Ad Funding at Read the Docs and What's Next for Ethical Advertising

David Fischer

This post first appeared on the Read the Docs company blog

It has been three years since we first launched ads on Read the Docs and while we gave a limited update in our 2018 stats, we figured it was time to give an update on ethical advertising and how it is working.

Advertising without tracking

Our ethical advertising model is still going strong. We proved that it is possible to build a business model on top of advertising without resorting to user tracking. Unlike most other ad-supported sites, we show advertising based on the context of the page, not by creating behavoral profiles of large numbers of individual users. If you are browsing documentation for a Python project, you might see a relevant ad about Python. It's that simple and it works.

Despite a slow start to the year, we expect to earn about $75,000 from advertising in Q2. This brings our advertising revenue back to the level before our ads were added to major ad blocking lists last year.

While we do earn money from other sources such as our commercial offering, advertising continues to be our largest source of revenue and has allowed us to expand our team to five full-time people. Compared with three years ago when we were scraping along with very little money, our community issue tracker and support requests receive prompt responses.

Progress

We've made great progress on advertising over the past year.

  • We survived a major hit to revenue from ad blocking without resorting to cat and mouse games of changing ad layouts and APIs to avoid ad blockers.
  • Our community ads program has been significantly expanded. We are actively running free community advertising promoting over ten open source projects and conferences.
  • While we never tracked users with advertising, we put in place stricter Do Not Track privacy protections. We continue to believe that advertising can be well targeted without tracking users.
  • We launched an advertising vertical to let companies promote their open jobs to developers.
  • Our advertising revenue share program tripled in size.

Our ethical advertising approach, with no user tracking, has been key to our sustainability and has allowed Read the Docs to continue to build new features and give back to our community.

What's next

We have some really interesting developments coming regarding ethical advertising.

We are looking to add a few more projects to our ad revenue share program and help more projects reach sustainability with an ethical advertising approach. If your project on Read the Docs does 100k+ pageviews per month and you are interested in exploring a new revenue stream, please let us know.

We are testing a new text-only ad format which we will detail in a future post. Text-only ads are something we've wanted for a while because we believe they are less intrusive to readers but easy for advertisers to experiment with multiple variations. So far the results have been very promising and we are planning to roll this out more widely.

Our ethical ad network is getting closer to launch. It's a shame, but there's a critical lack of funding for open source projects that form the building blocks of some extremely valuable software. We believe that advertising can fill some of that gap and Read the Docs can help by sharing some of the lessons we've learned building our own advertising. If you know a site that might be interested in being a beta tester of a pro-privacy ad network built specifically to help fund open source, please get in touch.

Thanks

Advertisers always have a choice where to direct their marketing spend and for many of them it would have been simpler to just go with the usual behemoth advertising platforms rather than advertising with a niche site like Read the Docs. I want to thank all our advertisers who believe in our approach and continue to support us.

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