Like many of the home decorating bloggers who have amassed thousands of daily followers, Jennifer Flores was a reader of interior design blogs before she launched one herself. Back in 2007, she and her husband had been planning to purchase their first home and ultimately settled on a “fixer upper,” and it was while researching ideas for renovating the house that she became invested in the lives of dozens of other home owners just like her who were engaging in DIY projects and uploading their photos to Blogspot and WordPress accounts. “Home blogs interested me because these were everyday people doing things with their home,” she told me. “So I thought, ‘Why not start a blog?’”
So she launched Rambling Renovators that year in a market that wasn’t yet all that crowded. Back then, there were only a couple well known home bloggers (the largest of which, Apartment Therapy, has grown into a mini-empire with several spin-off sites and products), and there were even fewer who resided in Canada, where Flores lived. Her readership growth, she said, was completely organic. “It really was a matter of reading other people’s blogs and leaving a comment, and they’d look at your comment and find their way back to your blog,” she recalled. “And blogrolls — it used to be common to have a sidebar that listed the blogs you read. They were really popular, and that’s how you grew your community at that time.”
These early blogs had an amateur feel to them, with clunky designs often using just the standard themes that came for free when you signed up for Blogspot or WordPress. And the photos were mostly of the point-and-shoot variety, not necessarily well-lit or indicating that the person who took them had any particular skills in photography. That all changed, Flores said, in about the last two years. “Now the photos are all stylized,” she said. “Now it’s sort of that monetized machine.”
There’s been an interior design blog boom in recent years, and it’s difficult to tell whether it was caused by increased advertiser interest or preceded it. These days, there are hundreds of such blogs, often run by either one person or a married couple, with names like Yellow Brick Home and The Art of Doing Stuff. Long gone are the inelegant Blogspot themes; they’ve instead been replaced by custom designs and wide, high-resolution photos. More important, these blogs are dotted with modular display ads and sponsored posts in the main content stream. Clicking through several of them calls to mind the late aughts, when advertisers and marketing companies decided en masse that fashion and so-called “mommy blogs” attracted affluent and purchase-hungry readers and so began to send free products to them by the truckload. Suddenly, fashion bloggers began to ink deals with management agencies and were appearing in glossy magazine ads. It reached the point when newly-launched parenting blogs that hadn’t yet gained readerships were publishing “product pages” — which gave instructions for companies that wanted to send them stuff to review — from day one.
Nicole Balch, the blogger behind Making It Lovely, also counts herself among the first generation of home design bloggers. She had owned a stationery shop in Chicago and had originally began blogging as an effort to promote that business, but as its readership grew she later abandoned the shop and focused almost entirely on the blog.
For Balch, the renovations and DIY tutorials only partially account for the appeal of design blogs. Readers are actually attracted to the larger narrative, of being able to follow this person as she navigates the challenges and triumphs of owning a home and raising a family within it. It’s not uncommon for these bloggers to include photos of their spouse and children, and their readers can watch as the family matures. “I think a lot of people have been reading because they’re in similar life stages,” she explained. “A lot of people were getting into their first house around the same time I was and their family has grown around the same time that we were having kids, so there’s a connection there.”
This idea of mutual experience was one I encountered consistently when interviewing home bloggers. Jessica Hansen started her first blog in 2009 when she enrolled at Iowa State. “I was going to have a single dorm, and I was trying to find ways to decorate it and make it my own on a budget,” she told me. “And at the time there were a few decorating blogs out there, but there weren’t many dorm decorating blogs.” It turns out there were lots of other people, both college students and their parents, who were looking for ways to decorate dorm rooms on a budget, and they quickly found their way to Hansen’s blog while Googling for ideas. But Hansen noticed something interesting when she moved on from a dorm to an apartment and began blogging about her new experiences there: her original readership followed her. “My audience was growing with me,” she said. “I wasn’t necessarily getting a lot of new readers so much as the ones that were there at the same stages as me were sticking with me. As I stopped doing dorm decor, they weren’t really interested in reading that anyway because they were moving into apartments too.”
Unlike other niches (like tech) where bloggers are expected to serve as hyper-aggregators, churning out a dozen posts each day, it’s unusual for an interior design blogger to post more than once a day. Though roundup aggregation posts aren’t uncommon (for instance, a gallery of amazing bathrooms), much of the content is of the DIY variety, often featuring a first person narrative of how the blogger built a table or arranged her living room. A recent post for Making It Lovely, for instance, detailed Balch’s attempts to save an ailing houseplant. It currently has 47 comments. “I think that that’s really the hook of home blogs, that you get to see people living in their spaces,” said Flores. “You get to see things they DIYed, you get to see their kids grow up, you see their homes, which is a really intimate space, and you feel like you know these people.”
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In the early days of home design blogging, most readers found their way to a particular blog either from reading other blogs or when Googling for inspiration ideas for their own homes. But just as the rest of the media industry, starting in 2012 or so, saw a sharp increase in social media referrals and became increasingly reliant upon them, home bloggers had to begin heavily investing in these platforms. But though much of the rest of the news industry has seen much of its traffic gains through Facebook, another social network reigns supreme within the interior design sphere: Pinterest. “Most of my traffic comes from Pinterest,” said Hansen. That isn’t to say that she ignores other social networks. “Twitter is not super huge for me. My posts do get fed into it and sometimes I use it, but I would say I use Facebook and Instagram more.” Because their blogs are often so personal, these bloggers often debate with themselves whether they should merge their personal and professional social media accounts. On Facebook they often maintain separate pages from their personal accounts, but on Instagram they usually only maintain one profile.
Because these blogs focus on home improvement, a multi-billion dollar industry, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that brands have come knocking. While other news niches are slowly phasing in native advertising, sponsored posts have long been a staple at interior design blogs, and I found it fascinating how some played with the form. A recent post on a blog called The Inspired Room, for instance, offers a brief disclosure that it was “created in partnership with Pottery Barn” before launching into a list of quilts and other home accessories the blogger has used to decorate her home for the holidays. Unsurprisingly, each item includes a Pottery Barn link where one can purchase it. It begs the question as to whether these recommendations, which are written in the first-person voice of the blogger, Melissa Michaels, are authentic, or merely a result of the sponsorship. “I’m very picky with sponsored posts and advertisements,” said Hansen. “Since it’s not my full time job and it’s my hobby I want to keep the blog really true to myself and my readers.”
This was a consistent theme I encountered when I asked about these sponsored posts — that the bloggers only choose brands they actually like and turn away sponsors that don’t fit their tastes. “If I get contacted by a company, I try to only take sponsored posts if I want to share it,” said Kimberly Smith, who runs a blog called Turning It Home. “Not just advertising for the sake of money. And I always try to fit it in a way that’s natural, not just, ‘Here’s this. Buy this.’” I heard variations of the phrase “I say ‘no’ more often than I say ‘yes’ to sponsorship opportunities” during my interviews. It made me wonder if readers treated these ads the same way readers of say, Vogue, regard the full-page fashion ads in the magazine, as just as entertaining and important as the traditional editorial content. Certainly when native advertising is done well then it becomes more than a necessary annoyance and at least strives to be entertaining.
Flores was somewhat skeptical of this notion that sponsored posts contain just as much quality as the non-sponsored content. “If you talk to other people who have been reading blogs for a long time they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I stopped reading some blogs because they’ve become so commercialized.” In fact, the hyper-monetization and high-octane marketing necessities, where each blogger is not only required to produce regular longform posts on their blogs but also maintain consistent presences on multiple social media platforms, has caused some burnout among bloggers who have been in the game as long as she has. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m going to slow down,’” Flores said. “‘Instead of posting three to five times a week, I’m going to post two to three times per week and really bringing it back to why I started it in the first place, which is that I’m blogging for myself.’”
Others have decided to give up on the game entirely, walking away from blogs they’ve maintained for years, not to mention the thousands of avid readers and the book deals and other high-value benefits that come with running a successful blog. Ez Pudewa, the blogger behind Creature Comforts, announced she was stepping away from blogging after nine years so she could focus on a new business venture. And then a month later, the couple who write Young House Love announced their own blogging retirement. “The blogosphere as a whole has become increasingly sponsored/corporate lately,” they wrote. “We can see from the outside perspective as a reader, or even a fellow blogger, that it’s hard to read a blog post without suspecting some ulterior motive or money-making system behind it.” The audience they left behind was gargantuan; they had 150,000 Facebook likes, 30,000 Twitter followers, and a whopping 1.1 million Pinterest subscribers. Their goodbye post has over 5,000 comments.
Of course there are many bloggers, each brandishing their social media subscription icons and their sponsorship instructions pages, ready to take their place. And as the housing market begins to heat up again there are likely fresh readers on the horizon, searching Google and Pinterest for inspiration and ideas as they plan to tackle their kitchen or bathroom renovations. The question now is whether this section of the blogosphere can keep its personal touch, the authenticity that allows one to vicariously follow the lives of real-world married couples and their children as they embark on new adventures. If they can, then readers will probably endure a sponsored post or two if it keeps the lights on. After all, who can begrudge a family whose lives you’re invested in for trying to make an honest living?
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