Last Friday, marketing expert and bestselling author Seth Godin suggested on his blog that “ads are the new online tip jar.” If you read a blog without ever clicking on its ads, he warned, “you’re starving great content… If you like what you’re reading, click an ad to say thanks.”
“If every time you read a blog post or bit of online content you enjoyed you clicked on an ad to say thanks,” he said, “the economics of the web would change immediately.” Yes, several critics answered, it would—for the worse. J.D. Roth offered a particularly thoughtful response on his Get Rich Slowly blog: While there’s nothing wrong with following up on ads for products that genuinely interest you, “there are long-term ramifications to empty clicks,” he explained. “If an advertiser spends money on a campaign that doesn’t work, it’s not going to renew it.” Instead, Roth proposes, if you like a blog and you really want to help it flourish, you should take active steps to strengthen its audience—get your friends to read it, for example, or mention it on your own web site if you have one. “Trust me,” he says, “if new readers come, revenue will follow.” Instead of creating a extra chore for readers (“I haven’t clicked on an ad here in a while, I suppose”), websites should strive to inspire readers to “spread the word” without thinking twice about it.
This is where authors, publishers, booksellers and others who have built websites, with or without the “support” of advertising, should ponder one question carefully: Why are you cultivating that audience in the first place? Are you creating a pool of potential customers for yourself, or one that you can rent out to the highest bidder? (OK, that was two questions, and, yes, I suppose you could answer the last question with “both.”)
But Godin wasn’t done explaining his theory yet.
In a follow-up post later that day, Godin conceded that encouraging people to click on ads for things the had no intention of or interest in buying was a bad strategy, but added that what he was really aiming for was “the most robust ad environment for the web… one in which more surfers give permission to more marketers to make their case.”
The idea being—and this is a massive oversimplication—that it will be better for online advertisers to deal with a large group of people who might be interested in a product like theirs than with a small group of people who are almost certainly interested in a product like theirs but not necessarily their product. In theory, it would force advertisers to refine their pitches to convert more people from interested parties to buyers.”If more people convert,” Godin proposes, “the budget goes up. The spend can increase because converting mild interest (which they don’t see now in a rare-click world) into sales is profitable.” And increased advertising budgets would support the websites at the heart of this debate.
That sounds reasonable—but that just brings us to a variant on the first question: Is the goal to create “the most robust ad environment for the web,” or the most robust content environment? But: Is it possible now, as people dreamed back in the ’90s, when one could refer to “The ‘Net” without irony, to create the most robust content environment without the underpinning of the most robust ad environment? (If you missed Mondo 2000 the first time around, you should track it down sometime…)
Authors may have different answers to all those questions than publishers, and booksellers might have another set of answers all their own. What are yours?