Against the backdrop of incessant reporting about record reductions in newspaper subscriptions and advertising revenue, I read a recent article that stated the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is losing about $20 million per year.
This made me wonder about not only newspapers, but also all content publishers in a world filled with information foragers who are more likely to reward link aggregation utilities like Google than the actual creators of the content. It is in these moments of reflection that I must ask with all sincere empathy, "Is this model sustainable?"
Before we explore the topic, though, we should retrace our steps to figure out how we got here.
The old model of publishing
- Attract an audience through compelling content.
- Sell advertising to those looking to reach your audience.
When the audience consumed the content, sometimes the advertising worked, and sometimes it didn’t. But whatever the case, the content publishers were able to sustain themselves and grow because companies found it worthwhile to invest in the effort.
When people started getting more advertising messages than they could possibly be asked to remember, they tuned most of them out. Instead of adapting then and there by giving people what they wanted (partially due to the immaturity of the industry) , companies instead chose to advertise in greater quantities as well as more intrusively.
As a result, when innovators with more heart and vision than (arguably) concrete business sense offered people the opportunity to pay attention to something else, people gladly took it.
Arising out of that came the expectation that certain things are free, and they could, in most cases, ignore most of the ads they were served. Anyone who insisted on forcing ads upon them could also be abandoned for someone else less intrusive.
It became apparent, then, that in order to be successful as a content publisher, a company must learn the most basic attributes of their common audiences.
What is with these people?
- They dislike being interrupted by advertising.
- They don’t want to pay for things that have customarily been free.
- They insist advertising be appropriately labeled as advertising.
- They sometimes appreciate finding out about some unique products that will benefit their lives.
- They don’t want to tell you more about themselves than is necessary to tactically deliver something that uses their information to deliver.
The publisher’s paradox
Points 1 and 2 suggest the answer is to sell advertising as content, but this violates point 3.
If we are to rely on appropriately labeled advertising, point 4 suggests we harness the ability to deliver exactly the right ad in exactly the right way to exactly the right person at exactly the right time, which up until now has been impossible without gathering so much information about the consumer that we effectively violate point 5.
Understanding all of this, we have a choice. We can either stand and curse the situation or seek to do something about it.
We can strive to shift consumer attitudes about the acceptability of interruption advertising, shift attitudes about how advertising is labeled, or rely on a different form of marketing that is (pulling from my memory of at least one of Seth Godin’s books):
Shifting attitudes about anything, particularly advertising, is a fool’s errand. Attempts to change the way people think or to "perfect" humanity have unerringly led to failure, so from an advertiser’s view, the prospective ROI is reduced proportionally to perceived risk at the attempt.
Therefore, to compensate for the realities of points 1-5, companies look for ways to get the word out through other means, including by PR — with getting mentioned in a bona fide news article in the New York Times being the Holy Grail of such efforts, or by (albeit reluctantly) publishing their own content and developing a more direct relationship, at some level, with the audiences themselves.
Both of these options potentially reduce the income of the publishing companies, which without severely reducing operating costs, is not sustainable.
The final option is to sell something tangible that people value.
The marketplace has changed. The sooner we marketers get that through our thick skulls, the better we can serve our customers.
The marketplace can no longer be driven by simple, traditional advertising but will instead be driven by content and the slow art of the customer seduction. Exceptions abound, but in general your prospects and loyal customers are not interested in a one-night stand.
Making the ads bigger, more plentiful or more intrusive is not going to help us solve the paradox. Barring some global paradigm shift, we cannot count on people changing their attitudes and acceptance of advertising. Therefore, we have to rely on our wits to change the way we approach them.
At first that may sound scary, but it’s far less scary than relying on a system that by design is fundamentally unsustainable. – Cam Beck