Collision Course: Advertising and Enthusiast Publishing

RKP logoEnthusiast publications confront a fundamental problem at the very outset of their existence. Whether the magazine or web site covers bicycles, guns or cars, much—if not most—of its revenue will come from advertisers. Keeping those advertisers happy can be a challenge, even if its products are good. One lousy (or just substandard) product followed by an honest review can see ad revenue dry up faster than British humor in the summer sun.

The Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning car reviewer, Dan Neil, once stoned (verbally, mind you) a GM vehicle and suggested that some of the company’s top brass were out of touch and didn’t much deserve their jobs. He stopped short of asking for their heads on pikes, but anyone who read the reviews heard that between the lines.

GM pulled their ad dollars and asked for Neil’s head on a pike.

Surf magazines have generally skirted this issue by forgoing reviews of surf equipment; most surf magazines just don’t review surf boards. Bike magazines arouse suspicion in their readers by finding all bikes to be stiff at the bottom bracket while offering stellar vertical compliance. The products that most reviewers don’t like usually have at least one detail in common—the manufacturer isn’t an advertiser.

How did this situation arise? It’s hard to say, but one practice helped corrupt the relationship between publisher and advertiser. It used to be that there was a separation between church and state: editorial didn’t know what advertising was up to and advertising didn’t poke their head into content. Somewhere along the line the ad sales director realized that if he knew about positive editorial ahead of time, those mentions could be leveraged to sell more ads. Editors were forced to plan issues in advance and tell advertising what those plans were. Naturally, there was pressure to say who was getting positive, rather than negative, mentions.

The fouling of the tide pool came when advertising started asking for specific products to be reviewed and to make sure those reviews were positive. At times, it’s possible to have a mutually beneficial relationship between ad and edit. In a small staff, both can serve as eyes for the other. Many times I’ve told ad sales guys about someone doing interesting work who seems to be well-capitalized. Other times I’ve had ad sales guys come to me and tell me about a new bike, new energy bar or other new product. I’m a bike guy; I love hearing about new stuff.

I’ve had conversations with some manufacturers and they made it clear that they believed the bigger the ad they purchased, the better my review would—or should—be. I’ve yet to meet someone who held this belief who believed me when I told them I didn’t play that game. In more than 18 years of writing about cycling, I’ve had exactly one instance where I was instructed, yes, INSTRUCTED, to change what I wrote. In that case, I was told to soften a negative review. It was, coincidentally, the most overwhelmingly negative review I’d ever written. The energy bar in question failed just fine without my input.

When I launched Asphalt Magazine, I decided my job was to excite the reader about cycling. Given a reader’s busy day, the few hours each week that can be spent reading a bike magazine ought to reinforce the idea that cycling is the best feature of his or her life, outside of family. In talking with manufacturers I balanced my need to be honest with their need to have positive editorial by telling them, ‘If something seems substandard or if I just plain don’t like it and can’t see beyond my prejudice, I will send it back to you with my suggestions. I won’t lambaste you in my pages.’

Radio Freddy and I had many conversations about new directions that Belgium Knee Warmers might take. Several companies expressed some interest in advertising with BKW. Radio Freddy and I talked about the backlash we might see in the readership by moving from no advertising to taking ads. It’s reasonable for readers to wonder if the sudden introduction of advertising into a blog will change the content out of a concern to keep the advertisers happy.

I decided I was willing to risk a readership backlash in order to meet other goals I had for our content.

BKW readers have seen the blog go silent for days, sometimes weeks at a time. We never offered an explanation, but you might have guessed why. As we weren’t making a dime from BKW, jobs and family sometimes precluded us from devoting time to something we loved enough to do for free.

Advertising isn’t going to change what we write. I’ve never been interested in pursuing the Consumer Reports angle of product testing and the bike industry doesn’t present too many opportunities for Time-like investigative journalism. Unsafe products are few and far between and our only negative or critical posts are generally confined to the issue of doping. That won’t change.

Advertising dollars will give Red Kite Prayer the opportunity to recruit more contributors on a more consistent basis and it will give me the needed justification to devote more time to what has become the most enjoyable and challenging work I do.

As I write this, we have yet to sign a single ad contract. Even so, I know the short list of companies that are the likely advertisers for the site. Those companies that choose to advertise with us will wind up getting some very favorable edit. I won’t be shilling for anyone; rather, the support we receive is an endorsement of the content we provide. I can think of no higher compliment than to have some of the industry’s top manufacturers say they support the work we do. Well, almost.

The best compliment we’ve gotten is your readership.

14 comments

  1. Walter

    I do not believe there would be a reader backlash if the understanding you have with both readers and advertisers is that the reviews will be objective. We then know that the reviews are correct. If an advertiser does not want to play by that rule (and fears how their product will really stack up), they can play elsewhere.

    The reality is that it takes money and a lot of time and energy to create and maintain these sites. Ads per se would not be a turnoff to most readers.


  2. Author
    Padraig

    Thanks for your comments. While I do believe there are objective criteria to consider in any review, I think the perception by many readers is that objectivity goes out the window as soon as you discuss your opinions. I do what I can to inform my opinions with objectivity, but at some point, you either like something or not and even I have a tough time admitting when I’ve crossed that emotional threshold.

    For those who think I am objective, great; I should be able to please. And for those who think reviews (and even features about industry people) are essentially just gut-level feelings, what I can say is that I will do my best to be honest.

    My primary motivation to write is to see something that pleases me. A lie offers me no satisfaction.

  3. jeff bean

    Good luck with the new venture. I’m certain that brands who want to associate with your readership will queue up.

  4. Jason

    “the support we receive is an endorsement of the content we provide. I can think of no higher compliment than to have some of the industry’s top manufacturers say they support the work we do”

    I hear that. Sort of going through that bit myself. It’s 100% incredible to get e mails from folks saying how much they like the little rag I’m cobbling together (XXC mag). But sometimes when you get support from IN the industry it makes you feel like you’re heading in the right direction to get the word out about what you love (riding and racing bikes as well as talking, reading, designing, photographing bikes). Glad to see redkiteprayer.com up and running. Look forward to my daily dose of it.

    Good luck.

    Jason Mahokey (aka The Soiled Chamois in the links to your right)

  5. Darren

    Love BKW. Love RKP. Advertising no problem (didn’t even notice the lack of it on BKW). Not sure you said how you’d deal with the “bad review” issue above. You’ll basically take advertising from companies that have generally great products. Sounds like you’re suggesting you’ll use the method of just not doing bad reviews and instead give the company feedback. I get what you are saying on the tension for how to make this thing float. While I’d gladly pay a subscription to read BKW I understand that that model doesn’t usually work. One other way to make $…branded products. Where can I get my RKP podium cap, sticker, and t shirt?? Looking forward to more great stuff to read.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks for the kind words. Frankly, I’m not entirely certain just how I’ll deal with criticism of products. I’m sure the majority of what I write will be positive, because that fuels my passion, but I suspect I’ll only send something back with no review and feedback in an e-mail if it’s just terrible, and there’s not much of that in the market anymore.

      Stickers, T-shirts and more to come. Stay tuned.

  6. WSY

    Padraig,

    RKP is truly a sight (site?) for sore eyes–so many of us were afraid that the rumors of BKW’s demise might have been true.

    I’m relatively new to the field of enthusiast publishing. I find it very rewarding, but awkward at times. I’m excited to see that not only will RKP uphold the high standard for its content that we came expect to from BKW, but it will also provide musings and insights into “the process behind the product”, so to speak. For example, your “About” page was enlightening as to the philosophy behind your writing; the principles upon which you choose your topics has inspired some interesting reflection on the purpose and mission for my own attempts. Also, your discussion of the inclusion of advertising in RKP addressed many of the questions that many of us might have to face at one point in time. It will be exciting to follow the growth and evolution of your new endeavor. Perhaps we’ll all learn something along the way.

    Anyway, thank you for the example you’ve provided to all who enjoy sharing our joy for the sport. If you have some time, I welcome you to check-out my blog, Pavé. Feedback and advice are always appreciated.

    Thanks again-I can’t wait to see where this Kite might lead!

    WSY
    Pavé


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks Pavé. You’re on today’s to-do list. I really appreciate the feedback for the look at the workbench, so to speak. My conversations with Radio Freddy are only occasionally about content. They tend to be more about philosophy, direction, intent, what to do if comments are getting too negative, the blend of subjects, that sort of thing. I know not everyone is interested, but because people are most suspicious when they can’t see behind the curtain, I thought I’d try to pull it back some. I’ll be as transparent as I can about my work and my intentions. I don’t know if it will work, but I’ll do my best. It’s a smart audience and you guys keep me on my toes. While I can’t be on peak form for each post, I try to hide it well when I’m not. Those times when I disappeared were less about not having ideas than just being so completely overwhelmed with other work.

  7. Nic

    Dear Padraig,

    I am the editor of a weekly newspaper know for its challenging investigative and political writing. Our advertising revenue is improving against all trends because our sales people have learned to explain to advertisers that their dollars will achieve a bigger impact in a credible environment – that is, one in which the editorial is totally uncompromised by commercial concerns. Sometimes the individuals and companies we are nastiest about take out ads because they want to reach the audience that has seen them dissed, or simply because they know readers trust us, and some of that will rub off on their brands.
    I’d say take ads – you can do it through google if you want to avoid direct contact – and right what you like, positive, negative, indifferent. That is what will bring readers, and it is the readers that will bring the advertisers.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks Nicholas. Let us know what your newspaper is. I’d bet some of RKP’s readers are in your neck of the woods and would love to know they are reading the work of a kindred spirit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>