The Great Publisher Disruption

ADOTAS – Remember when you used to really depend on your local paper? For finding jobs, houses, getting the local weather forecast, selling that boat in your yard, and getting last night’s sports scores? I still do…but barely.

Most of what your local paper offers can be found in greater abundance (and at higher quality) elsewhere and, now that everyone is glued to their iPhone, rather than flipping newsprint on their commute, most of that content is only a click (or, more likely, a finger touch) away.

Jobs Section –> Monster.com
Real Estate Section –> MLS, Zillow
Business News –> WSJ.com
Weather Report –> Weather.com
Classified Sales –>Craigslist
Sports –> ESPN.com
Travel Section –>TripAdvisor.com
National News –> WSJ.com
Gossip –> PerezHilton.com

As the above demonstrates, the only area of superior content the local news website has left is local news, and even that has suffered as papers reduce reporting staff and rely more upon outside content providers to fill pages. Although local papers came to the online party rather late, they managed to quickly build reliable websites and leverage their most valuable content effectively.

Monetizing that content has fallen far short of revenue expectations for the most part. The AAAA’s recent report that ad agencies lose up to a third of their media cost servicing digital media buys (as opposed to only 2% with television) was eye opening, but probably nothing compared to what publishers feel.

Back when I was running sales for a Nielsen group, we were struggling with the fact that the same $100,000 once earned by selling a small schedule of print ads was now taking an enormous effort to create.

With print, you are simply selling space. The advertiser provided the content (a PDF) and you put it inside a magazine or newspaper, alongside compelling editorial. Publishers focused on producing the content they wanted and advertisers produced brand ads that appealed to a like audience.

Then, all of the sudden, advertisers started to lose interest in print advertising alone. Sure, maybe they still ran a small print schedule, but now they wanted some content to go along with it: maybe a “microsite” or a custom series of events, or perhaps an advertorial.

Then publishers found themselves allocating resources to writers, designers, and photographers—and acting like a small agency on behalf of their clients. Kind of cool, but the problem was that the advertiser had the same $100,000 to spend. They were all over you, and they wanted stuff like “ROI.” Publishers’ margins were compressed, resources (once dedicated mostly to producing their own content) were misallocated, and their employees were getting burnt out.

Let’s take this to 2007, and the emergence of social media. Now advertisers didn’t even need publishers to develop their content, because they could create their own blogs from scratch (Blogger) and start building online communities (Facebook). Enter Twitter and now every employee in the building has their own mini PR platform which could be leveraged for the company.

Talk about disruption. With thousands of really smart writers, photographers, and designers willing to work cheaply, from home — and with access to free, web-based tools equal or more powerful than any in-house software a publishing company could provide, now publishers were losing the only edge they had: the ability to produce content at scale.

The Googles of the world will always argue that they “need” content providers like The New York Times to continue to provide thought leadership, but web-based content marketplaces like Associated Content and others have only validated the concept that traditional publishers (no matter how big their websites are) are losing their power positions when it comes to content. (Except WSJ, which produces content so exceptional that people are willing to pay for it, but that’s for another article).

So, in this new reality, the publisher is left trying to protect his last tangible asset: his online advertising inventory. He can’t sell subscriptions, he can’t pay to have leadership in any other category besides local news, and now huge sites can geotarget ads to create larger audiences than he has. Spot quiz: who has more unique users in the Anchorage, Alaska DMA: Yahoo or the Anchorage Daily News? I don’t know either, but this is part of the problem.

When the starting point for most computers is search, local media misses the boat on what used to be their wheelhouse. Search for “Anchorage restaurants” on Google, and Fodors, Yahoo, and the local visitor’s bureau sites come up before ADN.com.

In response to this atmosphere of ever-increasing margin compression, competition, customer dilution, and constant need to understand and embrace new technologies, local publishers turned to the experts in online revenue monetization: networks, exchanges, and aggregators. Now (with networks and exchanges), as simple as placing a few ad tags throughout their pages, newspapers could monetize the 70% of inventory they couldn’t sell directly.

Establishing a daisy-chain of ad calls to backfill their unsold inventory was easy, and at least there was some visibility into revenue (amount of impressions available, divided by 1,000, times 65 cents). Despite the ease of use, the rates continue to be painfully cheap, and you never can really tell what the tolerance level of your audience is for an endless stream of teeth whitening, tanning, diet, or Acai berry offers will be.

Aggregators like Centro, LION New Media, Quadrant One, or Cox Cross Media offer a much better solution: real advertisers that need and respect real local inventory. These aggregators provide a great one-stop shop for advertisers and agencies that may not have the depth of knowledge (or personnel) to negotiate and service a multitude of small buys on dozens of local media sites.

As a result these aggregators earn the money they arbitrage by providing the expertise to buy local media at scale. Smarter companies like Centro are leveraging the in-house systems they have developed over the years to navigate this process and making it available to agencies directly (Transis).

However, when it comes to selling premium inventory, specialized sponsorships, or anything beyond standard inventory, the aggregators can’t really play in that space at scale; advertisers still need to partner with local media to make those deals happen.

Ultimately, I see local websites winning by being able to offer more than just inventory. For them, hustling uniques and impressions is a zero sum game. They will never compete against the networks and (with 65-cent CPMs on their remnant space) the networks and exchanges aren’t exactly their best allies.

What agencies need is for technology to help them scale the way they reach advertisers, in an open and transparent way—and systems that give them the ability to do more than place an ad tag on their pages and pray for a good campaign to hit the transom.

We feel the future for publishers is an open marketplace that enables good local media sites to package their premium inventory to advertisers who truly value the local audience: the regional ad agencies across the country who service the local hospitals, schools, banks, and businesses that need local content aimed at local customers.

Ultimately, publishers need systems that can give them placement level control over their inventory, total pricing and deal point control, and access to both agencies and direct advertisers in the same environment. There should be a place between getting a 75-cent Acai berry ad on your homepage and running a $50 CPM rich media expandable.

Publishers need to be able to negotiate both types of deals, and do them at scale, with total control. An open and transparent marketplace that enables publishers to market their entire inventory—not just remnant—is where the future is headed.

[first published in Adotas, 4/1/2010]

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