Persuading Surfers’ Eyeballs

800px-Ecclesia_romana_(particolare),_XII_sec._d.C.,_mosaico_policromo,_dalla_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.JPGIt’s a grim season for Americans who own homes (or, shopping malls). Luckily, casual blogging for mediocre stakes is quickly filling the gap as the ultimate backstop for the American economy. Well, sort of:

[W]ith the right mix of compelling content and exposure, a blog can draw a dedicated following, making advertising a low-hanging fruit.

“This is really a continuation of how the Web in general has enabled smaller businesses and individuals to compete if not at a level playing field, at least a more equitable level,” said David Hallerman, a senior analyst with the research group eMarketer.

AdSense is an automated program that places targeted advertising on sites big and small. Other programs such as PayPerPost are just as user friendly; bloggers sign up and advertisers cherry pick where they want to place ads based on categories and the number of impressions a site captures.

Getting paid might even help validate what may otherwise seem like a silly or obscure obsession.

For Samuel Chi, started as a way to demystify the convoluted universe of college football rankings.

Chi, a former sports journalist with training in statistics, posts his calculations every Saturday night during the season before official results are released Sunday. From Saturday night to Monday, about 4,000 sports fans log on daily to check out the “guru’s” forecast.

This season, Chi made about $8,000 from the blog; ticket brokers contacted him directly after word about his site got out. AdSense brought in another couple hundred dollars for Chi, the owner of a bed-and-breakfast in Amelia Island, Fla.

A few things. First, it is very hard to imagine that $8,000 is going to validate what is, let’s be frank, a silly and obscure obsession with college football rankings. But putting that aside, it strikes me as odd that the article paid so little attention to the potentially pernicious consequences of running targeted ads on a niche website. With evidence growing that online advertising works, even when it isn’t clicked on, there are, I think, two sets of issues to think about.

First, privacy law. As a commentator to Dan’s earlier post noted, even Concurring Opinions, which has relatively few ads, runs lots of javascript hosted by third-parties. Obviously, sophisticated readers can opt out of this collection regime, but the percentage of readers with this level of know-how is small. I’m not in the group.

Second, total persuasion. As I argued here and more extensively here, we should be troubled by a world in which it is impossible to walk, or surf, “without feeling like a targeted consumer.” In a world where ads are generalized, like T.V., you can a) feel confident in your ordinary defenses to advertising – skepticism, caution, disbelief – will work; and therefore b) you will feel the freedom of being unpersuaded, and in making consumer choices that maximize your well-being, broadly defined. This is not true with targeted advertising. Thus, although it is nice that small blogs like ours can monetize themselves – indeed, I pushed and continue to support the decision to take on advertising – we should acknowledge the cost paid by our readers. Targeted advertising on a blog means that readers become consumers, subject to the most persuasive speech money can buy. Ultimately, I imagine that almost every blog with non-negligible traffic streams will take on advertising, if only to defray hosting fees. And folks can be persuaded from cradle to grave. Even during lunch!

(Image Source: Wikicommons.)

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1 Response

  1. re: “we should acknowledge the cost paid by our readers”

    As we acknowledge the price paid by our advertisers. 🙂

    The NYT Magazine lead column this weekend referenced an “Annenberg Study,” so I was inspired to look it up. I found Joseph Turow’s 2003 “Americans & Online Policy: The System is Broken” (Dan subsequently told me it was not the same one the article was referencing.) One curious experiment from the study was introduced like so:

    Suppose the web site that you like most and use regularly says that in order for it to continue operating it must charge users $6 a month. if you pay, the site will show you ads but it will not use personal information about you to make money from outside advertisers. Or you can get the site for free in exchange for allowing the web site to use personal information about you to make money from advertisers.

    Turow found that a majority of users, when provided with that choice, decided to avoid it altogether– not realizing that the second option is the default as the web works today!

    This same deal has interested me from the online media perspective– what if a popular web publisher allowed users to pay in order to avoid the increasingly creepy-crawly ads? (I dubbed this PaperTrust). When I floated this by a friend of mine who happens to be a news junky and Econ PhD, he admitted to using AdBlock. Which begs the question for the legal community here: if the record industry was able to get revenue-sucking technology (Napster, Grokster) declared illegal, will the publishers eventually do the same for AdBlock?