Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: 21st Century Thinking (Advertising Part 2)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Last week, I mentioned that I’d been thinking about advertising in a very 20th century manner. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things in 20th century manner, which makes sense, considering I spent 40 years in the 20th century, and only 10 in the 21st (so far). But as I mentioned last week, everything is changing rapidly (particularly in my profession, publishing) and keeping up is becoming a challenge.
Witness advertising. Everyone is trying to find a new way to do it and by new, I mean effective. Of course, that’s been the quest from the beginning. What works? What doesn’t? What does it cost?
As I mentioned last week, what caused me to finally start on the ad topic was an e-mail. I got a request to put a paid ad on my website. I’ve gotten them before, and dithered. This time, I didn’t dither.
I questioned and thought, and thought some more.
This week, I’m going to talk about someone else buying ad time or ad space with you.
I almost wrote, “Realize that I’m new to this,” but I’m not. I’ve worked for radio stations that sell advertising time. I wrote the ads the customers bought. I’ve worked for magazines that ran advertising. I’ve sold advertising for magazines and newspapers. In other words, I’ve worked for businesses that have made every single dollar they earn off ad revenue.
I hadn’t given that much thought, however, since I made my living from those ad dollars only secondhand. Those businesses paid me for my writing and/or performance skills (yes, I read some of those ads, and engineered a few as well) with dollars those businesses received from their ad revenue.
Which brings me back to my blog. This website, right here. The one you’re eyeballing.
I’ve had a website for at least ten years. In the beginning, that website was a “static website,” back before anyone even used the term. It was a strictly informational place. If you wanted to know what else I published, you went to that site. If you wanted to know what’s coming up, you went to that site. Nothing more.
I was an early adapter on a static website, but a late adapter to an active website. Some of that came from a fear of flamewars. In the early days of the internet, listserves, and e-mails, flamewars (or fights for those of you not into the jargon) happened a lot, and over the most trivial things. People would object to a word or an idea and then scream about it, sometimes defaming you all over the net.
Which, since the net’s audience was small back then, wasn’t that big a deal. But it felt like a big deal.
So my initial foray into putting actual content on my website was tentative, with commentary off. I didn’t want flaming to dominate my site. After a while, I polled some friends and asked how bad the flamewars were on their websites. Most long-term bloggers had the occasional good discussion, but no real flamewars. The days of constant flaming seemed to be over.
So I turned on the comments section, and haven’t regretted it for a moment. My columns on other sites have generated some flamewars—one war started by a semiprofessional flamer (a person who goes around agitating people), but so far, nothing untoward here.
And thank you all for that, by the way.
About the same time I started accepting comments, I started the Freelancer’s Guide. As I’m reviewing it to put it into book form, I can see just how much my thinking about the blog, the website, and the Guide have changed in the past 67 weeks. My nervousness about this whole project is long gone.
I no longer see my website as a static place that informs people of things. Now it’s an interactive site where I learn as much (I hope) as y’all do from me. I also use it to inform you of my books and stories, as well as about things that interest me.
For example, my Recommended Reading list came out of editing. The thing I loved best about editing was sharing new writers and new stories/new discoveries with like-minded readers. The thing I liked least about editing was being limited to a genre. With the Recommended Reading list, I thought, I could just point out good things to read from any place and any genre and any time period.
It has worked that way, and I know I get a slightly different audience to that list than I do to the Guide. What I didn’t realize until earlier this year was that I was providing free advertising to people whose work I like. A New York Times bestselling writer, who happens to be a friend of mine, contacted me after seeing my recommendation for his novel (which I read in proofs that I got from a local bookstore) and asked if the recommendation could be used to sell the book to bookstores. Of course, I said yes. I’ve gotten that request a few other times, and I know that several other writers/publishers have quoted from my list without asking permission because they know the list is public, and they can do so.
But the Recommended Reading list does not exist so that I can get free books (although I occasionally do) or to promote someone for the sake of promoting them. It exists because I like sharing things that I consider very, very good. And that’s the only reason.
I also share other fun things—an occasional movie or a song (the Janis Ian song is a case in point) or links to someone else’s website. The website has become an extension of me, but the me that you find at a convention, not the me that my closest friends know. (I doubt you folks want to know my cats’ latest antics or what I had for breakfast.) When I’m here, I talk about things I’d talk to you about if we were sitting around a bar after the sessions ended. Or I have a formal discussion, like I do when I give a speech or speak on a panel. Of course, I mention my own work. That’s one reason I’m there. But the other reason I go to conventions is to have fun. And that’s become a reason to hang out on my website as well.
I did monetize the website when I started the Freelancer’s Guide because I wanted to write this, and I didn’t want to wait for money from the publishing industry. I wanted the Guide to be published now rather than years from now. You’ve helped me fund that, and I greatly appreciate it.
So…when I got this e-mail about putting a paid ad on my site, I actually considered it. The first few e-mails I got, some as long as a year ago, I dismissed with a polite letter. I felt uncomfortable even considering advertising.
Two weeks ago, I discovered I had moved past uncomfortable.
But I was still uncertain.
So I contacted other professional writers on various listserves and asked them what they thought about taking ads on my website. The first three answers I got reflected my ambivalence.
One writer said that my website advertised me and I shouldn’t confuse the issue with running ads for other products on the site.
Another writer said that I should consider the ad, but be very cautious because it would reflect on me.
And a third writer told me to take the money and run.
All of this made the issue as clear as mud. I had already come up with those answers and, depending on the moment, vacillated between all three of them.
Then I got an e-mail from Cindie Geddes. Cindie makes her living as a nonfiction writer, but she’s also a hell of a fiction writer. When her short story collection comes out, you’ll find it on my recommended reading list with a link. Right now, you can find out more about her work at cindiegeddes.com.
Cindie wrote, “I’m a lover of technology and love blogs as much as I do essays, magazines, books, etc. (Don’t tell.) Anyway, when I see a few tasteful ads on a site (IF I even notice them) it tells me that the site has enough popularity and/or credibility for someone to be willing to pay to put ads on it. It shows a level of professionalism. And since I’m reading it, it’s obviously run by someone I like and I think, ‘Yay! Someone else has good taste like me’ and ‘Yay, this person I like is making money, so they can spend more time on content I like.’ In talking to friends who don’t write or produce web content but do consume web content, the reaction was universally the same (unless the site is for a charity, oddly enough, or a politician).”
She then pointed me to blogger Allie Brosh. Allie Brosh dealt with the whole advertising question in April, and in a very creative way. Take a look at her April 9 post.
Instead of asking other bloggers what they did, she went directly to her audience with a little quiz. That quiz showed that she was dealing with some of the same questions I had.
I read the posts (and explored the site. Interesting stuff there), then I finished reading Cindie’s letter. She closed with this,
“You’ve been making a living writing. You have a Donate button. Ads fit perfectly with what you do. Hell, with all the opinions you’re getting, you could do a blog on the benefit or problems of taking ads on your site.”
Bingo! And that’s when the mud cleared. Or whatever tortured metaphor you want. Because I remembered what ads are. They piggyback on existing content that has an audience. Ads use that audience to try to cobble together their own audience, one that will purchase the product.
I looked at the other posts from the other writers, and realized I disagreed with one of them. The one that said my website advertised me and should just focus on me.
That thought had bothered me from the start, but I didn’t know why. After Cindie’s letter, I could articulate it and here’s how I did. Oprah Winfrey is starting her own television channel soon. Oprah’s channel will take ads, just like her magazine does.
Just like the radio stations I worked for did.
Just like the magazines I worked for did.
My website is not an advertisement. If it were, you folks would leave after one visit. It’s a channel, a program, a magazine. It’s content. The moment you don’t like the content, you’ll switch to another channel, go to another blog, do something else.
In other words, a website—like so many other things in this culture—is entertainment. And in a consumer culture, we fund entertainment with advertising.
I do promote my own stuff here. But I also promote other people’s things as well, and not just in the Recommended Reading. I promote magazines when they’re publishing my work, and I promote book companies that publish anthologies or that publish my novels. I promote artists who do great book covers. I’m constantly pointing to other content. Sometimes for free, and sometimes for the price of buying my own work.
An ad fits into that. A paid ad.
However, in order to run a paid ad, I had to set up some mental ground rules. If my website were an actual company, those mental ground rules would be written down. Every company I worked for that took ads had rules, and the advertising department had to live up to those rules.
My mental ground rules are:
1. The advertiser can’t offend me. That sounds weird, but I mean it. If someone wanted to put an ad for an adult film company on my site, I would say no. If they killed baby seals to make fur coats, I would say no. If their product was in any way offensive or the website that promoted their product was offensive, I would say no.
2. The advertiser couldn’t be political. I have a lot of friends in politics and, much as I love y’all, I’m not taking on your political ads. My website is a politcs-free place, and it will stay that way.
3. Nor can the ads be for a religious organization. The same rule applies as it does to politics.
4. In fact, anything controversial will stay off my blog. And, by the way, the person who defines “controversial” is me. You readers might feel something is controversial, but I might not agree. I get the final vote.
5. The ad has to be relatively unobtrusive. I asked the ad rep for some sample ads on other websites. He pointed me to one at the bottom of a post. Since I was traveling, I didn’t explore the whole website, so I was under the impression that the ad would run under every post. That would have been obtrusive, and I would have said no to that. But that’s not what the ad rep wanted. He wanted it at the end of one post, and one post only. I accepted the ad. Go find it. I dare you. (Okay, I’ll reveal where it is later in this post.)
6. Unobtrusive means no pop-up ads, no music, no flash, no video. Allie Brosh mentions this on her blog. She writes in her post on the ad, “You will never see me write a paid review of anything. I will never molest you with pop-ups or pop-unders or anything that flashes or moves or causes my page to freeze. There will be no pop-ups or moving things. None. Ever.”
I agree. And as for paid reviews—nope. Never did it, never will. If I recommend something, it’s because I like it, not because someone paid me to tell you about it.
7. I will not take ads for my static websites. I have a site for my “Diving into the Wreck” universe, and I’ll soon have sites for my Fey universe and the Retrieval Artist universe, as well as a few others. Those sites are pure information and advertisement for my series. They’re not active, and they do exist just for those products. I’m not going to confuse the issue with other ads. But on this site, and any other active site I start, I’ll take paid ads if someone wants to place them on the site.
That’s my short list, my mental list, for any potential ads. I’m sure that if I get more ad queries, I’ll end up with a longer list.
I know the radio stations I worked for took paid political advertising, within limits. Those stations also had time limits, word usage rules (no swear words, for example), and balance issues. One radio station’s hard and fast rule: they would not take public service announcements for a product that was the subject of a paid ad somewhere else.
At the newspapers, the ads had size limitations. The magazines I worked for insisted the ads were “camera-ready,” meaning that the ads could be inserted into the magazine’s proof copy without any work by the magazine at all. (The newspapers and radio stations I worked for would often prepare the ad for the client.)
If you’re going to take ads for your blog or your magazine or your video, you’ll need your own set of ground rules. And the first, of course, is whether or not you’ll take advertising at all.
I put a lot of sweat and angst into that question. I peppered the poor ad rep with a ton of e-mails. I finally accepted the ad, and got payment via PayPal.
And once I accepted the ad, I had to laugh at myself. All that angst, all those questions. The ad is at the bottom of this post. Two lines and a link to a page in Vista Print’s catalogue. It’ll stay up for a year.
I felt a bit ridiculous. But I’m happy I did the assessment. Because it clarified some thinking for me. And it got me to wondering: is this what the first radio stations went through one hundred years ago as they decided to take advertising?
I’m feeling my way around in this changing technological universe. And so, clearly, are other content providers, as Allie Brosh’s post shows. We’ll all decide what’s best for us, and for our business.
And that’s what freelancing is all about.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: “21st Century Thinking (Advertising Part 2)” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.