On paying for promotion

While waiting for takeout from a new pizza joint in our neighborhood, my better half overheard the owner complaining about Yelp.

“They call me every few weeks telling me I should spend $600 a month. On Yelp! This is a family business. I don’t have the money for that.”

When she told me the story, I assumed Yelp was selling these sponsored listings for people searching for pizza in the area.

Friends of mine have been experimenting with promoted tweets. Some are more serious than others — promoting an episode of their podcast, or a post on their blog. Others promoted a tweet asking for a recommendation for a good dentist in NYC, or asking their followers to fill out a survey.

It’s weird to see the “Promoted by Your Friend” note below a tweet. Brands do that, not people.

My feelings about advertising are fraught. I’ve worked for advertising-supported web businesses my entire career, so I mostly hate ads, even while they paid my salary.

Ads can compromise the user experience by splitting product makers’ loyalties. Is the advertiser or the user the customer? Ads are a way for monied brands to buy exposure for a product that’s often not as good as an alternative. Ads give companies a reason to collect data about you and sell it to advertisers for targeting purposes.

This week, my company ThinkUp sponsored Daring Fireball. That means we paid John Gruber good bit of money, and in return we got a post about ThinkUp on Daring Fireball on Sunday night and we’ll also get a link to ThinkUp on DF on Friday.

I was dubious about doing this. It was a costly investment for a small company that’s running lean. Like Gruber, I ran a high-profile tech blog for years. When I saw a cool app, I wrote about it, because it was my job. I’ve always thought that ThinkUp will get the attention it deserves for free, because it’s worthy. Because it’s an app I would’ve written about.

That hasn’t turned out to be true. ThinkUp is a good product that almost no big outlet has covered (except for my alma mater).

I’ve thought a lot about why this is, and there are a few reasons I can see. First, while almost every media outlet uses an analytics app or three to optimize their own online presence, they aren’t news-worthy. The thinking goes like this: If you’re a regular person who uses them, you’re probably a douchebag. Only brands care about analytics — so consumer-focused sites don’t pay attention. We haven’t been able to describe what ThinkUp offers in a way made it compelling enough to try anyway. (As recently as today we revised our tagline.) Since ThinkUp grew out of an open source project I started building and talking about over five years ago, it’s not new. This I’ve learned the hard way: that constant, iterative “it gets better” releases don’t get the attention a single massive reveal commands.

So here we are, paying for promotion. Gruber’s post about ThinkUp is his impression of the product in his own words, after he tried it. He wrote:

ThinkUp is social analytics for regular people. I admit I rolled my eyes a little when I heard about it, because I’ve seen so many other analytics tools/apps for social networking, and they’re usually just awful — dreadful interfaces, useless information. ThinkUp is different. It’s simple, beautiful, and clear. It’s just a way to make Twitter (and Facebook) more fun. One of the stats ThinkUp tracks: how often you drop the f-word. (Mine shot up as the Yankees season ended.)

Huh. Well, that was educational.

So far, the sponsorship has been a success. Gruber verified that yes, ThinkUp is actually good and quite different from every other analytics app you’ve heard of. That gave permission to a huge community of potential users to try it — and they have. I like knowing that my small company helped support A Guy Writing a Blog. And the blunt discussion about how ThinkUp sounds like a tool for d-bags has been enlightening.

I still don’t love advertising. I don’t know if my local pizza joint should pay Yelp for a sponsored listing. But it does break my heart to see a place that serves truly exceptional pies stand empty.

I highly recommend the Roma tomato, red onion and wood-oven-roasted peppers.