A Few Thoughts on Sponsorships

Within the last week there has been a great deal of talk about sponsorships: Marco Arment ended sponsored blog posts, citing waning interest and falling click-through rates. Sam Hutchings chimed in on the debate regarding bias and how it could, theoretically, adversely affect credibility. Josh Ginter, writing in response to Marco’s aforementioned post, posited that Marco’s decision might not be an anomaly, but indicative of a disturbing trend in the blogging space. I don’t see this topic elevating any further from here, so I might as well chime in now.

First, let’s talk about bias: Sam Hutchings is by no means the first to bring this topic up, nor did he pretend to be: his article is merely the continuation of a long-held gripe focused mainly on podcasters, criticizing them for some perceived bias regarding the products and companies that keep their lights on. I have so little interest in this conversation that it hardly merits mentioning here, but I will say this: I have a small circle of writers whom I trust. If one of those individuals gives the green light for a particular device or software offering, it immediately jumps to the top of my list next time I need such a product. If, after purchasing something on one of their recommendations, it actually turns out to be terrible for legitimate reasons — in other words, not because I just didn’t like the color scheme, for example; there must be a tangible problem with the item — I will never buy something they recommend again — it’s just that simple. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Outside of that, what else is there to say? Use common sense, and if the combination of your common sense and their credibility still manages to let a subpar product through, reconsider how high a regard you hold that individual in.

As for blog sponsorships, I would be lying if I said I was surprised: with the exception of using 5by5’s “dansentme” code at Hover last year to purchase this domain, I have never visited a sponsor’s website, much less purchased one of their products. Hover, Squarespace, Rackspace, Host Gator, PDF Pen Pro — they all have successfully attained some non-insignificant amount of mindshare, and if I ever need a domain, an easy-to-setup website, a server, or the ability to edit PDFs I know where to go; however, right now I have no need for any of them save the first, and I would bet anything that I am not alone in this regard. Apple could have the best advertising in the world, and many would argue that they do, but regardless of their marketing prowess I will not buy another computer for another two to five years; advertising cannot create need where there is none, no matter how great the solution may be. Unfortunately — for content producers, fortunately for the companies paying them — advertisers are now starting to realize this. The sponsorship bubble is popping.

Operating under the assumption that the sponsorship bubble is, in fact, either about to pop or popping, the first question we must ask is to what extent this will affect the blogging community at large. Just as Germans carted around wheelbarrows full of Marks after World War I when hyperinflation caused the value of their currency to fall to near-unimaginable levels, will bloggers come to shop around sites with readerships in the millions without a single buyer? I say no, for the very reason that all those dollars in sponsorships were not quite useless up until now: mindshare. There is still value in exposing your brand to some four million people on Daring Fireball, and another million on Loop Insight. Even if just to get your foot into the door, as Hover and Squarespace in particular did with me, economies of scale kick in here, with these large audiences, where it does not with smaller readerships. Rather than those at the top, then, it’s the “little guy” like Marco who will suffer the ill effects of this shift, and the actual little guy like those just starting out who will now have to search for alternate revenue models. I hope that these new constraints will breed creativity, and we will begin to see alternative business models, but in reality that hope is nothing more than just that — me hoping. In reality, we have turned a corner — plain as day — and anyone arguing otherwise needs to spend some more time in this industry. We are on the edge, and as Dan Benjamin is so fond of saying, “I don’t know what comes next.”