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The Deal with DealBITS

As we noted back in October of 1995 in TidBITS-297, the year-long publication of DealBITS was something of an experiment. We wanted to see if we could rethink the way advertising on the Internet works to make it positive force for the industry. DealBITS combined idealism with our practical need to earn a living with TidBITS. And, although in many ways it was a success, in other ways we found that we didn’t understand the world of advertising sufficiently to make the dent we’d wanted.

The basic problem with DealBITS was that it proved to be too much work for the amount of money it earned. Although it never had any trouble being profitable, it wasn’t a sufficiently profitable use of our, mainly Tonya’s, time. Perhaps more important, the act of creating DealBITS twice each month wasn’t inherently rewarding enough in and of itself to make up for the amount of money it earned. Hence our decision to put DealBITS on hiatus while we rethink both its concept and execution.

The most significant problem that DealBITS faced was that it never had enough deals to make a given issue something likely to appeal to any Mac user. We had initially, and incorrectly, assumed that charging a fraction of what advertising in print publications costs would encourage numerous companies to advertise without the work of selling them on the advantages of DealBITS. Were we wrong on that one! It turns out that soliciting advertisements is just another form of sales, and good salespeople are a breed apart. To succeed in the future, we’ll need to find a professional ad sales representative, the sort of person who knows everybody in the industry, can speak the language of advertising, and most importantly, who has the time to keep after advertisers constantly. Finding interested advertisers is only the beginning – after that comes the concerted effort to get the advertiser to submit the text of its ad and set up any deals.

The deals were another idealistic detail. Every ad had to in some way offer a deal that wasn’t otherwise available. That sounds like a great idea, but in retrospect it eliminated many potential advertisers, particularly larger companies. The problem is that large companies don’t sell their products directly – they only work through distributors and other channels. As such, it’s difficult or even impossible for them to offer deals that are in any way different from the norm. And, without large companies in the game, DealBITS lacked deals on many popular, mainstream products. This is another part of DealBITS that will simply have to change – we can’t afford to snub large companies that can’t work out unusual deals for risk of alienating their distribution channels.

From the very beginning we realized that we had to employ serious automation to make DealBITS possible. And, to a large extent, we did, but there was one problem that we overlooked. It turns out many advertisers didn’t turn in coherent and well-designed ads without some editorial help. We were certainly willing to help, but there was no way to automate the process, which claimed at least a full day of Tonya’s time for each issue. The back-and-forth editing process also proved stressful when companies missed deadlines for submitting copy and begged for more time. Suddenly we ended up with high-pressure Monday deadlines twice each month when DealBITS and TidBITS had to ship on the same day. In thinking about this problem, we have yet to decide on a solution. The possibilities seem to be binary: either we edit nothing and rely on technology (such as a Web page for submitting copy that can require essential elements and enforce a size limit on ads), or else we bite the bullet and continue to edit everything by hand.

Our publication schedule turned out to be problematic too. We didn’t want another weekly deadline along with TidBITS, but a biweekly schedule would have confused both billing and the prediction of when an issue would appear six months in the future for reservations. In the end, we decided to publish on the first and third Mondays of each month, and although that seems coherent, it proved confusing to at least the advertisers, causing missed deadlines and the aforementioned additional stress. Our feeling is that the eventual solution will be weekly or biweekly publication.

The final problem that DealBITS faced was that it never quite achieved the readership it needed to help attract more deals and to make advertising in DealBITS even more worthwhile. The DealBITS list was closing in on about 8,000 by the end, and between 1,000 and 3,000 people read issues on the Web. We hope to figure out some ways of increasing those numbers and may solicit suggestions or test some ideas via a Web survey in the future.

In the end, I think DealBITS succeeded as a publication. When we announced the hiatus, we received a number of messages from readers who were disappointed, and our long-time advertisers were rather distressed. DealBITS readers were good customers, and our advertisers didn’t want to lose touch with them. Small Dog Electronics, which sells hardware, software, and Mac systems, even set up its own informal list to keep in touch with DealBITS readers – to get on that list send email to <[email protected]>. Our task with DealBITS now is to solve the business problems and fine tune the other aspects of the publication such that it can meet all of its goals and help support TidBITS.

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