Football, Blogs and Newspapers Unite? Part Three

So today, the meat and potatoes as it were of this series: what might more cooperation between independent blogs and on-line newspaper football sites actually look like? Before I dive in, I think it’s important to point out that I’m not going to lay out concrete models with specific revenue streams and publishing formats, but rather point out general features that would make a union more desirable than the current situation, where the only mutual connection between newspapers and blogs comes in the form of hyperlinks.

I should also mention that discussion of the obstacles to this kind of union will be examined at length in a future post, but feel free to start shredding in the comments.

It’s about revenue, stupid.

Let’s get down to it: do well-written, exciting, original football blogs carry any inherent monetary value? I’m going to be flashy and controversial and say, in and of themselves, probably not. A writer can build a brilliant football site, gain lots of readers, carry a lot of blog “influence” as measured by one or another social media yardstick. But based on the extraordinarily diffuse nature of blogs, most of the time advertisers doesn’t have much incentive to go beyond a low-cost CPM or CPC banner ad or feed approach that rewards views and views alone and doesn’t much care about quality. And even the most successful soccer blogs will only ever have a limited share of the eyeballs, unless they start churning out the SEO goods like Wayne Rooney stories, Drogba stories, WAGS, you get the idea.

Okay then, maybe your football blog has a good-sized, dedicated readership, and you want to try the donation route, either providing all of the content for free and asking kindly for money from your readers in return, or withholding portions or the entirety of your blog (essentially a partial or whole hog paywall). That won’t work either, in part because of the diffuse nature of football blogs mentioned above, but also because of what Malcolm Gladwell termed the “weak-ties” problem with on-line communities in his controversial New Yorker article, “Small Change.”

While Gladwell specifically targets Twitter and Facebook activism, his remarks regarding the weak ties that bind online communities can be applied to the ties that bind blogs with their readers. I might read your football blog everyday, come to love it, and come to expect a regular post-rate. But if you put your posts up behind a paywall, or offer “exclusive posts” for free, chances are most of your readers won’t pay. A small enough percentage might, but not at too exorbitant a price. This small percentage may match or even exceed the CPM CPC model while not having to depend as much on the number of eyeballs, which is good, but I’d say for most bloggers donations alone are not really financially sustainable (if anyone of you has had great success with the donation model, feel free to call me out).

The power of filters

Typically, the “bajillion blogs” nature of the web has always been regarded as a problem to be solved, not as an opportunity to be taken advantage of, particularly by advertisers. As I laid out yesterday, football is poised to take advantage of the plethora of sites out there, in part because of the demand, at some time or another, for blogs with a specific football focus. Now, the one positive you tend to hear about the “bajillion blogs” problem is that good blogs rise to the surface. It’s not a coincidence that great blogs like Run of Play, Fake Sigi, Zonal Marking, Les Rosbifs, EFW, MFUSA, and a whole whack of others tend to get noticed, linked-to, talked about. But as I wrote yesterday, even as well-regarded as these sites are, they’re still essentially independent, working their way through the online world alone (which is fine, really and truly).

What if some of these sites though decided to go it alone and form a network? It’s my view that a blogging network isn’t much worth it if you’re going to go down the banner ad route. You might get a few more clicks, and some more pennies in a cup, but the added cost of organizing how ad revenues are split, getting your tax information in order, recruiting advertisers, trying to reach consensus won’t really make it worth it. Plus, with banner ads you’re still fundamentally stuck with the quantity over quality approach to generating revenue.

Okay then, if not banner ads, then what?  Well, probably something else entirely, but let’s interrupt for a second and take a look at a quote from Alan Rusbridger’s recent Hugh Cudlipp lecture (sent to me by Guardian sport editor Sean Ingle in relation to this series, who we’ll be hearing from later). This is Sir Martin Sorrell, head of the WPP marketing group.

“I would hope that within five years, so let’s say 2013, or something like that, we would be at least one third in digital. We know that customers are spending 20% of time online. So if clients are spending 12% and consumers are spending 20% – and I’ve seen some evidence to suggest they are spending more than 20% – then there’s a natural gravitational pull to 20% of the budgets being spent online … my guess is that when we get to a third of our business in 2014 we may very well want to up that percentage to 40% or even 50%.”

It’s my guess that as more and more marketing firms dedicate more and more financial resources to the web, the industry leaders will have to go beyond the CPM CPC, widget or banner ad models mentioned above. Those models exist on the old magazine model, where print ads sit next to print articles. Most of the time this is a very clumsy approach. As almost all of you still reading at this point are football bloggers, you’ll know how inept most advertisers are, especially in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup. A company spending 10% of its money on web ads isn’t going to be able to go much beyond spamming the crap out of a bunch of football bloggers whose work bears no relation to the product, asking for widgets and banners and for ghosted posts or asking you to mention their product in a post as “naturally as possible” for a piddling one time fee. They don’t have the resources or the incentive right now to push beyond that model. But I think that will likely have to change.

Toward a new kind of web advertising

This, oddly enough, is where newspapers come in. Newspapers, despite budget cuts and all the rest, still have ad departments. These departments are dedicated to selling ads for both print and on-line editions. Newspapers also have the advantage of being trusted brands. Particular advertisers go with particular papers because they have a certain readership. The Globe and Mail has ads for mutual funds and Tiffany diamonds, while the Sun has pullout flyers for the Brick discount furniture store.

Right now, online ads don’t go much beyond their print paper equivalents in terms of form and function. It’s still a surface ad, even though when you click it you get taken to a third party site. Advertisers don’t much mind, because what they’re concerned with isn’t whether or not you go out and buy the product based on the ad, but that the general readership is aware the product exists. But what if, as a newspaper, you could offer an advertiser the chance to sponsor a set of blogs with a set of dedicated readers who, because of education, geographical location, are much more likely to purchase a set of particular products than a more general audience of readers? What if, instead of banner ads, you tried a less-intrusive sponsorship deal? Perhaps you could rent out these sponsorships on a rotating basis? What if larger advertising firms set up a means of allowing a traditionally smaller company with a limited ad budget to sponsor with sites that attract readers who are much more likely to buy their specific product? Like a product these readers might actually really like to buy? Like for example, football books?

This could all be completely unfeasible. But there are number of incentives for particular papers to go down this route. For one, there is a reason writers like Jonathan Wilson write for the Guardian and the Independent, and not the Sun. And there is a reason that Wilson’s association with these papers means he is one of the most trusted voices in football (imagine him as an independent blogger, slogging away columns on 4-5-1 on Lobanovsky on some WordPress template somewhere). Papers sell their readers to advertisers. Good independent soccer blogs tend to attract particular kinds of readers in good numbers, and if these bloggers are attached to a major traditional outlet, it puts the power of the paper’s brand behind them. It increases reader trust, strengthens the “weak ties” endemic on the web, and provides a trusted filter for football information which is what on-line papers tend to do anyway (see yesterday’s post).

Moreover, many papers are mulling over switching their hard news content over to paid-for smart phone, or iPad-like apps. If that model becomes the basis for most news providers to secure payment-for-content, their shadow WWW sites aren’t going away—and bloggers could help fill in this content gap. A series of blog networks linked to a newspaper main page with several rotating feature posts awarded to bloggers based on editorial merit. Think of it as a kind of like a much-expanded Guardian Favourite Things, split into blogs of a specific type, with rotating sponsors.

Final caveat

I don’t want want to get into the specifics of what this all might look like, like how much bloggers would earn from this kind of deal, what would a network hub would specifically look like. I just want to establish that there may more possibility and incentive for newspapers and blogs to work together than is publicly acknowledged. I’m not Faith Popcorn, and I’m not a marketing expert. To that end, over the next several posts, I’m going to be examining both the pros and cons for newspapers and bloggers in joining this kind of set-up. I want to establish that there are very real reasons why we might not move substantially past the status quo, but that we shouldn’t necessarily assume that, as Spock might put it, everyone in blogging, in newspapers and in advertising is continuing to perform admirably when it comes to exploiting the nature of their medium.

Image credit: Stuck in Customs.

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