On Where Bloggers Might Fit Among Established Craft Businesses

Abby Glassenberg wrote an outstanding piece this morning (I pulled the title of this post from hers) about the Craft and Hobby Association‘s recent creation of a blogger membership category, and Quilts, Inc.‘s decision last year to tighten their credentialing requirements to effectively exclude most bloggers from attending the Quilt Market trade show.

Both organizations seem to have good business in mind. The CHA wants to foster the relationships between professional bloggers – whom the President and CEO of the organization described to Abby as “a valuable asset to the craft industry” – and established businesses. He went on to say: “We are looking for bloggers to be multipliers and influencers for the industry and not go to the [CHA Mega] Show for free stuff. We are additionally developing Show guidelines to help blogger members better understand the do’s and don’ts of networking and business development at the Show.”

At the same time, Abby reports that, “The two Quilt Markets that have taken place subsequent to [Quilt Inc.’s] tighter credentialing have been described by attendees as quieter and more business focused.”

It seems to me that these two trade organizations have different views on how bloggers fit – or, more importantly, have the potential to fit – into the role of “professional” in the industry.

What is a professional blogger? Right now, some – very few – bloggers are able to make a significant part- or full-time income directly from their blogs through the selling of advertising and sponsored posts, and through affiliate programs. These – very few – bloggers make all of their income through blogging.

Even just a few years ago, building up that kind of blog-generated income simply wasn’t possible. Blogs weren’t seen by major advertisers as worth their time or money. Times have changed.

But most bloggers do not draw significant income from ads and affiliate relationships. It’s time, I think, to revisit the importance of diversifying income streams, and how trade shows can play into becoming a professional, period. Not a professional blogger; just a professional.

For the vast majority of bloggers who want to draw a significant income in the crafts industry, blogging ain’t gonna do it. That significant income is going to be cobbled together from any of a wide variety of other sources: selling ebooks, selling craft patterns, writing or designing for paying publications, teaching online classes, teaching in-person classes, teaching or speaking at conferences, consulting with other businesses, writing books, licensing designs or patterns, etc.

And how does an ambitious blogger start to work in those ways? By becoming a professional. By meeting other professionals. By establishing relationships with companies that will pay them.

Sure, I imagine this growth into professionalism could be possible to achieve entirely online, but there’s no better way to do it than in person. Starting now, bloggers will have an in-person opportunity at CHA shows that they won’t have at Quilt Market. Not only will they be able to meet representatives of all sorts of craft businesses at CHA, they’ll be able to meet each other. In a business context.

Ten years ago, I joined The National NeedleArts Association – the trade organization for the yarn industry – and my career was made because of that decision. Attending trade shows allowed me to establish relationships with yarn companies that would supply yarn to designers for the books I wrote. Attending trade shows allowed me to establish relationships with publishers I would end up freelancing for and writing books with. Attending trade shows allowed me to meet designers I worked with from afar, and those relationships continue to be important to me even now – both professionally and personally – years after I switched my focus away from yarn, exclusively. I ended up working for Interweave as a direct result of the relationship we established at a trade show. My Craftsy class came about because of an acquaintance I established through industry networking.

I miss attending TNNA shows. Reading Abby’s post this morning, I found myself wishing that my current work would fit nicely into some trade category or another so I could attend a trade show every year. But I don’t use commercial craft supplies in my work anymore – yarn, fabric, or otherwise. I don’t have much to offer such companies and I need pretty much nothing from them. One day, maybe I’ll find a good reason to make the expense of attendance worthwhile again. For now, I just love me some Twitter and Instagram.

The lessons I learned and the skills I developed at trade shows affect all of the business I do. Through them I became a professional. A professional individual. I learned how to understand someone else’s goals and how they might fit well (or not) with my own. I learned how to follow up with people. I learned how to build relationships over time. I may not attend trade shows now, but because of trade shows I know how to do business. I know how to mix business and pleasure. I know how to pitch people I don’t know, and I know how to pitch people I do know. I know how to assess the possible marketability of an idea I have, and I know how to assemble a team to get that idea made.

The role bloggers can play in an industry is huge, because bloggers have limitless potential for becoming professionals. Not just for making money from their blogs by presenting other companies’ products to their audience, but for populating the industry with fresh ideas, perspectives and skills. Some of the bloggers who started attending TNNA around the time I did are established industry professionals now: they host TV shows, a steady stream of their work appears in magazines, they write books, they teach at national conferences.

If TNNA hadn’t invited bloggers to attend their trade shows – and they sure did experience some pretty uncomfortable growing pains because of it – would this new cohort of professionals have been able to succeed, and in so doing add so much to the industry? Would Clara Parkes have been able to build Knitter’s Review into such a grand platform for her book and yarn work? Would Amy Singer have been able to quit her day job to run Knitty.com full time? Would Robyn Chachula have established the relationships and connections that led to her becoming such a prolific designer, author and TV host? I know I certainly would not have been as successful in my own career, and I certainly would not have learned such important lessons that have enabled me to transition into other kinds of work.

Which is all to say, good on CHA. Good on them for taking the position that they can nudge bloggers into professionalism, and that doing so will be beneficial to everyone involved – including the consumers they aim to serve.

I have no doubt that Quilt Market is quieter and more business-focused now that fewer bloggers are there, but I wonder if maintaining a focus on business-as-status-quo is a forward-thinking enough position to take. Ambitious bloggers will go elsewhere, where they’ll learn the ropes of professionalism and establish the relationships that will lead to whole new kinds of business in the future. Those relationships won’t be made at Quilt Market, but they most certainly will end up contributing to the landscape of the industry.

What has your experience been as a blogger? Do you want to establish yourself professionally? Do you attend trade shows, and are you welcome there? If you have a good tale to tell, please tell it!