Welcome to the fourth (or possibly fifth) edition of the blog where I tell you how we pay for road.cc. Before I let you in on that secret though, I’d like to tell you what sets road.cc apart from the rest of the cycling media, and that isn’t how we make money.
Unlike BikeRadar, Cycling Weekly, CyclingTips, Cyclingnews or indeed any other major cycling website I can think of (bar Singletrack) road.cc is independent. We’re not owned by a massive media conglomerate, venture capitalists or a private equity fund. We’re owned by F-At Digital, which is basically the road.cc team with different hats on. We’re not answerable to the man, or the SEO team, or the target.
Now, I know that the editorial teams on rival sites value their editorial integrity too, and there are some very good people working on those sites. Ultimately though, they are working under a different commercial ethos – their bosses, or their bosses bosses, have a board, shareholders and investors to answer to, and at that rarefied level it’s only the bottom line that counts. We obviously pay close attention to that too, in fact doing so is my job – but it’s only one measure of success, the one that means we can keep going, but it’s not why we keep going.
I digress! We came here to talk money…. so if you’re sitting comfortably, then lean in a little closer, scroll down and I’ll tell you the secret of how our dough is made…
IT’S (STILL) THE ADS!
Well, what did you expect? As it was in the beginning, it still is now. The adverts are far and away the biggest source of revenue for road.cc and its sister sites off.road.cc and ebiketips also. They pay our wages and keep the lights – and more importantly, our computers and server – on. We have other ways of making money too which I’ll tell you about in a moment, but mostly it’s the ads, of which there are two types: bike industry ads (we call them direct ads), and programmatic ads (the rest).
But… what if ads on websites bring you out in a rash, but at the same time you don’t want to dash the hard-earned crust from the lips of team road.cc? Or you just like what we do and you’d like to make a contribution to helping us do it better?
We’ve got you covered…
For £19.99 a year or £1.99 a month, you can support road.cc (and our other websites) and get automatic ad-free access to all of them. If you subscribe already, and I’m guessing this is the sort of thing many subscribers will read, then a huge THANKS!
If you don’t subscribe, then why not consider it? As well as helping to support us in bringing you the latest cycling-related news that you probably won’t read on other cycling websites, plus our independent and unbiased tech news and reviews, you’ll also get a warm glow and BFF status with everyone at road.cc. If you spend a lot of time on road.cc then subscribing will probably save you some data over the year too. It might even pay for itself, maybe.
One of our projects for this year is to see what more we can do for subscribers. Pre-Covid, we had regular rideouts and we’d definitely like to get back to doing those. We’re also investigating what we can put together in the way of subscriber-only offers and deals. So, if you are a subscriber and you’ve got any suggestions we’d love to hear them, and the same goes if you aren’t.
Right, back to the ads...
Direct ads are so-called because we sell them directly to the advertiser, whereas with programmatic we’re not involved in the sales process – it’s all done by computers, hence the ‘programmatic’.
We’ll talk direct first, because it’s the one that I’m guessing you’re most interested in – particularly with regards to our relationship with the bike industry advertisers, and how it might influence us editorially… it doesn’t, by the way. You knew I’d say that, but I’ll say it anyway because it’s true!
Our direct ad revenue comes overwhelmingly from various parts of the bike industry, either brands, retailers or UK distributors. And, no, that doesn’t mean we’re in their pockets. Some of you won’t believe me when I say this, but that doesn’t stop it being true.
What matters to our advertisers – more than the number of you who come to the site every day – is road.cc’s reputation with you. That’s what they are buying into. That’s just one of the reasons why our standing with road.cc users is so important to us, and why we’re not going to do anything to jeopardise our reputation – even if it causes complications with advertisers, which it occasionally does.
Most advertisers wouldn’t expect otherwise, especially when it comes to reviews. They’ll take a bad review on the chin if people trust the good ones, which is also why we place such a premium on the quality and rigour of our reviewing process.
So does advertising buy you anything when it comes to reviews? No. We would always try and review a product from an advertiser (if they wanted to send one in for review). Given the open-ended nature of publishing a news and reviews website there is no competition for review slots, so there’s never a question of ‘should we review product A from an advertiser or product B from a non-advertiser?’ We’d review both.
I should also say that we’d never turn down a product for review just because the brand/supplier doesn’t advertise with us. The vast majority of products reviewed on road.cc are from non-advertisers. But I digress (again)…
Back in the day (around 2014 I think) when I wrote the first version of this piece, I talked about us selling off our spare ad slots on the ad exchanges. Things have moved on a bit since then: the site has grown (a lot), online advertising has changed (a lot), how the bike industry like to spend their marketing budgets has changed (more on that later), and since 2016 the world is a less certain place for UK businesses.
In the autumn of 2016, with an uncanny herd instinct, the bike industry paused its marketing spend as they all tried to figure out what Brexit meant (higher costs, more paperwork), and what to do (ignore it until it’s unignorable). That few weeks is the closest road.cc has come to a near-death experience, and the shock forced us to accelerate the process of diversifying our income streams.
Luckily the growth in site traffic and the ever-evolving world of online advertising offered a solution – programmatic advertising. Every time you load a road.cc page onto your digital device, real-time auctions are taking place for every ad slot – the winner gets access to your eyeballs. So far, the British cyclist’s eyeballs have been a fairly stable unit of currency in uncertain times (we also sell to a fair few non-British eyeballs too). No surprise then that programmatic ads are the other big pillar of road.cc’s finances.
Programmatic ads get a bad rep, and certainly some sites overdo them, cramming them in all flashing and a-blinking, getting in the way and generally detracting from the user experience. We’ve tried to take a more balanced ‘less is more approach’ – quality over quantity, and by quality I mean the environment in which you see the ad, rather than necessarily the ad itself. It’s worth remembering that for the time being at least, the majority of programmatic ads you see are generated by Google’s algorithm and are based on your own previous browsing habits.
We have no direct relationship with programmatic advertisers. They simply want the chance to advertise their wares to people like you, and ideally on a site you like and trust. So again, it’s in everybody’s interests that the programmatic ads that get served don’t annoy you. It’s a tricky balance to get right, but believe me we are always trying to get it right.
So that’s the advertising. What other ways do we have of making money?
If you click on an affiliate link and buy something, we get a small percentage paid back to us (a very small percentage). Of course, when you’ve got thousands of reviews and hundreds of buyer’s guides on your site, those small amounts all add up. It’s a numbers game.
These days most sites affiliatise buying links, and certainly all our competitors do. For some, affiliate revenue is a much more prominent part of their business model than it is for us. We don’t make massive amounts of money from affiliate, but it’s a nice extra from something we’d do anyway.
Nearly all the links on road.cc to somewhere you can buy something are affiliate ones. The majority are automated, because the process for affiliatising them is part of the site code – that includes any buying links you might add in a comment, or on the forum. The few buying links that aren’t affiliatised are like that because whoever is selling that product isn’t part of an affiliate network. As I said earlier, we’d put those links in anyway because it’s helpful to the person reading the review or buyer’s guide – if we get something back it’s a bonus.
Our approach to the ones we put in ourselves is to find and link to the best-delivered price in the UK. It can be a slow process because the best advertised price is not always the best UK-delivered price. This became such a labour intensive process that a few years back we signed up to an automated system. Sovrn101 powers the price comparison widget in reviews, and some buyer’s guides, and it’s also plugged into the deals on our DealClincher site. The other buying links are still done the old fashioned way though.
The big advantage for us of the widget, apart from the money, is that it frees up time for our reviews production team. The big advantage for anyone reading the review is that that widget is constantly updating, so there should always be a choice of relevant deals for that product.
Any downsides? Well, the Sovrn widget can only pull data that is uploaded to the affiliate networks, so if a retailer is not part of a supported affiliate network it won’t pull in their price. That said, we reckon we’ve got the vast majority of online retailers covered.
"Hey! Let’s do something cool with our ad budget that isn’t an ad, …but y’know deep down really is."
I’m not a fan of sponsored content (you probably guessed that) because for me it blurs the line between the part of the page that’s trying to sell you stuff and the part that’s trying to tell you stuff. But I have to admit that I’m in a minority on this one and that crucially, you the people who read and comment on road.cc tell us that so long as it’s relevant and informative, you don’t mind sponcon (as we call it on our side of the fence – it’s called native content on the marketing side of the fence).
Bike industry marketing people also know this stuff only works if it’s relevant and interesting to you, and if it looks, feels and reads like any other road.cc article – that the best sponcon is something that you’d want to read anyway. And crucially we have editorial control, so if we don’t like it we won’t run it.
These days the majority of sponsored content on road.cc is video, and what we call ‘social edits’ – video snippets that are posted on social media. So, it’s really made for those channels rather than the road.cc site itself. I also have to admit that even back in the old days, we never had a problem with a brand sponsoring parts of the site like #Mycyclingweekend or our Tour de France coverage.
So, my attitude to sponcon has softened. People paying you money will do that, although I’m also keenly aware that usually this isn’t new money. It’s the bike industry reallocating money they’d otherwise have spent on advertising… er, cool stuff.
Given I’ve been talking about how we make money, I should probably mention the challenging times we’re currently trying to make it in. As you’ll all know only too well it’s tough out there for people and businesses trying to earn a living. Very tough. That said, we’d like to think that road.cc is built on pretty solid foundations. Running a business at any time is a constant process of learning on the job so we’re not taking anything for granted, but with the support of our team, you our audience, and our advertisers – particularly the bike industry – we’re confident in the future of road.cc for the short, medium and long term. Hey! Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve even diversified so much we’re about to launch a car site…
Well you can buy road.cc cycling gear and merchandise, or some Cyclists! Stay Awesome stickers… we’re always happy to sell you those! (Preferably in bulk).