I fired up Bluesnews this morning, as I am often compelled to do, and for a strange moment I thought I must have mistakenly wandered into IGN. Where I usually find a long list of the latest breaking gaming news, there was instead flash animation. Eventually, because I can be very slow sometimes, I realized I was looking at an advertisement. I thought, quite literally, "zug?"
I've come here neither to praise nor scorn Blue and his, I'm certain, difficult decision to place pop-up and takeover ads on his page. It's a decision each site must make for itself in seeking a balance between managing the giant money-sucking syphon that is a popular website, and the inevitable backlash from loyal readers. Mostly I just want to talk about ads, the necessity and undeniable evil of, and what gaming sites can do to strike a balance between pocketbook and integrity.In the interest of full disclosure, I do realize that my comments are somewhat mitigated by our little tower of ad-power to the left. Allow that, instead of being a testament to hypocrisy, to represent the kind of questions I'm talking about.
First, let's hear what Blue had to say about his recent change as a starting point from his recent, and surprisingly verbose, Out of the Blue:
As I alluded to yesterday, these are not moves that have been made lightly, they are meant to ensure the survival of this site, which if I may be brutally frank has been losing money for over two years now (since the dot-bomb). I resisted pop-up type ads as being greedy when they were worth a king's ransom back when the site was in the black. I resisted them during the dark days of the past couple of years as not worth bothering everyone with if they still weren't allowing the bills to be paid. Now that a middle ground is achievable here, it seemed like it was the way to go. I fought hard to lay down parameters that will keep the frequency of these reasonable, and made everyone involved crazy by standing my ground to not allow for the possibility that these frequencies could increase for the foreseeable future. I can only hope that the end effect is indeed reasonable for most of you, and that, as I said yesterday, you find these trade-offs acceptable.
First, I want to reassure everyone that this Daily Elysium is not a veiled attempt to pave the way for similar maneuvers here at GWJ. Without being too specific, I can assure you that the number of advertisers beating down our door for precious GWJ space is a number that looks surprisingly like a capital O. While it's widely known to be true that I'm a money whore with a growing pholosophy of perhaps trying to openly steal from our readers, Certis is adamently defending the ever vulnerable site to my half-hearted attempts to turn it into a pyramid scheme. Also, I simply don't have the technical expertise to do anything more malicious than leave scathing and poorly considered remarks in political threads, and that's iffy at best. All kidding aside, we genuinely both resist the idea of exploiting the site or its readers for fiscal liquidity, or so reads the GWJ memo that I'm informed is to be my opinion on the matter.
But let's talk about ads and the sites that use them for a moment. Even having helped run GWJ for over half a year I'm still completely at a loss as to how someone can run a site as anything greater than a hobby without resorting to measures widely frowned upon by the community at large. The biggest problem for most sites is fundamentally that they aren't doing anything particularly original. Even Blues, a veritable cornerstone of the online gaming news scene, ultimately has content very much similar to a half dozen equally reputable and accomplished sites. A quick run through the circuit, a dash of Voodoo Extreme, some Gamespot headlines, a sidestop at Shacknews, and so on, and not only have you pretty much found all the same news you'd find at Blues, but much much more. That's certainly not to indict Blues as being somehow obsolete, but it does pose an interesting question: do the struggles of sites such as Bluesnews indicate, as it would in virtually every other market, that there is greater supply than demand?
Because, when you get right down to it, the basic reason people resist pay-sites and dodge invasive ads is because they can get that same news with much less headache somewhere else. If we don't have to pay for it, then we rarely do. Blue himself is quick to indicate that he's been losing money on the site for two years, and it's not hard to see how that sort of trouble can come about. Bluesnews is both a representation of how well gaming news can be delivered, and how economically unrewarding an experience it can be.
For all the corporate evils they represent, ads ultimately serve a very useful purpose to both webmasters and the readers. They can keep a given site alive. And yet, I'm no more likely than anyone else to go around clicking on ads even on my favorite sites, than I am to seek out an all-commercial all the time television channel. I may love to watch the West Wing, but I'll still fast forward out those commercials the first chance I get. More than that, if they were showing the West Wing on a no-commercials channel, you can bet that's where I'd be watching ... you know, as long as I didn't have to pay for that channel.
Which is basically the mentality of the internet crowd, and it's a mentality I'm as much a participant in as anyone else. I hesitate to criticize our ilk, as some have, of feeling as though we deserve all the entertainment with none of the price, because I've also found that many gamers are quick to donate when given the opportunity. It is upon those who recognize that running even a hobby website must become a business if it becomes popular enough that those very websites come to depend. And yet, I find I can't really criticize others who say, "I can get my gaming news anywhere, so I'm not going to waste my money on something that's free everywhere else." When it comes right down to it, they are right. They suffer no obligation to sit through ads at one site or toss down $5 for news at another when those same stories are completely free at the next.
What's more, there's a sense of idependence, of integrity, that readers desire from their gaming sites, and that integrity is fundamentally compromised by ads. The instant someone sees a popular upcoming game's ad up on a page, their instant and logical conclusion is that that game will receive special treatment be it in coverage or upcoming reviews. Ads create questions of credibility, and leave readers wondering whether, when the cards are layed out, the website is beholden to its readers or its advertisers? There's a sense of disenchantment with the corporate process across the internet, and the great fronteir being littered with virtual billboards leaves many with a sour aftertaste.
There are few alternatives, and those alternatives are very much site dependent. Some sites survive off of merchandise. This is particularly true for sites with a lot of original content or artwork (Penny Arcade comes to mind). It's something we've even considered someday exploring if only once so that Certis and I can have an excuse to have some GWJ/Stan coffee mugs made ... we very much want some. But, of course, merchandising isn't much an option for news sites, particularly those without a large dedicated following. There's a subscription option that, I think we all can agree, simply doesn't work unless said site provides lots of original work, lots of bandwith, and has a steady reader base. Donation works for some, fails for others, but is predicated on what is finally the one strength sites can openly exploit and engender: loyalty.
It seems to me the sites that can weather the storm, can scrape together the money to feed the servers, are those with the most dedicated readers. I think, in the end what a site must do, and do with a very clear and genuine purpose, is create a community of readers. When the chips are down, those sites whose readers feel like they have a stake in the game are those that can rally their resources and survive the backlash. A quick look at some of the comments left for Blue bears this out as readers aren't throwing quite the tirade one might expect with such dramatic changes. And why? Because Blues is that cornerstone of the scene I was talking about before, he's taken his lumps, paid his dues and established himself quite firmly. Ultimately I think the answers to the questions of ads comes down to this point of loyalty and integrity, and leads me to this conclusion.
If you generate readers by being honest, and you turn those readers that trust you into a community, then that community is much more likely to help support you when you need them. It is not an easy process, and it is one that must be done for its own sake. People will sense the moment they are being manipulated for personal gain. And it's a process that can take years, but, like so many other things, if you're running a site and writing about the industry because you share your readers' passions then you've got a better chance of surviving than most. I realize that sounds very After-School-Special, but randomly throwing in an expletive for spice just didn't feel right.