It’s been a little over five years since we first decided to upload the picture we had taken of our lunch to the internet. Since then, our blog has grown and changed tremendously; a few redesigns, some logo and tagline tweaks, nearly 1,000 posts, and around 150,000 monthly readers later, and we’re still learning, largely as we go. When we talk to people about our site, when we try to explain how we’re trying to make a career out of being snarky about sandwiches, the question we get asked the most isn’t about blog software or photography lighting setups.
It’s about how to make money as a food blogger.
Now that the number of people blogging about food has almost eclipsed the number of people actually reading food blogs1, it’s an important question. Food bloggers usually reach a point, somewhere between 6-12 months into their careers as food bloggers, where the sheer amount of work involved suddenly seems a lot more daunting than it did in the very beginning, when they were first signing up for that Bluehost account. After all, if you’re investing all of that time cooking, setting up your makeshift photography studio, writing posts, and trying to find new readers, not to mention all of that money on camera equipment, decorative props, and exotic ingredients, there’s got to be a financial reward for all of that hard work, doesn’t there?
The answer, which you’re probably not going to want to hear, is mostly, “No.”
Actually, it’s more like a solid “Maybe.” I’ll elaborate.
With the food blogging landscape growing increasingly crowded, and with the collective level of food photography and styling skill rising ever higher, it’s unlikely that you will make a living as a food blogger. At least, not at first. When you first get started, you may find you even have a hard time even covering the cost of your ingredients. Unless you get incredibly lucky, or manage to innovate the space (such as by writing obscenities on photos of croissants), it will probably take somewhere north of three to five years of extremely high quality, consistent posting before you will be able to successfully monetize your food blog.2
Why isn’t there more money in food blogging? These days, most of the ad networks you will use to add banners to your website work off the “CPM” model, or “Cost per Thousand” impressions of an ad banner. These networks used to be a pretty solid way to add a few dollars to your website’s bottom line. For example, if you find a network that pays a $2 CPM, that means that for every thousand page impressions, you’ll earn two bucks. That meant that if you could somehow show that banner 100,000 times, you’d earn $200 bucks. Not super-encouraging, but not bad, right? As long as you could get tons and tons of traffic, you could make a few bucks.
Here’s the problem. Most of the major CPM networks realized somewhere along the way that a lot of the traffic they were paying for was fraudulent. Either directly, by unscrupulous webmasters using bots, or indirectly, from users buying low-price traffic bundles from overseas that ran up pageview counts, without ever delivering a customer. As a result, the CPM advertising model is in serious trouble, and the rate that networks are willing to pay has plummeted. Now, it’s not at all unusual to see CPM advertising networks paying out in the 50-75 cent range per 1,000 views, which is a downright miserable way to try and earn a living with your website, no matter how much traffic you receive.
Instead, modern food bloggers know that in order to successfully monetize their food blogs, they need to have multiple revenue streams each contributing a trickle of income into their blog’s coffers. In the “good old days” of food blogging, food bloggers could count on one or two fat checks every month. Now, successful food bloggers must have dozens of smaller checks coming in all month long from dozens of different sources.
Diversifying your income streams this way is a lot of work, but it makes a lot of sense. Finding lots of ways for your food blog to make money makes a lot more sense than counting on just one thing. Say, for example, you find an amazing ad network that pays you a $5 CPM. You’re making money hand over fist, and quit your job to pursue your blog full time. Then, your ad network goes belly-up, or changes the rules sufficiently that your checks vanish or are cut by 50% almost overnight. What then? You’ve got at least a month or two where you have to scramble, to try to figure out how to fill the gaping hole in revenue you quite unexpectedly found yourself having to deal with.
When you find several smaller ways for your food blog to make money, even though each of those checks may be for a lot less money, you dramatically reduce your risk. Lose an ad network? That’s fine, you’ve got two more. Lose ALL your ad networks? You’ll get through it, because you’ve built dozens of other ways for your food blog to make money and stay afloat.
In this post, we’re going to talk about the major ways we’ve found to make money with our food blog. Before we get started, though, there’s one final thing I want you to think about, and that’s where exactly you should be putting your efforts as a new blogger.
Until you have at least 100,000 readers per month (and realistically, you could argue that you can’t make any real money from a food blog until your unique visits are more in the range of a million per month), those tiny checks from your different revenue streams aren’t going to amount to much. It’s a sad truth. But it’s an important one.
Instead of being revenue-focused as a new blogger, concentrate on creating content that people will want to read. For the first few years of your food blog’s life, focus on strengthening relationships with link partners, honing your skills as a writer and photographer, and connecting with your readers. It’s a much more important way to spend your time as a food blogger, at least in the beginning. Then, when your traffic levels justify it, there are a few potential ways for food bloggers to monetize their websites. We use almost all of them.
1. Join a major ad network that caters to food bloggers. There are tons of ad networks available, that specifically cater to food bloggers, including FoodBuzz, Martha’s Circle, Glam Media, Federated Media, Six Apart Advertising, Technorati Media, SAY Media, and BlogAds. We’ve worked with some or all of these ad networks at one time or another, but our greatest success so far seems to have come from our relationship with BlogHer.
There are a few things that can make a relationship with BlogHer lucrative for food bloggers (and no, you don’t have to be female to sign up with BlogHer…but it wouldn’t hurt). The first, and most important thing, is that they have a sales team that is focused entirely on matching your blog with the potential advertisers that will make the best match for your audience. Because BlogHer is so focused on quality, acceptance to the network is not automatic. However, being able to offer advertisers a network of high-quality sites means that BlogHer can pay a higher CPM for your traffic, which can average as high as around $7 or $8 dollars, depending on the time of year. They have multiple ad sizes and ad products (including options to display in-line contextual and video ads) available, and their implementation team can help you figure out the best places on your site to place ads, as well as how to place them, step-by-step.
In the interest of fairness, I should mention a few of BlogHer’s downsides. The first is inventory. BlogHer isn’t always able to match an ad with an impression. In our case, BlogHer manages to serve a banner ad for only about half of the traffic we receive on our website. When they don’t have an ad to display for the amount of traffic your site gets, they will run low-paying “remnant” ads, which do very little to move the needle for your website’s revenue. As part of this problem, I should also mention the seasonal nature of their inventory. Often, there are lots of advertisers and campaigns available in the second half of each year, but checks have a tendency to shrink dramatically in February and March.
I’m also not crazy about the billing cycle with BlogHer. Currently, BlogHer makes a payment to your account a full 45 days after that money was earned, which means there is a pretty major lag time between “earning money” and “spending money.” Other networks manage to get you paid within a few days of running a campaign, so I’m not sure why it takes so long at BlogHer. This isn’t a big deal once you get rolling, but can be frustrating when you are first getting started and waiting for those first few checks to come in.
Finally, BlogHer has also recently rolled out “viewability” guidelines, which measure not where ads should be placed on a page, but how long they are actually viewed. This means that ads can’t be buried in the footer of your site, or at the bottom of a mobile page. While confusing and a bit of a pain, establishing rules for viewability is actually beneficial to the network in the long run; being able to promise advertisers not just pageviews, but actual eyeballs, means BlogHer will continue to attract top-tier (and thus, high-paying) advertisers for a very long time.
The most exciting opportunity to make money with BlogHer, however, comes in opportunities for sponsored posts on your blog, where an advertiser actually pays you to write about their product, contest, or business, or sponsored Facebook and Twitter campaigns, which pay you to talk about a sponsor’s products on social media. Several times per month, BlogHer contacts publishers via email with these special opportunities, which can each pay up to hundreds of dollars. In fact, these types of campaigns often present the biggest opportunity for earning money with BlogHer. Just keep your head, and don’t get blinded by dollar signs; try to accept campaigns that are a natural fit for your blog or your readership. In the long run, caring for your blog and your readership will reap greater rewards than you will earn by plastering your blog with ads for adult diapers.
2. Join a network that specializes specifically in matching brands with food bloggers. We’ve been working with a company called “Linqia,” which has sent a few interesting campaigns our way. Want to get paid to go out to dinner, and write about your experience? Would your readers be interested in learning how to enter a contest where the prize is a week of cooking school in Italy? These are the kinds of campaigns in Linqia’s portfolio. Unlike traditional banner networks, Linqia analyzes your “community” to determine how many clicks they think you are capable of generating for a campaign, sets a budget (which you get to approve before you agree to any campaign), and then pays you per click to that campaign, often over $1/click. If your campaign overperforms, your “budget” will be increased for the next campaign. Advertisers love Linqia because they can be confident that they are only paying for actual eyeballs, and publishers (like us) love Linqia because they pay within five days of the end of a campaign.
3. Join a few smaller ad networks, and set up your “waterfall.” To supplement your “major network” ads (such as those from BlogHer), set up a few accounts with smaller, CPM-focused networks. These include Sovrn, Google Adsense, Gourmet Ads, Yellow Hammer, and about a billion others. Most of these networks will allow you to “backfill” their ad code with ad code from other networks, which allows you to set up a “waterfall” with your banner ad spaces. The concept is simple: You start with the network that pays the highest CPM for your traffic. When that network isn’t able to fill your inventory, you instruct them to display ad code from the network with the second-highest CPM, and so-on. What should happen, at least in theory, is that you are always able to display an ad, starting with the networks that pay the most, and “cascading” down through your other networks.
Does it work? Yes. Can the amount of money you will make using a waterfall of CPM ad networks be described as “meager?” Also yes. But remember, we’re not looking for a home run, when it comes to building food blog revenue…we’re looking for a big, long series of singles.3
4. Sell ad space on the local level. If your food blog has a local bent, you may find success selling banner ad space to local companies. Put together a media kit, highlighting your food blog’s unique features and audience, and send it to every restaurant, bar, or product you have ever mentioned on your website, with an email describing how an advertisement on your blog is a cost-effective way to reach thousands of highly targeted, local readers. In many communities, your blog will have more power to reach targeted customers than even the local newspaper, and your “circulation” may even be higher. Be sure to mention this in your media kit.
If you find a willing advertiser or two, setting up a system for serving those ads on your website it the easy part. There are several WordPress plugins that will turn your food blog into a full-fledged adserver, but I am particularly fond of AdRotate. The features are too numerous to list here, but you have full control over your ads, including assigning “weights” to ads, randomizing their display, downloadable custom reports for your advertisers, and much more. Selling sponsorships back to the community that supports your blog can create an excellent bit of additional income.
5. Work your affiliate relationships. Take a few days, and try to turn as many outbound links from your site into affiliate links that make you money. This can be as simple as signing up for an Amazon affiliate account and turning your book recommendations into paid links (though these don’t seem to pay much, until your traffic levels get ka-razy, at which point you will probably have other, better opportunities), to checking to see if any of the products you routinely recommend and endorse have affiliate programs that will pay for every new customer you send them.
This can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. Start with your web host. If you are particularly fond of them (as we are of ours), check to see if they have an affiliate program you can sign up for. They probably do. Write a post highlighting the pros and cons of your hosting service (BlueHost, Media Temple, and WP Engine each have affiliate programs) , and scatter your affiliate link throughout. Every time someone clicks on one of your links and makes a purchase, you’ll get paid. Many companies pay $50-$60 dollars or more for referred customers, which means it doesn’t take a ton of traffic in order to earn some serious money.
Looking for other ideas for affiliate products you can promote? Think about the software you use, the electronic equipment, the blog software (like Genesis or Thesis), the blog themes you like (Elegant Themes and Woo Themes have affiliate programs), any plugins you use, or any website communities (like FoodBloggerPro) you’ve joined and enjoy. They all may have an affiliate program that you can help promote. Just remember the first rule of food blogging, when you’re considering your affiliate relationships: Be authentic. Don’t recommend a product that you haven’t used or don’t like, just to earn a sale. It’s sketchy and your readers will pick up on it right away.
If you don’t have the time to hunt around (and write posts for) a bunch of different affiliate programs, you can also try an affiliate program service, such as VigLink. The premise is simple: install a snippet of code on your site, and VigLink will automatically create unobtrusive affiliate links for as many of your outgoing clicks as possible, whether or not you have an existing affiliate account for that product. It’s an interesting way to work the affiliate angle, without signing up for dozens of accounts on your own. Depending on the type of blog you are writing (VigLink seems to perform best for technology or gadget blogs, but food blogs work, too!), you can earn quite a bit of extra money with just one simple addition of code to your website.
6. Work for other people. As your food blog builds some momentum, you may find that one of its uses is as a sort of gigantic online portfolio. We have used our blog to pitch ideas and photography to larger companies, as well as earn paid contributor positions with other websites and with offline print magazines. Your blog doesn’t have to be the way your blog makes money (if that makes any sense at all). Set up a comprehensive “About Us” or a “Work With Me” page on your site, that tells your story and makes you appealing to advertisers. You might be surprised at how often major brands approach you, with an idea you’d never even thought of.
7. Write and sell an eBook. Anyone that writes a food blog, whether it’s about food styling or cooking amazing things with cake mix, should, at some point, consider writing an eBook, or more specifically, an eCookbook. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that writing an eBook gives your blog a product. That’s right. Something you can actually sell. And because it exists only electronically, all of the effort is front-loaded. Spend a few days (or weeks!) writing an eBook, publish it, and you’ve got a product that will continue generating sales, without any further effort on your part. In fact, you’ll never need to touch it again, and the checks will keep rolling in.
The other nice thing about producing an eBook (and really, it’s more of a relief) is that writing an eBook and setting up an affiliate program to sell it gives you a bit of a break from the constant “traffic-generating carousel of worry” that a lot of bloggers find themselves on. When you set up your own affiliate program to sell your own eBook, you can finally take a break from worrying about how many visitors you are getting to your site, since it becomes the work of your affiliates to promote your site and your product. It doesn’t matter if your food blog gets 100 visitors a month; if you’ve got a killer eBook and affiliate program, you can make money as a food blogger4.
Actually, you can make money with eBooks, even without writing one of your own. You can always sell someone else’s. The food photography eBook sold by the folks at Pinch of Yum, for example, has been very successful for them, adding several thousands of dollars per month to their blog’s bottom line. They’ve already built the business and the product; it’s just up to you to figure out how to promote it. We’ve even recently started (here comes a plug!) an affiliate program of our own, that pays over 60% of the sale price of our eCookbook right back to you, the affiliate. These types of programs can be a great way to get the needle moving on website revenue, without a huge initial outlay of effort.
It may seem like the “glory days” of food blogging are over. That there are a few big names out there, getting book deals and cooking shows, while everyone else with a camera and a good idea is doomed to toil in obscurity in their tiny kitchen. The fact is, there are more ways than ever for you to turn your passion for cooking and writing into a viable business. With more and more support from advertisers, more technology and tools to connect bloggers with lucrative sponsorships, and more acceptance of the potential power of amateur cooks and food bloggers to help promote a brand’s message, there is more opportunity than ever before. It’s just going to take some work.
Rather than trying to find the one “big idea” that is going catapult your blog into the mainstream and flood your bank account with millions, learn to work patiently and incrementally. Remember, finding 15 small revenue streams is way, way smarter than depending on one big one. Keep working on new ideas. Keep tweaking content. Keep at it. Your food blog can be a business that you are proud of.
Next Steps/For Further Study:
Here are a few of the websites and books that we’ve found particularly helpful, in our quest to make money with our food blog. I hope they’ll help you, too:
- How to Monetize Your Food Blog
At $15, this eBook is worth every penny. And then some. A fantastic next step for further research, after you get done here.
- Pinch of Yum Income Reports
Each month, Lindsay and Bjork publish a step-by-step breakdown of the techniques they use to generate tens of thousands of dollars each month from their food blog. An invaluable resource for anyone ready to dig in and turn their food blog into a business.
- Food Blogger Resources by Recipe Girl
This is it. The definitive resources page for any questions you may have related to food blogging, including food blog monetization, design, photography, traffic building, and more. Lori has built a massive resource here, and your blog will be made stronger by having it in your arsenal.
- Food Blogger Pro
A growing community based around a set of step-by-step video tutorials of interest to bloggers of all skill levels, as well as an active message board, tools for food bloggers, and more. $25 bucks a month, but worth it.
- Pro Food Blogger
Our sister blog, written by food bloggers, for food bloggers, about food blogging. Check often for traffic building strategies, thoughts on social media, and more. Best of all, it’s free.
- How to Support Yourself as a Food Blogger by Amateur Gourmet
Provides a great overview of some ways to get your food blog to make money.
- How to Work with Brands by Country Cleaver
- Food Blog Alliance
1. This is a fact that I made up.
2. Heck, we still haven’t gotten to where we want to be, in terms of the amount of money rolling in the door each month. But food blogging does, at least, pay the rent. And sometimes the car payment. And that feels pretty good.
3. This marks the first, and probably last time, that I will ever try to communicate using baseball metaphors.
4. The step-by-step guide to writing and publishing an eBook is a bit beyond the scope of this post, but it’s a topic we’ll visit in the future.
Disclaimer: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through those links. I have used each and every one of the products or services listed above, and recommend them based on my positive experience with them, not because of the commissions that I may earn from your use of their services.