Can you really make money online?

With so much change in the world of food media, Alexia Santamaria talks to Kelly Gibney and Anna Cameron about how digital food platforms actually work, and whether they are a viable way to generate income.

One of the biggest changes in food writing in the last decade has been the advent and steady rise of the digital platform. Instead of relying solely on magazines and cookbooks for inspiration and information, we’re now able to hear from voices we’ve never heard before; people who haven’t landed a cookbook deal and don’t have a qualification in culinary arts, but want to find a little corner of the internet to share their thoughts, recipes and food discoveries with the general public. There is no doubt this has made the food writing industry a much more interesting – and diverse – place. But what about those of us who have only really worked in print all these years? Are we dinosaurs who are missing out if we don’t have our own blog or website?  

The answer is really complicated and highly dependent on your personal and commercial goals. Many New Zealand food bloggers we spoke to said the money they make from their site – from ads and sponsored content – is definitely not enough as a full-time income on its own, but in some cases the opportunities that come out of it, can easily create a full time salary when added together.

One such case is Kelly Gibney. Many of us know her beautiful website (originally Bonnie Delicious blog and now kellygibney.com) which has a very loyal following. Kelly worked for years in hospitality and when she had her first child, Bonnie, eight years ago she started blogging as a creative outlet. Her work soon gathered interest, which led to opportunities like contributing to Dishmagazine for four years, recipe development for brands like Alison’s Pantry, Healtheries and Nautilus Estate, MCing and doing cooking demonstrations at events like Taste Of Auckland, as well as slots on TV and radio.

“The blog itself has never made me a full-time income but without it I wouldn’t have got any of the opportunities and clients that have given me a full time freelance career. My blog and attached social media accounts have served as a sort of portfolio that is always being updated – readers and potential clients  get to know me pretty well and can easily see if I’m a fit for their brand or project. So much of the work that has come my way is because someone  – maybe a marketing person or brand manager – has followed me for years and now they’ve got a project that they think I’d be great for, or now have the budget to get some recipe work or photography done. 

“Having the blog means I can also offer this as an additional form of promotion for brands I work with. I have noticed in the last few years that brands are more keen on paying me for social content than sponsored content on my blog, this has been a real shift from what used to happen.”

Does anyone actually make a full-time living solely from their digital platform in New Zealand? Most people we spoke to made some money – but not a full time salary. One blogger who is making it work financially is Anna Cameron from Just a Mum who Bakes. Cameron comes from a banking background and got bored when she found herself at home with kids. “Six and a half years ago I started the site as a hobby. Friends often asked me for the recipes for things I would bring when visiting, so I thought it might be easier to direct them to a page. I put the page up for them, really – it had kids’ hairstyles, craft and other things on it too – but suddenly realised it had other eyes on it and the interest was all in the food.”
 
Anna hastily put up another page, solely dedicated to recipes, and started her ‘hobby with no income’ as she puts it. “It really was just for fun so I’m as shocked as anyone that I now make a six figure salary from it. I remember the first time I put an ad up, and got paid the princely sum of 4c – I was beyond excited, it’s hilarious looking back.” Anna’s following grew on Facebook and she started doing courses on how often to post, and what to post to get people to her website. “Before I knew it, my numbers were rising exponentially and people were really engaging. It was all Facebook – I’m not huge on Instagram, basically because  I’m not really trendy. I know who my audience are, and only really try to appeal to them. They’re not gourmet foodies, they’re everyday people looking for easy baking, classics they remember from childhood – and cheesecakes!”
 
Things took another step up when Anna reached a monthly number of views that made her interesting to an international company called Mediavine. “It all went from there really. I also approached brands in New Zealand I was aligned to – I think that’s important, rather than just associating yourself with anyone – and then went on to get work with Countdown as a Brand Ambassador, plus doing one off blog posts when they asked me to. As I went along I did more courses and learned more about engaging audiences, and the rest is history I guess.”
 
Anna says it’s been hard slog and there’s a lot of responding to be done every day, by private message or comment. At one point she really didn’t sleep much, or see friends, but now she’s achieving more of a balance so she can spend more time with the kids. “That has always been important to me and maybe it’s how I made things work – when you’re broke you get creative and I wanted to be at home with the children, rather than back in an office. While I didn’t set out to make this a business, I’m so glad it’s ended up this way and I feel really blessed to be able to support my family doing something I enjoy.”
 
Anna’s advice to anyone thinking about plunging into the digital world is to just start where you are, with whatever equipment and skills you have. “Don’t shell out on expensive cameras and huge websites if that’s not in your budget – there are plenty of courses that will step you through building a WordPress website from scratch and it’s not that hard. And if you have any dumb questions, Google has the answer. I guarantee someone will have asked it before and a quick search will get you on the right track. There’s so much space out there for everyone, and there’s definitely money to be made if you stick with it


Image: Kelly Gibney and Just a Mum websites.

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