What Price Integrity?

As an interesting follow on to the previous session on blog monetization, I attended a panel on maintaining integrity on blogs when you do advertising or promotions on your site, featuring Danny Brown, Gini Dietrich and Eden Spodek. A lot of this is about transparency and disclosure; one audience member said that she writes paid reviews on her blog but that although you can buy her review, you can’t buy her opinion: there’s a fine line here. This is particularly an issue for lifestyle bloggers, since they often receive offers of free product in exchange for a review; this might be seen as being less of a “payment” than cash, although it still constitutes payment.

When I write a product review here, I am never compensated for that, although arguably it can impact my relationship with the vendor and can lead to other things, including paid engagements and conference trips. That’s quite different from being paid to blog about something, which I don’t do; I’ve had offers of payment from vendors to blog about them, and they don’t really understand when I tell them that I just don’t do that. Of course, you might say that when I’m at a vendor’s conference where they paid my travel expenses and I’m blogging about it, that’s paid blogging, but if you’ve ever spent much time at these conferences, you know that’s not much of a perq after a while. In fact, I’m giving up potential paid time in order to spend my time unpaid at the conference, so it ends up costing me in order to stay up to date on the products and customer experiences.

By the way, my “no compensation for blogging” doesn’t go for book reviews: it is almost 100% guaranteed that if I write a book review, the author or publisher sent me a free copy (either paper or electronic) since I just don’t buy a lot of books. I currently have a backlog of books to be read and reviewed since that’s not my main focus, so this isn’t such a great deal for either party.

The key advice of the panel is that if you do accept free product or some other payment in exchange for a product review, make sure that you remain authentic with your review, and disclose your relationship with the product vendor. In some countries, such as the US and the UK, this is now required; in places where it isn’t, it’s just good practice.

I was going to stay on for a session on webinars but the speaker seems to be a no-show, so this may be it for me and PodCamp Toronto 2011. Glad that I stopped by for the afternoon, definitely some worthwhile material and some food for thought on monetization and integrity.

Blog Monetization

The next session that I attended was Andrea Tomkins talking about how to make money through advertising on your blog. She started with ways that blogs can pay off without direct monetization, such as driving other sorts of business (just as this blog often drives first contacts for my consulting business) and leveraging free trips to conferences, but her main focus was on how she sells ads on her blog.

She believes that selling your own ad space results in higher quality advertising by allowing you to select the advertisers who you want on your site and control many of the design aspects. Plus, you get to keep all the cash. She believes in charging a flat monthly rate rather than by impressions or clicks, and to set the rates, she looked at the rates for local newspapers; however, newspapers are very broad-based whereas blog audiences are much more narrowly focused, meaning that the people reading your blog come from a specific demographic that certain advertisers would really like to have access to. Andrea’s blog is a “parenting lifestyle” blog – a.k.a. “mommyblogger” – and she has 1,300-1,400 daily views, many of whom are local to her Ottawa area.

She started out charging $50/month/ad, and bumped it for new clients as well as an annual increase until she reached a sweet spot in the pricing (which she didn’t disclose). She doesn’t sell anything less than a 3-month term, and some advertisers have signed up for a 12-month spot. Her first advertiser, who is still with her, is a local candy store that she and her family frequented weekly – she felt that if she loved it so much, then her readers would probably enjoy it as well. She approached the store directly to solicit the ad, although now many of her new advertisers come to her when they see her blog and how it might reach their potential audience.

She controls the overall ad design: the ad space is a 140×140 image with a link to their website, with the images being updated as often as the advertisers wish. New ads are added to the bottom of the list, so advertisers are incented to maintain their relationship with her in order to maintain their placement on the site.

She also writes a welcome post for each advertiser; she writes this as her authentic opinion, and doesn’t just publish some PR from the advertiser since she doesn’t want to alienate her readers. Each advertiser has the opportunity to host a giveaway or contest for each 3-month term, although she doesn’t want to turn her blog into a giveaway blog because that doesn’t match her blogging style. She also uses her social network to promote her advertisers in various ways, whether through personal recommendations, on her Facebook page or Twitter; because she only takes advertisers that she believes in, she can really give a personal recommendation for any of them.

Before you call a potential advertiser, she recommends understanding your traffic, figuring out an ad design and placement, and coming up with a rate sheet. Don’t inflate your traffic numbers: you’ll be found out and look like an idiot, and most advertisers are more interested in quality engagement than raw numbers anyway. Everyone pays the same rate on Andrea’s blog; she doesn’t charge more for “above the fold” ads or use a placement randomizer, so sometimes has some new advertisers (who are added to the bottom) complain about placement.

A rate sheet should be presented as a professionally-prepared piece of collateral coordinated with your business cards, blog style and other marketing pieces. It needs to include something about you, the deal you’re offering, your blog, your audience and traffic, and optionally some testimonials from other advertisers.

Handling your own ads does create work. You need to handle contacts regarding ads (she doesn’t publish her rates), invoice and accept payments, track which ads need to run when, set up contracts, and provide some reporting to the advertisers. Obviously, there has to be a better way to manage this without resorting to giving away some big percentage to an ad network. She also writes personal notes to advertisers about when their ad might have been noticed in something that Andrea did (like a TV appearance) or when she is speaking and hence might have their ads be more noticed. She does not publish ads in her feed, but publishes partial feeds so readers are driven to her site to read the full posts, and therefore see the ads. She has started sending out a newsletter and may be selling advertising separately for that.

This started a lot of ideas in my head about advertising. I used to have Google ads in my sidebar, which pretty much just paid my hosting fees, but I took them out when it started to feel a bit…petty. As long as I get a good part of my revenue from end-customer organizations to help them with their BPM implementations, it would be difficult to accept ads here and maintain the appearance of independence. Although I do work for vendors as an analyst and keep those parts of my business completely separate, with appropriate disclosure to clients, it is just as important to have the public appearance of impartiality as well as actually be impartial. An ongoing dilemma.

Psychology of Websites and Social Media Campaigns

I arrived at PodCamp Toronto after the lunch break today; “PodCamp” is a bit of a misnomer since this unconference now covers all sorts of social media.

My first session of the day with Brian Cugelman on the psychology of websites was a bit of a disappointment: too much of a lecture and not enough of a discussion, although there was a huge crowd in the room so a real discussion would have been difficult. He did have one good slide that compared persuasive websites with persuasive people:

  • They’re reputable
  • They’re likable with personality
  • They demonstrate expertise
  • They appear trustworthy
  • You understand them easily
  • What they say is engaging and relevant
  • They respect your time

He went through some motivational psychology research findings and discussed how this translates to websites, specifically looking at the parts of websites that correspond to the motivational triggers and analyzing some sites for how they display those triggers. Unfortunately, most of this research doesn’t seem to extend to social media sites, so although it works fairly well for standard websites, it breaks down when applied to things such as Facebook pages that are not specifically about making a sale or triggering an action. It will be interesting to see how this research extends in the future to understand the value of “mindshare” as separate from a direct link to sales or actions.