It’s been an issue ever since the internet became a mainstream tool used by the masses: How can websites make money? In the beginning, adopting the models of traditional news outlets seemed like a reasonable solution. “We’ll sell advertising space and create subscription models that offer member-exclusive benefits” said almost everyone, everywhere. But, in an age of ad-blocking and a generation that’s grown up with free, unlimited access to news, these models are becoming more difficult to sustain and even harder to justify. I’ve spent the past month toiling away at an editorial based on my potential solutions to the problem, but until I come up with something you haven’t already heard, Ben Kuchera over at Penny Arcade has written up an incredible piece detailing the main problems the gaming press is currently facing. I highly encourage a complete and thorough read-through. It’s beyond excellent. Seriously, open it in a new tab and read it before coming back here.
It’s a difficult topic to discuss with readers. On one hand, I, like many others, want nothing more than to be completely transparent, open, and honest with the loyal audience I so deeply cherish. At the same time, it’s hard to talk about a site’s financial troubles without folks assuming you’re looking for some sympathy in the form of cash donations. But at the end of the day, I’d rather give readers the benefit of the doubt and believe they’re smart enough to not only understand the situation, but also be actively interested in seeing the sites they love continue to produce quality content.
As a brief synopsis of the issues at hand, here’s my very candid summary of where most gaming sites are at right now: The primary way most make money is still through advertisement, specifically through a CPM model; which means a set fee advertisers pay a site for every 1,000 unique page visits. How much money a site makes is negotiable, but many make somewhere under the $5 mark per 1,000 page views.
As if that weren’t enough of an issue for any site trying to pay full-time writers while turning a profit, we now live in an age where most web-browsers have easily-downloadable ad-blocking software. The real kicker here is that it’s the readers we cherish most that are the ones who use ad-blockers, and it makes sense. The gaming demographic consists of folks who are very technology-oriented; most of you guys and gals know your way around a gadget. You don’t ever need to call tech support. In fact, you’re the ones who solve most of the computer/technology-related problems your friends and family come across. You can take one look at a smartphone and know exactly where to go to find what you’re looking for, so of course you’re savvy enough to run ad-blocking software to get rid of any obtrusive, screen-filling, blaring audio nonsense advertisers want to throw at you.
But what that means in reality, for anyone on the other side of the fence, is that those types of readers, the ones who make all this worthwhile, are the least profitable market to target. I wish the thought-provoking, in-depth articles I enjoy writing were as profitable for my employers as they are enjoyable for those readers, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Instead, it’s way easier to throw up a gallery of “hot babes” and sit back as teenage boys and the social media community spread the link around like it’s a venereal disease at an ancient Roman orgy. Seriously, that feature image of cheerleaders up top will draw in more hits than any thought-proving editorial I could ever write. Also cute animals are like a search traffic gold mine.
A fortunate number of bigger sites that generate heavier traffic have the luxury of a dedicated audience, so some have an easier time turning a bit more profit by creating merchandise that fans enjoy purchasing, or creating a premium service that older, loyal readers subscribe to out of respect or gratitude for the years spent busting their humps producing enjoyable, entertaining content. And hey, if you can find an audience that’s so dedicated they’re willing to pay you for your service, more power to you. I’m ecstatic to see sites like ScrewAttack get the love they truly deserve from premium members who believe those subscriptions are worth their money. And look at how the site’s grown over the years. I mean, have you seen the new season of DeathBattle!? The production values are seriously praiseworthy, and it’s thanks to fans who are willing to support all of the great content Craig and crew provide. It’s seems they’ve managed a find a balanced ecosystem where they can produce the content they want to make, and the audience, seeing genuine value in the media they are consuming, are willing to pay for them to continue creating.
But for most sites, ScrewAttack will be the exception to the rule, and so until someone figures out a way to turn websites into profitable, sustainable businesses without subjecting the audience to annoying ads and monthly fees, the state of game journalism is up in the air. It’s heartbreaking hearing about so many sites selling out just to survive, only to be torn apart and sold for scraps to the highest bidder. This industry is full of bright guys and gals with a genuine passion for game journalism, who want to report quality stories and make fun videos that audiences would enjoy. So it hurts that much more when someone who’s so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about championing gaming has to bow out and find another job because this one doesn’t even come close to paying the bills.
So, for those wondering how you can help fix the problem, there are a few quick things to keep in mind. First, take a few moments out of just one day the next time you’re browsing the web. Visit your favorite media sites and whitelist each of them individually. Most gaming sites know that you folks don’t want obtrusive ads, and we sure as heck don’t like them either; so if static ads are going to get the job done, they need to actually show up somewhere on the page. Disabling ad-blocking for individual sites takes no more than a couple clicks on most browsers.
Secondly, share the content you enjoy. Seriously, this makes a far greater difference than most people realize. It doesn’t matter if you only have 10 followers on twitter or 40 Facebook friends. If you enjoyed reading an article, take advantage of the quick and easy sharing tools already embedded in most sites to share that article with your friends. We’re currently living with an economic model where each and every click counts, so even if only one other person sees an article because you shared it, that makes a difference.
Finally, if a site you frequent has the option to make a donation, and you can afford it, go ahead and give them a few bucks for all the time you spend reading through their content. I find this particularly easier to justify if a site creates a lot of original articles and feature editorials that I enjoy reading. Considering the aggregate hours you spend browsing the web, laughing and enjoying the articles you come across, I doubt it’s all that difficult to justify sending a handful of your favorite sites a few bucks over the course of a year. You’d be absolutely amazed at how far those few dollars can go toward paying full-time writers or creating even better content. (Seriously, DeathBattle!)
So, that’s my piece. Hopefully, more and more sites will start addressing this issue over the coming weeks/months and can help raise awareness about what’s going on. I have faith that readers and fans of these kinds of sites are willing to help in whatever ways they can, just look at all the love gamers are willing to show worthwhile KickStarter campaigns, so I imagine just getting the message out there is half the battle. Hopefully, it will stimulate thoughtful discussion about how we can fix this problem as a community. I’d love to make a career out of creating incredible content and commenting on an industry I love more than any other, and I wish success for every one of my colleagues that longs for the same. With just a handful of really great, innovative ideas, and the support of appreciative fans, that dream doesn’t seem so far from reality.