Promotion, self-promotion and [insert ad here]

Remember the MTV astronaut?

If you ask someone about MTV in the 1980s, they might mention Adam Curry or Toni Basil or Robert Palmer, but odds are what they’re visualizing are the promo ads.

The music videos weren’t unique. They were provided by the record companies to anyone who wanted to broadcast them. The VJs were largely forgettable. But the promos–they were constant (five or ten an hour) and constantly changing. MTV created an entire gestalt (it even became the inspiration for a pop hit and a video compilation). It turns out that we liked the ads.

Try reading a copy of Vogue without the ads. Totally useless.

And at a trade show (which people invest huge amounts of time and money to attend), the only reason to go is to see the ads, the banners, the paid-for booths and self-promotional speakers.

Public radio is no longer a bastion of silence. Every station is filled with self-promos, often twenty an hour, along with interruptions from sponsors and of course, pledge week. And the bumpers and audio cues that the stations use become part of our experience. We miss them when they’re gone.

All as a way of introducing you to my dilemma about blogs.

In email, no one, at least no one I respect or believe, enjoys getting spam. Ads in email don’t work because email is a tool, not a medium. If I subscribe to a permission-based email campaign (like those notes from Amazon or a gift certificate on my birthday from Yahoo) then I look forward to it and respond. But ads in the sense of unanticipated, impersonal and irrelevant… not on my agenda, or yours, when it comes to email, or RSS for that matter.

But the blog experience is different. Maybe.

The most popular blog in the world carries more than 25 different ads on its home page. The other most popular blog in the world carries just 1. Clearly, one blog profits more than the other, but it doesn’t seem to affect readership.

And what about within the blog? One author I know featured his new book 11 times in a month where he posted on twenty five days. When I launch a new book, it gives me a headache to mention the launch/sales of the book more than twice, unless I’m riffing on an idea. I feel like I’m imposing.

Last month, after months of working on it, my team launched squidoo, a web 2.0 innovation that we’re very proud of. But you’re not seeing it on my blog… except for one interview last week. Is that the right thing to do?

The post below this riff is about my new seminar, given next month. The writer part of me wants to believe that my alert, quickwitted readers only need to see it once, and that they’re mature enough to make a decision about whether they want to come or not. Of course, I’m completely wrong. I mean you are in that esteemed category, but most people are not. Most people need to see that link three or four times a day, several times a week, and then they’ll take action. And they’ll be glad they did.

I regularly (as in every day) get email from people who bought this book or that book or even this book and are surprised that they didn’t know about it and are glad they discovered it. Does that mean that it’s my job to advertise them incessantly, regularly reminding people that they exist?

Imagining for just a moment that there’s no self-interest, no profit motive, imagining that the blogger is doing what is in the best interest of the readership–what’s the right balance? Is it one ad per page? 25? Is it no promotional links to new projects (from you or from those you respect) or is one the right number?

I thought I had figured it out. The idea was to do interesting things, announce them just once on your blog, and then use those interesting things to inform the stories you tell moving forward. When I riff about storytelling or about anticipated advertising or about viruses, I’m not doing it to sell a book. I wrote the book so I could learn about that topic, so I could start a conversation going, and then I riff about them online because I figure my readers can learn (or at least be entertained) by what I’m discovering… whether or not they buy the book. And this "don’t buy, just learn" approach has ended up working out for me.

But when I see how other blogs serve their readers with promotion, MTV style, I wonder… I honestly don’t have an answer for you… this is a question, not a rant. If promotion works, if it brings people stuff that they’re glad they got and it makes the experience more exciting, then what’s wrong with it?

In the same breath, I wonder whether that sort of promotion should really be necessary. I wonder whether readers will think the blogger is selfish or self-serving (when I’m sure I’m really not.) And I wonder about the future of the medium, because the nature of promotion is that "10" is never enough. You always need to be at "11". And when the competition hits 11, that becomes the new 10.

When Katrina hit, blogs broke all their rules about promotion. It was understood by readers and by bloggers that the cause was good enough that people really needed to be pushed. Do you need to be pushed?

Magazines run ads.
Books don’t.

What are blogs?