In the last month this blog got 25,000 unique visitors. Many of those visitors stuck around for five or more minutes, which is phenomenal. However, only 1 in 1,000 converted into long term readers. That’s terrible.
My top priority for this blog is to keep it high quality. My second priority is to help fund my travels. That requires having people stick around long enough so that someday they will buy a print or subscribe to The Signal.
The abysmal conversion numbers made me decide to get more aggressive about retaining readers. I didn’t want to compromise design design by filling the right rail with distracting graphics.
My solution is a new internal “ad system.” I have one “ad” per page load on desktop and two per page load on mobile. The content of those “ads” changes and lets me move traffic around the website without upselling within the content of the site. This has increased reader retention tenfold.
In two weeks this site got more than 25,000 unique visitors from 132 countries. Here’s how that traffic splits geographically from Google Analytics.
You can see how these visitors behaved in a heat-map provided by Clicky analytics (that’s an affiliate link). Almost none of the visitors made it into the right hand navigation bar to find more articles. Very few of them made it past the Disqus comments at the bottom of the article to read more articles. That’s a serious design problem. I needed to fix it.
Heat-map of visitors before ad system to my most popular article.
I needed a way to let people know about my trip and that they could follow it without compromising my design values. My solution was to implement my own advertising system. I have nine ads, picked at random, inserted at most two per per page. If you’re on mobile you’ll see one right here, below this paragraph.
Since the ads might change over time here are two screenshots. If you’re on desktop ads show up on the right hand side like in this image.
And on mobile the ads are at the bottom of articles and sometimes inserted directly into the content if the article is long.
What I love about this solution
- The ads only sell products and send messages that I believe in. I had serious quality issues with Google Adsense (see below.)
- The ads speak with a separate voice than the content. An orange box with a message has more integrity than a sentence mid-article pitching something. I’d like that clarity.
- All of the ads direct traffic into my site instead of away from it. This gives me way more value than a 50 cent click and makes the ads well targeted.
- I don’t have to compromise site navigation or integrity to remind people to follow the paths that help me keep this blog going.
- The ad system lets me send a message to old and new articles at the same time. Most of the ad impressions are served on pages that get high search traffic — not pages frequented by existing readers.
- Finally, the ads aren’t all about money. I’ve got one ad for finding a random image and one encouraging readers to [donate to charity:water]()
In just one day the ads are ten times as effective at converting casual readers into subscribers. Here’s an updated heat-map of visitors to the 35mm lens article. Base traffic is much lower, but a few users click on the right hand column ad now.
Over time I’ll test ad copy and coloring to see what’s most effective.
At Their Best
At their best my new ads should draw new readers further into the content and not distract existing readers. They are already ten times better at retaining readers.
I’ve shown them to existing readers and existing readers think they look great.
If you run a content heavy high quality blog you might consider a similar solution.
Appendix: Why not Adsense?
I find image based ads very distracting and wanted to keep them off of my site. Google Consumer Surveys, Adsense, and Amazon detracted too much from the experience of reading.
Google Consumer Surveys gave me no way to check the quality of the surveys they were given to readers. They didn’t even let me see the surveys they were running. I was outraged to find that Google was asking all of my readers what they think of the UN. That’s a politically charged question I don’t want to be associate with.
A questionable Google Consumer Survey sent to me by a friend with the caption “serious bug”. Few people know what this is and Google gives me no way to spot test quality on the ads. I don’t like how politically charged the question is either.
Adsense shocked me with terrible image ads pretending to be a Facebook UI. I didn’t want that crap on my page.
A crap ad Google survey on my page, pretending to be a Facebook notification.
If these ads made as much as print sales or subscriptions to The Signal I might keep them around, but the money was far too low.