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Where Influence Lives Online

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h1Readers talk about ads all the time, which is both good and bad.

Grace Bonney, Founder of Design*Sponge

It's a great time to run for shelter on the Internet. At a time when traditional home magazines such as House & Garden, Met Home, and Blueprint, have vanished, a new generation of media properties with a cult-like following are taking their place. Yes, design blogs and digital shelter magazines are hot – and nobody knows that better than Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge. Originally launched in 2004, Design*Sponge has grown from the founder's personal passion into one of the most influential home design sites on the Web. Grace recently joined the SAY Media Voices program and is part of an army of content creators who reach a better educated, more affluent audience with more social connections than the average Internet user.

We caught up with Grace and asked her what her readers tell her about ads on her site, her advice for marketers – and what's hot in design right now.

Do you think blogs are a good environment for ads?

I think if they’re done tastefully and targeted well for the audience, they can be great. We’ve all seen the blogs that pile in ads in every square inch and those drive me nuts, but I think if you can find a happy medium where you offer space that advertisers want, in a way that readers can live with, you’re good. It exposes the readers to brands and companies they may end up loving, and it allows the blogger to keep producing free content every day.

How do ads fit into Design*Sponge, and do you ever get feedback from your readers about them?

I held off on taking ads for at least a year (which seemed like a long time back when design blogs were just starting) and I originally had no idea what I was doing. I took small button ads for fixed costs and only from companies I loved and knew personally. My biggest concern was editorial integrity so I made sure they knew their ad purchases were just that - they didn’t come with hidden editorial mentions or preferential treatment. As the ad program evolved we eventually built an in-house team to manage ads and make sure we always had spaces to offer smaller indie businesses. It’s easy to get caught up in the ad side of things, so I’m really happy we have a set up that allows me to focus on content and content alone.

Readers talk about ads all the time, which is both good and bad. I appreciate their constructive feedback (it helps us shape what ads we do and don’t run on the site) but sometimes it can be frustrating to hear them complain about the presence of ads in general. I don’t think many web readers connect the presence of advertising with their continued ability to read content for free.

What’s your best advice for marketers?

Be willing to experiment. Most bloggers are open to the idea of (transparent) sponsored content series if the theme is chosen well and the brand integration makes sense. But each blog offers a very different and specific experience, so choose wisely and think about what the ultimate goal of the campaign is. Sometimes the most valuable campaigns are the ones that give you brand awareness and generate conversation, but aren’t necessarily about achieving a set number of sales or Facebook likes.

Tell us about a design trend or product you’re excited about right now.

Trends seem to come and go SO quickly in the age of blogs and Tumblr pages. But overall, people’s interest in salvaged and upcycled goods seems to be sticking around. Whether it’s people covering their walls in salvaged timbers from old churches or people digging through flea markets for chairs to make over, there seems to be a renewed and lasting interest in making “old” things new again.

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What inspired you to start Design*Sponge?

For me, blogging was really about finding a release for all of the energy and excitement I had about design. I didn’t want to bother people with my running design commentary, so the web seemed like a good place to vent all of that passion. I was hoping I’d find people who felt the same way, and I feel really lucky to have plugged into the community I did.

Was there a “breakout post” that helped expand your list of followers?

I don’t think there was a single post, so much as a general theme of indie design. People weren’t talking about “handmade” as such a buzzword back in 2004. So I think my focus on handmade work, indie designers working out of garages and the local Brooklyn scene really gave me a leg up in the beginning. I eventually moved on to cover design outside of my own neighborhood, but I think that specific regional focus was helpful in the beginning. Now you can’t open a magazine without hearing about a Brooklyn designer (which is fantastic), but back then Brooklyn still felt like a place most mainstream design magazines wouldn’t visit.

How has your life changed as a result of your success?

It’s hard to fully put into words the way this project has changed and sort of become my life. It’s taught me to push hard for the things I really want and to not take no for an answer. It’s also taught me what it’s like to work too hard and not know when to say no myself. Over the past seven years I’ve really learned about supporting myself and how to be a better leader, but I’m always struggling with when to put down my work and pick up my outside life. I’m trying to focus on that more these days, because it’s easy to completely disappear into your work when it doesn’t feel like work. But I wouldn’t change it for the world- Design*Sponge has introduced me to my best friends and allowed me to have amazing experiences I wouldn’t have had without it. No matter what my professional life holds from here on out, those moments will stay with me forever.

As the web keeps evolving into a place where users rely on experts to curate content for them, how has your approach to creating content changed?

It’s changed dramatically. Originally I felt like my role was more of a “finder” of cooler things. I curated based on a gut level and didn’t worry so much about creating content as much as organizing it based on my specific taste. As the years went on and more blogs took that approach, my interests moved away from product-blogging and toward something more original. In 2007 I really embraced the idea of original content and hired my first editors. I’ve never really looked back since then - I find it’s far more rewarding to create something original than it is to group other people’s work from a press release.

You published a very poignant response to the NY Times article about online shelter magazines. What was the reaction? Were there any surprises?

To be honest, the biggest surprise was that people didn’t immediately attack me. I am usually a pretty good gauge of reader reactions and I assumed most people would think I was complaining or being negative. But it was the first time in a long time I’d felt so compelled to speak out, regardless of the reaction. I was happy to see the design community join in the discussion and really take a good look at the issues online publishing (blogs and magazines alike) are facing with an open mind. I think it really benefits the community as a whole when we can voice concerns and not just high five all the time. I know I personally get a lot of constructive (and not so constructive) criticism from readers on a daily basis and overall it’s made me a much stronger person and a better writer.

Is there a piece of key advice you give small publishers?

Helping small business owners (especially women) start and run their own businesses has been an unexpected but incredibly rewarding offshoot of running Design*Sponge. I try to tailor advice to each specific person, but overall I remind people to make that content is their primary focus, not money. No one should get into blogging solely for money, period. It’s a horrible idea. Your decisions, writing and tone are then dictated by financial concerns and it’s the fastest way to lose trust with your readership. So I like to help people come up with ways to turn what they really love and are passionate about into content that people can connect with. Readers (and ad dollars) will always follow great content.

Who or what influences you?

Right now I’m really influenced by musicians and small business owners who’ve found a way to create success by breaking all the rules. Whether that’s recording and producing an album on their own or starting a surf shop in a city without a beach, I love seeing people who take a passion and find a way to make it spread to other people without using traditional channels. That sort of “swimming upstream” attitude is always inspiring to me - it reminds me to trust my gut and take risks more often.

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