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Sunday, January 17 Front Page >> Random Rants >> Ads on Influencer Websites

Nov 24, 2003, 12:45am

There's an interesting discussion going on over at PocketPC Thoughts right now.

The site owner has instituted a new, and what I would find highly annoying (if I used IE) ad system using a clone of Microsoft's "smart tags" to automatically trigger ad popup boxes if you hover your mouse over a link.

It reminds me of something (long gone now) tried to do in their waning days - they assigned "smart url tags" to words in their usenet archives, so if I posted something where I said Microsoft, that word would be a hyperlink to It didn't fly too well.

It raises some interesting points. On a lot of enthusiast sites, I'm seeing more and more ads. Obtrusive ads (for eg, the huge, middle of the page ads on Brighthand), fifteen ads a page (Steve's Digicams), popups (Infosync), ads disguised as news or text articles (Steve's Digicams, and PPC Thoughts).

I am actually very thankful that I use Firebird for most of my surfing these days. There's something to be said about small market browsers. First, a lot of the intrusive stuff (esp. the smart url tagging) doesn't work in them because they're too small a marketshare browser for companies to design this technology for them. But second, I will quickly and readily block popups at every single site I visit that has them, and it's as easy as one click. I'll even block all the ads on a site that takes over my entire screen with an ad. But still occasionally read the site.

Hypocritical of me, n'est ce pas? After all, I run an ad-supported, ad-sponsored, and ad-laden website. On the surface, I'd seem like quite the hypocrite. But I'll tell you something. I block a lot of ads on enthusiast sites, not because I'm trying to deny these folks an income (only the enthusiasts, not companies like tribal fusion). No, I block these because I know there's a better way for these sites to make money, and I refuse to give all this third party revenue away, especially when it is ruining my reading experience.

The rest of this rant will piss off people

Just to warn yas. I get high and mighty below. Thankfully, not too many people read this rant :)

I know exactly how much time and effort it takes to run an influencer / enthusiast website. In fact I'll go out on a limb and state I probably put more time and effort into mine than I see most of the aforementioned sites do. (I'll clarify this obviously egotistical and self-grandiose statement below - don't worry).

It also costs heaps of money. It's not cheap. Add some writers and staff behind the scenes who do work on the website, and expenses double, triple, quadruple. Become popular, and the hosting goes through the roof. We soon have to move to two servers, simply because our traffic is too high. That's going to cost me over a grand more a month.

But if you visit CoffeeGeek, you'll see that there's relatively few ads - on the front page, there's a top banner, a side banner, and a side text ad. All ads are pretty low key, no flash, no popups, no "take over the web page" crap.

Drop down into a section on the site, and you'll see a top banner, one or two side banners, and one or two text ads. Get down to the real meat, three levels in, and we bump the count up to three text ads with the other graphical ads.

I purposely designed the new site (we launched a new version two weeks ago) so that we could fit more ads in, but in a less obtrusive way. I've banned the use of Flash ads for now, and the majority of my advertising is our own text-ads we sell.

Our third source of revenue comes from a (if I may say so myself) pretty smart way to both give our readers a choice on where to buy products, but also give my advertisers a high-click thru rate - they're called GeekLinks. We have about 250 products in our consumer review database, and almost 2,000 reviews written for those products. GeekLinks are the randomized "where to buy" links on the left side of most pages. They're dirt cheap - $2 or less a month flat rate per link (not per click or view) if the advertiser buys in volume of over 100 products.

Even though this has turned into a great revenue source, it basically covers our hosting costs a month if we have at least 15 companies buying geeklinks. The banner and text ads pay the rest.

One way I've made the site "work" is by limiting all advertising to coffee and espresso related companies, and, here's the important part that clarifies my ego tripping above - I manage all the advertising myself. No third party. It results in a heap more work for me (although recently we've automated more of our self-managed ad system), but it's worth it because I see 100% of the ad revenue, not 5 or 10%.

We also do a lot more work on the content on the site (although during the summer it fell off because we were rebuilding the entire site from scratch). We do comprehensive detailed product reviews. We do massive promotions like the current CoffeeGeek Holiday Gift List and Fund Raiser. We do our regular columnist articles, and with the new site launch, we have massive-time-consuming things like the Guides, the Resources section, and a new type of product review, the QuickShot Review. I don't want this to come off as a criticism of other influencer sites, but I feel that CoffeeGeek, as an infuencer site, provides a ton more content possibilities (and responsibilities) than most of the influencer sites I visit for tech gadgets and the like. Hell, just building our entire Consumer Review section is a massive undertaking. And we build all our own code from scratch - not off the shelf freeware or payware components.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this - we do a helluva lot of content and provide a helluva lot of community services (way beyond just setting up a forum) to make our advertisers happy, and our visitors happy. And I add a lot more work to my plate by directly handling all advertising - no third party to take it off my hand.

BTW... my advertisers. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt I'm much more fortunate that my brothers over on these other influencer sites when it comes to my advertisers. I have some of the greatest advertisers in the online world. They spend heaps of money with me, put up with a lot of my one sided rules and such (no all caps in your text ads, please!) and yes, they get lots of click thrus and sales, but they get it because they KNOW, also without a shadow of a doubt, that MANY of our regular visitors and members see our advertisers as part of the glue of the community we've created and fostered.

I've developed very friendly relationships with many of my advertisers, and that helps to. I never miss an opportunity to tell my advertisers how much I appreciate their trust and faith in what we're doing with CoffeeGeek, and I never miss an opportunity to remind our visitors and members of the importance our advertisers hold, and their support of the website. I do it in a low key, low guilt trip fashion (I hope), because all I'm stating is fact.

I am also extremely fortunate that our advertisers don't adjust or bump up prices to pay directly for the ads they buy from me. Usually our advertisers are the lowest places online to buy the products advertised. That's very cool, and I don't know too many influencer sites that can say that.

I've worked very hard to set up the advertising model we have. I've worked equally hard to foster relationships with our advertisers, and to get new advertisers in as part of the community, not just as "people spending bucks on an ad". And it seems to be working. It's good to see hard work pay off.

(one thing that has helped the success of the site - for it's first 18 months or so, I didn't draw a dime of salary from the work I do on CoffeeGeek - I paid expenses, paid writers, paid travel, paid for prizes, paid for staffing, but not myself. Since launching the new version, it looks like I may be able to pay myself about $1500 a month for the work I do. Something I'm happy with!)


So back to the other sites I complained about up top. When I see other influencer sites just piling on more ads, or spending a lot of their time trying to figure out how to get more advertising clicks and such through gimmicks and html trickery, I have no sympathy or empathy for that. I don't recognize the need to go that route. I'll be frank (oh oh) - I think it's lazy. Then when I see site owners berating their visitors in a forum because they block ads, I think it's stupid.

It does take time, I fully admit. But moving ad revenue 100% to your own control is a start. Then stop trying to figure out new gimmicky ways of generating more ads, and start finding a gimmicky way to have less ads, and the ads you keep are SMART. Useful to the visitor. Do you know, the average click through rate for our Geeklinks is almost 10%!!!! I'm not shitting you - I can show anyone who matters our stats page if they don't believe me.

It has a high click through rate, and is so successful because, (watch me put away that humble pie), it was designed smart. No lies either - the visitor knows from the get go what they are about. We even have a link right underneath these geeklinks that says "What is this". Clicking it generates a popup (gasp) that explains in full that these are paid for links that also serve a useful purpose.

Geeklinks is probably one of the smartest advertising things I've ever dreamed up.

The second bit of advice I'd impart to influencer sites is this. "It's the content, stupid!" (said with the utmost of respect). Just having a news page and a forums won't cut it any longer. Doing the occasional review won't either. Get columnists, get consumer reviews going, get something new and exciting, at least every four to six months. Work for your money!!! Work for it, and more will come!

Third - at some point, you have to stop dicking around and start being serious. You can't get into little flame wars and chastisings in your forums (this one goes out to Michal at My Symbian specifically). If you want advertisers to consider you seriously and professionally, act serious and professionally. At all times (sheesh, what am I doing now? I may have just crossed over into the hypocrisy mode for real).

It's not just the public online persona either. Do up nice advertising information packages for your advertisers. Go to trade shows and MEET them - don't go just to gladhandle and see the latest tech. Write a series of style guides for your site - a style guide for review writing, for articles and columnists, for product reviews, for guides, for whatever content your authors write. And stick to it. And pay your authors!

And one key thing - NEVER, EVER "gray area" a piece (or section) of content to include a few ads... even ads for your own affiliate links. It completely erodes reader trust. Lose that trust, and you lose the readers and the clicks. I absolutely don't trust the holiday gift lists on most digital camera sites any longer, and don't really trust the "news" listings on most PDA sites. Because of this, I rarely click their links or buy things through their links in legitimate advertisements.

Well, I guess I've said enough. I'm sad to see the current state on many influencer sites I've seen morph and evolve (or is that devolve) since their online birth. But I'm also even sadder that some influencer sites I knew and enjoyed are no longer online.

And therein lies the crux of me writing this. I hope that if any of the owners of these influencer sites read this, after they finished being pissed off, maybe they'll think a bit more about the meat of what I wrote, and consider expending their energies away from gimmicky more ads per page things, and towards more content and more direct and targeted ads, while hosting less ads per page. It can work. I've made it work (so far - knock on wood).

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