Twelve years ago, I set out to build a lightweight sponsorship "shopping cart" for publishers. The idea was that it would serve as a great way to convert advertisers into paying customers. It's not that I didn't like talking to them, but it did seem silly that so much time and energy would go into closing a $250.00 website sponsorship. Want it? Great, buy it. Don't want it? No worries, don't buy it.
Since those early days, BuySellAds has managed to duck and weave its way through this crazy industry. But, at some point, it became apparent that ad tech companies stopped innovating. As a result of the solutions they were pushing, the focus was always centered on adding more advertisements to a page. It's a crazy, crazy practice.
Surprisingly, publishers have willingly participated in the practice, and as a result, they've become addicted to the revenue, even from some of the more egregious practices. I mean, come on, the crap people put at the bottom of articles from Taboolabrain (or whatever they are called now that they are merged) is absurd. How can anyone feel good about putting those products at the bottom of a piece of content that an entire team has worked to perfect? I’ll never understand it. Under that lens, it’s become quite apparent that ads have become an absolute race to the bottom for large and small publishers alike. Marry that to the reality that content has been sucked up into the large platforms and then held hostage by their rulers, and it’s clear something has to change… and quickly.
That's why I believe we are in the midst of a renaissance period for publishing on the web. I think we will see a rebirth of the "indie web" and a reinvention of what it means to be a media business - both large and small - in the future.
For the past ten years, journalists have been crushed in the job market. Media companies have learned many hard lessons; however, the technology available to those who publish content on the web is improving at a rapid rate. Business models are evolving and catching up to the realities of the market today. There is a TON of talent out there, but relatively few sustainable revenue opportunities for those with a voice online.
This is why we bought Pando. And this is why we purchased Digg, too. We believe that for us to evolve as a company from "ad tech" to "revenue tech," and then continue to support the independent creators, we too must help push the business model of media forward. We must live alongside our customers before we can understand the nuances of the new media landscape.
I am not a journalist. My writing skills are... challenged, and I rarely have time to think clearly enough to produce the types of fantastic content that I love to consume, as a user, on the web each day. I don't like attention, I struggle with public confrontations, and I have relatively thin skin when it comes to negative press. It affects me. It bothers me. However, what I do have is a passion for supporting creators on the web, relentlessly. That is why we bought Pando: I want to figure this out.
I believe that those who ignore advertising as a fundamental business model of the internet are short-sighted, or don't understand how to leverage it properly. I don't blame them - there is often little to love about ad tech on the web today. However, the BuySellAds team and I have proven, for the last 12 years, that a minimalist and carefully integrated approach to ads can work if you dare to detach from the traditional "ad tech complex" on the web. After all, B2B publications have been doing this for years, mainly outside the pipes of traditional ad tech. However, I also understand that ads alone aren't enough and that the business model of media on the web will continue to evolve beyond just ads over the next ten years. Ultimately, I want to be in the business of empowering people who create on the web.
We are not interested in competing with our customers, but we are interested in living a day (well, every day) in their shoes. It's precisely what we've been doing with Digg for the past 18 months, and what we plan to do with Pando.
Admittedly, our experience with Digg has been challenging. It is not easy to be a media business these days. We have been running Digg as its own separate entity. It has its own corporate structure, its own P&L, and its own leadership and decision-making processes. We have spent the last 18 months tearing Digg down to its core, out of necessity, participating in journalist layoffs and other dramatic expense reductions, in an attempt to keep the lights on. The idea that we would run a media company inside the walls of BuySellAds and subsidize it is not how I operate. We have never raised a penny at BuySellAds and fundamentally believe in profitability as a proxy for success. I run Digg and will run Pando no differently.
We get it. We knew the hot takes were coming. There will probably be a few hilariously lousy cold takes too, considering the name of our business, but if we can be honest for a second here, it's becoming easier to toss shade on Twitter than it is to undertake a real journalistic endeavor, because, well, independent media companies can't afford to keep the lights on to support research. The paradigm has shifted, and if we're being sincere, it's hard to let go of the nostalgic past (I mean, we refuse to rebrand, despite our marketing team trying to convince me to do it every year). The point, though, I think, is that social platforms have become a toxic hellstew because people no longer have a place to call home online. There's no sane place where we can congregate, read something of meaning, and contribute to the greater societal good. Instead, a lot of smart people are pulling the' chute on the web entirely.
Today, engaging with content online comes with a tax. Social platforms, big and small, now control discourse across state lines and political lines, all while getting handsomely financially rewarded for it, despite the lion's share of work and effort falling on independent content creators and media companies of all sizes. The independent web no longer exists like it once did. Sure, there are pockets that re-appear and disappear every now and again in other sectors, but with media, all roads continue to lead to Google, Facebook, and increasingly Amazon. I refuse to believe that there aren't alternative models for media companies looking to monetize their businesses without relying so heavily on partners that are more interested in cannibalizing audiences than they are helping the web blossom to its full potential.
That's why we believe it's time to hit the reset button. We believe the technology tools now exist to help publishers monetize their content while also maintaining control of their audiences and building platforms for themselves. We think it can be done without opting into the egregious privacy-violating practices social platforms encourage most to partake in these days.
Why are we, an ad tech company, purchasing a site like Pando? We believe they were on to something. We believe the model that they've built has the potential to redefine new revenue channels for publishers. We believe they were ahead of their time in a lot of regards and that their commitment to remaining "chumbox" free is a model worth exporting to all publishers big and small.
We run several ad platforms, including Carbon Ads, of which exactly none rely on third-party data trackers or re-targeting technologies. At the core of our mission, we believe that publishers can sustain themselves by implementing a series of revenue technologies.
We believe that the curation of publisher audiences is the best way to provide value to advertisers and that by manually curating these audiences, we can curtail the proliferation of surveillance technology online.
We don't pretend that we have all the answers, but we like to think that we've proven that we do have a few of them, and by extension of that research, we believe the best path forward for publishing online is actually a path backward, retracing our steps a little, and focusing on some of the principles that made the early blogging industry such an amazing and exciting time online. Focusing on niche audiences, and reaching them in contexts that are unobtrusive, appropriate, and respectful is the only path back towards credibility with readers online.
That's why Pando. That's why now. Their audience is something we know well. It's in an industry our team loves, and we believe with just a little more innovation on the revenue front, we can help renew interest in a digital publication that deserves to extend its legacy.
We're looking forward to the challenges associated with being the stewards of a brand built on a lot of sweat and tears.
We welcome the criticism, and we welcome the hot takes. We will be here working hard to innovate on the business model of media regardless. It's what we've been doing for the past 12 years, and it's what we plan to do for at least another 12.