When Ads Destroy Branding

by Krishna on January 30, 2009

The reason why free markets work is that profit is a powerful motivator for economic activity. Supply and demand in the marketplace drive production, encouraging greater investment in goods demanded more by consumers. This is just as true on the Internet. There is a growing need for online services and information, and suppliers are rushing in to fill the need. Suppliers range from large Fortune 500 companies to small startups to individuals, each claiming a piece of the pie.

Different companies (and individuals) have created business models to generate revenue from the demand. In the case of informational websites and blogs, the business model usually involves making money from paid subscriptions or from advertisements in various forms (text ads, banners, etc.) or, in the case of some, questionable practices such as sharing user information with their marketing partners.

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Paid subscriptions are increasingly becoming rare, as most companies find that hiding their content behind walls is not how the web works, and reduces their capability to attract consumers. Short-term border-line methods of generating revenue are simply that, just short-term. As consumers lose trust, they go away and the website dies a deserved death. Other ways to generate revenue like selling stuff (memorabilia, books, etc.), or simply asking for donations are also possibilities, but not every site can use them or will gain much revenue from them.

So we are mostly left with advertisements as the primary means for generating revenue. As I mentioned in a previous post, this has forced the bigger, multi-person blogs to change their layouts to display a lot of ads. Some of them have been able to maintain visual coherence and integrity despite the onslaught of ads. Others haven’t. Unless you are reading them in a blog reader, they are quite ugly looking and, in some cases, embarrassing because of the kind of ads that are displayed.

The popular single-person blogs have been less quick to move to such ad-prevalent designs. One reason is that many such authors are not professional bloggers, and make money elsewhere (running a company, working in a large company, funding companies, etc.) Secondly, of course, their expenses are quite low when compared to a dedicated blogging outfit and do not need to generate the last bit of revenue from them. Most popular bloggers have done a great job of carefully blending ads with the rest of their content to present a very consistent and aesthetic look.

So that is why it is so disappointing when I come across some single-person websites and blogs and find them literally plastered with ads over any available space. Take a look at the image on the right. This is a site which I marked into portions, where yellow stands for ads, blue for useful content and gray for meta-content. As you can see, less than one-fifth of the area is allocated for actual content, which is partly below the fold, because of the advertisements that come at the top.

If these sites were simply spammers trying to make a few easy bucks while serving stolen content, they would simply merit contempt. But these websites were created by people for blogging about their work or for displaying their resume or simply talking about themselves. It is disappointing because while they are creating unique content, they tarnish that legacy by imitating the ad strategies of spammers.

I simply don’t get it. These sites seldom attract the volume of visitors that would generate any appreciable amount of revenue. Because Google AdSense is typically used for advertisements (as it is easy to set up), the websites have a poor visual look and fail to attract repeat visitors or incoming links, thus defeating any purpose of using the website as a launching pad for bigger things. What they do instead is reduce (and even destroy) the brand value of the individual and the website in the minds of visitors.

To “paraphrase” a little-known politician speaking in 2002, I am not opposed to all ads. I’m opposed to dumb ads.

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