The success story of Dooce.com was once blogger lore, told and re-told in playgroups and Meetups—anywhere hyper-verbal people with Wordpress accounts gathered. “It happened for that Dooce lady,” they would say. “It could happen for your blog, too.”
Dooce has its origin in the late 1990s, when a young lapsed Mormon named Heather Armstrong taught herself HTML code and moved to Los Angeles. She got a job in web design and began blogging about her life on her personal site, Dooce.com.
The site’s name evolved out of her friends’ AOL Instant-Messenger slang for dude, or its more incredulous cousin, "doooood!” About a year later, Armstrong was fired for writing about her co-workers on the site—an experience that, for a good portion of the ‘aughts, came known as “getting dooced.” She eloped with her now ex-husband, Jon, moved to Salt Lake City, and eventually started blogging full time again.
In candid, irreverent detail, Armstrong documented the births and childhoods of her two daughters, Leta and Marlo. By 2005, she was making so much money on ads that Jon quit his job to run the business side of the site. By 2011, she had 100,000 daily visitors, and The New York Times dubbed her “The Queen of the Mommy Bloggers.”
The blog survived Armstrong’s hospitalization for postpartum depression and her separation and divorce in 2012. But in the end, there was one thing she couldn’t weather: The rise of native advertising.
Earlier this year, Armstrong began posting less frequently. In April, she explained that she had been working on some outside projects, and they’ve “provided a much needed distraction from ... a dangerous level of exhaustion and dissatisfaction.”
Dooce, for years a guiding light for moms and bloggers and mommy bloggers, was, if not totally going away, at least entering the Internet version of semi-retirement. Jason Kottke, one of the first well-known bloggers, put it even more grimly. “Dooce is dead, long live Dooce,” he said in a post. “The short window of time in which individuals could support themselves by blogging is closing rapidly.”
Since then, Armstrong has posted just a handful of times per month—a dramatic slowdown for her—and turned her attention to speaking and consulting instead. She hasn’t pulled the plug on the blog entirely, in part because,“I still have a few contracts that I need to see to completion,” she explained. It’s in part these “contracts” that were Armstrong’s problem.
Like most other revenue-generating websites, Dooce for years made money on banner ads—those boxes that hawk products and sit alongside the posts that are supposed to be a site’s main event. In the good old days, these ads were very successful. The first banner ad, for AT&T, ran on a site called HotWired in 1994. Of the people who saw it, 78 percent clicked on it, said Susan Bidel, a senior analyst at Forrester research.
“Everybody and their cousin clicked on everything in those days because it was like ‘wow, look what we can do,’” Bidel said. “But consumers aren't stupid.” These days, the so-called click-through rate is more like .1 percent.
It’s not just that web readers are getting more judicious about where they click. People are increasingly absorbing the web through smartphones, where banner ads don’t look good. On the social web, readers are more likely to see ads that appear within their Facebook and Twitter streams rather than on individual article pages.
In recent years, banner ads have been usurped by the “native ad,” sometimes called sponsored content. These often look like regular articles but are paid for by companies. Sometimes the sponsor’s logo is the only sign of their investment. Other times the entire post hints at the sponsor’s product—like this quiz about bathroom graffiti by Scrubbing Bubbles. These ads attract more attention than banners, so advertisers pay more for them. BI Intelligence, Business Insider’s research service, suggests that spending on native ads will reach $7.9 billion this year, up from $4.7 billion in 2013.
Even though Armstrong was covering pediatricians’ appointments and bedtime stories, the native-ad boom hit her as much as it affected news sites. At most news organizations, The Atlantic included, marketing departments, not editorial staff, produce sponsored content, which looks different from the journalistic content and is explicitly labeled. But that wasn’t the case for a small, intimate outfit like Armstrong’s blog—she was both the journalist and copywriter.
If the topic of your blog is your life, though, and you introduce sponsored content, the sponsored content becomes about your life. Which, to Armstrong, felt icky at times—or as she put it to me recently, “[drove] me bananas.”
At first, readers bristled at the juxtaposition of her “real life” stories with promotional pieces paid for by companies. “My readers see sponsored content and they want to close the browser immediately,” she said. “The problem is I have to give my readers what they want, I have to give the brand what they want, and I have to be authentic to who I am. And combining all three of those needs is so so so exhausting that I was having panic attacks routinely.”
Over the years, advertisers increasingly wanted Armstrong to post photos of her family using their products. But if Leta and Marlo didn’t want to do that activity that particular day, Armstrong felt tempted to pressure them to do it anyway so she could fulfill her advertiser obligations.
“I had a deadline, and it was like if ‘I don't meet this deadline … I gotta pay rent y'all!’” she said. Native ads might work better for independent fashion or travel bloggers, she thinks—people who aren’t struggling with the ethical and emotional implications of monetizing parenthood.
So are mommy bloggers doomed? Must they choose between scraping by on what’s left of the banner-ad market, on one hand, and enlisting their children in staged sponsored-content outings, on the other? Bidel says it’s too soon to ring the banner ad’s death knell for small bloggers. She knows of many stay-at-home moms who blog in their free time and use their sites to bring in side income.
The key, she says, is to manage expectations. “If you can generate enough content to attract a good enough audience by working all by yourself, and you'll be happy with an income of $50,000 a year, you'll be fine,” Bidel says. If you’re like Armstrong, who at one point had a husband, assistant, and two kids relying on Dooce for money, maybe not.
These days, Armstrong says she wouldn’t recommend blogging for money. The popular aphorism advises, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Armstrong did what she loved, so she never stopped working.
“I wrote a blog because it was fun, and I loved doing it,” she said. “Then it became my job and I hated it. You never want to get to the point where you’re like ‘Ugh I have to go do that thing that I love? Ughhhh.’”