Digg users express (justifiable?) concern over site's front page ads.

Popular social news site Digg.com targeted its tech-savvy, mostly left-wing, sensationalism-devouring audience and repeatedly bombarded them with a Dragon Age: Origins-riddled front page. Almost no corner of the site remained untouched by the Bioware-developed and Eletronic Arts-published videogame. A  site width-equivalent banner brightened the Digg sky, another rested in the upper-right quadrant (below relevant site articles featuring the title), and, sitting incognito among the up-and-coming new items on the left-center,  a sponsored item lie in wait, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting reader not privvy to new age marketing techniques. The ad looked like any other news story, and users could even promote it with a Digg, but the thin black line encasing the item, complete with squint-or-you’ll-miss-it “sponsored by…” text, indicated presence was not earned through the site’s typical user-submitted and user-endorsed foundations.

Users felt betrayed by their site; their internet communal home to which they contributed content and maintained through Digging the articles of others. “I helped build this and now a part of it is mine!” they might’ve thought, despite never paying a dime to upkeep the site and pay for an eventual expansion. The opportunity to comment and become an identifiable Digg “star” for submitting popular articles only ensured a pervasive deep-seated sense of ownership.

This “for us and exclusively by us” mentality held by the privileged and informed internet power user clique doesn’t pay Digg’s multi-million dollar bills. According to a December 18, 2008 report from BusinessWeek, the 2004 internet start-up from founder Kevin Rose lost $4 million on $6.4 million of revenue in the first three quarters of 2008. The business model needed to change, and Chief Executive Officer Jay Adelson knew it. On December 2 of the same year, a few weeks prior to the BusinessWeek article, Adelson announced the site was no longer for sale, and that it would shift its focus to “building an independent business that reaches profitability as quickly as possible.” As we all know, one way to boost revenue is by selling more adspace, and that’s what Digg’s doing.

But at what cost? Chas Edwards, Chief Revenue Officer at Digg updated his blog with a post called “EA’s Dragon Age: Content and Ads Working Well Together” and wrote: ” EA is promoting Dragon Age on Digg with Digg Ads units on the homepage. At the same time, reviews of Dragon Age (this one from Joystiq) are also making their way to Digg’s homepage organically, based on votes by Digg readers.” Below the aforementioned text he added this picture (below).

Finally, Chas commented ” I love it when this happens. You know you’re serving relevant ads to an audience when that audience votes up the brand or product on its own,” and disclosed his employment with Digg.

Chas may be right in his observance of the ad relevancy, but he’s missing a bigger issue. The community responded to Dragon Age’s ad presence with a fix for Firefox that removes “the irritating ad” and restores “background colour and comment width to normal.” The instructions themselves received thousands of diggs (2,444 as of writing), and even made it to the front page as one of the top articles for the day. The community spoke without really saying anything. But of course, they did that as well.

In the comments section of the article, user “oedenfield” wrote ” if a company wants to kill their product/service, they should be allowed to.” Of a similar opinion, “twiztidsinz” added “There’s a difference between having ads (which is fine) and having ads that annoy your user base, alter your page layout and cause disinterest in the product. I come to Digg for Digg… not for gigantic ads.” Appealing to the Simpsons fan in all of us, “clone206” quoted the show’s “Comic Book Guy” with “As a loyal fan, I feel they owe me.” Whether he or she decided to use this quote in an effort to support or oppose the article remains uncertain.

The anti-ad pitchfork mob wasn’t without opposition, though. “shaughn13” wrote “either get a job at digg and help them find a better way or stop complaining.” “socivitus” went a little deeper into the financials of the situation: “Digg doesn’t make profit. Digg cost $11 million to run last year and made $6 million. They run off investments and have 71 employees to pay. Do you think Digg’s investors are going to sit back and support it and not see a return? Digg either profits off the site itself and stays private, goes IPO, or sells completely.” He continued, ” I never wanted to believe the Digg community was this dumb, but I’ve been proven wrong.”

Finding some semblance of a middle road in the argument, “Uselesstrivia” acknowledged the community’s feelings for the ads and their role in Digg’s survival:

“If this is necessary to keep digg running, I’ll accept it grudgingly, but it’s still ***** and ugly and annoying, especially the shrinking of the comment section.

You should really give logged in users the ability to turn off the site integration ads, though. I’m sure it’s a small minority of your viewership, so it shouldn’t cost you that much, and it might entice other users to log in, which I’m sure is better for you in the long run…more people with accounts, more people able to click the digg button and submit stories, etc…

I understand why this kind of thing is necessary. Ad revenue is shrinking along with the effectiveness of simple banner ads. Click rates are dropping and money is drying up. If pursuing a new revenue source is a necessary evil, then I understand, but keep in mind most of the users seem to really hate it.”

And the powers that be at Digg probably are keeping all of this in mind. Not because they feel for the users (although I’m guessing at least the face of the company, Kevin Rose, does), but because it makes financial sense. A company that relies so heavily on its community can’t ignore any form of protest, especially when the act of protesting involves the disabling or circumventing of revenue-generating advertisements.

My guess is Digg management is taking all of this negativity and protest with a few barrels of salt. Prior to the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, publisher Activision angered potential consumers after announcing what wouldn’t be included in the upcoming title. Thousands of signatures across multiple petitions later, the game generated $310 million in day one sales, and $550 million in five days. As Chas Edwards from Digg pointed out, site visitors are also gamers. Sure, there’s nothing to purchase here, and Digg and Modern Warfare 2 are two entirely different entities, but the possible post-negative commenting aftermath could prove to be one in the same…that is unless more Digg users learn about and implement the aforementioned “fix.” In that case, the company would do well to remember the words of one commenter named “tnoy:”

“If digg dies, I’ll just go to a different site.”

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