Maybe We Just Subscribe Already?

It is time to subscribe.

Nowadays, a fair amount of my attention goes to online advertising. This kind of advertising used to be an image and a link on a website. Sidebar filler. Banners. Maybe a popup.

Then, in an attempt to make online advertising better for a few people, a grand system of codes and servers and referential links were created and now everything is broken all of the time. Usually. For sure, 100% of the time, neither the client nor the publisher gets what they wanted out of the equation and everyone is mad and stressed out all of the time over it and I can’t help but wonder if it would ALL be resolved if everyone just funded their Patreon account.

See: Advertising enables bad behavior. In some cases, it encourages the worst behaviors .

Hear me out on this.


Traffic and Audience

Advertising does work. It just has to work on scale. A very big scale. Like: global. Superbowls, Season Finales, Christmas kind of big. The advertisers should be able to afford a massive advertising budget and they should only be paying media companies that are mostly bulletproof: network TV, print publications that have been around for decades, billboards.

That’s where advertising can work. Everything else sorta in that direction and things get messy and weird and the internet just sorta breaks.

When a media outlet – like the website for your local news station – tries to get to the scale where advertising works for them, problems happen.

I was thrilled to hear when The Denver Post announced it was putting up a paywall on their website. Good for them. I think that is exactly what every publication should be doing because every publication only has so much of an audience it can feasibly reach. For years the Post’s digital revenue priority was CPM based.

CPM – Cost Per Mille (thousand). A metric that most online advertisers use to sell their ad space. Show an ad a thousand times, get paid. Usually anywhere from $5 to $50 per thousand. Sometimes more.

The result? A firehose of content no one could drink from. Stories published as fast as possible that had little to do with the actual news but was wallpapered with advertisements anyway. Then there was the birthing of a mobile app.When every ounce of space was covered in an ad, they threw an interstitial unit on top of everything.

The Post became unreadable. They weren’t alone in it. Just about every local news outlet in Denver was modeled this way.

Scott Galloway breaks it down the cons of this model here:


Advertising fails right at the point the audience ends. Eventually, especially with local news, every audience ends. Yet, every fiscal quarter demands an increase in revenue.

Surprise: This doesn’t work on a small scale. And by small I mean “anything south of two million views.” When you are working on a smaller scale, the ad experience feels like it is more in the way. It messes with the content and my experience with it and it is why I use a healthy ad blocker.


The Small Producer

My first job in AdTech I was selling programmatic display advertising to website owners and publishers. We went for the long-tail publishers – the ones with organic traffic, the people who kept a blog as a hobby, who published things purely for the joy having a slice of the internet to themselves. These were the people who had an audience of friends and family and however far their collection of Twitter followers could get them. Most of these publishers made a handful of dollars from the advertising we could provide them. Yet, they were the publishers the company put up on their marquee when talking with advertisers.

Look at how awesome and valuable this organic traffic is!

However, the websites that made the kind of revenue which allowed the company to keep their lights on were website you will never visit or hear of. They were the kind of domains that split the line between “bought” traffic and “bot” traffic. These operations were shady. If online advertising was a federally regulated industry, a lot of people would be going to jail. It’s not, it won’t be.

Point being: the marquee publishers I worked likely never made a living off the CPM model we provided. Those that could make a living off their websites did so by selling premium memberships, merchandise, courses, speaking fees, ebooks, and so on.

The TV writers strike of 2007/2008 – before my introduction to adTech – showed me just how amazing the independent web could be. As my favorite shows fell from the airwaves and were replaced by endless iterations of American Gladiator, I turned to the world of YouTube, Vimeo, and even DailyMotion to find anything worth watching.

I found stuff like BreakALeg.TV, Casual, and the Vlogbrothers. Shows like QuarterLife were brought on by the networks because they were starved for content. As the technology improved, the path between concept and publishing shortened up and anyone with a connection could get anything they wanted published. The democratic power of the independent web was stronger than ever!

However, like any political theory, it is quickly ruined by money. Today, places like YouTube are eating up a huge wealth of attention. Advertisers would be eager to jump on this IF the content weren’t so shaky.

Smaller producers are seeing the allure of the CPM model. Lone-wolf “media companies” going to the extremes to make something that will take off, go viral, and bring in the cash. Shock factor is leveraged. The Logan Pauls of the world happen. Parents dramatize the lives of their kids for views. People watch each other play video games (for the life of me…). Suddenly the medium that was YouTube is no longer bulletproof and the actions of a few content creators jeopardize the revenue opportunity for everyone else.

Advertising drives bad behavior. Especially on a CPM model. Publishers try to cheat it, Advertisers try to spend less per thousand. The advertisements get more invasive and annoying. The ad no longer tries to sell a product, it now also harvests data. Content producers hitch their wagon to advertisers and now there is an expectation to the content they produce. Breaking that expectation results in things like the Adpocalypse.

1000 True Fans

Who is at fault here?

I’d like to go ahead and blame the consumers. Those who spend hours on their devices each day consuming content that is produced in basements and on kitchen tables all over the world. The people who read, who watch, who do the clicking and sharing. Content consumers are the ones who decide if something gets to be viral or not. A viral video can pay a content creator’s rent. Two of them in a row can launch a media enterprise. But how often can we tolerate things “going viral”?  How satisfying was the Harlem Shake, really?

So yes, I’d like to blame you – dear reader who has made it this far (1,100 words to this point!). And myself, for not doing more to support the creators who are stuck between wanting to make something good, and finding out ways to make the good stuff pay for itself.

I think of the weekend warriors shooting backcountry ski movies on limited camera gear that are still good enough to inspire my own adventures. Or the visual artists who make stuff that I see on Instagram that  want to hang in my office. Or the kinda-unknown musician I really like but only listen to on Spotify.

Kevin Kelly had the idea of 1,000 true fans.  The idea that a creator takes the dollar amount they need to survive (hell, to thrive?) a year, divide it by 1000. That’s how much you need to ask out of your true fans (via product sales or subscriptions, etc).

Working at it the other way: Out of all the stuff we consume – what are we true fans of? Out of everything we read or watch in a day, what are we actually gaining from it? Out of the bazillion pieces of content that are published each day and made available for free – what’s actually good? What goes beyond asking for our time, and is good enough to get our money?

Maybe it’s time to double down. It’s time to subscribe to what we actually love and gain value from, and throw the rest to the wayside. More than just subscribing to a Twitter feed or an email list. How about putting money down and buying into the creators that you don’t want to see go away?

So, yeah. It’s time to subscribe. More than just following on Twitter or enabling notifications on YouTube. Instead, a way to remove the income middle-men that is the advertising. I just added a payment method to my Patreon account so that I can shell out a handful of bucks every month or so to the content producers I keep coming back to and consuming.

I have a folder of email lists and producers I’m subscribed to that send out stuff every week that I keep an intentional eye on. I always try to find at least one good creator each week to get into and find a way to support. This is all a very labor intensive process right now, but if a creator is dumping their heart and soul into something, shouldn’t we be taking the time to actually appreciate it?

All of this effort to remove the creators we love from the advertising ecosystem that will always find a way to screw them over.

So yeah. Buy that book. Buy two of them. And get their record on vinyl or support their next indiegogo. Otherwise, we’re left with the questionable and volatile landscape of free content.

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