LONDON, United Kingdom — In recent years, bloggers have had a tremendous impact on the fashion community. Using the internet to build their own platforms and attract an audience, they have helped turn a once closed industry into a more dynamic and democratic global conversation, earning thousands of fans and followers in the process. But are they making money? Have they been able to successfully monetise their celebrity and their craft? Is blogging a viable business?
“In my second year at Dazed, I was turning down all these different projects that could have been money spinners and I just couldn’t commit myself to them, because I was working 12 hours a day,” says Susanna Lau, the candid and adorably quirky voice behind the highly popular personal fashion blog Style Bubble, who left her position as Commissioning Editor of DazedDigital.com in March of 2010 to concentrate on her blog and pursue the unexploited economic opportunities it was generating. “Saying ‘I don’t need the publication to anchor onto, I have a publication essentially,’ was a big thing for me,” admits Ms. Lau, whose blog currently attracts some 25,000 visitors each day.
But how exactly has Ms. Lau been able to monetise her platform? “I have advert space at the side of my blog, but it’s not a big money spinner,” she says. “How I’ve done it is working on projects that relate to the blog but aren’t necessarily always visible on the blog.”
For example, Ms. Lau was one of a handful of influential celebrities and bloggers who recently helped internet giant Google launch fashion search and personal recommendations site Boutiques.com for what was widely reported to be a one-off payment in the low five figures. “The deal was to set up a boutique like the other celebrities who were also enlisted to pick items and basically put their taste out there,” she explains. “I got a fee for setting up an account, curating a shop and picking a certain amount of items.”
Ms. Lau was also recently tapped by American retailer Gap to appear in their 2010 holiday campaign shot by Craig McDean and styled by Karl Templer. “There was a fee,” she said. “You are basically lending your image and compensated much like any model or celebrity who gets a campaign,” she continues. “It’s always one-off fees.”
“Blogging is rich with indirect opportunities, in which their presentation is commensurate with your dedication, perspective and uniqueness,” noted business strategist, sociologist, and futurist Brian Solis in a recent post on Technorati’s latest “State of the Blogosphere” study.
But what exactly is Susie Bubble selling? “It’s intangible,” she admitted. “My eye, my point of view, a certain taste, a certain way of documenting and presenting fashion; that’s supposedly what I’m selling.”
Ms. Lau also generates revenue from occasional consulting work, writing assignments and speaking engagements, but it’s fees from special projects for brands that constitute the majority of her income. “The consulting part is really small,” she said. “Ad revenue is 25 percent. Freelance writing is 10 percent. The rest of it is based on special projects that I do.”
With recent projects for Dr. Martens, Giorgio Armani, Selfridges and Hong Kong boutique Joyce, Ms. Lau appears to be extremely busy. “There are limitless opportunities; it’s been sort of nonstop,” she enthuses. But what’s the bottom line? Compared to her previous position at Dazed Digital, is there more financial opportunity in the route Ms. Lau has chosen? “Definitely,” she emphasises. “Each day I’m sort of dividing my time between four or five different things. The result of that is that you are gong to be getting more money than you are with a fixed wage at an independent publishing company.”
But with expanding economic opportunities, bloggers have come under fire for not being transparent about the role their blogs play in commercial projects for which they are compensated, prompting government regulators at the Federal Trade Commission in the United States to introduce rules requiring bloggers to disclose ties to companies whose products they review or promote or face fines. While these rules are ambiguous, probably unenforceable and do not directly impact Ms. Lau, who resides in the UK, they prompt an important question: what role does Style Bubble play in her commercial projects and how does she manage to balance her economic interests with her editorial integrity?
“They didn’t say you have to publicise it,” said Ms. Lau in reference to the Google Boutiques project. “It’s normally a sort of unwritten thing. There are no instances where I feel I am contractually obliged to write about something.” In this regard, the Gap campaign was similar. “I wasn’t obliged to write about it… but in return, they were almost automatically expecting you to write about it because it’s something you would be proud of.”
In the end, Ms. Lau published Style Bubble posts on both the Gap and Google projects. Neither was overly promotional, but adopted the authentic Susie Bubble tone the brands undoubtedly knew would resonate best with her readership.
“I’ve not done advertorial,” she underscored. “I’ve not had any instance where what I put out on the blog is of primary importance to the project. It’s secondary and supporting, but it’s never been imposed on me that I have to do it.” She asserts: “If I was contractually obliged to write about something, I would feel less inclined.”
As blogging matures and the financial opportunities become more clear, many bloggers are starting to work with agents or other professional advisors who guide them on business decisions. “I make all the decisions myself, but with money, because I’m not very good with doing it, I have a literary agent,” explains Ms. Lau, who is exploring a possible book deal. “She managed Cecelia Ahern, who wrote P.S. I Love You, which was a huge success. She’s sort of looking over everything that I do; with major projects like the Gap campaign, she looks over the contracts and makes sure everything is above boards.”
But while Susie Bubble has proven that a highly popular fashion blogger can generate income in the present, is blogging a financially viable career option over the long-term? Will Susanna Lau always be Susie Bubble? “For the foreseeable future, yes,” she said. “It is a viable career, but I’ve always questioned the longevity of fashion blogs,” she adds, pragmatically. “Brands latching onto bloggers — is it just a trend?”
Here, Ms. Lau appears to enjoy a significant first mover advantage. “The fortunate and unfortunate thing is the media seems to latch on to the same bloggers over and over again,” she observes. “I was talking to a guy from Refinery29 who said: ‘The queen bees have already been chosen. The new ones are too late’, but I don’t want to believe that.”
In a recent short film for Intel’s “Visual Life” campaign, Scott Schuman of the highly popular street style blog “The Sartorialist” says he expects to be shooting and blogging for the next “30 to 40 years.” But for Susie Bubble, whose tastemaking skills are more intangible, things are more complex. “What I’m about is not as simple as Scott — he’s a photographer, he’s got a skill set to sell to brands,” she observed. “People like The Sartorialist, Garance [Doré], Tommy [of Jak and Jil] will have real endurance because they will always have their skill, whereas people can emulate what I do well.”
However, as Style Bubble continues to grow and the number of commercial opportunities multiply, Ms. Lau has been thinking about how to better organise and structure her expanding personal enterprise for the future. “I have been thinking I should register Style Bubble as a company, just for tax reasons,” she said. “If I were to present a business plan, if I were to be applying to a bank to get a loan to do something, to get my own space or invest in staff, then I have to present what I do as a tangible thing.”
But here, Ms. Lau is of two minds. While she said that “every major [television] channel has approached me about doing something,” the very ethos of a personal style blog like Style Bubble may inherently limit future growth. “If there was a whole team behind it, I think something would be taken away,” she said. “I’m not outputting solutions, I’m outputting myself,” she says. “I don’t think it can be larger than me — it’s as large as I am.”
Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion