Any independent webmaster who has been making good money on the web for a few years has realized that blending ads in content, or distributing ads as content, is much more profitable than a clean separation of church and state. Jakob Nielson recently wrote about usability research showing that people ignore ads unless they look like content and are in the content area of the page. Once a publisher has enough distribution they claim it is unethical to blend content and ads, but if you look close enough at the publisher and advertiser relationships there are overlaps in virtually every category and on every site. There are numerous well known sites in the search space that would never give me any exposure until AFTER I bought ads at their site, which mentioned me regularly after my ad buy.
Here are a few examples of how ads influence editorial:
- Student loan providers grease college financial aid offices.
- Google gives large corporations free SEO tips and hand edits smaller competitors out of the search results. If a large corporation and an independent webmaster have the same infraction Google engineers are much more likely to try to kill the smaller of the two.
- Some conferences even charge speakers to speak. Talk about ads as content!
Some advertisers get mentioned just because they advertise a lot, while many publishers create content around high profit niches, and others organize their editorial content based on votes and usage data that can be bought (indirectly) through their ad network (think StumbleUpon and Google AdWords).
If your solution to the issue of low profit margins in publishing is to aggressively blend low value ads then you are eventually going to fail. As a publisher then there are at least 7 major ways to compete against others who are practicing and profiting from the blend, without being labeled as unethical, or undermining your own growth potential:
- branding & positioning: create a brand or service that sounds informational and content-like even though it is an ad (think Bankrate, which likely pays virtually nothing to syndicate their ads as content to many major newspapers)
- free samples: much like Bankrate syndicates information to newspapers you can also allow people to access a lot of value for free, then charge for a deeper access (think Compete.com profiles and their Search Analytics product)
- segregate: keep your main content stream free of ads, build authority, and create an offers section on your site
- be pure: don't publish any ads, wait until you have a strong brand, and then launch a better business model than competing channels
- indirect revenues: use your site to build mindshare, brand awareness, status, and expertise. then cash in on that via indirect revenue streams
- move yourself up the value chain: instead of selling AdSense or similar related ads, sell one of your own products and services. you can typically place these ads in-line without as much scrutiny or brand damage as blending someone else's ads in your content (see below)
- free user content: if you can create a platform and rule-set that allows others to build value on your idea while drawing enough of an audience to sort signal from noise you can profit heavily from that (think forums, Technorati tags, Yahoo! Answers, Digg, or Google)
Do you have any additional ideas for profiting from integration without being labeled as unethical?
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