Are you selling out by putting ads on your personal blog or website?
I’ve heard that question many times over the years from aspiring journalists/bloggers — most recently, two weeks ago at the California First Amendment Coalition’s Free Speech and Open Government Assembly, here at USC Annenberg.
Folks who have spent their entire professional careers on the editorial side of the advertising wall ought to be forgiven for asking the question: They’ve been inculcated to believe that any attempt to solicit an advertiser or potential advertiser compromises both their credibility and that of their publication.
Now, once you’ve started your blog, you’re supposed to go out and start hustling ads?
Here was my answer to the “selling out” question: You’re not selling out. In fact, ads on your site are not a “sell out” but a way to buy into the ability to do even more thorough and better-informed journalism for your readers.
Advertising revenue buys you the freedom to go out into the field, to talk with sources, to observe, to buy databases — to do the hard, and often expensive, work that informs great news reporting. Just as it always has. The only difference from working at a traditional newspapers is (and, yes, it is a biggie) that you do not have a separate sales force to earn that advertising money to cover your salary and reporting expenses.
That doesn’t mean you can’t find an outside source to do your sales work. Some solo publishers are earning handsome incomes by doing no more ad work than slapping Google AdSense, Yahoo Publisher Network or BlogAds code on their sites, allowing those ad networks to process the sale of ads on the publishers’ sites.
It helps to be publishing in a topical niche in which there is strong and long-established e-commerce business, such as travel or consumer electronics. General interest sites covering geographic communities don’t tend to fare well with these sorts of ad networks, as evidenced by Kevin Roderick’s experience on LAObserved.com. Roderick spoke on the same “citizen media” panel I did at the CFAC conference, and bemoaned the poor ad targeting (and resulting dismal paid click counts) he’s too often seen from Google AdSense on his site.
“It seems like every time I ran a story about the priest sex scandal, I’d get ads for vestments,” he told the gathering. Roderick did report some success with BlogAds and direct ad sales, noting that the site attracted ads from a few mayoral candidates in the latest Los Angeles municipal election.
I sense the hyperventilating now…. Selling ads directly to advertisers? While covering them on your site?
When you sell an ad on your website, you aren’t selling an advertiser favorable coverage or a selection of stories tailored to make them look better than they are. (Unless you’re a shill who’s into doing those things.) You’re simply selling the advertiser a designated number of pixels on your webpage, upon which they can post something that they want your readers to see.
You don’t need to promise an advertiser positive coverage to close a sale. But you do need to know your readership: your traffic, their demographics and their buying patterns, so those potential advertisers can see how exposure to your readers will help them make more sales. (If you’re not comfortable building your own reader surveys, using tools such as SurveyMonkey, try a ready-made survey from the Blog Reader Project.)
Social media features on your site can help, too. Even if you feel too conflicted, personally, to write about advertisers, your internal conflict won’t keep your readers from writing about them. Your strong community leadership can help cultivate a forum where no one buys favor and everyone feels the opportunity to comment.
Earning money from ads buys you the freedom to reject advertisers, too. If you don’t like certain messages or ad formats, it’s nice to have the financial security to reject advertisers who offer them. As a publisher, you have the freedom to set your standards and to disclose them to your readers and potential advertisers.
But don’t fear being engaged with your community, including advertisers. Nor should you fear potentially complex situations where you have to exercise judgment, instead of plugging in simplistic formulas. (People who write the news never sell the ads!)
If you decide, ultimately, not to have ads on your blog or website, that’s certainly your right. Plenty of great websites provide top-quality coverage without ads, earning their money from subscriptions or donations. But, please, let your decision whether to accept advertising be informed by a thoughtful consideration of your audience, their needs and your capabilities. Don’t make your decision based on an ill-informed fear of “selling out.”
An earlier version of this article included a mistranscribed quote from BoingBoing.net contributor Xeni Jardin about advertising on BoingBoing.