Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Writing about food for Examiner.com 2 - Does it pay?

This is Part Two of a multi-part series of posts about writing about food and drink on Examiner.com, where I write as the Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner and the Knoxville Coffee Examiner. For Writing about food and drink for Examiner.com Part One: How it works, click here.

In my last post, I detailed how writing for the online magazine Examiner.com works, and I also mentioned some rather tempting information about the potential pay that some Examiners prove is possible to be earning on the site. In fact, there is evidence floating around out there that some Examiners have made four figures per month writing for the site. Here's the seeming truth behind how that might be going down:

  1. They write about celebrity bullshit that people shouldn't care about but eat up like it's something I cooked;
  2. They watch Google Trends and pick the top-searched celebs to pour out info about, some of which may be suspect;
  3. They post "news articles" on those topics, many of which are simply rehashes of the most popular links on Google concerning about a dozen times a day and publish them as news, which Examiner.com gets fed into Google's news reel rather efficiently.
  4. They market the crap out of what they write on their Twitter accounts using all kinds of clever tricks and apps.
These four suppositions are based upon my memory of seeing the evidence I referred to (but cannot seem to quickly find again at the moment), and, if you're quick and relatively good, they could be a guideline on how to actually make money on Examiner.com.

Wait... ouch... "actually make money?" That's harsh.

Well, perhaps it's not warranted. There are some very web-savvy writers that produce expert-quality, solid content on their niche areas on Examiner.com that are doing fine without selling out hard to the celebrity path to riding several someones' coattails to relatively illegitimately earned internet cash. Those people seem to be making in the two-figures-per-day pay range, at least from what I have guesstimated (and having a Ph.D. in math makes me a pretty good guesstimator, most of the time). Two figures per day of nearly passive income isn't bad. It's something like $3-10k a year for what, at least on the front lines, is only a few hours of work a week. It won't pay off your house, but it actually could keep up with your mortgage if you're in the mid-to-high end of that range.

How do they do it? I wish I knew.

Maybe I overestimate my content (see Gourmet Food here and Coffee here), but I know I'm no slouch in the writing department (though some folks that outperform me from time to time are, a bit to my chagrin). As of the time of this writing, here's what typical (and atypical) Examiner.com numbers look like for me:
  • Total subscribers: 15 (food), 2 (coffee);
  • Number of articles: 102 (food), 5 (coffee);
  • Been writing since: 30 Nov 2009 (food), last week (coffee);
  • Typical daily performance earnings: $1.20-1.50 (food), $0.10 (coffee);
  • Record daily performance earnings: ~$10 (food), $0.25 (coffee);
  • Typical number of new articles per week: 4-5 (food), 2-3 (coffee);
  • Overall typical number of incentive dollars per week: ~$8;
  • Typical time spent on one article: ~30 minutes (both).
  • Overall earnings last month: $60-70 (because of their reporting mechanism, I can't say for sure until I'm paid later in the month).
  • Overall time spent per month (just writing): ~15 hours.
  • Overall time spent per month (including promotion): ~25 hours
  • Typical income per article (now): ~$1.75+$1=~$2.75 (sadly competitive with other by-hire online freelancing gigs), but woefully
While this has put a few bucks in my bank account that wouldn't be there otherwise (I can just hear my mom saying, "That's about a hundred and forty dollars (total time writing for them) you wouldn't have had otherwise!"), the average is working out to be that I'm making a little over $2 an hour in performance pay for my time writing for Examiner.com, or make that about $4 if you throw in the local incentives, but under $3 an hour again if you count promotional time. Those wages aren't too bad for a guy with a Ph.D. in math, right? Oh wait... shit... they are. Sure, $140 might seem like a lot, considering, but by the hour, given my degree, etc. that's not. It's nary a drop in the bucket.

So, why do I do it? A few reasons: (1) it's kind of fun; (2) I like to share/teach; (3) I wouldn't mind getting "discovered" and thereby make some real cash off of this, and Examiner.com is better for getting discovered than cooking quietly in my kitchen and mumbling about it on Facebook from time to time; and (4) I'd like to believe my pay could go up at some point.

So... has my pay gone up? Let's just use the Knoxville Gourmet Food gig for now since the coffee deal is too fledgling to know any different yet. Here's what my daily readership has done, in a nutshell, since I joined:
  • Month #1: Steadily increased (roughly linearly) from bubkus to about 70 page views per day;
  • Month #2: Steadily increased (roughly linearly) from about 70 page views per day to about 120-150 page views per day;
  • Month #3: Except one day when one article went nuts on StumbleUpon and got over 800 hits in a single day, it's been level + noise since then (This is the article, about chicken noodle soup, originally posted on this blog, that went nuts on Wednesday, February 3. Feel free to click on it and Stumble it to get that ball rolling again or something. That was awesome.).
So, that has me wondering... what's different?

Well, I went balls-to-the-walls publishing articles up until about six weeks ago, at which point my daily readership seemed to be going steadily up, more or less linearly. It had to be annoying to my subscribers (in fact, I know it was because my subscriber numbers actually dwindled during that time). Since, I've leveled off more nearly to the recommended publishing schedule of about 3-5 articles a week, and my daily performance pay leveled off just as quickly. But wait....

It seemed to me, hence the balls-to-the-walls publishing coming out of the gate, that overall performance earnings, given relatively constant quality (not really reasonable... I'd say it's gone up, at least in terms of my ability to write for the web), should be [dork warning] directly proportional to article count. Tips I received from other seasoned (and popular) Food and Drink Channel Examiners strongly backed this theory, only without numbers to confirm it. Month 3 suggests strongly to me that such isn't so, however. So... what's the deal?

According to an interesting Examiner.com writing experiment on 20sMoney, the reason is simply that older articles on Examiner.com may lose their visibility over time (due to how they index (rather poorly) with Google), cutting into the potential performance pay that those articles could generate, i.e. Examiner.com's performance pay might not really be that great a form of passive income, despite its highly competitive rate. Why? I'm with their guess: they do well in the searches because of sheer volume initially, but there's so much underqualified stuff floating around in the Examiner.com juggernaut of articles published each day that there is substantially good reason for Google to try to keep a passive lid on how much traffic they receive over time. I'm not saying that Examiner.com's approach is a bad one -- I can't think of a great way to ensure consistently high quality in the format they do across so broad a spectrum of topics with such a strong local initiative -- but that any punishment it sees in search-engine visibility is probably somewhat justified.

From where I sit, then, there really needs to be a call for more qualified Examiners to take up the mantle and start elevating the overall image of the site. With stronger credibility and a unique and effective vision, it could become a real media powerhouse without selling out to the Big-Media corporate voice that looms over seemingly most of what we see and read out there.

Of course... then there are the highly successful folks (firmly planted in the two-digits-per-day range) that make me wonder what it is that I'm missing. I have it on authority that some of the articles that some of these wonderful people wrote last year netted over $1000 for the single article (and is still getting lots of residual attention). That's some decent freelancer pay even for a well-researched, carefully designed and presented article sold to a major publication. So... it is possible to do well.

To close, since some aspiring Examiners might have a sour or bitter taste in their mouths after reading my disclosure of my position so far, I will take heart in that I've only been cultivating relationships and readership on Examiner.com for about three months. Many of the heavy hitters have been at it nearly since Examiner.com got started almost three years ago, which gives them a firm position to have made friendships and networking relationships on the site, which are, of course, for any blogger or journalist, the equivalent of manna. This article will likely need some updating three months from now to see if these Month #3 doldrums find a fair trade wind blowing through them at some point down the road, but the current lack of growth is a bit disturbing.

Stay tuned for more articles in this vein, but you can get started by seeing the original here: Writing about food and Drink for Examiner.com Part 1: How it Works. This text right here will soon be replaced by links to later articles in the series; thanks for your patience.

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Writing about food for Examiner.com 1 -- How it works

So, I haven't been too faithful about keeping this up. I find that writing about food but not talking much about the food itself is unsatisfying and kind of pointless. Still, as long as I'm writing about food for Examiner.com, I don't think I'm going to write much about food here, save to plant links to those Examiner articles, some of which, if I do say so myself, are quite nice and contain delicious recipes.

Instead, I think, at least for a while, I'll write about writing about food, specifically about writing about food for Examiner.com. This post will be the first in a series about my experience so far with Examiner, pulling essentially no punches on them and being as fair as is possible.

For those who don't know, Examiner.com is an online magazine of sorts, and its writers are independent contractors that get paid competitive wages (*more on this below*) for writing about any topic within their expertise once they're hired as an Examiner. The application process is easy: go to the website, sign up to write for them, list referrals (like me, see links below to my Examiner titles if you feel this article sways your interests toward writing for them enough to contact me so that I can properly refer you), write a short piece, give them a little bio and a profile pic, and wait a little while. As a tip if you apply to write for Examiner, keep that little piece via some version of copy and paste since you'll likely want to submit something you think is good, and you'll never see it again after the application. Keep your bio info too because there's an oddly good chance you'll have to submit it again and won't have access to whatever you spent time thinking up in the first place.

About those "competitive wages," they come in two forms, depending on your title. Everyone with Examiner.com starts as a local Examiner, which means that they're tied to and associated with the local area they apply to write for, usually the one they live in. Examiner pushes hard on an "everything local" initiative, and so local Examiners are expected to write about locally relevant content, although this can simply mean pointing a reader toward local resources for gathering more information or relevant stuff (like ingredients) to the article. In that, Examiner.com offers its local Examiners a "local incentive," via its "Rules of the Road," a short list of content rules that essentially boil down to putting a local spin on every article. That incentive is $1 per article for up to 5 articles per week (for a maximum of about $260 a year in local incentive pay, which is on top of "performance pay," by page views). That is about to double for sponsored local Examiners, which means local Examiners that are sponsored by some (local?) business.

In addition to "local incentives," Examiner.com pays everyone, including its more topical National Examiners, performance pay that works out to what seems to be about just shy of a cent per page view, taking into account a variety of factors that are kind of like a trade secret -- you never find out how they work, probably to help prevent you from gaming the system. Having subscribers (which means signing up for a free, no-spam e-mail alert system or RSS), however, seems to be more valuable than just random visitors, and apparently the time on site that a reader spends and click-through rate have something to do with it as well.

The other pay opportunities are recruitment tools and are pushed really heavily, and ostensibly very successfully: $50 per new Examiner referred and per new sponsor referred to the growing media network. It's possible to make some serious cash that way if you can talk a lot of people into getting on there to share their knowledge, but so far in my experience, people seem leery about signing up to write for them (more on that in the future too). The referral thing must work, though, because in three months I've written for Examiner.com so far, at least 7,500 new Examiner ID numbers have been given out, presumably one to each new Examiner writing on the site.

As for writing, the advanced editor they provide works very much like a blogging interface, so if you can work something like Blogger, you can definitely handle the Examiner editor. The basic editor is even easier to use and produces uniform but consistently nice articles that are relatively well laid out.

Examiner prefers its writers to publish 3-5 articles per week and requires at least one per month, but since they emphasize short, easy-to-read, attention-span-lacking articles (because of their success on the attention-span-lacking internet audience), it is certainly realistic to expect that articles can take between 10 minutes and an hour to complete, if you really want to spend an hour working on them. Personally, I believe in content, so I spend about 30-40 minutes on my articles, but I usually don't even bother proofreading them -- sure, quality counts, especially if you want to get "noticed," but I don't currently make enough money from Examiner on a per-article basis to justify the extra time. Besides, much to Examiner.com's detriment on the whole, most of the content on the site is utter crap -- poorly written, first-person, copy-paste, opinion-ridden, drivel that really should see some more editorial oversight. On the other hand, since each Examiner might be a rocking expert in their field, some of the content is absolutely top-notch and worth looking at and bookmarking, particularly some of the very creative, very successful recipes on there.

As for how the money works out... well, I'll go into super detail about that in a later post, but some Examiners literally make thousands of dollars a month just via performance pay. I don't think most of them write about food and drink, but on the other hand, some of the top Examiners in food and drink are getting at least thousands of page views per day, which comes out to possibly $10-50+ a day in relatively passive income at the low requirement of what amounts to probably about 2-3 hours a week writing time (which doesn't include marketing, promoting, or researching time). While this sounds highly enticing, I have absolutely no idea how to achieve numbers like that (again, more on that aspect later!) and don't come anything close to it yet. Then again, I apparently have absolutely no idea how the hell social networking plays a role in advertising except that I post many of my articles on my Facebook page and get a very modest number of clicks from that source (I currently consider my experiment with Twitter to have failed... I still can't get into that crap). I'm routinely in the top five Examiners in my local network (Knoxville, TN), however, which given my rather low readership is quite, quite the scary commentary on overall traffic to and through the site.

If you're interested in seeing what I've put on Examiner.com so far, I currently hold two local Examiner positions, the former vastly more successful than the latter (which is new but seems not to be growing very quickly):

  1. Knoxville Gourmet Food Examiner (x-31650)
  2. Knoxville Coffee Examiner (x-39092)
Just follow those links to see a complete list of my articles under each title, which are handled and sorted separately. I'd love it if you check them out, especially if you subscribe, and if this article has made you interested in writing for Examiner, I'd appreciate an e-mail or a comment so I can refer you properly. If we communicate via e-mail, I'll be more than happy to share the upsides and downsides with you freely about writing for the site, so far as I see them now. For what it's worth, since I love writing and sharing what I know, writing for Examiner is fun, and it almost pays for my internet connection now (though not for my time), and the possibility for being "discovered" by someone that pays much more substantially is a nice bonus.

Click here to roll on through to Writing about food and drink for Examiner.com Part 2: Does it Pay?

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