Thursday, March 19, 2009

"I Am the Long Tail":
Interactive Advertising vs. the Recession

Kevin Savetz, the founder and proprietor of Savetz Publishing, an online venture for individuals and small-business owners like himself, is modest about his venture. "I try to create sites that genuinely help people solve problems," he says in a new and controversial Web video. "They may not be huge problems. It may be as simple as 'I need a time sheet spreadsheet for my business.'" But he's been able to build his own and several other lives around these simple offerings because of two things: sweat equity, and advertising.

"All my sites offer all their information for free or for just a few dollars, because the sites are primarily supported by advertising," Mr. Savetz says. "Advertising plays an essential role in keeping my business alive, in making my living and keeping my two employees employed."

He is far from alone. In this same video
  • Jay Hallberg, Vice President for Marketing and co-founder of Spiceworks, a site for IT professionals in small and medium businesses, explains why he gives his social business application away gratis. "It's a radical idea to both make it fun and give the application away for free, and support it with advertising," he tells the camera. "Advertising is a critical part of Spiceworks success and how we make money. It's also how we pay the bills. We have over 34 employees."
  • The two impossibly cute twin daughters of Jeff Nelson, the proprietor of the vegetarian site, say that advertising "pays for our family's food, our house, cars, our school, and most importantly, our dance lessons!"
  • Two other stars of the documentary, Hetal and Anuja, describe how they left their jobs when their children were born, but then, seeking "something that was meaningful and at the same time gave us a sense of accomplishment," they launched the ad-supported and mouthwatering Indian cooking site
Analysts estimate there are as many as 1.2 million Web sites that support themselves by selling advertising, through their own sales forces or ad networks. Most of them constitute the vaunted "long tail" -- small sites serving the refined interests of niche audiences, whose existence is premised on the Internet's near-barrierless opportunity to create and distribute content. But the term "long tail," based as it is on such abstruse mathematical concepts as Pareto's law, can seem bloodless. It hardly does justice to the countless lives made better because of the ad-supported Internet.

That's where IAB came in. We made a seven-minute movie to put a human face on the long tail. We call it I Am the Long Tail, and here it is:

Engine of Business

Actually, I lied. The IAB didn't make this documentary about the long tail. The long tail made the movie about itself.

We reached out to sites we'd come across, and to online networks, for help in showcasing the almost limitless diversity of the ad-supported Internet. Our purposes were varied. As I noted in the YouTube video I made (I even downloaded the software that turned my Macbook into a Teleprompter) seeking contributions to our documentary, "The IAB wants advertisers to understand that small publishers are a foundation of their businesses -- that you're a vital channel to reach the American consumer. We also want policymakers and regulators in Washington and our state capitals to recognize that small digital publishers are critical to American economic growth, nationally, and in every Congressional district.

"Interactive advertising has become one of the greatest engines of small business development in American history," I said. "Whether you're a blog, a 'zine, a hobbyist site, a social network, a news publisher, a video channel; whether your specialty is recipes, sports, entertainment, child-rearing, or local affairs -- if you're supported by advertising, we want you to get the recognition you deserve."

Some three dozen publishers responded -- Yanier Gonzalez of the gamer site; Daryn Kagan, the creator of, "the Web's one-stop destination for inspiring news"; the gift exchange Elfster; the Islamic lifestyle site Muxlim; Tampa's Karen Post, co-founder of the "creative engine" Oddpodz; others -- following our admonition to send us a two-minute video telling the world about themselves, their sites, their lives, and the role advertising plays in their personal reinvention.

Enticingly, we offered an HD Flip Camera to the creators of the three best videos.

Crazily, we told them to video themselves with any device available -- "camcorder, mobile phone, flipcam, whatever" -- and to send us their work in any format they cared to, whether .mov, .avi, or mpeg.

Lucky, it worked.

Downturn Startups

What was most striking about the publishers we encountered was their sheer passion for their subject matter. "I started because I wanted people to discover the right way to do things around their home,"says Tim Carter, the former contractor who launched the popular house and home site.

Mr. Gonzalez similarly -- and personally -- felt an untapped hunger in the marketplace. "
We basically built a community of enthusiast writers who are outside the traditional gaming press," he says, referencing his own sensibility as a gamer who wanted more than he could otherwise find online. "It's a completely different take, a consumer take, the outside looking in."

What unites them with so many others is that the Internet has become the gateway to their economic salvation. Indeed, the Web constitutes one of the "peculiarities to this wave of downturn startups," The New York Times reported in a Page One story last week about one of this recession's few silver linings. "The Internet has given people an extraordinary tool not just to market their ideas but also to find business partners and suppliers, and to do all kinds of functions on the cheap."

"If I didn't have the online advertising revenue stream, Askthebuilder probably would have folded a long time ago," Mr. Carter says in his homemade video. "Online advertising has absolutely enhanced the living standard of my family."

A Curious Controversy

Why would these paeans to advertising be controversial? It's not clear, but they are. When Mediapost "broke" the story of the IAB video on Wednesday -- almost a month after we debuted it in front of 500 people at our IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Orlando, and more than two months after my call-for-entries was posted on YouTube -- the trade publication said it's "part of what appears to be a lobbying effort aimed at heading off regulation." That prompted anti-advertising activist Jeff Chester to tell the publication that our video was an "extremely disingenuous piece of work."

"Clearly we're going to have to respond with counter-programming,"Mr. Chester said.

I'm not sure what such counter-programming might be. A documentary called "Death to Small Businesses," perhaps? Or maybe "Long Live the Recession"?

Ah, well, let me be as explicit as possible. IAB's goal is to promote the growth of interactive advertising, which we believe to be a boon to the American economy and a rare bright light in terrible economic times. We believe the growth of ad-supported long tail publishers -- many of them in turn supported by small marketers who wouldn't be able to reach their markets without interactive advertising -- represents the potential for an economic renaissance in the U.S. As have virtually all advertisers since the dawn of the discipline, we believe that well-targeted advertising -- ads that are relevant to consumers' interests and needs -- is better, more respectful, and more productive than the irrelevant advertising known as spam. Consumers believe that, too!

And we believe, along with all our partners across the marketing-media ecosystem, that relevant advertising can be, must be, and is being created and delivered, on large sites and small, with full respect for consumers' privacy and security -- which is why we've partnered with a half dozen trade associations representing thousands of companies to back meaningful self-regulation of consumer privacy rights and expectations on the ad-supported Internet.

We're not being disingenuous: Citizens have every reason to be concerned about personal privacy, the security of their medical and financial records, and the incursion of governments, businesses, and individuals into their personal lives. But as we've shown in many previous postings on this clog and elsewhere, some current Federal and state proposals would seek to put many forms of traditional advertising research, including the use of impersonal, anonymous information, under a strict regulatory regime that would hurt consumer advertising and marketing. The New York Times, whose reporters have become persistent proponents of Internet regulation, last week proposed using "a bull’s-eye or maybe some sort of creepy eyeball" on ads that use any type of behavioral data in making ads more relevant to users.

So no, we don't want governments mandating the use of "creepy eyeballs" as a warning system for advertising. We want to secure consumer privacy and help businesses grow - which are not now and never have been mutually exclusive. And yes, we want to show the types of small businesses that would be harmed if unthinking government regulation is enacted.

But mostly, we want to celebrate the small publishers and marketers who have been able to launch businesses into a recession because of the tools and services enabling them on the Web. As our video says, they are using interactive advertising "to turn their dreams into the American dream."

Send Us Videos

And we're not done. I Am the Long Tail is a work in progress. We want to continue to collect examples of the diversity of the ad-supported Internet from across America and the world. If you run a small Web site supported by advertising, tell us about yourself. Same rules apply:
  • Create a two-minute video about you and your long tail Web site
  • Tell us about your site's purpose, content, uniqueness and audience
  • Tell us why you started your digital publication
  • Describe the site's value to you and your audience
  • Explain the role advertising plays in your digital publication
  • Provide a logo, screenshot, and "environmental" shots
  • Keep it two minutes or under
  • One change from before: We prefer it in .mov -- Quicktime video -- format, and under 100 megs, if possible.
Send it to We'll plan on featuring you on our new site, currently under construction, There are no more Flipcams to give away (Vegsource, ShowMeTheCurry, AsktheBuilder, and Destructoid won those) but you'll be part of a great showcase for the American dream.

As Yanier Gonzalez, gamer turned entrepreneur creator of Destructoid, put it, "It would have been impossible for me to launch something this size
without advertising."


  1. Awesome. Democratic capitalism at it's finest in the 21st century... Great work.


  2. If small publishers are so important to the IAB... maybe you guys can lower the entry fee or create a tiered cost structure so more of us can join.