Web Advertising: A Modest Success Story

Economics Internet Culture Litkicks Publishing
A TechCrunch article titled Why Advertising is Failing on the Internet is making the rounds this morning with a bold claim that the much-hyped advertising model for web-based content is doomed to fail. Eric Clemons offers some good ideas in this piece, but his basic premise doesn't make much sense to me. Here on LitKicks, even as the economy spirals around us, I've been having a pretty good year.

I sell ads through BlogAds.com, a service whose Internet-grown principles and homespun values I trust. You can buy LitKicks ads for $20 and up on BlogAds, and they send me payments through PayPal once a month. I had a very good month in October of last year ($500.63), though I was disappointed in the Christmas season follow-through ($300.51 for November, $235.99 for December), which probably suffered due to general economic slowdown. But sales picked up in January ($403.00), dipped again in February ($210.95) and will hopefully be up again for March.

My regular advertisers include the wonderful independent book publicist M. J. Rose, whose brand of Buzz Balls and Hype usually includes a healthy dose of blog ads for her clients, and the Print On Demand publisher XLibris, whose highly varied offerings I always look forward to seeing here. I click through on every blog ad purchased on LitKicks -- every webmaster who sells ads should do this, I think -- and I have seen some excellent and surprising titles (as well as some admittedly less promising ones) in the mix. It makes me very proud to be able to help self-published and independent authors contact the readers they are looking for on these pages.

This pocket cash sure doesn't enable me to quit my day job, but it comes in handy and it feels good. It's a nice feeling to be paid for my writing, and for my ability to select other good writers for the site (I have experimented in the past with paying these writers, and will hopefully be able to do so again).

It's a very modest successful business that I'm running here -- but I take some solace in the fact that I probably earn more money each month than many established literary journals, and I take even more solace in the fact that several larger content organizations consider web advertising a failure (as Eric Clemons' TechCrunch article indicates) while I consider it a nice little nut. Maybe this is because these failing sites feature shallow content, overeager writers with untrained voices and shaky convictions who don't know how to build and keep an audience. Many hopeful content companies also spend way too much in pursuit of web ad dollars, and often don't include "patience" in their business plans.

I know a bit about patience myself, because my modest success selling ads on LitKicks caps a long series of frustrations that almost had me giving up at several points. In 2002, unemployed and broke, the dot-com economy a wreck, I urged an independent book publisher and rare book seller to be LitKicks' sole sponsor, with a graphic ad on the bottom of every page, for $100 a month. This arrangement lasted exactly one month before the publisher backed out. Later in 2003 and 2004, when I was even more broke and desperate, I initiated a custom LitKicks ad sales program, the "LitKicks Visibility Program", selling ads that looked something like BlogAds' ads would eventually look, for $75 a pop. This earned me more than a thousand dollars in its first year, but the revenue trickled in too slowly and unsteadily for me to consider it a success, and I was happy to dismantle the program and switch to BlogAds in 2005.

Web advertising, like any other honest business, is a hard grind. But the fact that fools rush in does not mean the business model is flawed. I believe the TechCrunch article that's making the rounds today tells only half the story. Web advertising isn't making me wealthy, but it'll pay for my lunch today, because after years of effort and mistakes I've gradually figured out how to do it right. That's what good business is all about, isn't it?
7 Responses to "Web Advertising: A Modest Success Story"

by warren_weappa on

This should be in the memoir!

by Bud Parr on

Well Levi, Before I closed Brainiads, I spent a great deal of time crunching numbers on the advertising model as it relates to small-scale enterprises. The numbers never added up - ultimately, the economic cost (the cost + the implicit cost of what one could earn by directing their energy elsewhere) made Brainiads a non-starter. Ultimately I confirmed what I knew all along: What I got "paid" for writing on the Web would be those gains that aren't so quantifiable - pleasure and network benefits. I suspect that if it weren't for those benefits you'd find yourself an easier way to make 2-500 bucks per month.

However, Brainiads was conceived on the premise that the value in advertising, more so than sheer traffic, was the highly accurate demographic data (first assumptions, but now through Quantcast, data). That data could be sold at a premium. That premise was correct, except that our problem too was that we wanted to support indies on both sides of the equation and should have been focused more on higher paying advertisers from the get-go, but those advertisers weren't interested in lower traffic, so there was still a gap. Larger networks are trying to meet that gap, but don't seem to have gotten there quite yet, with the exception of Blogads at one level.

What I don't think Clemons really gets is that the Web is so much more quantifiable than what publishers were used to with their push model. He dismisses the fact that ad dollars are shifting to keyword search ads in masse. Keywords are, in my view, not the end game in advertising, but the beginning. I think (Google will still lead the way) that Traffic analysis has been lame in the past, but think of all the data on people and their behavior that's out there now, barely captured. All we freedom loving people give up our private information on a daily basis - often anonymously and in aggregate - but it's data. Harnessing all that data will lead us into a golden age of advertising and media opportunities, not the opposite. Watch all those quants who flocked to Wall Street now flock to ad companies.

by Bud Parr on

By the way, when I said support indies I also should have included that we were focused, wrongly, on the publishing business for advertisers. The sage advice to me was not to be selling to Publishers, but to be selling to Volvo. That was correct, but it's also where the gap existed. Networks are closing the gap, but until they start working with data instead of assumptions they won't be successful.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the excellent feedback, Bud.

You're right that I could find easier ways of earning $200 - $500 a month, but isn't that also true of anyone who runs a lit journal, who publishes poetry chapbooks, etc? At least literary websites have achieved parity now with these types of publications -- I think that's something.

I am a little surprised by your remark about Volvo being the right advertiser. For me, the obvious great advertising fit for a literary website is the type of advertiser who's buying ads here today -- small presses and independent or self-publishing authors wishing to gain exposure for niche titles. Occasional general audience titles and big publishers too, of course ... it's all good.

by Levi Asher on

And yes, Warren, this will certainly be in the memoir! Lotta memoir still to come, including the exciting 2003/4 chapters featuring me dead broke and contemplating homelessness. What a fun business to be in.

by Bud Parr on

Totally agree with you on the first part, Levi - that's what I meant when I said that "if it weren't for those benefits"

It was Richard Nash who gave me that advice and I think he was right - falls into the age old adage 'follow the money' - the demographics support something like Volvo too. If you look at my Quantcast profile it shows that my visitors have, more so than average, graduate degrees and high income (surprisingly, it shows my audience skewed toward males - as much as Quantcast filters out noise, I suspect that some of this is the abnormal amount of people who hit my site looking for pictures of "Chekhov's Mistress", if you know what I mean, rather than bookspeak). At any rate, that's probably the same with a lot of lit sites and I think it's wrong to think that lit = books when it comes to advertising - this is something I've thought a lot about.

I like this post. I like it's calm, reasonable approach to web ads. I fully understand that rush of ad-revenue-potential hysteria that can make a person nearly ruin a perfectly good web site in a hurry.

I founded CandlelightStories.com in 1995 and still run it today. At one point I was doing deals with Iomega for distributing our audio stories on their zip drives and various other media. As nice as the people at the Iomega were (they were really great actually), the endless phone calls and contract emails made the whole thing hardly worth it in the long run.

In fact, after offering ad sales on my own for the site, I got so bored with the whole thing that I routinely ignored emails pleading for ad space purchases on the site. Ridiculous I know, but I'm just not an ad sales guy. The problem is that I will burrow deep into some creative project for Candlelight or my other film blog and the very last thing I want to interrupt myself with is an email about an advertisement. I don't care how much money is involved, I'm just not interested in closing Flash or putting my camera down.

I currently use Google ads on the site and I'm very happy with them. I can ignore them as much as I want. They just work and I get checks and I'm always happy. Currently, I'm redoing the entire site in blog format and I think I'll also give the BlogAds.com people a try. Thanks for the recommendation.

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