Why Advertising Doesn’t Work (for me)

As I try to nail down the methods that I’m going to use to earn money (and eventually a living) from my writing, one useful thing to do is look at things that haven’t worked so far.

Failure #1: Advertising.

It’s almost trivial to point out that the reason it didn’t work for me is that, even at the height of my popularity, I didn’t have enough traffic. Generating any significant amount of revenue from advertising requires a LOT of traffic, which I didn’t have. I didn’t have it then, and I sure as hell don’t have it now. But there are deeper issues. For example:

Subject Matters as much as traffic.

What type of advertising was I using? Google Adsense, of course. That was (and still is) the de-facto standard of internet advertising. Plus it’s easy and there are stories of people making LOTS of money with it. The reality is that some of those stories are lies, others are unique cases that cannot be duplicated except by accident, and the remainder require either a metric shit-load of visitors or a specialized niche of visitors that advertisers are willing to pay big money for (mesothelioma, anyone?) . I had none of that and I have even less now.

If I had 100 times the traffic I have now, I’d get a small trickle of income that would certainly be motivating, but probably wouldn’t pay any bills. If I had 1000 times my current traffic, then I might not have to worry about my water and gas bills, but I’d be nowhere near quitting my day job. Some of that is because of subject matter. Fiction doesn’t generate high-dollar ads, but if I had that same traffic level with a blog on mesothelioma, I’d be debt-free and retired. With Adsense, my subject matter limits my revenue almost as much as my traffic does. I can do things to build traffic, but there’s not a lot I can do to make advertisers pay more for fiction content. That element is out of my hands and it’s a larger element than most people think it is. A lot of traffic to a low-paying niche is just not fucking worth the time to build.

There are other alternatives to Google Adsense. Chitika didn’t work for me for the same reason: lack of traffic. A new player in the advertising arena, Project Wonderful, looks promising, but the results on BoDP weren’t significantly different than my Adsense experience. I probably didn’t have enough traffic to actually SHOW any difference, if there was one.

Are you beginning to see a pattern, here? No traffic=no results.

The Coming Ad-pocalypse

Another issue is that the advertising model itself is experiencing a heavy backlash. People don’t like ads. People have plug-ins to block them in their browsers. People complain when sites that didn’t have advertising suddenly start sporting Google Adsense.

I have a problem with people who don’t like advertising on FREE content. They’ll say that they don’t have any problem with people getting paid for their efforts, but as soon as they see a banner ad they start spinning around on their eyebrows and spitting wooden nickels. But some sites make that hatred easy and even justifiable. An advertiser-supported site should be focused on its CONTENT… not its advertisers. Anything that pops up, pops under, or crawls across my screen will get your site de-bookmarked in a heartbeat, I don’t care if your content is detailed instructions on how to turn tap water into blowjobs. But the sad part is that the anti-advertising mentality is taking its toll on all sites, not just the fuckwads with content-obscuring screen-crawlers. The “middle ground” of an acceptable level of effective advertising is shrinking fast. Will ads disappear altogether? No, certainly not. But as people start hating them more and more, or worse still, become blind to ads altogether, the effectiveness of ads will decline. With lowered effectiveness comes lowered revenue for people who depend on it for a living. The revenue won’t disappear, but it will decline to a point where you will need to chase more and more traffic just to pay the bills.

Am I worried about that? Nah. I don’t have enough traffic to be worried (there’s that pattern again!), but if advertising were my only bread-and-butter then I’d be making plans to create some other stream of income. Not right away. Not next year. But sooner or later, I’ll have to. The anti-advertising plugins are becoming easier and more popular. Ignore them now, yeah… but who knows what might happen in a few years. Ads turned off by default in the latest browsers? It would suck to be an ad-supported site THEN, wouldn’t it?

Their Law

But there is an even deeper, more important issue with advertising. When somebody places an ad on your site, they are expecting something beyond simple exposure with the occasional click-through. They may not say it, and they may not even know that they want it themselves, but it’s there. What is it? The presence of their ad implies support for and approval of your content. If you suddenly start producing content they no longer approve of, they disappear. That’s fine with me, EXCEPT when you have a middle-man between the content producer and the advertiser…. Like Google. If I’m making hundreds of dollars a month with Google Adsense, and I post a story with several long, explicit sex scenes… all it would take is ONE person to complain (not directly to the advertisers, but to Google) and all my income vanishes overnight. Google expects Adsense participants to walk the straight and narrow when it comes to content, or else it pulls the plug.

Fuck that.

Now yes, realistically Google’s straight and narrow is neither as straight or as narrow as my example implies. Of all the fiction I’ve produced, there’s maybe only a few pieces that would violate Google’s Terms and Conditions and get my account yanked. I don’t have advertising on those pieces. But my objection isn’t based on pragmatism, it’s based on principle. I don’t want to have to censor myself to maintain revenue. If I was selling ad space directly to advertisers with no middleman (or a middle-man who either doesn’t give a fuck or makes no guarantees about content type) then it wouldn’t be an issue. The advertisers obey YOUR rules then. If you don’t like Dark Icon’s content, then don’t advertise with him and he’ll find somebody else to replace you. But with just an ad network like Google’s, the advertisers don’t choose specific sites to advertise on… they advertise on the network as a whole, and as a content provider you have to obey the network’s rules or your revenue disappears. I don’t like that. I don’t like other people’s rules. That’s why you won’t see Google Adsense ads on this blog. Other ads, yes, but not Google’s. I reserve the right to use as much fucking profanity as I want and talk about whatever subjects please me without worrying about whether my account will still exist in the morning. Ad networks like Project Wonderful are better in that regard, because specific advertisers can just pound sand if they don’t like your content, so that’s most likely what you’ll see here eventually.

So what about the advertising model as a whole? Thumbs down? Not entirely. I’m going to shy away from Google, and I’m certainly not going to depend on advertising as my sole source of income. But as an additional income stream on top of something else, it will do just fine. Once I build traffic. At my current levels, advertising isn’t doing a DAMN thing for me, and the amount of traffic I’d need in order to change that is… not impossible, but impossible in the near term, for sure. So I’m not going to focus on that. There will be ads on my pages, but they will never be the focus of my effort. Neither will they be the sole reason for me to produce content. My stories are a lot more than just a way to draw people in so they can look at ads. They are worth more than that to me, and I will treat them accordingly.

[Note: “mesothelioma” is lung cancer due to exposure to asbestos. It is an EXTREMELY high paying keyword on Google Adsense, mostly because of lawyers trolling the internet for clients.]


  1. DarkIcon, July 19, 2007:

    See, This is the kind of bullshit I’m talking about with Adsense. Thought I was making it up, didn’t ya?

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