For new bloggers looking to build up their reader base, it’s not always enough just to write well; you need to advertise, to get the word out. And what better way to advertise than with ads? Unfortunately, most advertising online still leaves much to be desired, both for advertisers trying to get noticed and for host sites trying to earn some cash. Many of the problems can be traced back to ads’ sole reliance on “click-through” — the theory that a host website should receive payment based on the number of visitors that actually click on the ads. But what other alternatives exist to this pervasive ad model? Where can bloggers go to find something better?

The Problems with Click-Through

Click-through ads remain the most familiar form of Internet advertising to most websurfers. Most ad services, including Google’s AdSense, still operate primarily on this model. Unfortunately, the click is plagued by the potential for fraud, as some site owners resort to multi-clicking their own ads or setting up bots to do so for them. (You can see Google has tried to address in its terms of service agreement, which, for example, admonishes site owners against directing readers to click on the ads.)

Click-through ads also tend to be annoying for site owners. The desperation to catch the reader’s eye and entice him or her to click an ad has led to the proliferation of flashy but nonsensical ads — including display ads with an annoying dancing alien and about a million permutations of the “Punch the Monkey and win a free (blank)” mini-game. There’s also the fact that most click-through ads aren’t specific to the site where they appear — they’re usually generic banners that will pop up on a site based on an algorithm that looks at key words. This can be especially frustrating to bloggers, who often write about set topics only to have their sites cluttered with unrelated ads.

“There’s an industrywide discussion about the value of the click — both how we’re recording clicks and how successful it is,” said Matt DiPietro, Marketing Manager for FM Publishing, one of several ad services pioneering alternatives to the click. “It’s essentially the way that marketers have been trained to think of the market online, but it’s something that’s evolving as we speak.”

If advertisers want to attract customers and bloggers want to make some money, it would behoove both sides to look for something beyond the click-through. But what else is there? At least a few companies have come up with some ideas.

Project Wonderful

One of the newer advertising services available is Project Wonderful, which throws out the click-through method entirely. Ryan North, the cartoonist behind the popular webcomic Dinosaur Comics , first created Project Wonderful out of frustration in dealing with traditional click-through advertising, instead replacing it with a system that sells ads based on “air-time.”

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Ryan North

“You can’t hack time unless you’ve got a time machine, and if you’ve got a time machine you’ve hopefully got better things to do than defraud internet companies!” said North, “And around that idea we’ve build this really responsive auction system, where you can say “I want my ad to be on this site right away”, and boom, it’s up. And then ten days (or ten seconds!) later you can say “You know what, I’d rather have it on this site instead”, and you can cancel your existing bid and you’re only charged for the time your site is up.”

North said that he designed Project Wonderful to be as fair and transparent as possible, tracking traffic statistics, including hits, referrers, and country of origin for thirty days. It works on a bidding system that he calls the infinite auction. Essentially, a participating webmaster designates a set number of ad spaces on his or her page, and advertisers bid to have their ads posted in those slots. The more advertisers bidding, the higher the price goes and the more money earned for the webmaster. When nobody’s bidding, the price of ads returns to zero. (Participating blogs are allowed to set their own starting prices, but are encouraged to let the marketplace set it for them.)

“The main advantages are responsiveness, value, and transparency,” North told me. “Our system is fine-grained enough that you can have your ad on a specific spot on a specific site at a specific time, but broad enough that you can also say ‘I want to be on these KINDS of sites’ instead, and not have to micromanage…I think we’ve built the only advertising network where it’s not a chore, where you have this fun atmosphere and a little competition going on between advertisers and publishers. On top of that, our commission is only 25%, which means we give more money to our publishers than elsewhere, and for advertisers, our prices are really fair and reasonable.”

The auction system means that, when starting out, many sites essentially give away ad space for free. It’s a good deal for advertisers, as it means that they will always get the best possible price. And so far, Project Wonderful is a buyer’s market. Blogger Splitbrain was disappointed to find he’d only earned 8 cents after 4 days of hosting ads through Project Wonderful. Meanwhile, Penn State Finance student Jim blogging at The Net Fool praised the system as a good way for the blogger on a budget to drum up traffic, comparing it to what would happen if “AdSense and eBay got into a bad car wreck.”

Currently, some blogs and websites with more-established readerships are able to sell a single ad for as much as $70 a day, but, for most sites, ads range from only a few cents to $10. The system seems to have caught on with webcomics, art sites, and related blogs. As of this writing, a small frontpage Project Wonderful ad on comics blog The Comics Curmudgeon goes for 70 cents a day, while an ad on North’s Dinosaur Comics goes for $1.90.

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Project Wonderful

For now at least, the real value of Project Wonderful to blogs might not be as a money-making tool so much as a way to get affordable publicity. With over 8000 participating sites, the system is good for a beginning blogger trying to get word out to the most sites for the lowest price. Even some participants who might not earn a lot of money said that offering cheap ads for sale on their sites is a good way to attract notice – and hopefully eventually build up a reader base. This may be due to one unique aspect of the system which allows it to function as a quasi-socializing network: Money earned through ads can be used to purchase ads on other sites, blurring the distinction between advertisers and hosts. North said:

I love it because, as a publisher, I’m making this money that I can take out at any time, but I can also spend it right away on advertising my own site. And when I do that, it increases the profile of my site and can then even increase the amount of money I’m making for advertising! So that’s fun and really convenient, but there’s also this social thing you mentioned. That can take the form of “You bid on my site so I’ll bid on yours as a thank you at the end,” or things like “You bid on my site and I checked out your site and it’s really great and I just wanted to drop you a line to let you know!”

Project Wonderful really taught me the value of an endorsement. When we launched, I didn’t do any press for it at all — I just signed myself up as the first publisher, put the ads up on Dinosaur Comics, and let the network sell itself. It’s why we took off in webcomics so quickly: people saw it there and beneath our ad boxes is a message saying “Your ad could be here, right now, for just $3.00” or whatever the going rate is. That got a lot of interest from both advertisers and publishers, and the network sort of spread virally throughout that community, which was really gratifying. It was nice to see that something I built to be helpful was actually being used in that way, and that people were getting value from it. That’s the best thing you can ask as a developer!

Blogads

One advantage of Project Wonderful, from a small blogger’s point of view, is that it’s open to the public. Other alternative advertising systems may be more selective, preferring to foster a small network of high-priced blogs rather than a large one of cheap deals. That’s the case with Blogads, one of the early innovators in blog advertising. Founded in 2002 by Henry Copeland as a network catering to political blogs, it has in recent years expanded into a wide-ranging network that includes some of the most high-profile blogs on the Internet, including Perezhilton.com , Cute Overload, and Failblog .

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Henry Copeland

For bloggers, entry to the system is by invitation only. But once accepted into the network, it also does away with counting click-throughs as bloggers get to set their own ad rates. “Bloggers set their own prices for a period of time — one week, two weeks, one month, three months,” said Blogads CEO Copeland. “This method emphasizes the audience’s quality and branding versus the very transactional basis.”

Copeland said that advertisers working through Blogads can be sure they’ll reach a very specific audience. Speaking via email, he differentiated Blogads from other ad systems, like Google Adsense, noting that Blogads could be “purchased on specific blogs or groups of blogs.”

As opposed to algorithm-generated click-through ads, advertisers using Blogads know exactly where their ads will appear. That makes the system ideal, Copeland said, for “an advertiser looking to make a mark with early adopters, opinion-makers and taste influencers. This could be a new brand or service, an emerging politician, a new movie or book, or a cause.” Copeland said:

Blog readers are responding to individual writer’s unedited voices, so their loyalty tends to be much more intense than that of readers of corporate publications. People obviously consume information in lots of forms. We listen to the radio alone in the car. We watch TV with our families. We read the newspaper alone on the subway. Each blog has its own distinct personality and community feel. We read blogs as a participant in a community. It’s like being in a movie theater, versus at home alone… we’re interested in how other people react as much as in our own reaction. So this makes advertising on individual blogs, or groups of individual blogs, really distinct.

In keeping with its focus on a more savvy audience, Blogads also emphasizes the aesthetics of ad design with clear, focused ads that play on blog readers’ love of words. A section on Great Blogads featuring examples of some of the most successful, innovative blogads and commentary on what made them work, including the campaign for the 2006 Audi A3 presented as an ongoing mystery story with clues in different ads.

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Blogads

Since Blogads works with many of the most popular blogs, advertising prices can be pretty high. The number one ad spot on I Can Has Cheezeburger , your first stop for funny cat photos with Internet pidjin captions, costs $1,800 for a single week. The price may be steep for a smaller advertiser, but consider that Blogads estimates a top-placed ad will garner 11,909,512 views in that time. Prices vary widely depending on a blogger’s popularity, subject matter, or whims, and a week’s worth of advertising on a less well-known blog can run as low as $10 to $20 a week yet still be expected to get over 3000 views. (The Blogads website says that the average Blogads member can make about $50 a month selling ads, and claims that some make up to $5000.)

FM Publishing

One company that’s latched onto the possibilities of social media to spread buzz is Federated Media Publishing. FM Publishing still works with traditional Internet ads, but it specializes in what Matt DiPietro calls a “conversational approach” to marketing. It’s not geared as much to selling specific ads as it is to building a brand — using interactive tools to encourage audience participation and increasing name recognition through a varied, holistic approach.

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FM Publishing

DiPietro doesn’t think the familiar click-through ads are completely useless. Despite their often scattershot approach, they’re still a useful tool in the advertiser’s arsenal — but advertisers have to be aware of their limitations.

“For one thing, they don’t take advantage of the unique way that people interact online,” he said.

Like Blogads, FM Publishing works with a select group of high-traffic blogs and websites, including Boing Boing , TechCrunch , and Ask a Ninja . Pietro said that thousands of blogs apply to become part of FM’s network every month, but, at writing, the company works with a group of about 150. Most participants receive payment on a 50-50 revenue sharing basis, although DiPietro noted that each contract is different. FM Publishing boasts over 50 million unique viewers monthly, and works closely with large advertisers like McDonalds, JC Penny, and Proctor and Gamble.

FM Publishing says that almost 30% of visitors to its sites published their own blogs — so any advertising that could get them talking as well would be well worth it. DiPietro also pointed out that viewing ad campaigns as a conversation builds a more loyal audience — FM Publishing reported that more than 80% of visitors to its affiliate blogs visited multiple times per week. The same audience tended to be more engaged, eager to participate in conversations and be a part of the community.

For example, FM Publishing is behind the BMW Graffitti Car Contest — a Facebook page that invites visitors to paint a simulated BMW and offers prizes for the best paintjob and most realistic efforts. In another campaign, this time for Intel/Asus, FM Publishing helped create We PC , a site that allows the public to design its own computers. Web surfers can submit suggestions for what features they think should be incorporated into a new line of computers — Should you be able to type underwater? Should upgrades be available to combat inevitable obsolescence? Or do you just have strong feelings about the computer’s color scheme? — and the site’s community votes for what it feels are the best ideas.

“This is a campaign that goes out to the community to solicit advice on how to create a new computer,” said DiPietro. “It’s asking users what they want, it’s a way to brand the company and get the community invested. It’s also a project in which FM bloggers are heavily involved. A lot of traffic going to We PC is from FM Publishing’s affiliate blogs.”

These companies are all going beyond the old click-through model, looking at new ways to use networks to advertise — whether by auctioning ads by time, matching specific ads to specific publishers, or by creating interactive campaigns. What other sorts of advertising are available out there? What other ad services are moving away from the click and what are they doing? Tell me what I missed in the comments!

Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.

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