Personal finance blogging has changed the financial media.
By 2005, the community of personal finance blogs had started to grow at a quickening pace. Early independent money and investing blogs like Consumerism Commentary, PFBlog, MyMoneyBlog, and SeekingAlpha began drawing the attention of mainstream media. These bootstrapped websites and those like them offered something previously unseen in the media.
Thanks to the internet, more specifically the World Wide Web and tools like Blogger, Movable Type, and WordPress, independent publishers, almost always working on their own without a writing team or editors, could start to develop an online readership like large publishers with an editorial staff, such as The New York Times. Amateur journalism had a new outlet, and one that allowed the amateurs to reach a wider audience.
For several years, an average internet user looking for information online about how to manage their money could find an article by an independent publisher as easily — and in some cases, more easily — than they might find an article about the same topic written by a professional money manager with a decade of experience or one by a professional journalist covering the personal finance beat for a newspaper or magazine. And these independent publishers began developing loyal fans and subscribers — far shy of their professional counterparts but significant nonetheless.
Anybody could start a blog to discuss (or more often, to learn) about personal finance, without a degree in journalism, approval of a hiring manager or a board of directors, or years of experience in the financial industry. Amateur publishing had existed previously, but now it had the potential to reach more readers.
And for the most part, at that time, bloggers preferred not to mimic existing mainstream media. Bloggers could add a personal perspective that journalists avoided. They could better represent their audience because they also were the audience (in more ways that one). Independent publishers didn’t follow professional style guides, and they allowed the life cycles of their writing to develop naturally, without the friction of editors or a regulatory body. Independent bloggers could even, in some cases, offer very intimate details about their own personal finances, like their net worth and income.
These differences resulted in public access to articles (or “blog posts”) that were more informal, readable, and digestible than the articles published online by the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Money magazine, and other respected but uncomfortable-on-the-internet publications. Traditional media generally didn’t provide for interaction with the audience (through a comment section or discussion forum) due to concern about liability or meeting the administrative needs of managing user-generated content. Most operators of blogs saw interaction as an essential part of the readership experience.
Traditional media editors began noticing the growing trend. Here’s a feature from the Wall Street Journal Sunday announcing their discovery of this emerging trend in publishing within the genre (July 2005), and here’s an article in The New York Times about blogs that disclose the net worth of their authors (September 2005).
For some time, this resulted in a great partnership between independent and traditional financial publishers. Financial bloggers had a small but loyal audience in a younger demographic, while the large publishers couldn’t quite figure out how to grow their audiences, particularly in the age group that would be most beneficial to advertisers.
I and other bloggers tossed ideas back and forth between columnists at major publications, helping them come up with ways to integrate independent publishers into their work, while encouraging independent publishers to continue supporting articles from the mainstream media.
Over the years, traditional media saw a better way to take advantage of the changing tastes in readership, not to mention the tendency for search engines to favor independent publishers who post frequent high quality articles over mainstream publishers whose content was more static and less interactive.
First, mainstream media established their own answer to independent publishing: corporate blogs. Now the Wall Street Journal had “The Wallet,” a blog by name, discontinued in 2009. The New York Times had “The Bucks Blog,” eventually discontinued or retired and rolled into the paper’s “Your Money” section online.
Both generally served the purpose of offering columnists a little more latitude to write informally while pointing readers back to the publications’ mainstream articles. These and all major media websites began introducing reader interaction (comments sections) to their articles, inside and outside of their corporate blogs.
Meanwhile, US News and World Report established blogs across a variety of topics, enlisting help from established independent financial publishers, like myself. These blogs, operated in partnership with the existing independent blogging community, still exist in roughly their original form, and provide US News with a unique opportunity to reach an audience that other mainstream publishers have left behind.
Personal finance blogging has changed the financial product and service industry.
As the profile of independent financial media grew within the larger environment, these publishers had more opportunities to work with companies that served consumers in the financial industry. Authors and CEOs are always interested in getting the word out about their products to an audience in a cost-effective manner, and independent publishing removed some barriers that, for better or worse, still exist in some form among traditional media. In short, bloggers could write about products, some of which may have been provided by a company for review gratis.
Companies were willing to court independent publishers, who were becoming more influential as traffic to their websites grew. For example, one emerging financial start-up invited a cadre of top financial bloggers to San Francisco in 2008, paying for flights and hotels, to participate in a focus group and discussion about their product in development.
Similar companies sought opinions from independent publishers, who were expected to represent what the public would like to see in products and services — and if the bloggers also happened to write about their behind-the-scenes experiences, the company could gain unique exposure to their target audience.
Bloggers worked hard to show companies that their influence among their audience and their suggestions in product development could benefit companies substantially. Today, through this mutual respect, many financial bloggers are also consultants for larger brands they encountered due to the influence of their own personal brands and financial blogs, offering services in communication, public relations, or development.
Some of the best features of the latest financial apps, whether they deal with investing, money management, couponing, or banking, exist because independent financial bloggers have advocated for those features.
Companies in the financial industry have also recognized they can be part of the media, as well. Corporate blogs like Block Talk by H&R Block, the Mint.com Blog, and the ReadyForZero Blog, have partnered with independent publishers to provide these companies with the benefit of high-quality financial articles while carving out a place in the community.
Blogs have been around in some form since 1994, though personal websites weren’t called “weblog,” and “blog” didn’t exist as a word, until several years later. The vast majority of blogs were personal in nature (like a journal or diary), focused mainly on technology, or simply offered links to other established websites with deeper content.
In the 2000 U.S. presidential election cycle, and then again during 2004, political blogs took off, and in the later time period, some began to earn significant revenue and sustainability as businesses.
Independent publishing and blogging could no longer be dismissed as ravings by anti-social men living in their parents’ basements. Sophistication has grown, and independent publishers can wield more influence than some of the names you’ve been reading on your newspapers’ bylines for decades. The financial blogging community has played a significant role in making that happen and advancing the legitimacy of independent publishers.