Mac Musings

All Hits Considered

Daniel Knight - 2001.06.13 -

David Schultz has begun a very thoughtful series on Applelust, The Metaphysics of Web Advertising. In part 1, he lists three ways a noncommercial website can fund itself: banners, donations, and subscriptions. Schultz goes on to state that the model a site chooses shapes the relationship between the publisher and the audience.

The Donation Model

He begins by looking at donations, since they have been the topic of some discussion ever since Low End Mac published an appeal for contributions to keep the site afloat. In an earlier piece, Schultz had tried to come to grips with an ad-based site asking for donations.

Schultz has some good things to say about donation-based sites. For instance, they may lead to better quality, since readers may be less likely to donate to a site publishing low quality content. Further, donations make the publisher responsible to the audience in a way ads do not.

As Schultz notes in part 2, the donation model has its problems. The publisher may become a slave to the donors and afraid to publish controversial material. Donations also give the reader the power to bribe or threaten to discontinue support, which can also shape site content.

The Subscription Model

The subscription model goes a step beyond the donation model - only paid members will have access to some or all of the content on a site. It's a model that may work for some types of information, but it flies in the face of our mission, which is to freely provide information.

The Advertising Model

Just as the donation and subscription models make publishers beholden to their readership, the advertising model makes them beholden to advertisers. It makes it less likely that a site will publish articles critical of an advertiser, just as the donation and subscription models make it less likely that a site will publish an article which may offend its readers.

In fact, as Schultz notes, a site with ads may deliberately post provocative material and/or rumors just to build up traffic and keep the hits coming. The desire for site traffic can reduce the quality of material on a site.

The Business Model

Writers, editors, and publishers tend to value their independence. We don't want anyone pulling the strings and telling us what to write, what to avoid. We want our freedom.

Many publishers separate the ad side of the business from the content side, which minimizes the possibility that ads will shape content. That can be a real problem for one-person sites, though, since the same person may be selling ads and writing content. (Our solution is to contract with a third party to sell ads for our site. This is especially nice since it's not an area I would do well at.)

Our goal is to provide free information on getting the most value out of your Mac. Low End Mac began on personal Web space and was been funded out of pocket for most of 1997. Since then we have used ad income to cover operating expenses and buy a bit of equipment. Until May 2001, the advertising model worked for us.

Our one-time appeal for donations paid off. We received over $2,000 in donations, which offsets the $700/month deficit of the past three months. I've paid my writers, cut myself a paycheck, and get to pay my monthly taxes this week. Although we were broke (under $100 in our company checking account), between the donations, a check from BackBeat, the sale of our Cube, and the promised check from a sponsor, we should be on a solid footing by the end of the week.

We don't anticipate another emergency appeal for donations. However, the response to our appeal has convinced us to switch from a strictly ad-based model to a hybrid. We will continue to accept donations from those who find the site useful or enjoyable, but we won't emphasize it. We will continue to rely on ads for the bulk of our income.

The Numbers Game

Schultz also notes that ad-based sites tend to get caught up in the numbers game. The more hits, the more ads displayed, the more potential income. (On the flip side, as ad rates decline, you need more hits just to stay even.)

We're very concerned about site traffic. Our average since late January has been over 20,000 hits per day - more during the week, less on weekends. Those daily numbers not only tell us how many ads we're displaying, but also how much of our content you're reading.

Bulk hits may be just a game, but our Web log lets us know which articles you're reading and what topics you're interested in. If we post an article about budget computing, the best OS, or the danger of Microsoft, we have a pretty good idea you'll enjoy it.

This kind of analysis also benefits our writers. Not only can it help them emphasize areas that interest you, but they are also rewarded when an article has an especially impressive reception as indicated by the number of hits. (No, we don't penalize them for low-traffic articles.)

We're not slaves to the numbers, but they are an excellent tool for understanding how you respond to the site. (The logs also give us depressing information - 49.5% of visitors are surfing on Macs, 43.% on Windows. The positive spin is that a lot of Windows users are Mac fans.)

But in the end our success isn't measured by hits or ad dollars. Those are important, but the real issue is fulfilling our goal of helping you get the most value from the Mac - and providing a little thoughtful reading on Mac related topics while we're at it.