Thoughts on the Advertising Ecosystem

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There are lots of business on the web. One type of those is a website that sells products or services. Those websites employ people who work on the site, incur server costs, material costs, etc. The products and services they provide are useful to people, and they pay for them. Business. Cool.

Those websites need customers. They need people to come to those sites. There are all sorts of ways to do that. Word of mouth. SEO. Wear a costume and wave a sign at traffic. Some more effective than others. The most effective, generally is to do marketing and, as a subset of that, do advertising. Web advertising, in particular, as potential customers are just a click away.

Where do you do that advertising? Enter another type of business on the web: the publication.

Publications have very similar costs as product and service websites. They employ people who work on the site, incur server costs, material costs, etc. They just typically don’t sell anything directly to the people visiting the site. They give away what they produce for free. Thus they tend to have higher traffic and a larger audience. Their customers aren’t the visitors themselves. Their customers are the product and service websites. Their product is audience.

The two have the same risks: not selling enough product to cover costs.

The two coexist nicely. It’s an ecosystem. There is plenty of gray area here (e.g. publications that sell things, product sites where the product is DIY publication). But everything fits together as a supply and demand, largely self-correcting ecosystem.

I think that’s pretty dang great! Or at least, it can be.

So why are products and services generally (generally) revered as proper, honest businesses – and advertising generally seen as slimy? Shouldn’t advertising be seen as a necessary, useful, equal partner in this ecosystem? Celebrated in the same way?

The Troubles with Advertising

The reason we don’t celebrate both sides of this ecosystem, I believe, is these three troublesome issues:

  1. Advertising is often obnoxious.
  2. Advertising feels like it could be dangerous.
  3. Advertising can feel like a breach of trust.

Popups, pop unders, unwanted sound, awkward placements, barriers to content, ads covering 90% of the screen. Obnoxiousness we’ve all experienced. As a whole, it doesn’t seem to be getting better. The ecosystem is at a point where it’s incentivizing obnoxious. We don’t celebrate obnoxious.

Danger is another concern. People are, rightfully, more and more concerned about their privacy online. Is this ad following me? How does it know I like William Burroughs? What other kind of data is it collecting on me and what is being done with that data? Oh god there is camera on this monitor pointed right at my face. Of course something that creepy isn’t being celebrated.

Breach of trust might even be the worst one. Money is clearly changing hands. Doesn’t that compel a publication to always write favorably of the advertiser? How do I know what is honest and what isn’t?

Small scale solutions

I don’t think I’m the person with the ideas to fix the web advertising problems. But I think the three issues from above can be fought against in pretty obvious ways:

Don’t be obnoxious with ads. Don’t block content, don’t overwhelm, don’t open other windows, make sound and other multimedia opt-in (if used at all). Pretty obvious stuff. The publication has control here. An ad can be prominent without being obnoxious.

Don’t do anything underhanded with ads. I actually think it’s a bit rare to come across truly nefarious ads, but you can also take steps to make the ads feel safer. Don’t allow advertising from any company you wouldn’t actually recommend is a good step. Have a public advertising policy that says exactly what you will and won’t do. Only run JavaScript that you vet yourself and that has public incentive to not do anything shady.

Be clear about what is advertising and what isn’t. Perhaps you can’t fight the advertisers influence. So rather than try, or say you can, be clear about disclosure. Any time you write about another company that has advertised with you, mention it. When something is an ad, say so. When content is sponsored, be clear about that.

The reason this can work on a small scale is that these things can make the ads more valuable. A prominent and non-obnoxious ad doesn’t erode the reputation of either the advertiser or publisher, and is more valuable. A simple ad for a company you personally endorse is more valuable.

I think its even (weirdly) more effective when you say “Hey, this company is a sponsor, but I love them!” than when you say “I love this company!” without the sponsorship disclosure. The honesty is more valuable.

I fit into this picture

This website is a part of this ecosystem. This website is largely a publication and I sell ads. (The Lodge is a product, and a vital part of the business, but not as large a part as advertising.)

On this tiny slice of the web, I attempt to address all those problems. I have prominent ads and (you can be the judge) but I try and make them non-obnoxious. The ads are just images, text, and links. The only third-party JS is BuySellAds who are very publicly incentivized to keep that clean. I’ve looked at the JS and its responsible for inserting images, text, and links like any other ad. I have sponsored posts that are always clearly marked as sponsors.

Everyone can adapt

As a publisher, you can start being more trustworthy with your ads. You can start being less obnoxious. You can gather feedback from your audience on what they think along the way. You can measure effectiveness.

As an advertiser, you can choose to advertise in clean ways. You can find sites that align with your thinking. You can have policies about what you will and won’t do to ensure you don’t cross any bad boundaries.

As a consumer, you can avoid companies that run obnoxious ads. You can avoid publications that run obnoxious ads. You can tell companies when they are being obnoxious. You can tell companies when you heard of them from well done advertising.

I don’t know if we’re going to make any big institutional change here, but I find comforting that it’s possible to exist within a strong mini advertising ecosystem that does the right stuff.