A Contrarian Take On Print Advertising

Newscorp CEO Robert Thomson provoked some scoffs among the technology elite today by proclaiming that print advertising will begin to command higher premiums again, amidst skepticism about digital advertising.

The article buttresses this point by taking some pot shots at Buzzfeed for low content quality, and pointing out that the assessment has been shared by WPP, which also expressed optimism about print.

The chatter about this on the web is essentially taking Thomson out of context. He was also speaking about the value of premium digital properties to advertisers, of which the Wall Street Journal in particular owns one of the most successful properties on the web.

It should be pointed out that not all print advertising is quality advertising. Free newspapers tend to have terrible ads put down on low quality paper. They have to be low quality, because the only ads that can succeed in a free paper have some kind of direct response component to them, and the majority of local advertisers don’t know how to get the most out of direct response advertising. Because it’s free, advertisers can’t get accurate circulation numbers from free publications.

A similar dynamic is at play with free websites.

The key difference is really about premium content as compared to free content. When the content is paid, advertisers know the circulation numbers accurately, they know the demographics of the subscriber base accurately, and they don’t have to rely on sophisticated audience modeling to figure out who sees their ads.

This is another reason why cable TV still commands high ad rates: those subscriber numbers are accurate, and for better or worse, the viewers trust the stations on which the ads appear to provide a consistent level of content quality.

The web is still a young medium. Hypertext, the language of the web, was developed to make the lives of academics easier: it was not created to be a media platform. Google itself was built on the basic idea behind the web, which is that the link is a metaphor for the academic citation, and that a broadly-cited article by prestigious authors and publications is probably more relevant to researchers.

This is partly why people are moving towards consuming more news using apps, rather than through websites directly. The web was built to make citations simpler. It was not built to create a magical media consumption experience. Although the web’s being used for many more things than it was ever planned to, its essential structure was not built with the needs of advertisers in mind.

Newscorp and companies like it know much more about the business of premium media  than almost anyone else.

Arguments about print versus digital and TV/radio versus digital tend to be more tribal than based on the fundamentals of what the publications are, how they reach people, and how it impacts the functioning of the advertising.

Advertisers have to think harder about analyzing different mediums and different technologies to reach customers. The real conflict should not be about print versus digital, but premium versus free, and applications versus the web.

In general, ads against applications tend to be more reliable than ads placed on the open web. The most successful digital advertising platforms are ads against web applications. Google Search is a web app. Youtube is an app. Facebook is an app.

The advertising with the most mixed track record is web display advertising placed on web sites that charge nothing to users. Enormous amounts of energy has gone into trying to get digital display advertising more worthwhile, and there have been some successes — but the overall attitude among publishers has been one of disappointment.

A lot of work still needs to be done to justify higher ad rates for online display ads. Newscorp and WPP are just recognizing that fact.

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