Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

A quick word on advertising

Posted on 19 November 2008 34 comments

Article illustration for A quick word on advertising

A couple of weeks ago, I started advertising on my site. Before I go any further, please let me start this post by giving you my opinion on online advertising:

The majority of it is evil, shallow, intrusive, and pointless. However, there are a few occasional exceptions to the rule. SidebarAds are one of those exceptions.

The Deck / SidebarAds / Fusion Ads

Most of you are probably familiar with The Deck, the Coudal-organised ad network whose members are very big names in the web community (Veerle, A List Apart, Dan Cederholm, Twitterrific, etc.). Ads on The Deck are extremely tasteful: a small image and some text to support it, all rendered in HTML so that they can be styled to match the site on which they appear. More importantly, though: the adverts themselves are for great companies and products, and always relevant to the audience.

The Deck model is great, but what about healthy competition? I decided to join SidebarAds, who take a similar approach, for three reasons.

Firstly, I’m friends with the lovely chaps who make up Sidebar Creative (Dan Rubin, Jonathan Snook, Bryan Veloso, and Steve Smith) and I’m always happy to support and promote anything and everything they do. Secondly, the association is great. I have a huge amount of respect for the Sidebar guys and the other folks on the ad network (Roger Johansson, Rogie King, etc.), so I freely admit that being associated with this group of people and their products gives me a great sense of pride, as shallow as that may sound. The third and most important reason was that I believe in fair competition, and taking The Deck as a model, SidebarAds offers up a great alternative: an alternative set of advertisers, and an alternative set of sites on which to place those ads… yet still at the same level of quality.

For more details about SidebarAds, check out Snook’s write-up on the process and why it all came about.

It’s worth noting that since SidebarAds launched, we’ve also seen the appearance of Fusions Ads, another great ad network. The principle is the same, they’re also promoting superb products, and they’re also appearing on great sites, such as Sam and Cameron’s blogs. Hats off to them, too.

But why advertise in the first place?

Oh yeah – I guess thats the important question. For a start, you now all know my opinion on the majority of online advertising (and advertising in general, actually), so it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I’ve been approached by many advertisers in the past and they have – without exception – been slimy lizard scum. Ultimately it came down to the fact that if I could make a little bit of money to help support the site (both in terms of contributing to hosting costs and allowing me more time to blog) with genuinely useful and relevant ads, it’d be a win-win situation.

I actually think the adverts have added value to the site. For instance, during a conversation with some friends about e-commerce, I recommended FoxyCart. A few days later, I recommended the service to another friend. Where did I first hear about FoxyCart? From the advert in my sidebar! What more proof could I ask for about the relevance of these ads to myself and my peers?

Thanks for having me, SidebarAds!

The great ad debate

Advertising is something that many people have a strong opinion about (myself included), so I’d love to hear your thoughts. When and how are ads tasteful? How do you feel about seeing ads on elliotjaystocks.com? Have you, like me, found the ads to be useful in introducing you to new products? Please let me know in the comments below…

34 comments

  1. Dave Ellis

    Dave Ellis

    19 November 2008 @ 05:21PM #

    I’m probably not as much against ads on sites as you are Elliot, for the same reason that you think the ads have added value to your site. While aimlessly browsing various sites I’ve discovered ads that have actually lead me to some very useful products. I think it’s all down to the targeting and selection of the ads – so I don’t have a problem with it – and I agree, it probably has added value.

  2. Alex Older

    Alex Older

    19 November 2008 @ 05:24PM #

    I’ve never been a big fan of adverts, I’ve always understood the reasons behind putting them on a site and have put some of a bigger project of mine.

    The worst ads out there such as pop-ups, pop-unders, take-over and those ones which start in a normal spot and then spread across the page.

    My ideal goal on bigger projects of my own which may need the support of ads is to never put in any of the types listed above. This helps me because I don’t have to worry about turn people away from my site.

    The number of times I’ve been to big sites and instead of being presented with their home page I’m given a full screen advert and a “Continue to site..” link hidden away is always off putting and I just get bored of it.

    Being able to have these SidebarAds is great, speaking with Elliot recently it even came up, not as a bad point but because the topic had gone in that direction.

    If the content of your site isn’t enough by all means run some adverts in the sidebar or at the top/bottom, but don’t let them get in the way or you’ll end up loosing more people than you’ll be earning from.

  3. Chris Berret

    Chris Berret

    19 November 2008 @ 05:27PM #

    Dang, credit crunch hitting you UK guys hard huh? First Carsonified going against the grain and selling their journals and tee’s after publicly stating they were special gifts for attendees to FOWD and to sell them is not what they do. And now advertisements on one of the most renowned web designers. It kind of feels dirty.

  4. Jesse Skeens

    Jesse Skeens

    19 November 2008 @ 05:27PM #

    I agree if they are relevant and add value then why not. If you are displaying the same types of ads as useful products you would recommend via the blog, then it’s just another way to create awareness.

  5. Alex Hardy

    Alex Hardy

    19 November 2008 @ 05:32PM #

    Looking at it from both angles, I’ve refused several offers to advertise on my website and I’ve recently started to dabble with advertising a software product of my own, so I’d amend your statement if I may:

    The majority of it is evil, shallow, intrusive, pointless and fruitless.

    As Dave Ellis points out though, where it is carefully targeted to the reader it can be beneficial to all concerned.

    I hope it works out well for you.

  6. Joey

    Joey

    19 November 2008 @ 05:39PM #

    I’m in agreement with you when you say that most advertising is shallow and intrusive. With the exception of the Deck, I don’t think I have ever clicked on an online advertisement. Not once.

    With The Deck, ads aren’t irrelevant, intrusive, or annoying. I think it all has to do with quality. Subjectively limiting the number of advertisers, the types of ads, and the types of products being advertised is really what makes ad networks like The Deck and Sidebar Ads so appealing.

    Also: I have no problem with you putting ads on here, especially considering the presentation and the content of the ads. Plus, I’m all for you making some extra cash to support this site.

  7. Mark Norman Francis

    Mark Norman Francis

    19 November 2008 @ 05:49PM #

    So my immediate reaction is that regardless of the quality of the product and the advert, all it says to me is that you and your opinions are now for sale.

    Advertising is seen as a necessary evil in the web industry. Not many sites can turn a profit otherwise. Obviously, working for Yahoo! my salary is paid almost exclusively by advertising, so it would be hypocritical of me to say advertising is bad and should never exist on a website.

    The difference to my mind is that whilst your services and skills are for sale, you should not be. There is obviously a fine line between a personal blog and a personal project (for example, writing Daring Fireball is now a full-time job for John Gruber, so I’d expect ads on there). However, this site doesn’t strike me as your primary income stream. So the message to me is “I am now for sale.”

  8. George Wiscombe

    George Wiscombe

    19 November 2008 @ 06:27PM #

    I think that so long as the advertising is relevant to your demographic and does not intrude on the experience, it’s fine. Like Elliot said, if it can give you more time to blog then it should be a positive thing for your audience.

  9. Dan Donald

    Dan Donald

    19 November 2008 @ 06:51PM #

    Hmm…tough one…

    I completely take Mark’s point about advertising affecting the reader’s perspective and effectively selling out. Bill Hicks has a great rant about artists he once loved offering their music for TV ads and the like.

    I think you’ve chosen some tricky middle ground here and I don’t blame you! There’s loads of ad networks selling almost anything and targeting the ads audience loosely, certainly with The Deck and Sidebar Ads you can at least be sure the ads are somewhat relevant.

    Another aspect is that when you were working for someone else, this blog must’ve been more of honing your own web identity and more personal, now it’s a reputation/business lead tool (I’d guess). You’re not using the blog to make money per se but it certainly enables you to make more. Hosting is so cheap that it’s not so much a consideration as your time and that’s the rub.

    To keep improving your standing in the community you need to do more than just client work. You speak at events and write for magazine but you blog is where people get a sense of where you’re at, what you do , whether they get where you’re coming from, etc. Without that there’s nothing to build on from your other activities so in effect your ads are paying you to keep making time to keep the blog up to date. As a freelancer you need to keep an eye on billable hours and I guess this is a way of allocating those to yourself…?

    If you’re going to serve ads, these are relatively unobtrusive and easy to block out once you know they’re there (unlike Mashable, which although I read it often they have way too many ads there). It’s a choice ever blog with a decent amount of traffic will have to make and so long as any kind of policy is consistent from the outset, hopefully it won’t turn off too many visitors!

    Good luck!

  10. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    19 November 2008 @ 07:23PM #

    @ Dave Ellis: Great – thanks! I’m glad you think that they’re adding value.

    @ Alex Older: You’re absolutely right about all those other kinds of ads; I would never place an advert that interferes with the site. I think that the SidebarAds are great because they’re no more intrusive than my Twitter status message or my Flickr thumbnails. If anything, they’re probably a great deal less intrusive than my last.fm quilt!

    @ Chris Berret: An astute obervation, and although I can’t speak for other companies, I can assure you this has nothing to do with the credit crunch, since I’ve currently got more work than ever before!

    @ Jesse Skeens, Alex Hardy, and Joey: Cheers! I’m glad you feel that way about them. :)

    @ Mark Norman Francis: Thanks for re-posting after our brief Twitter exchange, mate. As it turns out, I actually agree with so much of what you say, I’m finding it rather hard to come up with a counter-argument! What I will say is this: if I’m in a pub, telling someone about how great FoxyCart is, then why not have an advert for it on my site? I’m doing exactly the same thing, except with the added bonus of getting paid for something I’d say for free. Of course, I can’t deny that there’s the possibility that at some stage, an ad might appear that I find to be totally irrelevant to me and the site’s visitors. If that ever happens, you have my word that I’ll take the ads down! That’s part of why I went with SidebarAds: the chances of this happening are very low. It’d be a different story if we were talking about TextLinkAds or Google AdWords and their relatively poor relevance. Another thing is that the ads will only ever appear on the ‘blog’ pages of this and my forthcoming new site; you’ll never see them on the portfolio, for instance.

    @ Dan Donald: Some more really great points! And what you said about my blog telling readers “where I’m at” has really got me thinking: if potential clients visit my site to get a sense of who I am, it could actually be extremely beneficial (for me) if they see that I’m associated with decent products and services (promoted via the adverts).

    One more thing: on Twitter, Jon Hicks raised a really good point:

    Your blog is an advert for your services. Ads feel wrong in that context.

    I agree with that, except to say that (as I said above), the ads will only ever appear on ‘blog’ pages (thus keeping the portfolio as a professional entity in its own right, which I think is where most of my clients go), and also the point again from my response to Dan: the association with the network and its ads might actually prove beneficial in getting new work. As the ads are tasteful and relevant, I don’t think they’d be a turn-off for most of my prospective clients.

    Of course, I may be wrong! If you think so, don’t be afraid to say so…

  11. Dan

    Dan

    19 November 2008 @ 07:40PM #

    Great post, Mr. Stocks.

    I’m of the opinion that the choice to advertise is the business of the site owner and no one elses. If you have overheads to cover and you’re happy with the type of adverts that are being displayed, which you clearly are, then great, more power to you.

    I choose not to have any advertising on my own site but if the day came that I did want to include some, I have to say I’d go down the same route you have. I’d only want to advertise companies and products that I approve of, not just any old shit. The guys at SidebarAds need to be careful though lest it go full circle and you end up with adverts for personal pay-day loans and penis enhancers on your site.

  12. Paul Anthony

    Paul Anthony

    19 November 2008 @ 07:41PM #

    Ultimately Elliot, the decision lies with you. I’m not going to judge you or your professionalism on it, and as others have said it doesn’t detract from your content. Provided you maintain editorial control, it has become part and parcel to what we expect online, and I don’t see why you shouldn’t profit financial from your site.

  13. Celso Soares

    Celso Soares

    19 November 2008 @ 07:56PM #

    If you want to advertise something you find useful, why not write a post about it and explain why it’s useful, and what your experience was? That’s the key issue. I read your blog because I want to know what your insight is on certain aspects of our industry. The only thing your ads communicate to me is that you want to profit from your readers. Sounds harsh but it all comes down to that, no matter how good your intentions are (and even if you say you have loads of work coming in, what your readers perceive will be something different).

    At the end of the day your credibility is your most important asset. Do these ads add value to your credibility as a source of inspiration to other designers? Do clients feel more confident in hiring you?

  14. Phil Bowell

    Phil Bowell

    19 November 2008 @ 08:16PM #

    I may be a lone in thinking this but I think there is another dimension to this debate.

    I blog and I’d one day like to find myself in a position where I’m able to make some income from my blog. The only way I would do it is through a network like The Deck/Sidebar Ads/Fusion because I like the way the ads are tailored, but I also like the exclusivity. You can’t just add these networks to your sidebar. Anyone can add Google Ad’s, but you have to be invited to these networks. It adds a level of recognition to the site, an indication that you have been recognised by other people/fellow professionals that you are doing something worth taking note of.

  15. johno

    johno

    19 November 2008 @ 08:19PM #

    The only thing your ads communicate to me is that you want to profit from your readers. Sounds harsh …

    It doesn’t sound harsh; it is. So it’s ok for readers to profit intellectually and otherwise from this freely supplied resource, but it’s wrong (how? morally?) for the author to continue serving up free, quality content, and receive some pecuniary token while doing so?

    Running a blog costs time and money: there’s hosting, domain registration, and Elliot’s time, which he could spend elsewhere, no doubt more profitably. He has a single unobtrusive ad from a good network, and I’m happy to see it there; and pleased that the author is getting a little something back.

  16. Andy Harris

    Andy Harris

    19 November 2008 @ 08:34PM #

    Jeez, what a furore. I can’t believe some of the comments, there’s no problem at all in what you’ve done. Time is never free – I wonder how many people offered donations for the FREE Wordpress Starkers theme?

    Keep the good posts coming!

  17. Patrick Algrim

    Patrick Algrim

    19 November 2008 @ 08:35PM #

    Yeah Johno (ilovetypography) is completely correct.

    The advertising that EJS is putting up is quite small, and actually very classy. People who can’t get on such a classy advertising network have resulted in other ways, and I must say even my own Web site has been forced to go those own unclassy ways (classic CPM advertising).

    Quality content takes a lot of time, personally I spend almost 3 hours writing up content for my readers, in hopes that they will take pride in the quality, and not the quantity. Then, even after that, connecting with your readers, alerting your readers of that content, takes even more time. I try and build somewhat of a relationship with every single one of my readers, that takes an extremely large amount of time. Time away from my business. So, just like Johno said, it’s good to get somewhat of a token for all of the effort put forth.

    Overall, at least it’s not just another blog posting random crap, then trying to monetize it. EJS will never fail in quality. I see one small advertisement on this WHOLE site. That’s about 98% content and 2% advertisement. That’s a VERY good ratio compared to what I have seen.

  18. Zinni

    Zinni

    19 November 2008 @ 08:36PM #

    I have been running ads on my blog for some time now, and I think that it is very easy to tell that my writing is not influenced them. If anything the ads ave served to keep me writing instead of letting the content go stagnant. The only responsibility I feel to my advertisers is that I keep publishing content so people keep reading. It has not changed the way that I write or effected my opinions, and I am not afraid to lose an advertiser because of what I write. That is the benefit of advertising on something that does not exist to obtain money.

    It is worth noting that I am removing adsense in the near future and moving to a Chicago-local ad network. I have developed a problem with the system as it is totally irrelevant and all the top paying ads seem to be completely worthless. I think the real problem with online advertising is the low barriers of entry for adsense and how that has effected quality.

  19. Christoph

    Christoph

    19 November 2008 @ 08:37PM #

    Well, every advert – even the good ones you can recommend yourself – gives your blog a commercial taste. A user could think as if you provide content just to make money with your ads. (Perhaps not with just one ad :-)
    And as mentioned before, if you wrote a blog post about FoxyCart in near future because you really like it, will anyone trust you that has seen the FoxyCart-Ad in the sidebar?

    Furthermore I think you can’t divide your page into professional and nonprofessional, as both parts, blog and portfolio, run under the same domain.
    The entire site is your professional entity.

    On the other hand the current ad is rather cautious and does not distract you from the imortant content, so I turn a blind I to that.

  20. Michael Montgomery

    Michael Montgomery

    19 November 2008 @ 08:38PM #

    Nothing wrong with sensible ads, especially when accompanied by an effort to include only recommended products/services.

    Indeed, the only ads I don’t like are the flashing/moving/obtrusive/garish ones. For those, I use Adblock Plus.

    …and I’m just taking a look at FoxyCart now. Thanks.

  21. Loz Lowe

    Loz Lowe

    19 November 2008 @ 08:38PM #

    I don’t see how having ads on here affects your credibility at all! They don’t get in the way of the page layout, because the sidebar is tiny anyway. Besides, people don’t have to look at them! We enjoy reading your blog, so why shouldn’t you enjoy a little subsidy of your hosting costs?

    Nobody could reasonably fault you for selling your book instead of giving it away online, so why’s some understated advertising so offensive?

    I will take it back if you go all IGN on us, though ;)

    ~Loz

  22. Ryan

    Ryan

    19 November 2008 @ 08:38PM #

    If anyone has a problem with ads on blogs, download adblock and use Firefox (other browsers also support ad blocking), problem solved.

  23. Mark Norman Francis

    Mark Norman Francis

    19 November 2008 @ 08:41PM #

    @ Elliot Jay Stocks: You said “if I’m in a pub, telling someone about how great FoxyCart is, then why not have an advert for it on my site?” The difference is indeed subtle, I grant you. The thing is that I just can’t trust someone when they are being paid that they are unbiased and that their opinion is just that.

    Now, I know you and I am confident that you do recommend it because it’s great, not because you get paid indirectly by them. But if it was the blog of someone I didn’t know, my immediate reaction (whether fair or not) is “Huh, right. How much did they pay you to say that?” and their recommendation is tainted. It’s like when I tell people what I like about a Yahoo! service or API–I get a lot of “Been told to say that then?” reactions.

  24. Justin Dickinson

    Justin Dickinson

    19 November 2008 @ 08:55PM #

    In a perfect world blogs wouldn’t need advertising, dollars would just fly out of the author’s optical drive every time someone read a post. This isn’t the case though.

    If you are a fan of a blog, I don’t see why you would berate the author for attempting to make an income, however small, from their work. With these elegant, targeted networks, the ads are non-intrusive and do not detract from the page. We all visit sites which much more intrusive ads and have all learned how to avoid them. If the ads on your favorite blog bother you so much, then just continue ignoring them.

    There’s never any complaint when a blogger ads a “donate” link to paypal. I see ads as a similar concept, except that other quality businesses are profiting in the process. Best case scenario is you see an ad for a product from which you end up benefiting. Worst case, you ignore the ads and continue enjoying the content.

    This is also an issue of transparency. A blog with no ads and no statement about personal advertising ethics leads me to believe that a post singing the praises of a product might, in fact, have been paid for behind the scenes. With transparency, you know what is advertising and what is editorial. That’s piece of mind that’s worth it for me.

  25. JR Moreau

    JR Moreau

    19 November 2008 @ 09:11PM #

    As I’ve been a relative part-timer in the blogging scene and have wanted to focus on content rather than monetizing at the moment, I haven’t let ads compromise my blog yet. I do had adsense ads, but they’re not in a good spot. I figure at least they’re out of the way and won’t annoy viewers. This being said, I’ve gotten zero clicks in the last month. It’s a back and fourth conversation I have with myself and other bloggers. Necessary evil?

    I’m going to check out the new ad source you spoke of here. Thanks!

  26. Pete

    Pete

    19 November 2008 @ 09:31PM #

    Personally I don’t have a problem with content relevant, well placed adverts and I believe these are just that.

    With my ‘design community’ hat on I think it’s great that you took the effort to style them to fit in seamlessly with the site, I didn’t even notice them until recently (yes I know they’ve not been up that long but you get my point). I think that’s great because it gives more of a ‘recommend by’ feel to the adverts.

    I think the design community is about the only place left online that hasn’t been seduced by the Pay Per Click plastering of ads all over the place approach and amen to that philosophy and to your approach of ‘less is more’.

    Also, fair play to you for meeting the subject head on, many would have just kept their head down and I think you’ve successfully dealt with a potentially tricky subject in the best possible manner.

    Catch you soon, Pete

  27. jeremy_jackson

    jeremy_jackson

    19 November 2008 @ 09:35PM #

    There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve done here. You enjoy a wide reader base, know your audience and I think your choice of ads reflects that. They are well considered — aesthetically (they mesh well) and from content perspective, they fit.

    The only thing left to do now: add a google sidebar. I kid, I kid.

  28. José Carlos

    José Carlos

    20 November 2008 @ 12:50AM #

    I have to agree with johnno: if we profit intelectually with Elliot’s posts why can he compensate for the time and dedicaton he puts into them?
    Keep up the good work Elliot!

  29. Jesse Vlasveld

    Jesse Vlasveld

    20 November 2008 @ 02:39AM #

    Wouldn’t it look better if you’d align the image to the center?

  30. Jason Beaird

    Jason Beaird

    20 November 2008 @ 07:30AM #

    I’m in (the long and tunnel-like) process of redesigning my own site. Making space for ads in my meta-content area is something I’ve been waffling about on. I still feel the same about contextual advertising as I did in April of 2006 when I wrote about serving Google ads only to people coming from search engines.

    Ads from the deck and sidebar are different though. They’re non-invasive and from companies I trust. After reading this post, I think I’ve finally made up my mind. Thanks for posting your thoughts, Elliot!

  31. Samuel Lavoie

    Samuel Lavoie

    20 November 2008 @ 10:55AM #

    The sidebarAds is great, I have really no problem at all with this kind of advertising! I’m a fan of The Deck as personally I discovered some great web services, company, etc clicking on those ads. They aren’t intrusive and pointless but really well targeted.

    Keep up the writing Eliot!

  32. rama

    rama

    20 November 2008 @ 10:56AM #

    It seems fine since the ad really blend in with you sidebar. It’s less intrusive as you say and i found the ads interesting and fit in to my interest.

    I wish i can get one for my blog.

  33. Steve Rydz

    Steve Rydz

    24 November 2008 @ 12:05AM #

    Overall I think its a shame that ads are at all necessary but at least you’ve managed to do it tastefully. Something that all those google ads users could certainly learn from.

  34. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    03 December 2008 @ 03:15AM #

    Thanks for the comments and the great discussion, guys! Much appreciated! I also really appreciate the kind words of support… especially yours, Johno!

    I think that those of you who are seeing it as a negative addition to the site are (perhaps unfairly) lumping the entire world of advertising in the same boat. Like I said, I think that the vast majority of advertising is evil, but there are some acceptable and useful cases out there, and we’ve got to take for / against arguments in context of the ads themselves.

    But again: this is a great discussion!

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