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Trust Capital In The Mommyblogosphere

by anna on September 13, 2010

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trust capital

The success of using bloggers to market things depends upon the trust capital View definition in a new window that bloggers build up with their audiences. Lately, I’ve noticed a significantly increased amount of brand engagement from bloggers that is taking place directly in the content column, instead of in the sidebars or as a secondary aspect to their blog’s usual content. While I have no problem with this engagement in theory — I am about as pro-blog monetization of a person as you are going to find — the increased interaction gives me some pause because of the trust capital factor. As a way of evaluating whether or not content engagement is going to work for you and your blog, I wanted to start a discussion about what trust capital is in the mommyblogosphere, and how we can think about developing it, as well as making sure our efforts to monetize do not undermine its maintenance.

1. Trust capital is a specialized form of social capital.

Trust capital functions in a similar way to, but should not be confused with social capital in new media. Social capital is the degree of influence that you have as a result of your connections in the new media space. You start off with nothing, and as you become active on blogs and Twitter, you start to earn credibility or influence as a result of your engagement with people. Your relationships and influence become things that have a value, and that you can actually “spend” in certain contexts (e.g. getting your Twitter followers to support you in voting for a blog award, or in helping you to publicize a project). Trust capital is a form of social capital, but it applies directly to bloggers who have developed a relationship with readers attached to a specific set of expectations. For example, if you have been blogging for many years without doing any kind of sponsored content, your readers have come to expect that when you feature a link to products or services on your blog, you are sharing with them free from any kind of monetary consideration. Your readers come to expect that you are telling them about your life (and the products you like) just as a natural offshoot of content creation. They trust that what you tell them about is good, because otherwise there would be no reason for you to mention it.

2. Trust Capital Takes Time To Build

This process takes time. It takes a long time to develop a relationship with a readership, and it takes a long time to build up trust. Trust capital does not just appear overnight, and that’s why it’s so valuable — it’s the difference between having a product recommended by somebody you’ve never met, and a product recommended by somebody who is a trusted friend. Whereas somebody can have a ton of social capital just by their relationship to other people (e.g. if you are known to have influence over a particularly popular blogger, for example, you may have a large amount of social capital), you cannot build trust capital without developing a readership on your own and filling it with people who trust that you are a person to be listened to.

3. Trust capital needs to be balanced like a checkbook.

If you have a great deal of trust capital, you are controlling a valuable commodity for which advertisers will pay handsomely. It can be very tempting to use your trust capital to get some actual economic capital — particularly once you get a glimpse of how much advertisers are willing to pay for it. Content-column placements pay much better than sidebar placements, and if you want to make money as a blogger without the kind of crazy traffic levels that are required to make a full time income from sidebar ads, you will be tempted to start experimenting with leveraging your trust capital by putting sponsored content in your content column. There’s nothing wrong with this, but you must do it with an eye to keeping your audience’s trust — it is not enough to ensure that your audience is getting content in exchange for their time, you must also make sure that their trust of you is not being affected.

Trust can be eroded in various ways — are you featuring products that you would never mention, were they not paying you to do so? Even if the product is not directly affecting your content (e.g. a sponsored post that simply says “Sponsored by XXXX company” but is otherwise completely free from third-party influence), this can still erode trust. It might not be fair, but watching comments and emails from people who are dealing with blogs that have an increased amount of sponsored content suggests that this is how it works. People start to trust you less when you feature sponsored content. They may still read you, and they may want to buy the things that you have, but the element of trust is still decreased.

4. Trust Capital Is a Suspension Of Disbelief Based On Past Performance.

One way to figure out when you are spending your trust capital is to look at what you are asking of your audience. When you say, “I am asking you to suspend your disbelief that this sponsored post is worth reading, based on the fact that in the past I have given you tons of great free content,” you are spending trust capital. When you ask your audience to believe that your endorsement of a mass-marketed product is genuine and uninfluenced by your sponsorship relationship, particularly when you have never been one to endorse mass-marketed products in the past, you are spending trust capital. There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending trust capital, but you have to remember that you only have so much of it to spend. If you repeatedly spend your trust capital without doing anything to build it back up, you are eventually going to find yourself with an empty account.

5. The Way You Build Trust Capital Is By Doing Things That Are Right, And Possibly Difficult, Even And Especially When There Is No Direct Benefit To You.

Trust capital in blogging is initially established by creating high quality free content. But if you plan to do a lot of sponsored content, you are going to have to up the ante a little bit. It will no longer be enough to just blog the way you have in the past: you will need to do more. One way I have seen this done successfully is by creating additional, bonus free content that has an easily recognized direct market value and giving it to your readers for free. For example, Ree Drummond (The Pioneer Woman) had a set of Photoshop Actions developed and released for her readers for free. She could easily charge for these products — many people do. By giving them to her readers for free, she has upped the ante in terms of their trust that what she is doing is in the spirit of generosity and giving.

Another way to build trust capital is to do or say things that are not necessarily beneficial to you. For example, if a company or sponsor does something you do not like, removing them from your blog immediately and explaining why you have done so, can build trust capital. Deciding to not participate in the same kinds of campaigns that other, comparable bloggers have chosen can also build trust capital. Saying things that are not popular, when there is a clear moral issue at hand, can build trust capital with readers who feel similarly.

6. I’m a little concerned about how trust capital is being spent right now in the mommyblogosphere.

First, let me acknowledge that I don’t know what is going to happen with the economy of trust capital in the mommyblogosphere any more than anyone else. I have no idea if audiences will respond to the increase in sponsored content favorably or not. However, the reason that I wanted to start talking about trust capital is that I’ve been disturbed by the shit ton of sponsored content I’ve seen recently around the mommyblogging space. While I’m excited that people are finding ways of monetizing, I am worried that there may be partnerships formed with brands that do not have the best interest of the blogger’s brand at heart. From an advertising brand’s perspective, the blogger is interchangeable: if a blogger becomes less influential as a result of working with too many brands, they will just move onto the next one. But if a blogger becomes less influential, they are going to have a tough time building that value back up. I’m worried about this because in blogging there is no middleman network on whom we can place the blame for sponsorship: in TV, we can always note the inclusion of commercials or product placement as something “the network” or “the studio” forces the creative people to do. In blogging, there is nobody like this to blame, and though it’s not fair, and as much as I want bloggers to be paid for their work, I worry that they are cashing in on a resource that is dwindling.

What do you guys think? Will blogging audiences become more amenable to sponsored content? Is their a limit to how many sponsored posts you can do? How do you figure this out?

this is not me

Last Monday, I posted a list of recommendations for small bloggers looking to monetize. The recommendations I made prompted a few questions regarding timelines and what kind of results to expect, and as I began to answer I realized that perhaps it would be better to just write a post on the topic. In July, it will be two years since I first launched ABDPBT, and though the blog has since grown into four different sections, I have learned quite a bit since then about what it means to approach blogging as a business. Though there are countless other people who have been doing this for far longer than I have been, I am one of only a handful of people who started blogging as a business endeavor from day one and who have worked at it full time since then. Below are some observations and advice based on those two unusual characteristics of my blogging experience.

  1. It takes almost two years really gain traction.

    People want to start blogging and hit it big yesterday. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for how long it take to hit it big, but look at it this way: Dooce View definition in a new window was blogging for five years before her husband quit his job, and Ree Drummond published her cookbook after about three years of full-time blogging. Those are the two meteoric success stories of the mommyblogging world, and they are hardly overnight success stories, so you shouldn’t expect to be any different. In fact, you should expect it to take longer, if anything.

    I think it is something like two years before anything tangible is likely to start happening.

    This doesn’t mean that magically after two years, you are huge or an “A-lister” or that everybody loves you and you’re being invited to speak at conferences, represented by Federated Media, and have a book deal. But if you are working very hard and consistently, beating down every doorstep and not taking no for an answer, over and over again, for two years, you will have gained some traction and have a readership in that time.

    At almost two years, there are many people who, maybe they don’t actually read my blog, but they at least know this blog exists by now, they are aware enough of its existence to be annoyed by its name. That’s with updates of not every section of this blog every day, but at least a few times per week, going to two or more conferences per year (even though these sometimes give me anxiety), keeping up with tons of other blogs (commenting when I can), returning emails (always), returning comments on my site (nearly always), returning @-replies and DMs on Twitter (very often), responding to PR solicitations (often), offering to help PR people when I think I can help them find people who fit their products better than I do (occasionally).

    I consider this my career and treat it that way, even when I don’t want to — like the past few weeks, when I’ve kind of wanted to escape it. I have faced it. And even then, success isn’t handed to you overnight. It takes a ton of work. I rarely think about how long it is going to take, perhaps that is because of my background. But people who think that bloggers who are fabulously successful like Heather Armstrong View definition in a new window and Ree Drummond are just lucky are sorely mistaken: it takes a ton of hard work and time to get where they are. You will probably have to work even harder.

  2. You have to bring something new to the table.

    It’s really easy on the outside to see a blogger who is successful and think, “I can do that.” Maybe you can. But they did it first. What are you going to do that is different? Because they’re already doing it. We don’t need another one of them. We don’t even need a better one of them, necessarily. We need a different something.

    The easiest thing to do is to just figure out whatever it is that makes you you and make that your thing. Like for me, maybe being a pain in the ass critic is not necessarily something that you would consider an asset, but look, nobody can do that like I can. So that’s my thing, and that’s what I built this site around, different aspects of that, and my life. And all of the parts of the site feed into that. Nobody else is doing it because, well, nobody else can do it — and would they want to? And there’s a purpose to it, and there’s a market for it, and it allows me to do what I do best, and I can go through the web and be me, even if I have to take heat for it sometimes, I never have to hide who I really am, or worry that somebody will figure out that the way I present myself doesn’t really match my personality.

    If I have one piece of advice to give a new blogger it is this: try to make you “online brand” match your real identity as much as possible — to the extent that you can control this. They don’t have to be the same thing, necessarily, but try to keep them from totally clashing. Discrepancies between the two can really cause problems down the line. This might not make sense to you now, but later on it will — you need to have a brand that allows you to be true to yourself, or else you won’t want to stick with it for as long as blogging takes to turn into a money making endeavor.

  3. Very few can make it on display ads alone.

    Very, very few bloggers can make a living solely on display ads. There are some who do: Dooce, Pioneer Woman, MckMama, and some others (Nie Nie?) I believe. But even those ones are plagued by the problems we have seen with ad networks being able to meet their ad inventory demands in a down market. You have to have crazy traffic to do so: I’m going to estimate that the point at which it becomes a full time income (when using an ad network, that is) is somewhere over a million pageviews per month, though this would depend upon where you live. If you live in Los Angeles, it would probably be several million pageviews per month, but elsewhere in the country, perhaps only 750K would be enough. If you sell private ads on your own, you might be able to make a full time living before that point, and if you broker your own placement deals, you definitely could make it long before that. The point is: display ads, at present, are only an option for full time income for a small portion of bloggers with very high traffic levels. You might be one of those people some day, but you have to be in it for the long haul and you have to really put in your time and be willing to sacrifice to get there. It is not going to happen in a year. It might not happen in five years. It might not ever happen.

  4. There must be some kind of EVENT View definition in a new window (over which you have no control) that brings you to the next traffic level.

    This is the very cynical part of my analysis that is going to make everyone cringe, but when has this ever stopped me from doing anything in my life? If you look at the few people who have reached the very very high traffic levels, the ones who have a full time income from display ads, they all have some kind of EVENT that got them there with one very notable exception. That EVENT includes a firing for writing about a job on the internet that was covered extensively in mainstream media (Dooce), the heartwrenching struggle with sickness of child (MckMama), a horrific near-death accident that was covered by mainstream media and subsequent triumph of the human spirit recovery that was covered by Oprah (Nie Nie). The exception to this is Ree Drummond, who I think bypassed these through masterful use of marketing to get the word out about her site, and kept people around because the content was good and everything spread through word of mouth until mainstream media finally caught on within the past year. My point is not to lessen the merit of these bloggers but rather to call attention to the importance of these EVENTs in bringing up their traffic to income-generating levels. Without those EVENTs — over which a blogger cannot have any control — the blogger’s traffic might not ever have reached the traffic at which it currently resides. (And yes, I know I will be attacked as “heartless” for saying this.)

  5. You must be an entrepreneur first, writer second. At some point in the history of the blogosphere, it might have been the case that you could end up finding yourself at the helm of a very profitable blog without a plan, but this is not the case anymore. Do I consider myself to be a writer? Yes. I always have been. When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer. But if you want to turn a blog into a money-making endeavor you need to think of yourself as an entrepreneur first and a writer second. Hopefully you have skills in both areas, and about eighteen other areas as well, because you are going to need them. Being a good writer is not enough. In fact, it’s not even necessarily required. There are tons of good writers, and not all successful bloggers are necessarily the best writers. If what is most important to you is to write, then just write. If you want to find a market for your writing, then blogging is a good way of doing that, but you will have to be willing put your artistic needs in the backseat on occasion to get stuff done. This does not mean it’s not important. It just means that there are many ways of being creative. The great thing about building a blog is that you never know which way you’re going to be able to express your creativity next.

Turns out it’s not just one post. It’s more like a series of posts, or possibly a new reason for Brian Williams to set up a fake house in Middle America and invite people over for sweet tea View definition in a new window and cookies. I cannot explain everything in one post, people, it’s impossible. But I’m going to chip away at it, bit by bit, and if you want to hear about it, then you can, and if not, then you can ignore me, and if you are already annoyed by the whole thing, then I suggest you take me off your reader and go on your merry way. Because my former ad network has already kicked me off for a violation that is, in my (not very humble) opinion, bullshit, so I feel like I have very little left to lose here by exposing the method by which they make their sausage to the rest of the audience. If you don’t eat very much sausage anyway, and would prefer to continue enjoying what little you do eat, that’s your choice. Stop reading now, and bear in mind that many of my posts here (though not all) in the following weeks will probably concern this topic.

This topic?

Why have people seemed to be making less money on the BlogHer View definition in a new window ad network lately? This is a question I’ve gotten over and over again in recent months? Can you please figure it out? Do you know why? Anna, will you look into it? Ever since I first addressed this issue of allocating the inventory of ads in the BlogHer Ad Network, I’ve been dreading writing the follow-up I knew I would have to write. Because even if I believe that BlogHer is a business that can do as it pleases, under the law, there is still an absence of open commentary, at present, on its revenue allocation model. And because of this, new people thinking about getting involved in the network are not able to make informed decisions about whether or not to partner with BlogHer for monetizing their blogs in its post-Pioneer Woman incarnation. Let me be clear: you are not going to find a bigger fan of Ree Drummond than myself. You are just not going to find a bigger cheerleader for her and how she has grown her business in such a short time and with so much class and grace. Period.

Also: I knew it could not be so simple as all the money is going to Ree. It just could not be that simple. And as it turns out, I was right. But the thing is, knowing that and proving how it happens are two different things, and the way online advertising works is very complicated and the system benefits from the fact that so few people are willing to take the time and effort it takes to understand how it works. Just as an introduction today, though, let me tell you the facts you need to know in order to understand the whole picture. Then, you can come back here to see the follow-up posts to get a more fleshed-out understanding of everything, because like I said, if I tried to present it all here, it would take up like sixteen screens and give us all a headache.

  1. BlogHer used to have approximately 20.5 million pageviews per month on its entire network total. It then added, which is a site that has 21.1 million pageviews on its own. This is a big problem in terms of balancing ad inventory, as you might imagine. Now, it might be the case that will be a selling point for BlogHer with advertisers, but because advertisers buy their inventories way in advance, this has not happened yet. The site was brought on the network before it was able to help promote its sales.
  2. BlogHer Ads Uses A Tier System That, Together With Traffic, Governs How Many Ads A Publisher Serves.
    The tier system is the elusive “valve” in the metaphor I used in my post on ABDPBT on Friday. It is the most difficult thing to explain about all of this, and the thing that is going to involve graphs and probably the most crossed eyes from all of you. Remember that, as a business wanting to make a profit, BlogHer can form whatever contracts it wants with each individual blogger, provided it can get us to sign them. But most of us have signed contract that suggest it will give us equal access to all of the given paid ads available for our subcategory (e.g. parenting, food, life, whathaveyou) at any given time). When I wrote about this earlier, and speculated about Ree Drummond’s contract, I suggested that it was possible she had some kind of special arrangement to serve a higher percentage of paid ads than the rest of us, but that it would be impossible to say for sure because we didn’t have access to her contract.

    Then I found out about tiers View definition in a new window.

    What happened was this: people have been noticing that there have been real, paid ads served on the Pioneer Woman’s site when other other BlogHer sites had unpaid, house ads, or PSAs, for months now. They noticed this long before I even wrote about it. The phenomenon has just been more widespread since then. Basically, everyone has just accepted that there has to be some kind of value system that differentiates us from her.

    But then somebody said something to me, offhandedly, about how BlogHer must have “changed their tiers again,” and I said, “Ummm, what? Tiers?” and that’s how I found out that, yes, there was some kind of thing at BlogHer Ads called tiers, and a publisher could get bumped up or down one, based on something like swearing too much or getting on somebody’s good or bad side, or being especially popular, or being somebody somebody wanted to promote. Now, it’s very hard to find information out about tiers, because very few people know about them, and even fewer people are willing to talk, but here’s what I’ve been able to discern: the decision to be bumped up or down a tier does not sound like it’s tightly controlled, because it was the kind of thing that — at least in a case that I had heard of — that an employee could change without anyone really noticing or caring. And this is all rumor and allegation, of course, and not on the record, so it’s not like I can take it to anybody and do anything about it.

    Unless I can look at the stats and prove that something like tiers exist with math.

    As it turns out, I can.

    So later in the week, I will show you the nuts and bolts of how, and demonstrate that it’s not only your traffic that decides how much money you make when you serve BlogHer Ads.

  3. The tiers include Pioneer Woman versus everybody else, but that’s only one small part of it. When this started, we thought that the big problem was that all of our ads were going to Ree Drummond’s site. As it turns out, Ree’s immense traffic is just what made it easier for us to figure out that something was wrong. If we hadn’t had something that big pulling stuff away from the higher traffic sites, we might never have realized there was a system of favoritism directly lining pockets of people within this advertising network.
  4. Sometimes a little is more than you think. The vast majority of the network makes so little money from serving ads that they are not motivated to do anything about this kind of stuff. This is probably not news to anybody, but the people who are really being exploited by this system are the people who are used to making like $20 or less per month from BlogHer, because they allow the network to exist — and I really mean this, they allow the network to exist by running ads on the over 2,500 blogs that are on the network, and without them the worst companies in the world like, well fuck you know who they are, they are the ones who pay for all of the parties at BlogHer — they wouldn’t be interested in buying advertising on the network. And those people wouldn’t be raking in the dough no matter what, but if they’re makign $20 now, they should be making $40. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a huge amount to you, but if I’m making $300, I should be making $600. And if somebody else I know is making $1200, they should be making $2400. See? You start noticing when your percentage is big enough to notice. But they thrive on the fact that most people have such a small amount coming to them that they won’t care. This is just something to take into consideration.
  5. Tiers for house ads versus defaults? As I delved further into the stats, I realized that getting to the bottom of this problem is probably beyond me, mathematically speaking. In other words, I’ve uncovered stuff, but I’m not sure that I’m gifted enough with numbers to uncover everything that is there. So this story is one that is very much developing. And every day, somebody new gives me more information that gives me a new direction in which to go. For example, I thought that the tiers just governed how many highly paid ads somebody got access to, but it turns out they also will serve more house ads (low paid) to people versus defaults (totally unpaid). So it’s very complicated, and this just underscores, in my mind, the need for regulation of this industry.

Again, thank you to everybody who has helped so far, and anybody who wants to throw their stats into the mix (anonymously and without repercussion because you can do it without BlogHer ever knowing you helped) please email me at anna at ABDPBT View definition in a new window dot com.

UPDATE: After various accusations of withholding information, I’ve posted my termination email from BlogHer here.

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