Making Money Online

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, March 26, 2009

If you see these words in a Web browser, you didn't pay to read them. And that should be OK.

Enough people read The Post online to add up to a large audience -- all of you, no doubt, attractive and intelligent individuals -- whom advertisers want to reach. Those companies, in turn, should pay enough to cover our operating costs and keep me in the manner to which I've become accustomed.

Further, this strategy should work at any site that puts enough interesting material online, whether it's 6,000-word discourses on new software releases or funny pictures of cats.

But over the last year, that formula has developed cracks. Ad sales are down at many sites -- they may drop from 5 to 10 percent this year across the Web -- while publishing costs haven't budged all that much.

When that happens, publishers have two ways to get advertisers to cough up more money: Let them be pushier about grabbing readers' attention, or give them more information about readers' interests.

(They could also do both at once. But let's try to retain some optimism here!)

The former route is easier, since it requires no extra research -- just a willingness to upset the rough detente that's emerged between Web readers and advertisers.

Today, we can count on Web browsers to stop the worst marketing excesses, the pop-up ads that once filled our screens. More experienced users can install browser extensions that block other types of ads. But if advertisers restart this arms race by trying out more aggressive ad formats, software developers will need time to catch up.

(The Post sells pop-up and pop-under ads on washingtonpost.com, plus "pushdowns" that fill a page before rolling up into a thin banner. Jeff Burkett, Washington Post Digital's director of ad innovations and client services, said that only "a very small" percentage of revenue comes from those types of ad.)

What might we be looking at next? The Online Publishers Association, a trade group, announced three new standard ad sizes earlier this month. One of these formats is a smaller version of the "pushdown" ad; a second would place a tall rectangle on one side of the page, which would then move up or down the page to match your scrolling; a third would plant a wide rectangle at the top of a page.

Web publishers can and will think outside of those boxes. For example, the washingtonpost.com home page has painted its top navigation banner yellow as part of an ad campaign for a yellow-pages phone directory site.

But harder-to-escape ads can only go so far. An ad that's more obvious but no more relevant may only turn readers against the advertiser.


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