The Collapsing Economics of Food Blogging

There was an old joke in the internet's early middle ages, back when "Web 2.0" used to be a new phrase:

Web 2.0: You make the content, they make the money.

Food bloggers are learning this for real right now. All bloggers are.

Spend a few minutes on the Get Off My Internets site and you'll see dozens of food and lifestyle bloggers of all stripes launching GoFundMe and Kickstarter campaigns, as the standard blogging income mechanisms of advertising, Amazon links and sponsored posts produce less (and less consistent) income. One particularly high-profile example: Gluten Free Girl, at one point one of the most widely read food bloggers out there[1], just took a part time job to supplement her income.

Yes. It's true.


Bloggers simply aren't making the kind of money they used to. And nowhere is this more true than in food blogging. The question is: why?

Here's why. There are zero--absolutely zero--barriers to entry. Literally anybody can start a blog. And for a while there it seemed like everybody did.

Don't get me wrong, the fact that anybody can start a blog is one of the best things about blogging. It just also happens to be the worst thing about the business of blogging.

And as circular as it sounds, when a profitable marketplace is easy to enter, people enter it. And then more people enter it, and then more, and then more... until the economics are destroyed by too many people having entered it and competed away all the profits.[2] We are well past this point in food blogging.

Worse, most of us (and this includes me) don't really treat what we're doing like a business, making a bad competitive environment even worse. My income from Casual Kitchen these days is perhaps one-tenth (a tenth!) of what it was at peak, which was back in 2010-2011. Admittedly, I am vastly undermonetizing this site, and over time I've eliminated quite a lot of the advertising and other monetization programs I used to use in the past. Maybe this is a mistake and maybe I'm needlessly leaving money on the table, I don't know.

It's a strange business, this blogging. In theory, content over the internet scales nearly perfectly. It costs me nothing, literally zero, to add an incremental reader, or for that matter to add ten times or one hundred times the readers I have. And more readers mean (theoretically at least) more income. So the business "should work" as long as there's low or non-existent competition for those incremental readers. And, likewise, low or non-existent competition for advertisers, sponsors and keyword buyers who will pay for access to those readers. Like I said above, we are well past this point today.

The lack of barriers to entry is the key. I don't mean to be negative or to bring anybody down. But these worsening economics of food blogging? They are here to stay.

[1] In an upcoming post I'll talk more about how bloggers like Gluten Free Girl and Vani The Food Babe managed to garner enormous pageview stats in spite of (or better said, because of) things like recipe errors, bad writing, and horrendously unrigorous thinking.

[2] This is foundational insight for investors too. You want to avoid investing in companies with low or no barriers to entry, and focus on investing in companies with high barriers to entry. Warren Buffett uses the phrase “moats” to describe this: he tells anyone who will listen to seek out companies with wide moats about their business.

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chacha1 said...

I thought about trying to monetize my blog a couple of times. But when it came down to it, I already have a full-time job, and the blog was never going to replace that income. The stuff I tend to write about is simply not the kind of stuff that draws the kind of traffic that generates that kind of income.

Giving up on the notion and letting it just be what it is, i.e. a navel-gazing writing exercise, took quite a bit of anxiety out of my life. :-)

The one concession I have made (and it's pretty lame) is pinning a post about my novels etc to the top, with links. Someday I may be motivated to do more. Eh.

Daniel said...

Thanks for a good comment Chacha. I wonder too how I should be handling Casual Kitchen, whether I'm being foolish to not monetize it more, or even to take it further by take steps to grow my traffic AND monetize it more.

At the end of the day I guess I just wanted to write about what I wanted to write about, and once I started thinking about it like that, I had a similar experience to what you had: it eliminated a lot of the existential anxiety I had about this blog.


Marcia said...

I'm with chacha1. It seems like, hey, maybe I should have monetized and work at it and make some spare cash. But man, I'm an engineer with two kids. My spare time? I'd rather spend it with my kids than trying to put out decent content on a blog.

So also goes the whole writing profession. I've got friends who are writers, or who are reporters in the newspaper business, etc. Now so much content is online, and the newspapers, news outlets are low-balling on payment. My neighbor is the editor in chief of our local free paper, and he considers himself lucky to still be employed in the industry.

Our local pay paper has a horrible owner who basically fired (or caused to quit) all of the reporters, and then she replaced them with college students (yeah, few people buy that paper anymore).

Just look at the accusations against Huffington Post or similar news sites and how they pay their people.