OJR 2007: How to sell your website without selling out

Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles was covering a story about the purchase of a $5.5 million violin when the seller asked if she accepted advertising on her site.

“When I was driving to meet this guy, I realized I was going to interview him and during the same conversation, I’d be telling him about advertising on my site.”

As an independent Web publisher, Niles [wife of OJR’s editor – Ed.] wears all the hats: owner, editor, sales rep and reporter.

She rhetorically asked OJR 2007 attendees, “Is this a huge breach of ethics?”

The majority response was no, although journalists who are learning Web publishing skills on the fly do need to strike the balance between brand promotion and editorial integrity.

“One of the things about a journalist as opposed to a business person is that journalists will always err on the side of caution,” says Paidcontent.org founder Rafat Ali. “The reality is that advertising is part of the conversation and the editor draws the line about how much it encroaches [the site].”

For Eric Ulken, managing editor for news at latimes.com, the line at larger, established news organizations is clear and distinct.

“To give you an example, I don’t know a single ad sales person for latimes.com,” Ulken says.

Attendees agree that indie publishers can also deliver good reporting and pay the bills.

“When you become a truly professional website you do sell ads, whether you’re doing it all yourself, 19th-century local publisher style, or you have sales reps doing it for you,” says OSTG editor-in-chief Robin Miller.

A plethora of resources are available for novice Web publishers who want to earn revenue. User-friendly ad services include Blog Ads, Google AdSense and Yahoo Publisher Network (Overture). Publishers also can use commission-based affiliate programs such as LinkShare, Amazon Associates and Commission Junction.

Niche sites often attract a highly targeted, coveted audience, so another way to earn revenue is to sell to advertisers directly. But you need to do some research first.

“Find out what you can about the demographics of the readers because you’re selling access to the readers,” says OJR.org editor Robert Niles. “That helps to take care of some of the ethical qualms, too. The advertiser doesn’t care what you have to say; they just want you to deliver some eyeballs to them.”

Indie publishers can gather this data through user surveys and free tools such Quantcast and Google Analytics — sites that will record who visits your site and how they get there.

As novice publishers sell advertising, knowing the site’s readership and gauging their tolerance level is crucial.

Laurie Niles says Violinist.com users let her know when a blinking banner interfered with her site’s usability, and she consequently removed the in-house ad marketing Violinist.com t-shirts. She also struck a compromise with an advertiser who requested a bold-colored blinking ad: she accepted the color, rejected the blink.

“You can be transparent in your advertising as much as you’re transparent in your editorializing,” she says.

OJR 2007: From MySpace to your space

Online publishers are wrestling with ways to effectively create and manage online communities. At OJR 2007, participants turned to several examples on the Web to discuss content, anonymity and ways to make sure spammers don’t squat in your site’s comment section. Active user communities, such as those flourishing on Bakotopia.com and Naplesnews.com, illustrate that community networking elements can thrive on local news sites.

OJR participants debated anonymous versus sourced reader comments, as well as ways to engage users into joining an online community of readers.

Ask an interesting, or better yet, proactive question and you’re likely to introduce interesting user-generated content. But how do you keep your comments above board and free from spam infiltration?

In the session, moderated by dot-com journalist and author Janine Warner, participants debated whether readers posting content to websites should be required to do so under their real names.

When veteran journalist Mack Reed launched LAVoice.org, he required names to post stories but left comments open. “It helped to keep people honest if they were posting under their real name,” he says. “The ones that ignored the rule are the ones who came there to cause trouble.”

OJR editor Robert Niles introduced an important distinction in the degrees of anonymity, especially to guard against impersonation.

“There’s a difference between anonymity to your reader and anonymity to you as the publisher,” he says.

“One of the things I always want to make sure I’m doing on my sites if someone has a real reason to be anonymous, I want to give them a way to contact me. As publishers, I want to make real sure we’re guarding against impersonation.”

Niles urges publishers to allow users to create their own publishing space on news websites, instead of limiting readers to commenting on staff-produced stories.

“I hate to use an old buzzword bingo term, but when you let readers initiate content on your website through blogs and discussion boards, instead of reacting to it through comments, you make the site far more sticky, and elicit much more loyalty to your site.”

OJR 2007: From blogging to business

What do you need to do to make your blog profitable? Paidcontent.org founder Rafat Ali encourages OJR 2007 conference attendees to play it straight from the beginning, especially from a business sense. That means sparing a few hundred bucks for an accountant could be worth your while and save you an audit when your site really starts to make money.

“My experience is if you make a mistake the first year, chances are the IRS will forgive you. The second year they won’t tolerate it,” Ali says.

Many novice indie Web publishers still need to work a day job, and Ali and conference attendees agree that being upfront with employers about your blog is key. It’s easier to present your “side project/hobby” to an employer while it’s not making any money, provided it doesn’t compete with the industry you’re involved with during the day. Once your blog starts to earn revenue, then you’ve earned it with your employer’s blessing.

Anticipate this revenue when you’re designing a blog, making sure to leave potential space for ads to run once you’ve gained the readership. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend much to get started as an indie Web publisher. Blogging tools such as WordPress and Blogger.com will set it up for you.

But seasoned bloggers at OJR 2007 say you do need to spend to get the right top-level-domain extension, namely .com or .org. Topix.net CEO Rich Skrenta says his popular site just spent $1 million to buy Topix.com.

Once you set up the logistics, stay focused on your topic and publish frequently. OSTG editor-in-chief Robin ‘Roblimo’ Miller urges attendees to publish multiple times a day to drive traffic to their sites.

One mistake rookie bloggers make, says OJR.org editor Robert Niles, is to wait until a story is completely flushed out before posting it. “Don’t be afraid to dramatically lower your definition of what constitutes newsworthiness … one little fact, vignette or nugget can be a post,” he says.

Deliver that information in multiple ways, adds Ali. Namely, don’t discount the power of an e-newsletter. Paidcontent.org delivers posts via e-mail to its readers daily. “It’s brand reminder for them to keep coming back to the site. Our readers don’t have time [to visit the site] so they read [posts] in their inbox or on their Blackberry.”

Above all else, know who that audience is. Niles adds that successful blogs cater to a smaller audience who isn’t finding its needs met in the mass media. “It’s really great for a journalist because this is your opportunity to go follow your passion and go work that beat you’ve always wanted to work. You’ve got to love what you do because the first couple of years are going to be lean.”