On Advertising

I hate advertising, yet I have advertisements on Monochromatic Outlook as well as other websites I host. Am I a hypocrite?

Perhaps. But first allow me to qualify my hatred of advertising. I dislike it because it tends to be a trade with an inherent sacrifice of integrity for cash. Perhaps for a television station it doesn’t matter whose money they take because no one expects them to have an opinion. In some cases (political advertising for example) they are required by law not to have an opinion.

That said, if I don’t care what a television station does or does not believe, then I put no trust in what they tell me, and therefore the value of the advertisement is zero. It is wasted money. I won’t buy a car because I see an ad for it on television; the influence of that advertisement is minuscule compared to the influence of word of mouth or of reviewers online or in print. Gone are the days when advertisements contain actual product information, so without a trusted voice providing the endorsement, an advertisement is often best ignored.

Likewise when an athlete or celebrity endorses a product for money one has to wonder whether they use that product because they are paid to or because they would chose to if they were buying it with their own money. Or even whether they actually do use the products they endorse.

One must also look at the effect that advertisement has on the content that the advertisement supports. Even when there is a firewall between editorial and advertising in an organization, the laws of supply and demand dictate that the content that survives will be the content that serves the advertiser rather than the consumer.

Therefore I prefer forms of entertainment and information where I can pay a flat amount up-front and not have to look at advertisements. Just as I buy books I enjoy and am happy to continue paying so that the authors can continue writing, I want the movies a studio makes and the TV shows a network produces to be the direct result of the revenue I provide by paying for the content.

Why I bother trying to get money

Even for sites with as small a reach and readership as mine, hosting is not free. I pay out hundreds of dollars every year to publish these sites and spend dozens of hours every month maintaining the servers and making sure that the sites are running and with load times that aren’t abysmal. These sites are a labor of love and I don’t expect to support myself with them. I would however like for them to pay for their own hosting even if not the time it takes to maintain them. That means finding revenue.

Web-based content is very infrequently sold direct by subscription, and hiding web content behind a pay wall is a sure ticket to obscurity for any content provider smaller than, say, the Wall Street Journal. Advertising of some sort or another is pretty much the only option.

Can a site with ads be trustworthy?

Because I want the visitors to my sites to have a good experience and also because I believe that my sites have the best value when I—and by extension the sites—can be trusted, I’m making some rules about advertising on the sites I host.

First, that there is no firewall between editorial content and advertising content. I can’t avoid the appearance that I’m selling my endorsement for money but I can turn it on its head and declaring that I’ll only take money for that which I can honestly endorse. Almost any advertisement that goes onto the site is an advertisement that I have personally approved (I’ll get into specifics later.) I’ve always done at least some checking to see that an advertiser on one of my sites is worthy of my endorsement. If you have any reason to believe that an advertiser on my sites ought not be supported, by all means contact me and I’ll take a closer look. I might very well pull the ad.

My sites have now moved to an entirely affiliate-based ad system. I don’t get paid to show ads. I get paid when people trust what I have to say enough to follow the links or banners and buy the product sold on the other side. I’ve discontinued AdSense, have set up my own ad server, and have spent a not-inconsiderable time establishing affiliate relationships with selected vendors of goods and services.

The best use of these affiliate partnerships is to link to products that I mention. When reviewing books, for example, a link to that book on Amazon (and other partners such as Kobo for the Kobo Reader, Alibris as an alternate to Amazon, and the Apple iTunes Book Store) is something I consider useful to my readers as well as good for me if I can get a little percentage out of the sales that my review inspired.

There is little worry that I might decide only to review books that are available from affiliate deals. There are very few instances where a book is entirely unavailable. My practice is to review books that I read and to review every book that I read. A link to a book does not mean that I liked it; you’ll have to read my book report to know what I thought of it.

Banners

A somewhat more sticky question, and the one that this article really means to address, is what about the banner ads that do not correspond to a specific product that I’ve mentioned?

As mentioned above and in the interests of total transparency, there are a few circumstances where an ad I have not approved may still show. To maintain variety in the ads that are shown, I do allow some random ads both from selected sources and from advertisers I have selected but which include ads I may not have individually approved. At present (and these numbers are likely to vary from day to day and from site to site) my ad server predicts that 1.56% of all banner ads will be chosen from a random pool of unknown advertisers and 7.81% of all banner ads will be a random ad that I may or may not have specifically approved, but from a vendor that I have approved. For the most part, the ads that I’ve seen come through the random processes have been just fine, but I have control to filter out ads that I choose not to allow. If you see anything that seems out of place or offensive, please contact me and I’ll look into it.

The process of selecting affiliate partners has not involved inflexible rules, but it is a process undertaken with intention and conscious choice. Not every ad partner is one that I think is a perfect fit, but each one has intrigued me in some way without chasing me away. RedBubble, for example, is not a company with much direct relation to the content of my sites, but their ads are tasteful and the t-shirts they sell are fun and funny. So why not?

On the other hand, perhaps at some point I ought to list each of my advertisers with a paragraph or so explaining why I chose to make a deal with them specifically.

Alternate revenue models

The next step is to provide options to opt out of ads. Readers of new content are not the reason that I have to pay real money for hosting; it’s anonymous search engine traffic finding posts from years ago. That’s fine and good, but really that’s the reason that revenue is important. So I prefer to show ads to anonymous traffic and give preferential treatment to the visitors that show an interest in what the sites offer and come back again and again.

Those repeat visitors are actually the people most likely to click on something I’ve recommended and buy it, so it would be counterproductive to simply not show ads to logged-in visitors. Instead my sites will offer the option to hide half the ads if logged in, on any site or page which has more than one ad on it. Just by creating an account and using it to log in, you will have the option to disable all but one of the ads on a page. (All but two if there would normally be four ads on a page, but I’m leaning away from putting that many ads on any page.) This option can be turned on or off on the user profile page.

Finally, an option to remove all ads: I’ll be offering a «premium» membership level which would add the option to remove all ads by switching to a subscription model. The details are not worked out, and I don’t know whether pricing would be per site or for all sites—the latter seems to be a better idea (if for no other reason than it would encourage members from one site to check out the other sites) but it would be more work to make that happen.

Another possible benefit that could be offered to premium subscribers would be access to faster load-balanced servers. It’s an interesting idea, but it probably won’t go beyond the stage of «interesting idea» until such time as there is enough traffic that I have to increase the amount I pay for Content Delivery Networks and the like. I suspect that won’t be the immediate future.

The subscription rate would necessarily be low; people are unaccustomed to paying for content on the Web. But even a small amount of revenue would provide justification to put more effort in to making the sites better, with more well-thought-out design, fresher content, and more compelling features.

It’s not all figured out

My thinking about advertising will likely evolve over time. These rules and ideas about advertising on these sites are subject to revision. But one thing will not change: the purpose of the advertisements are to better enable providing the best websites possible. If the advertisements don’t serve that purpose, they will go away. This is the reason that the Google AdSense ads went away: they provided a total of less than ten dollars revenue per year. Over six years I never reached Google’s threshold for cutting a check, so in essence I was giving away advertising. When I closed the account after six years I got a check for $58.

The switch to advertising based on affiliate partnerships allows greater control over the ads displayed, which helps me to use them to supplement the sites’ content rather than simply clutter up the sites.

My affiliate partners are shareasale.com and Rakuten Linkshare. My ads are managed and served by OpenX Source, an open-source ad server.