Sell-Side Advertising

A number of bloggers have been ruminating the future of advertising (most notably Fred Wilson, John Batelle, Seth Godin, and Adam Rifkin), mostly inspired by Ross Mayfield’s “Cost Per Influence” post from eons ago (think July – that’s, like, forever in the blogosphere). I thought it might be time to weigh in on their concept of “sell-side advertising” (closely related is Greg Linden’s discussion of “intent marketing“). The idea at the core of “sell-side advertising” is intriguing: what if advertising became less about companies and advertisers pushing out advertisements to people who didn’t care about what they’re selling, and more about allowing influencers to connect products with the people who actually want them?

From my understanding, the sell-side advertising concept is part Google AdSense and part Amazon Associates. On drugs. Batelle gives a good summary:

Instead of advertisers buying either PPC networks or specific publishers/sites, they simply release their ads to the net, perhaps on specified servers where they can easily be found, or on their own sites, and/or through seed buys on one or two exemplar sites. These ads are tagged with information supplied by the advertiser, for example, who they are attempting to reach, what kind of environments they want to be in (and environments they expressly forbid, like porn sites or affiliate sites), and how much money they are willing to spend on the ad.

It’s a great idea – let the publishers (such as bloggers) advertise to their circle of influence and get paid on performance (read: actual sales). No performance, no money! Like Amazon’s Associates, there’s little incentive for someone to create a page full of links without any value-add. Like Google AdWords, it levels the playing field, offering smaller advertisers the opportunity to reach their market without breaking the bank. Even better, it offers smaller advertisers a calculable ROI – it’s no longer a crap-shoot like it is with Google AdWords (after all, even with the best click-through rate in the industry, isn’t the click-through rate still abysmal?).

From the publisher’s point of view, this is also an especially appealing model. First and foremost, I believe the improved ability of such an advertising model to provide measurable results (in terms of actual dollars, not just “eyeballs”) would result in improved revenue for the publishers themselves – far better than per-click advertising. Heck, just compare how Amazon referral fees outweighed my author royalties!As an added bonus, such a model would put advertising control back in the hands of the publisher, thus avoiding the puzzle of Google Adwords that are totally unrelated to the content on the page.

As Seth points out, this model is already out there in the form of an offering from Commission Junction. I recall signing up for a Commission Junction account ages ago when I was exploring ways to boost my book sales – I believe Commission Junction was providing the affiliate program for Barnes & Noble. It was horrible. Bad user interface, and difficult to actually find the items I wanted to sell. Anyone know if it’s improved since last I tried it (early 2002)? Perhaps if they improved the interface and created plugins for blogging tools to streamline the process of adding affiliate links, they’d really have something.

That said, there are still some issues with such a system. For one thing, I think it’s safe to say that a large part of the blog world will be uncomfortable with the idea of the commercialization of the blogosphere. Scoble won’t even use affiliate links. And Canter (God bless him for trying stuff) probably would have been burned at the stake if he showed up at Bloggercon with his get-paid-to-blog schemes.

A shift to pure pay-for-performance advertising might have some interesting ramifications. As Hugh MacLeod loves to point out:

“But that’s always been the trouble with advertising. The money has always been in the dreck. Because the good stuff advertises itself.”

While I agree, I think the problem we’re currently facing is that there’s just too much good stuff. If the advertising market moves to a model where publishers only choose advertisements that interest their readers (if only to maintain their street cred and fend off accusations that they’re being a shill), some products’ advertisements will never see the light of day. After all, some products will never invite a religious following that will build buzz – those things are called commodities. Nobody cares enough about, for example, toothpaste to write about it (unless, of course, they screw up royally), much less participate in some Crest-sponsored affiliates program.

And that’s OK, because these products are overpriced anyway, given they have little true innovation to justify their price in light of their low input costs. But therein lies the paradox – as publishers shift towards the more lucrative world of pay-for-performance advertising, commodity producers will find it difficult to even buy themselves an audience. The question in my mind: will this drive up the price of old-world, pay-for-no-guarantee-of-performance advertisements to new heights, or will the dismal economics of these commodity products prevent them from being able to gain an audience at any price?

A Question Of Copyright

Poor Martin Schwimmer has stirred up quite a hornet’s nest (Scoble’s got the running summary) with his recent post on his decision to ask Bloglines to stop aggregating his blog’s RSS feed. While many are quick to criticize, I think it’s important to stop to examine the issue a little deeper to see if there’s any validity to his concerns.

First, let’s examine Martin’s opening volley:

This website is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for non-commercial use, provided there is attribution. Commercial use and derivative works are prohibited.

It was brought to my attention that a website named Bloglines was reproducing the Trademark Blog, surrounding it with its own frame, stripping the page of my contact info.

At first, you might think this is a bit ridiculous, but let’s break down the issue by examining the site’s licensing terms.

Non-Commercial Use

This is probably a pretty valid argument – although I’m not clear whether or not Bloglines is currently making money, they certainly are an ongoing commercial entity. But it is a fine line – I seem to remember there being similar grumblings in the Open Source community, back when people starting building commercial services on the back of GPL software. Actually, now that I think about it, that argument is ongoing.

Maybe it would help if we took a step back. Can we agree that if someone took Martin’s page and sold in on t-shirts, then that would be an infringement? Absolutely. And if someone offered copies of the content printed and bound? Again, a blatant violation. But what about an individual user viewing the page through a commercial aggregator located on their desktop? No way in hell is that a violation.

But once the jump is made to a server-based aggregator that provides the same functionality, the line between commercial and non-commercial purpose becomes a little less certain.

(Another question: is a web-cafe that charges for Internet access in violation if one of its users view Martin’s site?)

Although Martin, in a response on his blog, laments:

At least with Google’s contextual ad program, the blog creator gets some money.

True. Although Martin certainly doesn’t make any money from Google when it creates a derivative work from his blog and displays the result in its search listings on I wonder: has Martin contacted Google to have his site removed from its search engine? Apparently not.

No Derivative Works

You have to concede this one to Martin – “no derivative works” is a pretty clear statement.


What constitutes “attribution”? Well, if you go according to the definition provided on the Creative Commons’ Licenses Explained page:

Attribution. You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work – and derivative works based upon it – but only if they give you credit.

Hmm…that doesn’t really shed much light on it, does it? What constitutes “credit”? What “contact info” would satisfy Martin’s requirements under the Creative Commons licensing scheme? A telephone number? An address? A link directly to his contact page?

How about a link to the original web site?

A quick examination of any blog in Bloglines reveals that it displays a prominent banner featuring the name of the blog as part of its user interface. And a link to the original top-level blog URL. And links to each item on the original source blog. And the following description of the blog:

The Trademark Blog from the law offices of Schwimmer and Associates

If this doesn’t satisfy the criteria of “attribution”, what will?

An Interesting Twist

Up to now, the discussion has been focused on the terms of Martin’s Creative Commons license. But there’s an interesting twist: Martin’s RSS feed doesn’t actually contain his Creative Commons license! That’s right, if you examine the raw XML, you’ll find a “copyright” element with the contents:

Copyright 2005 Martin Schwimmer

Hmm. That’s interesting – given that every other page on Martin’s site contains an embedded link to his CC license, would I be right in thinking that the RSS is not subject at all to its licensing terms? Could it be that his feed is, gasp, protected using plain ol’ regular copyright? In that case, it would appear that all bets are off.

While I certainly don’t wish this to be the case, you have to concede that Martin is following the letter of the license he stipulated, both for the original page as well as the RSS feed. While we may not like the outcome, or the fact that such an attitude not only will balkanize useful applications and innovation on the web, I don’t think you can argue the facts – after all, trademarks and copyright are his beat.


While it may not have been his intent, I think Martin’s actions have highlighted a legitimate concern for both content creators and aggregators. The proliferation of aggregation services is driven by an age-old secret to business: steal from the commons. The web is being viewed by web-based businesses as a wonderful resource for building value-added services, but it’ll only take one really well-funded lawsuit to bring down this house of cards. Web-based services need to think about embedding CC recognition into server-based applications to protect themselves from this possibility.

For us, the blog community, we need to remember that the purpose of the Creative Commons license is to allow the creator to exert control over the fruits of their labor. While we might want everyone to choose the least restrictive CC licensing terms, if we choose to blatantly disregard those licensing terms when we don’t agree with them (or dog-pile on the creator), we’re undermining the viability of the licensing scheme as a whole. To that end, perhaps we should be browbeating web-based services, such as Bloglines, Rojo, Feedster, Feedburner, and PubSub to incorporate CC license recognition intelligence into their services and use it to filter out content that hasn’t been properly licensed for their purposes. Doing so would serve two-purposes: protect these services from future infringement litigation; and further cement the Creative Commons licensing scheme’s reputation as a legitimate mechanism for creators to exert control over their works. Indirectly, such action may also illustrate to copyright owners like Martin the value of participating in these services and choosing a less-restrictive CC license, enabling the creation of technologies that not only benefits readers, but also the content creator themselves.

I, for one, would like to thank Martin for the attention he’s brought to this issue. While it may not have been his intention to bring about this level of discussion, I think it’s been valuable nonetheless.