So, in my contemplations of upcoming events, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about advertising; namely what exactly is it and how does it work? We have this long-standing image of advertising as little boxed-off squares printed in the daily paper or your favorite magazine, or as the sometimes annoying-sometimes amusing interruptions in our favorite television shows. There are other forms of advertising; billboards, radio, bumper stickers, tee shirts, flyers tacked up on telephone poles, etc. Some work better than others, and some cost significantly more than others, but it’s the image of the print ad or the TV commercial that has reaped the lion’s share of the reward for providing marketing possibilities to people and businesses. Unfortunately for both of those platforms, the emergence of the internet as a competing platform for information–and infinitely more expansive, convenient and, in many cases, cheaper competitor–has eroded the audience for their core advertising platforms.
With all the talk of the poor economy, and it’s responsibility for the fall-off in revenue from these two groups, among others, there’s very little talk from within them that the reason revenue is declining may have more to do with the fact that their products simply don’t attract the same number of people as they used to, and as such, the marketing advantage they used to sell so extensively–and often, exclusively–has eroded. Certainly, some people are walking away from advertising because of the poor economy, and being bank-account challenged, but a large portion may well have more to do with the basic reality that your print ad just isn’t making the phone ring like it used to. Looking to complicated explanations for the decline, like trying to gauge the economy, can be a convenient excuse to avoid a truth you don’t really want to hear. All along, advertising only sells at the price structure it does because the people paying for those ads had the expectation of gaining that money back in sales, and significantly more over time. But what happens when the results no longer meet the cost? This is the question publishers should be asking, instead of whether paywalls that will further cut the number of people in your viewing audience, or an iPad app that, if designed to, will keep the paying user confined within the little slice of the internet the publisher wants them in, are the keys to the future.
I talked about this a bit last week here, where I essentially challenged the notion that replicating advertising from the forms of existing media, as in video snippets and boxed chunks of space with a logo and an address in it, are really the best way to take advantage of this new medium, be it at the desktop or on you phone. After all, while the marketers revel in their targeted metrics, technology that keeps their well-placed ads at bay keeps progressing, as well. And exactly how much annoyance will people put up with if alternatives sans the crush of ads continue to exist, which they undoubtedly will. And if there’s any single trait that we should be aware of in 21st century America, it’s that people will go along with anything they think has some value at the moment just so long as they aren’t inconvenienced. Make those special ads too intrusive or too much of a pain, and people will walk.
Some very intelligent people are working on this problem, but still, we haven’t seen the revolution in the forms of advertising that we’ve seen in the means of distributing information. The smart money should be on the folks who figure this out, how to provide the traditional benefit of advertising using the new realities and tools we possess, which are far, far different from the previous platforms, in a way that can turn a sustainable profit. Someone will get it, eventually. I see bits and pieces of progress nearly every day. But the days of selling the equivalent of that 3 column by 5 inch block who’s most difficult decision is whether to buy spot or process color have passed. Slightly adapting that form to new media isn’t getting the job done. We need to throw out the forms altogether and invent new ones. Then, and only then, will we see truly viable online business models for much of what publishing does so well.