Advertising? That's so Web 1.0

12 October 2005

The issue of getting money for blogging is exercising quite a few minds at the moment, especially as some bloggers are already celebrating the imminent demise of traditional publishing: a business that depends on advertising for much of its revenue. And that is advertising that full-time bloggers would like. Tom Foremski at SiliconValleyWatcher declared IBM's policy of not booking ads on blogs contradicted a drive to increase the number of its employees who blog. If people do the same as IBM and decide not to advertise on blogs, who is going to pay for their upkeep? After all, you cannot have subscriptions as the cross-linking that has become integral to the growth of the blog collapses.

But are the bloggers themselves the cause of the advertising malaise? They decry traditional mechanisms of promotion, quoting chunks of the Cluetrain Manifesto as they go. Markets are conversations, they say. Blogs are conversations too, apparently. Therefore, the argument goes, blogs are the new marketing. They are Web 2.0 vehicles, not like the hated Web 1.0 DoubleClick-fed banner ads. So why are bloggers so insistent on getting olde worlde ads?

There is absolutely nothing conversational about advertising. It is purely a one-way means of communication. Punching a monkey does not count as conversation in my book. It certainly didn't feel good at the time (although I suspect many people would much prefer a version of that ad that involved pictures of its creators). You can see why the Cluetrain authors took issue with advertising: "We are immune to advertising. Just forget it". To be fair, one of the Cluetrain authors did recant:

[David] Weinberger candidly admits that he can't even remember all of it (honesty is a clueful trait), then adds: "One thing I knew was wrong when we posted it was the thesis 'forget about advertising'. Advertising is not dead. But the thing the internet adds is the ability to undo some of the damage being done to the lower levels of our brains by advertising. We can find out in an instant if the ads are untrue."

However, if you are an advertiser, then you are likely to take the message "we are immune to advertising" reasonably seriously. Advertisers tend to like being told that the audience for a particular medium is only too happy to be assaulted with brightly coloured, loud content. It was only after popup blockers came in that some of them decided that they had gone a bit too far with some campaigns. I'm not suggesting that bloggers dump the rest of Cluetrain and start lying to people with money but the undercurrent of "hey you, sucker. Your products suck, your marketing sucks, you suck. Can I have your money please?" that permeates much of the Long Tail stuff that abounds on blogs has a corrosive effect. People stop asking "where should I advertise" and start musing "why should I advertise if advertising is so broken?". This may not be a bad thing long term if the result is ultimately better. But that is not going to help bloggers in the short term.

In demanding 'support' for their chosen medium, bloggers run the risk of turning the whole enterprise into a vanity publishing model. Advertisers, like most people, concentrate on the benefit to them not on whether they should subsidise one medium over another. This is how it should be and is, presumably, clueful. Don't do things that don't work.

The apparent silver lining in all this is contextual advertising, which does work on blogs, but there is a problem even with this for the blogger. AdSense and the like are site-neutral. That's good up to a point for the living, breathing blogger. But AdSense advertisers don't care about the quality of the sites that sent them, only the conversions, which are the things they actually measure. If a bot-driven splog is sending as many convertible clicks as a 'quality' blog, the splog wins because it is way more profitable.

Then there is the other thing about contextual advertising: it only works for situations where the context is explicit. Only the consumer has a full appreciation of what their context is. They might be reading about blade servers, but Tiddles may be moaning about not having enough food. They might be as interested in fast delivery of Whiskas as a go-faster 64-bit blade, but they aren't going to type that into a search engine. Most advertising is only vaguely contextual. It uses repetition to remind you of a product's existence, to make sure it's the one you feel warm and cuddly about when you are standing in a supermarket and cannot work out whether to buy Brand X or just the nearest one to hand. Or maybe it just makes you wonder whether you should try Product Y out.

To deal with this problem, publishers and broadcasters provide extensive demographics of their own readers and viewers. "We know our readership will consider your product because they are ABC1s with an interest in fast cars" they explain to BMW. "50 per cent of our readers keep cats" they may tell Purina, using the results of the last reader survey.

What can bloggers do about this? If they want traditional advertising money, there is not a lot they can do without doing some pretty intrusive things that will make them look like big media publishers like the New York Times. But if they want the money, they need to come up with some answers that do not involve simply asking for the revenue that currently goes into what some claim is a discredited model. Social media may provide some of the additional context that advertisers crave but the important information belongs to the consumer not to the blogger. Perhaps there is no business model other than micropayments and subscriptions. Oh dear.

1 Comment

Excellent analysis. It was partly my personal frustration with AdSense that was the genesis of AdGenta. I think the Web 2.0 part of online advertising comes in (for us at Qumana) that the blogger has control over the size, placemant, keywords, even inclusion of ads. It is this individual control that will help both bloggers and advertisers in this new connected world.