1 year ago
Maria Popova - have you made $1M on affiliate ads while soliciting $500k in donations for your “ad-free” site? Then maybe go easier on your fellow writers for how they make a living.


Maria Popova is a Forbes 30 under 30 honoree, regular author for The Atlantic, and was named to the Fast Company 100 Most Creative in Business list. I let her know I was a regular reader of her site when I sent her an email a few months ago after she wrote an article about the dangers of advertising in journalism. She detailed a scenario in which a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist was offered money from Xerox to write an article. I sent her a message to ask for clarity in what she meant, given that I was aware of her practice of putting affiliate advertising links in her articles while at the same time asking users at the end of each article to donate to her site by telling them that she runs an ad-free site that is subsidized by user contributions (screenshot). It is often controversial for a site to make money off of affiliate ads without notifying users in any terms of use (i.e. Pinterest), or to write reviews on products without notifying users they are making money when the reader clicks and purchases those products (the FTC enforces laws for certain types of blogs), but Popova has been going a bit further - while keeping the ads undisclosed, she also writes at the end of each article and in each email newsletter that the site is ad-free and needs user donations to support it.

The Brain Pickings “Support” page reads: “Keeping it all ad-free…means it’s subsidized by the generous support of readers like you.” In a revealing email exchange outlined below, Popova told me that 25% of her book recommendations come from the data that she receives from Amazon after her readers click the ads in her articles and go on to make purchases (she sees, and makes commissions off of, the other items they place in their shopping cart, including books that she didn’t link to). I found this to be interesting given that she made waves in the journalism and blogging community by publishing the “Curator’s Code” last year which urged website owners to be more upfront in attributing where they found the content they post. It was also ironic given that she regularly writes diatribes in publications such as The Atlantic and NY Times railing against the “filter bubble” which is the common practice of websites using algorithms to recommend to users things that similar users have also read or purchased.

An interview in The Guardian last month drew me to revisit our weeklong email exchange from last Spring. I had inquired about whether she would notify users of her ad practices, and I was surprised to receive a defensive response coupled with a condescending sign off that read, “I wish you the very best as you continue to explore and navigate the world of media and morality.” Not being the open letter type, I wrote back with a few reasons why she may be misleading users, and after we had exchanged 7 or 8 more emails, she agreed to change her pitch to “banner-free” instead of “ad-free.” When she changed it back to “ad-free” within 6 weeks, I was disappointed, but still not the open letter type. When she ignored my next three attempts over the summer to ask her why she still claimed to be ad-free, I figured she must have just really need the donations to keep the site going.

But then I read The Guardian article last month which quoted Brain Pickings user numbers (millions per month) that point to potentially millions of dollars in deception on the table, then I did a google search and found out that a for-profit LLC was formed in New York called “Brain Pickings LLC” just one month after my email inquiry to her (odd timing for a site in its 7th year at the time), and then I saw more articles by Popova condemning media, journalism, writers, and the filter bubble….and then I realized it was time for an open-letter and thought this was a worthwhile place to start a much needed discussion about affiliate advertising, Pulitzer Prize winners, the journalism and blogging industries, how E.B. White started all of this and how Richard Feynman can end it.

Describing how affiliate ads affect writers is necessary given that the reason Popova told me she uses the “ad-free” pitch is that she claims her affiliate advertising links are not ads. Popova uses Amazon’s Affiliate links program - which means if I click a book or product link from her site and buy that book, and another book, and a movie, diapers, a shirt, and anything else - she receives up to 10% of my entire shopping cart’s value from that trip to Amazon…and she also gets to see what I purchased. Given the non-Silicon Valley nature of her site, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt that maybe she didn’t realize that these are a form of advertising (even though the first feature in bold on the Amazon Affiliates page is “Advertising,” and in every description of the service, Amazon calls the revenue made by partner websites “advertising fees.”).

Maria informed me she doesn’t define the links in her articles as ads because they are all “books that I would feature anyhow” and that her “different intention” means that she is not seeking to sell the books. I pointed out that in Google’s quest to organize the world’s information, there are tens of millions of times per day where the top Google result is also the top Ad that they display, but in these cases they don’t say “this is the one we were going to show you anyway” and hide the fact that it is an ad. Advertising is a business process defined by the way money changes hands - intent does not play a part in the definition. Roger Federer probably already likes Rolexes, but as soon as they pay him millions of dollars, he is considered to be advertising their product. Aside from the fact that businesses don’t get to create their own definition of advertising, Maria’s claim that they were all books she would feature anyhow was contradictory to the statement she wrote in the same email thread, which proves that her advertisements do in fact change what books she offers to users:

“a major reason I use Amazon is…data they give me - it tells me what other books Brain Pickings readers are buying on Amazon…I’d say I’ve found at least a quarter of the books I myself have purchased and read over the past few years through Brain Pickings readers that way.”

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Harrison Salisbury was the subject of an E.B. White letter featured by Maria last Spring that spawned our correspondence. In 1975, Xerox offered Salisbury $55,000 to write an article in Esquire magazine. White expresses his concern about the erosion of press if writers start accepting money from advertisers this way. In her commentary, Popova noted that she “has been publishing an ad-free curiosity catalog supported by reader donations for the past seven years.” Reading the article I could only think what reader response would be if the article concluded with “Disclaimer: I make money each time you click a link in my articles and buy a book.”

There are important differences that make affiliate ads more subversive than the Xerox-Esquire scenario. The Affiliate form of advertising invites more detriment to quality writing because it actually requires an author to interrupt the reader with a link and it incentivizes authors to change their tone such that they convince the reader to go all the way through with the purchase (which is necessary for them to receive their kickback). At least in the golden days of tainted journalism the author was paid upfront, and the ad was on the opposite page, not in the article itself, so they were still incentivized to write a quality article about anything they wanted - health, art, sports - that people thought was interesting enough to read, while hoping that wandering eyes would bring eyeballs to the Xerox Ad on the facing page. I’m not saying this offer was a good thing, simply noting that if Brain Pickings is building a brand based on anti-ad sentiments, it might be fair to explain how the revenue generating practices of the site work. The Guardian article described the site as an “antidote to Google” - ironic given the identical business models of Brain Pickings and Google, both of which make money as users click links in the normal course of using each site…the difference being that Google makes it known which links are ads.

What kind of user and ad numbers are we talking about? Where do the numbers in the title come from? The Guardian author asked Popova why she didn’t let advertisers onto her site even though it draws 1.2M readers and 3M page views per month. Not acknowledging the affiliate ads, Maria referenced a 1923 letter to a newspaper editor about integrity in writing, and responded by saying “It doesn’t put the reader’s best interests first…I don’t believe in this model.” Working out the math, and knowing how display advertisements work (those are the ones on the sides and at the top of many websites - including the websites of The Atlantic and NY Times, where Popova is a regular contributor) it turns out Popova would most likely lose money if she switched from her current affiliate ad model to the display ad model that The Guardian writer refers to. Assume that Popova used an ad network like Google Adwords which is the typical way websites make money on display ads. The average click value of display ads in the book industry is typically worth less than affiliate ads - and if Popova added display ads to her site, it would take readers off of the page prematurely, preventing them from clicking the in-article affiliate ads. Reducing the number of conversions through the more lucrative affiliate funnel is why Brain Pickings would likely lose money if they switched to a display ad model from the current affiliate ad model, and why the response to The Guardian’s question could have been “there are no display ads because the site makes more money off of affiliate ads.”

Let’s work with The Guardian’s quote of 3M page views, and the knowledge Brain Pickings has been around for 8 years. An index of Brain Pickings showed approximately 5-6 Amazon ads per article, and there are typically 3 articles published per day. Most pages have more than one article, but for the most conservative number of ad impressions let’s assume one article per page, yielding 6 ads per page. At 3M page views per month, this is about 18M affiliate ads served per month, or 216M impressions per year. Placing the average book that Brain Pickings links to at $17-$20 and accounting for a few extra bucks for the other items that users are clearly placing in their cart, the assumption is that the average Amazon purchase is $20-$25, of which Popova likely gets between 7-10%. Let’s use this to make the assumption that $2 is the amount Brain Pickings makes on each Amazon customer originating from her site. With 216M impressions, a 0.1% conversion rate on those ads at $2 per conversion would bring in $432,000 per year. Looking from another direction - with 1.2M monthly followers, if 10% buy something from Amazon each year, we’re at 120k users bringing in $2 of revenue each, or $240,000. Over 8 years, ad revenue of $200k-$400k would total $1.6M-$3.2M, but assuming it took 4 or 5 years to get the user base ramped up to significant numbers, maybe the total is half that amount, on the order of $1M. As for donation numbers, Maria has said her biggest donors are her email followers - a newsletter with over 180,000 users. Only looking at this group, ignoring the site visitors, if 5% of the newsletter readers donate $10 per year, it’s $90k in donations. If 10% are donating, it’s $180k, or if they’re donating more on average, the guesses change in different ways - in a recent NY Times article a reader was quoted who gives $25 per month ($300 per year), saying that it was like “donating to a public radio station” to her. If donations have been around $50k-$100k for 8 years, are total donation revenues upwards of $500k? Retrospective numbers are difficult given unknown growth to the current reader following of over 1.2M, but looking out 5 or 10 years, if donation and ad revenues are in the $200k-$500k range, then the total dollars changing hands will certainly reach seven figures if it hasn’t already.

Certainly, there are too many variations in website user bases and site numbers to be accurate about projections of this sort, so the main point of the mathematical exercise isn’t really how much, it’s why is something being hidden? Before spending any more time tweaking which numbers are right or wrong, the timely incorporation last Spring may be more telling than any calculations. Within a month after being asked whether she was being honest to users about the financials of her site, a company called Brain Pickings, LLC was established in New York. In a 2010 article, Popova said Brain Pickings was not-for-profit…not that this would be much better - a one person not-for-profit (different in some states than a non-profit), doing no charitable work that makes money from ads and donations can pay all revenue out in salaries to its single employee, maybe even landing better tax considerations. After our email exchange, Maria changed the wording on her site to “banner-free” for 6 weeks - almost exactly covering the span of time from the last email to me until the end of the LLC formation. If only because I never heard back from her again, it appears a very real possibility that “banner-free” was a great way to quell her one inquisitive user for long enough to hide the financials of the site. Were you ever a non-profit? Would you be willing to include an About section or Terms of Service on your site that shows what kind of organization it is? If there was a change in business formation last year, none of your users were notified - would you tell them if their donations were now to a for-profit LLC if that is the case? For the record, this could be a different company - I would simply be very surprised if there is another Brain Pickings in New York City, and without any legal terms of service or information posted about the entity behind the site, this is an open question.

In the mass of money changing hands around the world each day, as long as I’m not being duped by the donation plea, why do I feel like it’s worth bringing up? Besides potentially being able to save a few thousand people hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next few years, my mind was altered significantly after reading the quote from Princeton professor and State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter who, in the aforementioned NY Times article, was the one who said she gives $300 per year because it was like donating to a public radio station. This made me wonder which non-profit, which struggling writer, or which innovative startup would have received that $300 of consumer spending money if Brain Pickings readers knew that the site was not funded solely of off their donations? Is there a real public radio station or library that is out $500,000 over the last few years from book lovers? Would charity: water receive $500k more in donations over the next 5 years? There is a disturbing apathy in our culture, especially among the young and tech-savvy, to ignore the economic interconnectedness of things that actually affect them negatively. Hearing about a fraudulent spammer halfway around the world who conned a neighbor into giving up bank account information, a young person trying to build the next big thing in his garage would probably scoff at the non-tech-savvy for getting what they deserve, and laugh at the simple method of the spam-attack used by the scammer. Rarely is there a realization that every time one million dollars is sucked out of the consumer spending pot fraudulently, that’s one million dollars that is now not available in the market for their fledgling startup, their non-profit, or their venture. How many of Brain Pickings’ readers are writers, designers, or freelancers deserving of those dollars?

The average reader of Brain Pickings appears to be in the design/history/bookworm demographic (not exclusively, this is a very superficial stab at the median user), likely in the mid to upper income range, including types who donate to public radio stations (she touts Josh Groban and Drew Carey as users), but also just not quite as tech savvy as your regular Reddit reader who would sniff out an affiliate ad right away and laugh at the Donation plea. Maria knows that her readers are unaware of the affiliate ads - in her emails with me she was impressed that I was “aware enough to bring up these issues.” And in the 6 week stint where she did take down “ad-free,” she told me it was because “it seems to matter to you and it doesn’t matter to me in the least.” Then why did ad-free go back up 2 months later? It would be really disappointing if your donation numbers dropped during those two months, proving that ad-free did make a difference and driving you to change it back, because then you would have proof that the deception was affecting your bottom-line, yet you would still be doing it anyway. Since re-posting “ad-free,” Popova has also added the ability to sign up for a subscription of recurring donations - an interesting feature for an incorporated LLC.

I imagine some readers of Brain Pickings are loyal enough that they’d give money even if they knew there were ads, but it sure seems like they should have all the information at hand to make their own choice. An index of Brain Pickings shows that Richard Feynman is one of the most cited topics. Recently, Popova wrote how much she admired a graduation address he gave in 1974, where he was talking to scientists about the duty they have to make sure to portray things correctly to the layperson so as not to misrepresent something that the layperson may not understand. Feynman said:

“…details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong…you should explain to the layman what you’re doing — and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision…I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”

Maria, there are many questions your readers could ask and requests they could make at this point - many of which may even be avoidable with legal or semantic loopholes, so the simplest summary question I can think to ask is: What do you think Richard Feynman would do in your situation?


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