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Nearly three years ago, display ads stopped being an SO-only thing and came to some other relevant sites. More recently, this programme widened to include affiliate ads on most sites. Both times, one of the arguments put forward for why this was good for the health of the community was that it turned the network sites outside the "big three" from cost centres to profit centres. Because the health of these sites would now be directly linked to SE's income, this would give SE more incentive to build and support those communities.

Since then, SE the company has seen serious changes. A lot of people responsible for helping out communities, and some responsible for selling ads in the first place, have lost their jobs, leaving a smaller, more stretched team. In this period there's also been bad feeling amongst the moderators of sites that aren't SO, a sense that the company is more responsive to random people complaining on Twitter than to its own moderators (and maybe even the community managers in its own staff). (Hot network questions and the Code of Conduct being two such issues.)

Against this backdrop, it's not entirely surprising that the new expansion in ads is going to be done in a way that gives SE less input and control - because at this scale they simply don't have the people power to curate relevant and helpful ads that visitors want to see. I think we all understand that it's getting increasingly hard to keep the lights on in SE HQ, and that the smaller sites too have to earn their keep: but do we even have the resources to make that happen?

My question is, how has SE tried to make network sites more valuable since November 2016, as a result of those sites' increasing contribution to the company finances? What resources has SE made available to support those bringing traffic to those sites and building those communities?

  • support those bringing traffic is discussed in a bit more details here (tl;dr it was shrinking in the timeframe you ask about) – gnat Jun 21 at 10:22
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    Thank you for posting this question the way you did. While we can't give all of the business details behind these changes to everyone, we understand that there is still the possibility of the creating nebulous feelings about it. I'll try to answer what I can especially when presented with questions as composed as this one was. – Juan M Jun 21 at 15:06
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    Tbh - I actually kinda think the big three suffered from the same issues. SF had the exact same conversations SO has now. As an SU mod I kinda felt the rest of the network was ignored for 'side projects' that never benefitted the broader network. SO... Well... When SO sneezes we catch a cold? – Journeyman Geek Jun 23 at 2:44
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There's a lot of this I can't answer because I'd need to convey context surrounding departures from the company and that's, well, private. I also can't really speak about strategy when it comes to the business end of the company specifically enough to provide you a thorough answer to your question but:

  • It's not hard keeping the lights on here. We're profitable and growing.
  • The ads are an experiment to see how much the network sites can contribute to the bottom line of maintaining and resourcing them on our end. Ideally, we strike a place where we can put more people on community and marketing to help you help these sites have much more impact in their topic spaces.
  • Be careful saying "Lost their jobs" because you don't know what happened or why, so any conclusions you draw from that are very likely going to be skewed. People leave for all kinds of reasons and (here) it's almost never because they weren't good at doing their job. I'm not in a position to be more specific, but you're going in the wrong direction there.
  • We don't need the sites to contribute to our finances because we're in some kind of trouble. We need the sites to generate enough to fit the business case of resourcing them in the form of making very hard hires that we need to invest in long-term.

So that's why it's an experiment. Can the network cover enough of its overhead now, and if we doubled it in the next 18 - 24 months? (the overhead, not the network). Can we start budgeting professional advancement and training programs for the 600 something people that volunteer as moderators to help boost their resumes? Can we look at a community marketing department similar to what we tried very early on but quickly realized we couldn't really afford?

We can't come teasing this stuff out in the sense of "If all goes well, here's what's coming!" because we don't even know if this experiment is going to work. So I'm making zero promises here. But I did want to clear up what seems to be some serious misconceptions floating around - there's no dire need for us to monetize the network.

But we do need a business case for spending a ton of additional money on growing it.

I can't really answer any more questions than that, so if you ask in comments and I don't respond - it's nothing personal :) I simply have constraints, like anyone else that has a job ;)

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    So I can leave the pitchfork in the barn, for now? – Anne Daunted GoFundMonica Jun 21 at 14:57
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    Eh, bring it. There's always something you can shovel with a pitchfork around here by torchlight. But you don't have to worry about the ads or our motive for testing things as we have been. – Tim Post Jun 21 at 15:00
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    @AnneDaunted Yes, you can and should leave it in the barn. :D Or you can bring it to help us out as Tim mentioned. – Juan M Jun 21 at 15:00
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    Some of these feel like a tease ._. – Journeyman Geek Jun 21 at 15:11
  • "Can we start budgeting professional advancement and training programs for the 600 something people that volunteer as moderators to help boost their resumes?" That would be an absolutely awesome thing to do! (BTW, I have zero interest in being a moderator, so I'm not saying this out of personal interest.) – Cris Luengo Jun 21 at 15:33
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    "I can't really answer any more questions than that" - except questions about pitchforks, apparently. thinking_face – Rand al'Thor Jun 21 at 15:39
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    Thanks for answering in the same open spirit the question was asked. Like Journeyman Geek, I think this does seem like a tease: and not much of an answer to the question I asked. I'm not asking what might happen in future if the current experiment is successful. I'm asking what the existing ads we've had for more than two years have already bought us. Even if the answer is "The previous ads have barely paid for the cost of adding them, and that's why we're trying something new", that would be a little sad but ultimately fair enough. – Dan Hulme Jun 21 at 16:14
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    @DanHulme I can't really speak to that. I'm sorry - that just isn't information I can put out to the public. It's not that sharing dollar amounts is super scary, it's the narrative of explaining it that would need to accompany it for it to make any sense that digs a huge rabbit hole. I hope you understand. – Tim Post Jun 21 at 16:19
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    TELL US ALL THE SECRETS TIM POST – Jeff Atwood Jun 28 at 6:00
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    @JeffAtwood You don't want to know all the secrets, just look at the last guy that knew all the secrets he ended up creating a Slack clone. – User37849012643 Oct 4 at 5:14

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