The blog survived Armstrong’s hospitalization for postpartum depression and her separation and divorce in 2012. But in the end, there was one thing she couldn’t weather: The rise of native advertising.
Earlier this year, Armstrong began posting less frequently. In April, she explained that she had been working on some outside projects, and they’ve “provided a much needed distraction from ... a dangerous level of exhaustion and dissatisfaction.”
Dooce, for years a guiding light for moms and bloggers and mommy bloggers, was, if not totally going away, at least entering the Internet version of semi-retirement. Jason Kottke, one of the first well-known bloggers, put it even more grimly. “Dooce is dead, long live Dooce,” he said in a post. “The short window of time in which individuals could support themselves by blogging is closing rapidly.”
Since then, Armstrong has posted just a handful of times per month—a dramatic slowdown for her—and turned her attention to speaking and consulting instead. She hasn’t pulled the plug on the blog entirely, in part because,“I still have a few contracts that I need to see to completion,” she explained. It’s in part these “contracts” that were Armstrong’s problem.
Like most other revenue-generating websites, Dooce for years made money on banner ads—those boxes that hawk products and sit alongside the posts that are supposed to be a site’s main event. In the good old days, these ads were very successful. The first banner ad, for AT&T, ran on a site called HotWired in 1994. Of the people who saw it, 78 percent clicked on it, said Susan Bidel, a senior analyst at Forrester research.
“Everybody and their cousin clicked on everything in those days because it was like ‘wow, look what we can do,’” Bidel said. “But consumers aren't stupid.” These days, the so-called click-through rate is more like .1 percent.
It’s not just that web readers are getting more judicious about where they click. People are increasingly absorbing the web through smartphones, where banner ads don’t look good. On the social web, readers are more likely to see ads that appear within their Facebook and Twitter streams rather than on individual article pages.
In recent years, banner ads have been usurped by the “native ad,” sometimes called sponsored content. These often look like regular articles but are paid for by companies. Sometimes the sponsor’s logo is the only sign of their investment. Other times the entire post hints at the sponsor’s product—like this quiz about bathroom graffiti by Scrubbing Bubbles. These ads attract more attention than banners, so advertisers pay more for them. BI Intelligence, Business Insider’s research service, suggests that spending on native ads will reach $7.9 billion this year, up from $4.7 billion in 2013.
Even though Armstrong was covering pediatricians’ appointments and bedtime stories, the native-ad boom hit her as much as it affected news sites. At most news organizations, The Atlantic included, marketing departments, not editorial staff, produce sponsored content, which looks different from the journalistic content and is explicitly labeled. But that wasn’t the case for a small, intimate outfit like Armstrong’s blog—she was both the journalist and copywriter.