Buy the Internet You Want to Read

Each month, I donate somewhere in the neighborhood of $15-$20 to publishers across the internet. It’s no large sum by any means. In reality, if I just refrain from eating one meal out or make an espresso at home a few afternoons during the week, that money will fully be recouped. Why dish out $20 a month to writers and bloggers that I’ve never met or really know at all outside of their Twitter handle and online content?

It’s simple; I believe in buying the internet you want to read and supporting publishers that you enjoy/gain insight from.

The publishing landscape has changed quite a bit over the last decade. There’s been a dramatic shift away from print material in favor of online content. Alongside of the shift in medium has come a growing level of content availability. It’s easier than ever now for someone to log on to a content platform like WordPress.com, Squarespace, etc and create a website. Within minutes (seconds even), they can be posting their words out there for everyone to see contributing to the ever-growing amount of content in the world.

The change in content medium and competition isn’t the only shift that has occurred. There’s been a dramatic shift in publisher revenue as well. The general idea among novice bloggers and general readers is that blogging is a relatively easy and lucrative adventure. Create a site, throw some adds up, string a few words together, and boom – an income-generating blog is born.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Before I started at Automattic, I was fortunate to work for Federated Media (now called Sovrn). In my entry role, I was a sales associate that spoke with publishers asking them to join our display advertising network. If they joined, I sent over some code for ad tags, they threw the code up on their site, and we both waited for the riches to come pouring in (My pay was somewhat related to their performance).

Often times, instead of getting elated emails (“We did it!” “Thanks for the new car!”) from bloggers, I’d get the dreaded phone call I had hoped to avoid – “How in hell did I only make $0.80 last month?” The answer was a hard one to explain and involved educating them a bit about how ads actually generate revenue.

When you visit a webpage that has ad codes embedded, your information is immediately pinged across the internet in the form of a cookie. Advertisers “bid” on the ability to show you an ad based on a variety of factors including your past browsing history and internet purchases among other things. If multiple advertisers want to show you an ad, there is a quick bidding war and the winner returns an ad that pops up on your screen as the page loads. This all happens in fractions of a second, so quickly that you don’t even notice it slowing down your page load. This is happening billions of times a day across millions of sites on the internet.

So, how much are you worth to the advertiser on average? Probably not as much as you may think.

Advertising spend is tracked in what’s referred to as CPM or cost per thousand (the actual acronym stands for cost per mille, which means thousand in Latin). The acronym isn’t important; what is important is that this number reflects what publishers can expect to earn on average for one thousand visitors. CPMs ranges depend on many factors, but average numbers are in the neighborhood of $0.60-$4.00. Remember, that price is for one thousand visitors. So, say you have five thousand hits on your site on a daily basis (a solid size for an independent blogger). You’re probably feeling pretty accomplished (as you should!), but at the end of the day, that traffic level is bringing home $10.00 (based on a $2.00 CPM with one ad on a page). Not quite the dream many publishers envision.

If you’re running the numbers in your head, you’ll understand that sites need to have considerable levels of traffic in order to depend on display advertising for their main source of income.

Most publishers have figured out that they can’t rely solely on display advertising to pay the bills. Depending on one source of income for your livelihood is a dangerous game, particularly when that source is display advertising. You’re virtually living at the mercy of powerhouses like Google, which has proved to be an ineffective method in the long haul.

So, in come other advertising methods: affiliate links, direct sponsorships, video pre-roll ads (the kind that tries to get you to buy something before a YouTube video plays), rising star units (the kind that drops down at the top of a website), skins (a background image that sites behind your favorite site) to name a few. In short, advertisers are trying new and innovative ways to get advertisements in front of your face.

You can’t blame them.

This puts publishers in a bit of a bind. Regardless of how much you cut down on overhead, you have to keep the lights on at night and food on the table. The drive for higher revenue means publishers most resort to one of a few options:

  1. Generate higher levels of traffic to drive more ad revenue
  2. More ad spaces on their site (Average CPM * # of ad units = ad revenue)
  3. More intrusive ads on their page (forced ads like video pre-roll pay more than display ads)

None of those options improve the user experience.

Many publishers have now started offering memberships and accepting donations from their readers in an attempt to keep the lights on while also not lowering their publishing standards or covering up their site with unnecessary ads. It’s easy to sit back and shake your head while these publishers have their hand out looking for supplementary income. However, it puts part of the responsibility for improving the internet in the hands of the reader, and that’s a magical thing.

Every time you visit a site, read an article, or share a link, you’re casting a vote. You’re saying, in effect, that you want more of this type of content. If you spend the majority of your day perusing YouTube channels like Dom Mazzetti, you’re telling Dom that you want him to make more videos and produce more content.

Over time, these individual votes help shape the content of the internet.

This isn’t some impassioned plea asking you not to visit Buzzfeed or fill your browser history with meme sites. Instead, it’s meant to point out the critical role that readers play in shaping the internet. It’s getting harder and harder for large publications and independent publishers alike to stay afloat and continue kicking out awesome content.

If you’re a big fan of a certain site or a certain publisher, consider kicking them a few bucks each month or staying subscribed to their magazine. It’s likely not going to affect your situation very much, but it may have a profound effect on them.

You have a vote in shaping the internet.  Cast it wisely.

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