Shane BarnhillMonday,21 January 2013

The Snap:

In 1992, as Nirvana was solidifying its place as the world’s top grunge/alternative music act, the band appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine for the first time. The cover became instantly famous due to singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain’s choice of a t-shirt, which read, “Corporate Magazines Still Suck.” The shirt — which Cobain refused to remove for photographer Mark Seliger — served as a commentary that Nirvana intended to stay true to its grunge ethos despite the necessary evil of promotional activities.

In a similar vein, online publications today face difficult choices about another necessary evil — advertisements.

The Download:

And we’re no different here at TSD. If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and at this point, we have quite a few — thank you!), then you’re probably used to seeing our articles sans ads. In part, that’s because I utterly despise the interruption-based advertising model that web publications have simply ported over from our newspaper and television forebears. The goal of most advertisements, of course, is to distract you from the (presumably) enjoyable content that you’re reading/watching/listening to, in order to elicit a click away to a place where someone can shovel their crap at you.

But just like Nirvana back in 1992 (and believe me, I’m not comparing myself or anyone else to Cobain and his brilliance), it’s tough for creators of online content to function outside of the system. In the same way that magazines provided revenue streams for bands back in the 1990s — in the form of exposure that sold albums and tickets — online ads enable web publishers to do what they love doing.

But the thorny issue remains: ads still suck. They’re not only annoying, but they’re also becoming increasingly ineffective for revenue generation in their current form, according to Michael Wolff in the MIT Technology Review:

“The daily and stubborn reality for everybody building businesses on the strength of Web advertising is that the value of digital ads decreases every quarter, a consequence of their simultaneous ineffectiveness and efficiency. The nature of people’s behavior on the Web and of how they interact with advertising, as well as the character of those ads themselves and their inability to command attention, has meant a marked decline in advertising’s impact.”

Still, despite evidence of declining cost-per-click rates for ad powerhouses such as Google, online advertising continues to power the predominantly-free content of the web. Perhaps per-ad margin losses are being made up with higher volumes: According to the Wall Street Journal, “Internet ad spending, which includes things such as mobile, social, display and search ads, is expected to jump 18.1% to $36.2 billion” in 2013.

And so, you’ll probably begin to see some advertisements trickle into articles here at TSD. Our writers do excellent work, and for the time being, ads appear to be the best mechanism for funding their posts.

But my disdain for interruption-based advertisements means that whatever ads I permit here will be as minimally intrusive as possible. Sure, a flashy animated GIF may sneak through here and there while I test out different ad formats, but my goal is to weave ads into TSD in a way that doesn’t distract from the reading experience.

What I’d really like to do — eventually — is to follow Andrew Sullivan, whose decision to “go it alone” is a gambit that’s both bold and admirable. Sullivan announced earlier this month that he is leaving a comfortable gig with The Daily Beast to take his talents to South Beach to go independent with his blog, The Dish. What’s more, he intends to eschew advertising in favor of a reader-supported business model (think public radio, but for a blog).

However, Sullivan is to professional blogging what LeBron James is to professional basketball — a true superstar in the enviable position of being able to dictate the terms of his livelihood. We are years away from that level here at TSD.

In the meantime, a suitable experiment for allaying the overuse of ads here may lie in the form of micropayments, such as Flattr, 25c, and CentUp. These services provide a mechanism, similar to a “tip jar” in a restaurant, for content consumers — readers, viewers and listeners — to reward the creators whose work they appreciate. But let’s not kid ourselves. Nobody gets rich via a tip jar. Not bartenders. Not waiters. And certainly not bloggers. Nevertheless, micropayments are an experiment worth testing, so you can expect to see them here soon, although in as little of an in-your-face manner as possible.

I have a few other monetization plays (what an icky phrase) in mind, but I won’t bore you with the details. Instead, I’ll do this: make a commitment to weave these experiments — especially ads — into TSD in the least distracting way possible.

Because when it comes right down to it, Kurt Cobain was right. Sometimes you have to work within the system, even though the system still sucks.

Hat Tips:

Rolling Stone, MIT Technology Review, The Atlantic, Reuters

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