UPDATE (4/16/2012): Please do not, under any circumstances, click on the ads on this site unless you are interested in the products. Clicking on an ad simply to pay me is not a donation to my site, it is fraud, and it puts my site’s future at risk.
Those of you who have been paying attention probably noticed that this site has been free of ads since it was first created. This will soon be changing.
Before I get into why, I’d like to take some time to explain why I was opposed to ads in the first place, since that’s something I’ve never actually taken the time to elaborate on.
Are Ads Evil?
Truth be told, this is a subject I’m still a little torn on, and likely always will be. There is some truth to the idea that ads may be necessary to inform people about new products and services.
While social media has amplified word of mouth in a way that makes this less true, it also gives power to those who are skilled at influencing people. In a sense, we’re currently in a stage where marketing is being transferred from those with the most money, to those with the most charisma. (The cynical among you can read “charismatic” as “manipulative.”) There are good and bad things about that transition.
Ads are often criticized as a form of brainwashing. While I think this is a bit of an exaggeration, the fact that almost everything we’re exposed to needs to be wrapped up in corporate branding is cause for concern. Among other things, it seems to cultivate an environment in which the first instinct isn’t to create, but to consume.
This is one of the reasons why I was opposed to putting ads on my site, but there was another reason, one that is often overlooked by critics of our marketing-obsessed society.
The Incentive Problem
The primary reason I’ve avoided putting ads up on my site until now is an issue with incentives. I’ll be approaching this from the point of view of a blogger, but the essentials of the argument hold true for just about any medium.
What should the goal of a blogger be? Ideally, it should be to create great content that pulls people in, gets them excited, keeps them interested, entertains them, or otherwise pleases them.
Ads introduce an incentive problem into the mix. The issue is that better content distracts people from ads. A blog post that really pulls you in causes the ads to disappear into your periphery. In much the same way, a riveting magazine article causes you to flip through the ads as quickly as possible in order to find the conclusion. A good cliffhanger before the commercial has you itching for the DVR remote.
From a purely financial perspective, the ideal blog is an ugly mess that’s boring to read. By some loophole in the search engine algorithm, it sits at the top of the results and compels you to click on it. Once you get there, you quickly realize you don’t want to be there, and you notice that the ad sitting at the top of the page is more relevant than the blog post. So you click on it, and in doing so you pay the blogger.
There are still many bloggers today who rely on this tactic.
Don’t get me wrong, this is only a short term incentive. Long term, it’s obvious that better content means more word of mouth, and eventually a larger audience. I’d like to believe that I’m smart enough not to get pulled in by the short term incentives, but our conscious mind isn’t entirely in control of our decisions.
Of course, the truly calculating will likely perform some sort of cost-benefit analysis to find the right balance of good and bad content. Who’s to say I won’t become one of them?
Why Ads, Then?
The short answer is pretty obvious. I want to get paid to blog, and relying on donations has proven to be a bad strategy. Despite thousands of visitors a month, I’ve only received a donation from one visitor, and while I appreciate that immensely, it’s not enough. I don’t expect to earn a full time income off of donations, and I’m beginning to believe that it was pompous of me to believe that I could.
Here’s what it comes down to. You can live without my blog. I’m sure there are many among you who would donate if you had the funds, but if you did, you’d donate them elsewhere. There are people out there who really need help, and you’re not eager to hand over your hard earned cash so that I can blog.
But still, why the change of heart?
Serious financial issues aside, it hit me a few days ago while I was working on a fancy new “donate” button. I started thinking about how to design a donate button with the highest “conversion rate.” I was thinking about button placement and what color it should be. I debated whether to use a catchy phrase to encourage clicks, or whether something simple like “donate now” or “please donate” would work best.
And then I realized that my donate button was an ad.
Once I had the thought, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong with trying to convince people to give me their money without offering anything tangible in return.
Sure, they would continue to have a blog to visit if they liked, but people expect content to be free. This is just the reality of the internet age. I’m not criticizing. It is the way I use the internet, and I’m glad it works that way.
As a blogger, I am inevitably part journalist, part writer, part entrepreneur, and yes, part marketer. I’ve never really thought of myself that way, but I’ve realized that this is just the honest truth.
Does This Change Anything?
It won’t change the content (or so my conscious mind believes). What it will change is the context.
That’s not a small matter. This has never been a highly political blog, but I’ve enjoyed the freedom to discuss whatever I felt like without coming across like a hypocrite. A few months ago, when I discussed Big Brother, it seemed perfectly fine for me to talk about how the alliance between big business and big government poses a threat.
If I wrote that article now, in the context of ads, it might seem a little emptier.
Even then, I was careful to point out that, “The truth is, people buy consumer products because they want them, not because they are brainwashed.” That was my genuine opinion back then. It still is today, but when it’s surrounded by ads it begs the question, “Did he just say that to avoid looking like a hypocrite?”
By now it should be obvious that I don’t believe putting ads up on my site is a perfect solution. I do believe it is the best solution available right now. My experiment with an ad free system is officially coming to an end.
I’d like to say that the ads won’t be intrusive, but there is a conflict of interest. The more intrusive the ads, the more likely you are to click on them. The less enjoyable your experience, the more money I can make. It won’t be you, the person who actually took the time to read this article, that will be my primary source of income. It will be the person who lands here by accident and clicks on an ad.
So be warned. And keep me in line.