Net.Working: Much ado about ads

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Web advertising gets so much media coverage, it may sometimes seem that the future of the Internet depends on ad revenue. That's a misperception caused by the fact that the same publishing conglomerates who are the most desperate in seeking advertising are also the ones who are the most assiduous in covering the Internet. Hence their preoccupation with banners, measurement tools, etc.

I happen to believe advertising is going to be a big part of the Internet, but I also think it's largely irrelevant outside the relatively narrow (but highly influential) niche of Internet publishing. Even if every Web publisher gave up on the Net, and even if no one ever bought another banner ad, the Internet itself would continue its explosive growth as a business tool.

At CMP Media's recent Networked Economy conference, Katherine Delahaye Paine, of the Delahaye Group, pointed out the obvious -- that of some 500,000 Web sites, perhaps 1,000 carried advertising of any significance. Sixty percent of the sites, on the other hand, are geared toward business-to-business use.

In practice, that means a Web site focused not on selling banners, but on generating sales leads, finding partners, cutting distribution and communication costs, and so on. It's a direct marketing model rather than a media model.

Now, you can always get a good argument going between those who see the Web as a pure marketing tool and those who are deep in the advertising mind-set. But there seems to be a growing consensus that business-to-business is really the bigger game right now.

Business-to-business Web use, on the other hand, is crowded with success stories. And that's before intranets and extranets, connecting companies to employees and suppliers and vendors, really get up and running.

It's easy to get caught up in the highly publicized drama over whether publishers can make it on the Web or not. But don't mistake the up-and-down fortunes of that one industry for the future of Internet business use. The two are not related. And while it gets little press, for now it's the marketing model that's leading the way.

David Klein is editor of the Ad Age Group.

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