Soapboxers might be better known as bloggers these days, and never before have we had such easy access to products and opinions. But monetising a blog takes more than passion.
Virtual entrepreneurs work hard for real-world success
Blogging. Foodies, fashionistas, fitness fanatics, photographers; these days, it seems everyone with a passion is writing about it, gaining contacts, perks and, in many cases, an income.
Touted as the easiest and fastest way to make money online, blogging is the internet's fastest-growing phenomenon, but how easy is it to make money from your blog?
It's impossible to gauge just how many bloggers are based in the UAE, but with blogging platforms getting cheaper and easier, the number is in the tens of thousands and growing rapidly.
Most are focused on describing their personal experiences to a relatively small audience of readers. On the flip side, however, hundreds of blogs close down every day as writers realise that as well as good intentions, good blogs tend to take a lot of time.
To gain an audience, blogs must be fresh, easy to read and updated regularly. But to gain an income, they must be aimed at an audience as committed to the subject as the bloggers themselves.
Sara Walton, an Australian living in Dubai, hadn't even read a blog until six months ago, when her mother introduced her to the scene.
Ms Walton created a blog to catalogue photos, but enjoyed the writing side so much that she soon set up thehedonista.com, a personal blog written off a free blogging template that focuses on food and eating out.
What started as a pastime quickly grew into a lifestyle.
"At first, I was posting maybe four times a month, then I started reading other people's blogs and got a bit more competitive. Now, I post two or three times a week," she says.
She averages six hours a week on the computer, but does most of her tweeting, surfing of the internet and commenting on other blogs - a key way of raising readership - from her iPhone while waiting at traffic lights or picking up her children.
Thehedonista.com is part of Table Talk, a network of Dubai food bloggers each developing their own style and following.
With Dubai restaurateurs among one of the first industries to recognise the value of bloggers, Table Talk members are regularly invited to restaurant openings, free tastings and special events to meet new chefs and to try out new menus.
Since becoming a blogger, Ms Walton has been invited to judge a biriyani competition, cast her vote for the esteemed San Pellegrino top 500 restaurants listings and write for the restaurant page in Time Out magazine.
"I don't get paid [by Time Out], but my husband and I get a free meal and taxis. It's my first job for a legitimate publication," she says.
"I think if you're going to start looking to make money, you have to switch mindsets and approach it very professionally.
"A financially successful blog is not something that you fall into; it has to be a conscious and very active decision and would take a lot of work. No one is going to come to you and offer you money, you have to add the numbers up and approach them. I'm like a heap of dreaming bloggers; what I really want to do is write a book."
For Bebhinn Kelly, setting up her fashion blog, hellwafashion.com, was a business move.
After studying the success of hundreds of fashion blogs in Europe and the US, she saw the lack of online, local fashion talk in brand-conscious Dubai as a gaping hole in the market.
"I had no experience online," Ms Kelly says. "I'd read some blogs, but I wasn't even on Facebook when I decided to set up the blog in 2009.
"Initially, I set out to create a website, but the term didn't work with people until I said I was setting up a fashion blog. Then they realised what I was up to."
She spent Dh15,000 on a web designer, as well as Dh24,000 a year to register the business in Fujairah. She also pays Dh3,000 a month to maintain the site with the help of a professional search-engine optimiser (SEO).
"It was a conscious decision to set up the blog as a financially viable operation. It makes money from sponsors and straight advertisements of products and events," she says.
"Online, you can't really charge subscription. Our clients are Middle East fashion companies who pay for advertising."
The average hellwafashion.com client pays about Dh10,000 a month, while the number of clients depends on the season. Some months, there might be three or four, other months there are none.
"The first year was hard. I did generate some revenue, but it wasn't sustainable. Now in its second year, it supports itself," she says.
But it's not easy money.
"I have to be on top of every change in the market," Ms Kelly says. "I need to know what's happening in the fashion world here and overseas, and that's the good part.
"I also have to keep up to speed with what's happening with online technology and everyday I have to blog, Facebook and tweet."
Between two and four evenings a week, she attends fashion or social events. Unlike the US and European markets, where fashion bloggers can rely on the internet to network, clients in the UAE need to see Ms Kelly at events making face-to-face contact with industry movers and shakers.
She spends about eight hours a day in front of the computer and is online via her iPhone day and night.
Almost every blogger has links to Facebook and Twitter accounts, with each site feeding off the other.
And, while successful bloggers aren't necessarily computer programmers, they do need a decent functional understanding of a variety of web technologies and terms.
"Technology in the blogosphere changes rapidly, but instead of getting frustrated think along the lines that every change creates opportunity," says Steve Pavlina, a successful blogger, on his how-to-make-money-off-your-blog blogsite.
"If you hesitate to capitalise on something new and exciting, you may simply miss out. Many opportunities are temporary."
Susan McCauley, who has lived in the UAE for 17 years, is one of the region's original bloggers and, despite setbacks, is very committed to her subject.
Her website, amazingwomenrock.com, was recently listed as one of ForbesWoman Top 100 sites for Women and was named in the list's promotional material.
"It's quite an accomplishment," Ms McCauley says, adding that it pays tribute to seven years of hard work and tens of thousands of dirhams spent getting the website up and running.
"I invested money getting the site built before technology made it fast, cheap and easy."
While she doubts she'll ever recoup her investment, Ms McCauley wants to initiate enough revenue to expand the site, raise its visibility and hire staff to research and upload content.
"The blog's achieving what I want to from a social entrepreneurship point of view, but I want to see it grow bigger and better, to inspire more women and give them a voice."
To do this, she is in the process of relaunching and upgrading on a different platform geared to easily accept advertisements. The site attracts about 100,000 unique visits a month from around the world.
"I'm told I would need at least 200,000 visits for an advertising agency to consider purchasing space, so I'm focusing on smaller advertisements, such as someone who wants to promote a book or other material of interest to women."
Once the site's upgrade is completed, advertising can be purchased solely online. Potential advertisers will be able to choose a spot on the page, click on it and a price will appear. They can upload artwork and pay for it via PayPal with no contact with the site's operators.
To attract advertisers, bloggers need to have sufficient traffic and a committed niche audience.
Revenue can be also earned through pay-per-click advertising that uses ad networks such as Google Adsense, selling advertising space to individual advertisers or sponsors, product placements, and affiliate programmes.
Affiliate programmes direct readers interested in a product mentioned on a blog to the product's site and a percentage of any purchase made is directed back to the blogger. This programme is popular in the US, where it makes up about one third of all blogging revenue.
"I don't do affiliate programmes and I don't believe in product placement," Ms Kelly says.
"If there is advertising on hellwafashion it is clearly stated.
"As a blogger, you can lose your audience very quickly if people think you are doing that. Readers respect your professional integrity."
Not all bloggers have this commitment. Scanning through the multitude of blogs on the internet, it can be hard to pinpoint who are true bloggers and who are the paid reviewers.
To maintain strong traffic flow, new bloggers need to ensure their content is interesting, original, timeless and constantly updated.
"Initially, I was getting one or two visits a day," Ms Walton says.
"A radio appearance boosted this to about 40, but after joining Twitter this rose quickly to 140 a day with around 400 people following my Twitter links.
"Now, I get at least 200 views a day. It's cyclical, really; the more views you get, the higher you get ranked on Google, [which] pushes your readership even higher."
To boost their rankings, many businesses and bloggers enlist the help of an SEO, which is a strategy for creating webpage content to improve a site's ranking on a search engine results page, such as Google.
But remember: you get what you pay for. The internet is a fast-changing world, with Google able to update its rankings several times a day, often without warning.
Mani Karthik, a blogger and SEO consultant from Cochin, India, recently told www.technotip.org that to maximise exposure, bloggers should build content that will force people to link to them and develop authority to their domain by building strong links between pages.
But most importantly, Mr Karthik says, don't lose your cool. "A financially successful blog is a process. If you're looking to make money overnight, try stock trading."