog if you only write factual, balanced posts at regular intervals.

2. To actually get advertising revenue you will not only need an insane number of followers, hits and likes (start with 1,000 actual, verified followers) but you will have to change the structure, content and production of your site to pull in and grow that base. (Here is a scary lesson on how to make money on Instagram.) It’s about frequency, inbound and outbound links, ads, sponsorships, endorsements, replication across platforms, and of course, popularity.

3. If you want more likes and followers, then you have to move beyond an informed, focused reader base into those faceless masses who want scandal, instantaneous satisfaction, brevity, outrage, fury, etc. But remember, you might get more likes but you’re letting the crazies into your world.

If you are someone rational and mature, and you want to lead in your field, why would you do any of this? Why would you even associate yourself with it? Your reputation is all you have when you move into consulting or thought leadership. If you write to get clicks and likes, you are placing yourself in the category of that 8-year old kid who is the highest earner on YouTube, or those self-taught “influencers” whose aim, come hell or high water, is to get more followers on Twitter or on Instagram.

If you think you can do it, first read the cautionary tale of the highly paid and highly successful former YouTuber PewDiePie. He learned the hard way how to make money off a vlog.

Can you make money with a blog?

There are ways to make money off blogs, micro-blogs or vlogs, apart from hosting those nasty little product ads that have nothing to do with what you write about:

  • Some people post videos or podcasts regularly for years, and then write books (fiction and non-fiction) on the subject (Welcome to Night Vale, Good Mythical Morning).
  • Others do roadshows and stage appearances, extending from the Internet to the real world (Welcome to Night Vale).
  • Some arrange tours or trips based on their blog or vlog contents, and form user groups at physical locations (atlasobscura).
  • Some sell merchandise related to their blog contents or their blog branding – this usually works best if a TV show is developed from the blog. (This was the case with American Pickers, which started out in about 2006 when picker Mike Wolfe of Antique Archeology made tape recordings of his picks, and posted the videos that he and Justin Anderson of Crazy Eyes Productions had made on Wolfe’s web site. Wolfe eventually made a deal with the History Channel. And the rest, as they say, is history.)
  • A handful successfully go from providing free info on their blogs to selling actual products.
  • Other bloggers or YouTubers get jobs based on what they have blogged for years – for instance they lecture or teach.

Note “for years” – decades even – since that is how long it takes to build a base and convert a “follower” or “subscriber” to a “client” or “buyer”. One success story is the weapons expert, Ian McCollum, the presenter of the vlog on YouTube, called Forgotten Weapons.

How to succeed as a blogger/vlogger

The image shows McCollum wearing one of his large collection of military-style hats.

His carefully made, well-narrated and factual reviews of interesting historical weapons have gained him a huge following. He has 1.43 million subscribers on YouTube, but consider the mind-boggling fact that he has been posting videos since May 2011, and he posts a (strictly apolitical) technical and historical video almost every day! On 24 December 2019, he posted the 2000th video on his YouTube channel. He has other jobs as well, as a Director of the National Firearms Act Trade & Collectors Association, Technical Advisor of the Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners (AFTE) and a researcher at the Armament Research Services (ARES). His YouTube channel hosts advertisements, and his personal website has sidebar ads for related products as well as his own merchandise. He has recently been a contributor to a high-end weapons handbooks, and has himself written a classy, beautifully produced history of French rifles. The interesting thing is that he has achieved all this without being political, sensationalist or gory. He also has the best hair in the Vlogiverse, which helps, I think.

If Mr. McCollum’s road to success looks plain impossible, but you still totally hate hosting those paid ads, you can change the way advertising works on your blog. That’s a whole different kettle of fish to be addressed in another post.

The alternative view on monetization

Alternatively, you can write or do vlogs not for likes but because you are a reputable source of information, effective, grounded, proud of the work you’re doing, and certain that your best work is still ahead, to quote “Don Draper”.

My advice to others in the same boat as the two soul-searching blog authors mentioned here is that you’re never going to make money off your blogs unless you make it your vocation and do nothing else, and, probably, sell your soul in the process.

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