Get it together: Blog collectives seek to draw ads

The vast majority of bloggers still write for free. For most, the satisfaction of publishing their thoughts and interacting with readers is reward enough. But an increasing number want at least a small return for their efforts — the question is how?

There are many routes, from affiliate programs like Amazon Associates and Commission Junction to cost-per-click text ads like Google AdSense. If a blogger wants to sell advertising space on their weblog they can use services like AdBrite, which will handle serving, billing and sales.

But what if a blogger wants to actively attract companies who might otherwise not even know their weblog exists? It’s easy for established blogs like BoingBoing or Daily Kos, who already have a significant Web presence. But how does Joe Blogger get noticed? The answer appears to be the collective.

Join up!

Gawker Media, Weblogs, Inc. and B5 Media have proved that there is a market for advertising on blog networks. And the launch of Pajamas Media last month and the increasing success of Blogads appears to herald a new way for individual bloggers to become part of such a collective advertising network while still retaining control of their individual site’s content. By joining together in loose or more rigid groups, bloggers are beginning to appear on the radar of big business and advertising companies and present themselves in terms that big firms can finally understand.

According to Forrester Research, a company that analyzes technology’s impact on business and consumers, between $50 and $100 million will have been spent on blog advertising this year. That could be overly optimistic according to Henry Copeland, the founder of Blogads. He says that the market for pure blog advertising is more likely between $10 and $20 million. But whatever the true figure, it is tiny in comparison to advertising spending in newspapers last year, which according to preliminary estimates by the Newspaper Association of America, was $49 billion.

Nevertheless, interest in blog advertising is growing rapidly. Early this year Volvo announced it would sponsor Microsoft blog platform MSN Spaces, and Audi paid for 70 million impressions on 286 weblogs for its latest A3 hatchback campaign. Most recently, Budget Rent A Car paid for a string of ads on blogs for its Up Your Budget campaign. And where did Audi and Budget go to find the blogs they advertised on? In Audi’s case Blogads supplied 283 of the 286 blogs, and in Budget’s case Blogads supplied 175 of the 177 blogs — many of them sites that would likely never have gotten a look from ad firms if they had not been suggested by Blogads [Full disclosure: I am a Blogads member and my own blog was included in the Budget campaign].

BL Ochman is the blog and Internet strategy consultant who was responsible for Budget’s weblog ad buy. Ochman said that her job was made a lot easier when she could go to one company and be presented with a menu of sites that would be suitable for the campaign. Blogads does that by matching advertisers to weblogs based upon page impressions and subject matter.

“It would take forever if I had to go looking for the blogs myself,” said Ochman. “But Henry [Copeland] knows more blogs than anyone else because that’s his business, and he could give me a rundown on blogs that I wasn’t familiar with. Obviously I had to look at them all to make sure they were brand appropriate, but it was a lot better than using individual search engines, especially considering all of the different search engines return different results and rankings.”

Ochman said that although most big businesses are initially hesitant about advertising on weblogs, perceptions are slowly changing — especially as blog advertising starts to outperform traditional advertising. She said that a traditional ad campaign is deemed successful if the response rate is 0.5 percent feedback. Budget’s Blogads campaign was 17 times that — with an 8.5 percent click through rate, Ochman said. It even outperformed other online campaigns with AOL Instant Messenger and Google keywords. However, Ochman said that some companies are still worried about brand identity in the wild, unregulated blogosphere.

And perhaps it is here that Pajamas Media comes in: where better for a big brand to go than to another brand? [Full disclosure: I am on the Pajamas Media blogroll although I am not a PJ Blogger.] Pajamas Media was co-founded by Charles Johnson, of Little Green Footballs, and author and screenwriter Roger L. Simon with $3.5 million of venture capital. It comprises about 80 mostly conservative blogs.

Simon is already trying to combat the right-wing label, along with the myriad other criticisms that have been leveled at the company since it launched on Nov. 16. A chorus of bloggers has questioned what exactly Pajamas Media is. Simon explains that the company is an attempt to build a blog content service that provides online news and opinion in the same way that the Associated Press provides reports to other news outlets.

In all the fracas over Pajamas, one thing the company’s detractors seem to have overlooked is that it is the first network of its kind to bring bloggers together and to pay them to produce content on their own site. Every blog member of Pajamas Media that has high enough traffic rankings is paid a set monthly fee. Although Simon would not divulge the payment amount, he said that it varied widely and that higher trafficked blogs would be paid more than lower trafficked blogs. In return, Pajamas is able to post its ads on a blog network that it believes is still undervalued real estate. Nielsen research on Simon’s own weblog showed that his readers were in the six-figure income bracket, were college graduates and early adopters. Pajamas has enlisted Nielsen to prove the same across the entire Pajamas network.

“The blogosphere is like the Pacific Ocean; no one knows where it’s going,” says Simon. “Maybe only one or two of these models will work, or maybe all of them will. It will be interesting to see.”

Easier for bloggers and advertisers

Grouping publications together for the sake of advertising, as bloggers seem to be doing, is an established formula. Steve Hall, founder and publisher of Adrants, says newspapers and magazines have been doing the same for a long time. Bloggers, says Hall, were initially slow to adopt the idea because early weblogs had an aversion to the commercialism of advertising.

Hall’s own weblog is part of a small and extremely loose network that includes Defense Industry Daily, MarketingVOX and Media Buyer Planner, all of which are represented by the same company, Laredo Group. It’s a simple way of taking the business of selling advertising space out of his hands so that he can concentrate on writing. After all, selling and supporting advertising is a full-time job.

According to Jason Calacanis, the CEO of Weblogs, Inc., it is impossible to deal with advertising and constantly maintain a weblog. Calacanis sold his network of more than 80 niche weblogs to AOL for $25 million in October. He said that grouping weblogs together also made life a lot easier for advertisers.

“Advertisers love blogs, that’s true,” Calacanis says. “However, they can’t do an ad buy with 13,987 blogs with 10,000 monthly page views each. They would much rather do one buy across two to 10 trusted blogs. Most advertisers and their agencies are not designed to do advertising buys under 500,000 pages.”

And that is where Blogads comes back in. The company currently sells space on 900 blogs, evangelizing and negotiating on their behalf, and working with about 600 advertisers a month. Blogads serves as a single location for advertisers to manage and monitor ads. It also advises companies which weblogs best suit their needs. For bloggers it offers a storefront and takes away the administrative and accounting hassle.

Bloggers set their own prices for a week, a month or a three-month period. They can reject advertisers they do not approve of and they can start or join one of a growing number of mini networks such as liberal blogs, food blogs or evangelical blogs — groups that would be of great interest to certain advertisers. It’s a platform which Copeland thinks could support a number of niche markets, most notably customizable T-shirts.

“Though some folks think this example is trivial or demeaning to blogging, I’m convinced that the T-shirt peddlers are a precursor for an important new trajectory in online commerce,” says Copeland. “They cater to a new sensibility in fashion — folks who want stuff tailored closely to their personalities, stuff that you can’t buy in the Gap, stuff that is topical and generated by people like them.

“I think the blogosphere will help other companies tap into something we might call ‘identity commerce.’ We’ve seen things like Gitmo cookbooks, Christian web hosting, customized tools for knitting geeks, baby gear,” says Copeland.

When Blogads launched in August 2002, it didn’t sell an ad for three weeks. Copeland would not divulge the company’s current figures, but he did say that revenues for 2005 would be three times 2004, which was itself 100 times greater 2003.

“I thought we’d be swamped with buyers and sellers on day one. We were so convinced this was going to rocket,” says Copeland. “But bloggers said ‘Huh? Make money from my blog? That’s a personal space.’ We might as well have been asking people to tattoo their foreheads. And advertisers thought bloggers were weirdoes and teenagers, so who would want to buy from them? It wasn’t until early 2004 that it became obvious this was a viable business.”

In a May 2002 blog entry, Copeland made a $1,000 wager that by May 2007 there would be more Blogads than classified ads or that would be using Blogads. That prediction may not come to pass, but Copeland says if he could extend that deadline by two years, he would be happy.

Is the British blogosphere lagging behind?

Six days after the July bombings in London, the Guardian newspaper ran a comment piece by a trainee reporter headlined “We Rock the Boat.” At the heart of the article was the conviction that because of the U.K. government’s complicity in the invasion of Iraq, the British people should not be shocked that the bombers were British-born Muslims.

“Second- and third-generation Muslims are without the don’t-rock-the-boat attitude that restricted our forefathers,” the reporter, Dilpazier Aslam, who is Muslim, wrote. “We’re much sassier with our opinions, not caring if the boat rocks or not.”

In pre-blogging years, the story would probably have ended there, perhaps with a few dozen letters to the editor, most of which would have gone unpublished. In the next few days, however, a group of British weblogs, led by the conservative Daily Ablution — written by American expatriate Scott Burgess — and the pro-war left-wing group weblog Harry’s Place, revealed that Aslam was a member of a radical Islamist political party, Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The story was largely ignored among the British press with the exception of the Independent on Sunday, which published a story on July 17. But British blogs kept up the pressure with a succession of stories that only served to embarrass the Guardian further: The Daily Ablution noted on July 13 — the day that Aslam’s article came out — that he had previously written an inflammatory piece on the website calling for war with Israel. Meanwhile, Harry’s Place reported that Aslam had provided the Guardian with an “exclusive” story about a Muslim girl whose campaign to wear an Islamic shoulder-to-toe dress in school had been championed by Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Aslam’s membership of Hizb ut-Tahrir was apparently already well known in the newsroom, but it wasn’t until the uproar created by the British blogs that the Guardian suddenly found his affiliation incompatible with his position at the newspaper. When asked to choose between the paper and the party, Aslam chose the latter, leaving on July 22. It was the British blogosphere’s first scalp.

But Dilpazier Aslam was no Senate Majority leader like Trent Lott or veteran news anchor like Dan Rather. It is perhaps indicative of the limited influence of the British blogosphere that its first and only scalp was that of a trainee reporter. Undoubtedly, British bloggers will claim more trophies in the future. But will they ever succeed in taking down larger targets — or will they remain able only to achieve minor victories?

Differing reader numbers, differing reader needs

To begin to imagine the future of the British blogosphere, it helps to understand the audience.

U.S. blog readership dwarfs that of the most popular British Blogs. According to the weblog ranking website The Truth Laid Bear, Tim Worstall, one of the most popular British bloggers, averages about 2,000 visits a day. That’s measly compared to some of the most popular U.S. blogs like Glenn Reynolds’ Instapundit, which averages 160,000 visits a day, or Little Green Footballs, which gets around 95,000 visits a day. Even taking relative Internet population size into account — there are more than six times as many Internet users in the United States as there are in the U.K. — Britblog reader figures are depressing.

A crucial factor in this readership disparity is the vast difference between British and American media.

The U.S. media’s obsession with objectivity and impartiality has left fertile ground open for the partisan plowing of bloggers like Daily Kos, Power Line and Talking Points Memo. It’s an opportunity that simply does not present itself to U.K. bloggers, who have to compete with a spectrum of media views, from the right-wing Sun to the left-leaning Guardian.

Neil McIntosh, assistant editor of Guardian Unlimited, which runs a popular Newsblog, says British readers are used to partisan reporting, even finding a mixture of voices competing for attention within the pages of the same newspaper.

“In this country we have an enormously diverse media,” McIntosh says. “You can be offended by Richard Littlejohn on the right and George Monbiot on the left. You can find [right wing] Max Hastings and [left wing] Polly Toynbee in the pages of the Guardian. So where is the ground into which blogs can successfully move?”
The answer, according to British blogger Tim Worstall, is in areas where the mainstream media does not allow sufficient debate. Worstall says, for example, that the failure of British left-wing newspapers to adequately debate the pros and cons of the war in Iraq has fueled one of the few areas where British blogs are thriving — among the pro-war Left at blogs such as Harry’s Place and Normblog.

“It’s one of the big arguments that is going on in blogs but that is not taking place in the national press,” says Worstall. “Many groups that do not have a voice in the mainstream media — libertarians like myself or political parties like the Socialist Worker’s Party and [George Galloway’s] Respect — have a much bigger voice in the blogosphere than we do in the world at large.”

That contrasts wildly with what Worstall sees as the lack of opinionated voices in American newspapers.
“They still seem to think that they are giving people the news despite the fact that we have been finding out the news from the TV for a long time now,” he says. “What we want to see in newspapers is the opinion of someone who has chewed over the news and can tell us why something happened. I find that in the United States, especially with the syndication of columnists, although there may be more newspapers there are fewer opinions.”

It is a phenomenon that Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University and author of the weblog Press Think, has dubbed the “View From Nowhere.” Rosen says the U.S. media’s obsession with fair and balanced reporting has reduced the news to “He said, She said” stories of little value to readers. And Rosen thinks the rise of Fox News is a sign that the View From Nowhere is coming to the end.

“Fox came forward claiming the same words ‘fair and balanced news network,’ but they had a different kind of reporting that had an obvious political coloring,” he says. “Fox tapped an underserved market and has become the leader for cable news. It has done it without requiring or honoring the View from Nowhere and it has been a huge success.”

But is this difference in approach to newsgathering and reporting sufficient explanation for the readership and influence gulf between U.S. and British blogs?

Undoubtedly, America has a head start on Britain when it comes to sheer audience numbers. It also has the advantage that the rest of the world is incredibly interested in U.S. business, politics and culture. And let’s not forget: blogging started in the United States.

But an additional factor may lie in the vastly different political climates in each of the countries. In the past five years, the United States has weathered two contentious presidential elections and has suffered the trauma of a hitherto unimaginable foreign attack on home soil. It currently has almost 150,000 troops deployed in Iraq alone. Britain is nowhere near as polarized a nation as the United States.

Martin Stabe, a London-based freelance journalist and blogger who grew up in New York, sees other areas where U.S. blogs fulfill roles that are unheard of in Britain. The sheer size of the United States means that the cost of distribution makes it prohibitive to have “national” newspapers like those in the U.K. And U.S. regional newspapers tone down their opinions to appeal to the widest possible readership. But blogs don’t have to worry about pandering to readers to maintain subscriptions — nor are they concerned with national distribution costs. After all, how much does it cost to distribute a URL?

Stabe also believes that the political system in America — with its costly, lengthy, media-driven electoral campaigns — adds further fuel to the U.S. blog fire. But Stabe adds: “What matters most is not reader numbers but who these readers are — the political analysts, the party activists, journalists looking for leads and story ideas. They are what marketing people call opinion leaders. So there is an argument that an elite readership is more important than a mass readership.”
And in that sense perhaps the British blogosphere has already arrived. Scott Burgess of the Daily Ablution says he is becoming increasingly suspicious that some of his blog ideas are being poached by the mainstream British media. Meanwhile, an anonymous Westminster-based blogger writing under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes instituted the Press Plagiarist of the Year Award in May. (Fawkes proudly displays the server origins of many of his readers on his front page: Associated Newspapers (42 returning visits), the BBC (103 returning visits), News International (157 returning visits), Conservative Central Office (687 returning visits), and the Houses of Parliament (4872 returning visits). 

Perhaps the British blogosphere will never achieve the dizzying heights of 100,000 readers a day. But they may take some comfort in knowing that the few people they most want to influence are already tuning in.

Paul Berger is a contributing editor of a new book called: Blog! How the Newest Media Revolution is Changing Politics, Business, and Culture. Find out more at