Concessions To The Pioneer Woman: Is BlogHer Giving More Ads To The Pioneer Woman At Our Expense?
A little birdie called my attention to this post at My Sister’s Farmhouse alleging that there are some kind of shady dealings going on with the recent contract made between BlogHer Ads and Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman. I decided to take a look for myself, since the goings on of advertising in the blogosphere is of major concern to me, and since the other post on this topic seems to have been pigeonholed by the standard-issue “you’re just bitter and jealous” accusations, I thought perhaps I could try to present a more balanced evaluation of the controversy. What follows is my stab at trying to be fair to everyone involved and not jumping to conclusions or betraying any kind of biases. Still, in the interest of full disclosure, please note that I am a member of the BlogHer Ad network, and that all of the ABDPBT blogs currently run BlogHer ads.
Input From BlogHer Brass And The P-Dub Herself
Before posting this, I first attempted to make contact with five different BlogHer and BlogHer Ads employees (via both Twitter and email) and received no response. After that, I emailed all three of the founders of BlogHer individually to see if they wanted to weigh in on the allegations made against them. Elisa Camhort Page wrote me back to let me know that BlogHer is, at present, in the process of drafting a “message to members” in response to the several inquiries that have been made about the BlogHer/PW deal and its impact on the rest of the BlogHer Ad network. She said that we (BlogHer Ad network members, that is) should be hearing something from them soon — a response that is encouraging at the same time as it raises more questions than it answers (e.g. “Why would it take more than a few minutes to draft a response if everything is on the up and up?” or “Should I take from this that you have a response that needs to be OK’d by a lawyer first?” or “Is this going to require a lot of reading on my part?” &c.) Update: Here is BlogHer’s Statement.)
As for Ree, she was kind enough to respond to my email asking for her comment promptly, letting me know that she would give me a response once she was done dealing with “kids and cows” for the evening. (I have to say, it is really hard not to be charmed by that woman, even when you’re like me, and there’s just a black piece of coal where your heart is supposed to be.) When she was able to respond at length, Ree had this to say, which struck me as a genuine sentiment, for what it is worth:
I am currently working with both BlogHer and Federated Media on advertising for the various sections of Pioneer Woman. My decision to begin working with BlogHer was not based on any sort of sweet deal (the agreement seemed very standard to me), but on the desire to find a good fit for Pioneer Woman and its readership and, frankly, to be part of a network of mostly women authors. And if my site can in any way contribute to helping BlogHer attract quality advertisers and great campaigns for the network, all the better. In fact, that’s what I’m hoping for.
Some Allegations We Can Settle Up Front
The complaints leveled by Rechelle of My Sister’s Farmhouse (as well as through some rumors that are circulating on Twitter and elsewhere) include: 1) the Pioneer Woman is getting special treatment from BlogHer and is not being made to adhere to the same standards as are the rest of the publishers in the network; 2) that BlogHer has bestowed The Pioneer Woman with privileges that allow her to ipso facto control how many ads she serves on ThePioneerWoman.com in a given time period, often to the detriment of other BlogHer Ad network members; and 3) that the Pioneer Woman has been given more control over the identity of the other sites/other bloggers that are promoted on her site in the form of BlogHer headlines. (Jibberish? Read about the anatomy of a BlogHer ad here.)
Make no mistake: it’s my opinion that Ree Drummond should absolutely be given special treatment by BlogHer Ads, because her site is a huge moneymaker and it’s a big deal for her to be part of the BlogHer network, and besides, there is a stipulation in the BlogHerAds Affiliation Agreement that allows for such a situation, viz., that any publisher who serves more than one million impressions per month shall receive a higher cut of ad earnings than do the rest of the publishers.
Another complaint was that Pioneer Woman is allowed to run other ads on her pages above the fold, and the general (incorrect) assumption is that other BlogHer ad network members are not allowed to run other ads above the fold when they are on the BlogHer ad network. This is not true, according to Section (I)9(ii), which says that a publisher can run another ad above the fold in the event that BlogHer cannot offer another ad at the same CPM or higher. This can continue until BlogHer is able to bring the price up to match the other ad network (To read the actual text of the BlogHer Ad Affiliation Agreement, please click here.)
So to review, the contract that we all signed allows that Pioneer Woman should get a bigger cut of the ad revenue, and says that she can run Federated Media ads for as long as they are paying out at a higher rate than what BlogHer is paying her. If your traffic increases dramatically, this might one day apply to you as well.
Allegations That Are A Little Trickier To Get Around
Some other complaints concern the use of headlines under BlogHer ads that promote other bloggers in the network. The claim was made that Pioneer Woman is choosing her own links, so that all of the bloggers pimped out on her site are her friends. There is no way to concretely prove that she handpicked the people, but we can definitely conclude that the Pioneer Woman’s links are being handled differently than are everyone else’s. For one thing, her links go to sites on cooking, parenting, and elsewhere — usually, one has to choose one area and have their links go to that area. But more importantly, there are BlogHer ads being run on The Pioneer Woman.com that don’t have the standard BlogHer links underneath them, which is a violation of BlogHer’s policy and this is a particular violation for which I have personally been busted before. Behold:
What does it mean? It means that they’ve created a new group for pulling headlines to be displayed on ThePioneerWoman.com, and this group draws from blogs in both the parenting and food networks, but this isn’t revolutionary, since her blog deals with both of those topics. What is unclear, though, is how it’s decided which blogs get featured in “Parenting 100,” and who chooses. But, as much as I’d like to stick my own blog in line for a slot in the Parenting 100 queue, the BlogHer Ad contract allows for the ability to determine these things at its own discretion. It’s an agreement we all signed, and as far as I can tell it’s not a problem.
Does The Pioneer Woman’s Site Take Ads Away From Us?
This is the allegation that concerns us all the most, and I believe it’s the most difficult to prove one way or the other. I was intrigued to write this post in part because, admittedly, it did seem as though I’ve been serving more click-throughs (a click-through is the ad that comes up when there are no spots available for a particular ad slot at a certain time; on those occasions, my ad spaces go either to Google ads or blanks; other people might serve PSAs or their own ads at that point) and house ads (ads for BlogHer itself, which pay like pretty much no money per impression) lately on ABDPBT. I believed it was credible that this could be happening, because the way BlogHer ads are served is that there are a certain number of ads released every 15 minutes, and it’s kind of first come, first served as far as who gets those ads. If you have a lot of people on your site while there are ads available, you might make more than someone else. This system has always favored the bloggers with higher traffic, of course, because it stands to reason that they would always have more people on their site refreshing the page. The thing is, up until now, there hasn’t been a huge discrepancy between BlogHer publishers and their traffic — at least not to this degree. The PioneerWoman.com serves as many as 12 million pageviews per month, with up to two ad impressions per pageview. She could take up all of the ad revenue on her own in every 15 minute period, easily, unless the people at BlogHer had segregated her into her own network.
The thing is, they might have done this. I have no way of knowing whether they did or not, without a statement from them. I have tried to find some kind of thread suggesting whether they have done this one way or the other to no avail. I have only my own gut reaction to go by, and my thoughts are this: it’s possible. It’s possible that they are serving her ads on the same system, and that this is affecting our bottom line. But it’s also possible that they have separated them, and put her on her own system with her own allotted number of ads. The problem is, I’m not sure that this system is much better, because if they did allot a certain number of ads to Pioneer Woman, that means she is being guaranteed a certain number of ads per period, whereas I’m not getting any such guarantee. But I have to say this: as far as I can tell, there is nothing in the ad agreement that precludes them from doing whatever they want with their ad contracts and the deals they give to individual bloggers. We might not like it, and it may not feel fair, but that doesn’t mean it’s a violation of the terms to which we agreed. That, my friends, is life.
Just as I was about to hit publish on this post, I got an email from BlogHer about their official statement. Here’s what they have to say about the number of ads affecting other publishers:
There is one special consideration that we keep top of mind as we work to develop relationships with advertisers and sponsors: Every time we add a large blog to the network, one of our first questions is how including the site might affect the rest of the network. This care may mean that we consider how much advertising we expect to have, and bring only certain, network-appropriate sections of that site into the network, or even delay membership until the impact of the added impressions will be minimal.
I suppose this is reassuring, but I would feel better if I had some kind of explicit explanation of how they plan to control the disbursement of individual ads. Because even if they don’t allow the other sections of ThePioneerWoman.com into my network, she’s still going to be getting a bagillion more hits than I am on parenting. I’m kinda hoping we’re not from the same pool, and this statement doesn’t do a whole lot to quell my fears. It kind of smacks of “Relax, kids, we’ve got it under control.” And I’ll tell you what: me no likey.
Where Do We Go From Here?
If you are frustrated by the policies of BlogHer or BlogHer ads, you have every right to yank your ads from the system. As a network, BlogHer Ads will suffer greatly if many of its authors pull out, because even with the big fish like Pioneer Woman, what appeals to advertisers about BlogHer (over, say, an ad network like Federated Media) is that there is a large number of blogs represented. They like big numbers. They don’t like small groups of publishers, even if they are “elite.” BlogHer Ads is nothing without the other 2,499 publishers who serve their ads, even if they don’t serve the majority of the impressions. Make no mistake: we are not powerless in this situation. But that does not mean we should act rashly. I think we need to calmly discuss the ramifications of this and give it some serious thought. To clarify, I am not calling for a boycott (DO NOT NOT BUY MAYTAG!), but I am calling for a more thoughtful consideration of the integrity of the partners with whom you choose to do business. I’m hoping in the comments we can have a constructive discussion about how this might be done.