Questions for Six Apart’s Ad Honcho

Amateur media is getting ever-more attention from advertisers.

Each week brings new headlines about the amount of time people spend reading and creating blogs, podcasts and videos; about their many-hundred connections on social networking sites; about their addictions to video-sharing sites. And judging from the new CGM practices at some agencies and the stakes they’ve taken in social networking plays, marketers are gearing up to spend big money to engage prospects in these places.

Challenges abound. Marketers are worried about adjacency; consumers may resent the intrusion, or ignore the ads entirely; and site owners — the “publishers” — are struggling to develop useful ad products for their content.

Six Apart, one of the progenitors of blogging, never carried ads on any of its products before this year. From the start the company focused on hardcore development, building products strong and vital enough to thrive under a subscription model.

Now that’s changing. The company earlier this year hired a VP of worldwide sales, Patty Mitchell, to oversee the launch of ads on its LiveJournal platform, as well as on Vox, its pre-launch social network play. The LiveJournal implementation is well underway. Vox, which is completely ad-supported, will be widely available in the fall.

Q.What’s it like leading ad sales at an organization that’s founded on subscription revenue?

A.It’s an incredibly smart group of people who have been standard bearers for blogging tools. They have continued to emphasize the quality of the product and the value of the customer in a way that I’ve never seen.

The interesting thing is now we’re expanding the definition of customer, when you introduce advertising. There’s an education [I want to impart] in how to value the advertiser.

Having come from a media background, where some people are more concerned about the advertiser than the audience, I find it’s flipped. I have to go in and say, “This is a customer too and there’s a balance we can strike between the needs of the advertiser and the needs of the audience.”

Q.How did ads on LiveJournal come to be, and how did the community react?

A.LiveJournal is a top 100 site and probably the only one that didn’t have advertising. Prior to April, when we introduced advertising, you had two options: a free account or a paid account. The paid account was souped up. We wanted to be able to offer a different level of service, less than the premium, but more than the basic. We introduced that in April, which [required] an opt-in to display ads.

The LiveJournal community is an interesting and eclectic group of personal bloggers. Many of them are anti-advertising and believe all advertising and marketing is bad. I knew there was a certain community that would generate backlash.

I decided to use the power of social networking. I created an alt ads community and told how we intended to do things differently. We asked what kind of ads they want. We fielded all kinds of suggestions… It’s been really important for us to realize what we should and shouldn’t be doing and a great way to mirror the LJ way.

Q.And how’s it going so far, with the ads?

A.It’s going the right way by making it an engaged experience.

One thing we’ve done is we’ve asked users their category preferences. Every single ad has a feedback form that allows you to tell us, “I love this ad,” “I hate this ad,” “This ad is not appropriate,” or tell us anything.

We expected a lot of negative feedback, but a lot was positive. The negative feedback has alerted us to any issues that come up much quicker than an ad ops team could.

Another link we have under the ads is “customize.” It’s a way for users to tell us what their ad category preferences are. We are not guaranteeing those are the only ads you’re going to see, but we’re utilizing the ad preferences and the user’s interest to do more relevant targeting of the ad content.

We’re doing it really slowly. We’re iterating as we go, both taking feedback from the community and from the advertisers and marketers too.

Q.Are you selling all the ads directly?

A.I am selling them directly. We also have a relationship with a couple of ad networks that allow me to hand-select the creative. I’m personally approving every creative that runs on LiveJournal.

We want to make sure the message is not what they’re going to see on a network like MySpace. It’s got to be the right message. The targeting’s got to go both ways. I can deliver the right person to you. You’ve got to deliver the right message to them.

Q.Have you given any thought to courting corporations to do blogs or sponsored communities on LiveJournal or on Vox?

A.We’re actually doing that with LiveJournal now. You can set up an individual journal that’s yours. Or you can set up a community journal that has a lot of flexibility. About 20 to 25 percent of our traffic are community journals.

[The success of a sponsored community] is heavily dependent on the marketer having something of value to offer. When they do, the viral nature of a social network starts to take over. This really requires true participation on an advertiser’s part, in a way that’s very time consuming, but the rewards will be huge.

We are just now starting to put the final touches on some of the initial advertisers that will be doing sponsored communities. We’ve done this with LiveJournal because we needed to enhance our business model and continue to support the millions of users who weren’t paying us anything.

A lot of the learnings from LiveJournal will be applied to Vox.

Q.Yes, let’s talk about Vox.

A.Vox is starting off as ad-supported from the get-go.

We’ll have things that are clearly sponsorable and ways we’ll be integrating the advertisers’ content within that space and still allow the users to have choices and control and give feedback about the advertising just as they can have control and give feedback about content.

There’s only one level of the service. It’s free and it’s an ad-supported model.

Q.Is there a notable difference between Vox and LiveJournal from where the media buyer sits? How are the audiences and their behaviors different?

A.With Vox, in many ways [it will be defined] by the people who start to use it. We make the tool. The content, the engagement and interactivity are all dependent on what people do with it once we put it out there.

We are targeting an audience that is less techie than a LiveJournal person might be. LiveJournal is hard to use, from a certain point of view. It isn’t plug and play. People change the templates and customize it to the hilt. You’ve got to know a little HTML. It’s very do-it-yourself; that’s part of the ethos.

Vox is akin to Flickr, in that it’s really easy. I can make it customized and pretty and make an incredible Web site and I don’t have to know anything. We think it’ll skew slightly older and have a more mainstream appeal.

We’re not really selling Vox yet. We will be launching with two or three key partners out of the gate, sponsors who want to be in this space and create new ways for marketers to communicate within blogs and social networks.

Q.How do you hope to overcome competition in social networking, given you’re late to it?

A.I don’t know that we’re coming late to this. There isn’t really anything else out there like it. We know blogging, and we know social networks in a different way than a MySpace does.

I think we’re actually early to the game of how it’s going to be played out down the road. It’s going to be more substantive, more mainstream, less about what kids are doing and more about how I can stay in touch with friends and family, talk about things I like, and control all that with privacy controls.

I don’t think people understand how to market and advertise in these new spaces that are being created online. It’s going to take some learning. I strongly feel we’ve got to figure out how advertisers can participate in that. As more and more people bring other media into places like this, the advertisers are going to get shut out. And unless they can figure out how to meaningfully participate, there’s a good reason they’re going to get shut out.

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