By Jason Snell
December 23, 2014 10:45 AM PT
No other gatekeeper but me
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
One of the privileges of being an editor at a large publishing organization is that you’re insulated from aspects of the business. Occasionally you’d see a weird ad on your web site and you’d roll your eyes, but the business of ad sales was not your job. Just as sales people don’t tell editors what to write, editors don’t tell sales people what ads to sell. (We could give them a signal if we felt a product was particularly sketchy, but it wasn’t our job to approve or disapprove ads.)
Being the sole proprietor of a web site means you’re not insulated. By accepting weekly sponsors for this site, I put myself in a position I’ve really never been in before, of having to decide if a sponsor is appropriate for my audience—and turn away business if I feel that it’s not a good fit with what I’m trying to do.
This week’s original feed sponsor, an antivirus product for Mac and iOS, wasn’t one I felt comfortable with. I failed to look carefully through the marketing material after I received it last week, and though I felt trepidation when I posted that material live to the site Monday morning, I overrode that feeling and lived up to the terms of the sponsorship agreement. That one’s my fault, and certainly my inexperience as a gatekeeper of advertising was on display Monday.
When readers called me on it almost immediately after it posted, I realized that it was a bad decision to allow the sponsor on the site. I don’t want to disparage that sponsor’s product, but it’s fair to say that I’ve got some healthy skepticism about how it was described in the accompanying marketing material.
As soon as I saw the reaction to the post, which reinforced my own skepticism, I made the decision to kill the ad and refund the sponsor’s money.
All of this happened from the passenger seat of my family’s minivan, doing 75 miles per hour through the Arizona desert on the way to my mom’s house for Christmas. In one way it was a pretty great example of the power of the iPhone as a productivity device. In the span of an hour I removed the old sponsor post, edited the text ad via FTP using Transmit for iOS, tweeted that the sponsor had been removed, texted with a potential replacement sponsor, received that sponsor’s information, and posted the new sponsor on the site. All from my iPhone, in the passenger seat, in the middle of the desert. What a world.
Back to the sponsorship issue: It’s a painful lesson, learned. I will pay more attention going forward to my role as a gatekeeper. I don’t want to run sponsorships from products that I am dubious about. I’ll try harder to watch for that.
Sponsorships are paid advertising. On Twitter yesterday, someone suggested that I accept no advertising from any product that I didn’t personally use and endorse. That’s not only impractical, it’s not how advertising works. I’m not a developer, but a couple of weeks ago an app-localization service sponsored the site. I know enough about the industry to have confidence in that service, but I haven’t used it.
When I use the product of a sponsor and have something to add about my personal experience, I might do so. (For example, Myke Hurley has me read the ads for MailRoute—also this week’s new Six Colors sponsor!—on the Upgrade podcast, because I use their service and Myke doesn’t.) But my personal endorsements aren’t for sale, and I add them in at my own discretion.
Finally, an update about me. I’m loving my new life, writing for this site and doing podcasts and doing some freelance writing as well. The question for 2015 is, can I make a living this way? Sponsorships are one way to help me toward my goal of staying independent, and I appreciate the support that’s been shown on that front. I’ve also heard from readers who don’t have any product to market, who want to help me in some way. One of my goals for early 2015 is to find a way for readers to support this site directly. I’m still working on how to do that most effectively and what to provide in return for the support.
So, to sum up: I’m used to someone else choosing what ads are the right fit with my audience. Now that I’m trying to make it on my own, that’s my job. I’ll be more diligent about it in the future. Thanks for your support.
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