The Online Publishers Association: Playing Not to Lose

Let's Focus on the Real Contest Between Content and Data

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Jarvis Coffin
Jarvis Coffin
The Online Publisher's Association (OPA), the representative largely of traditional media companies online, says this about itself on its web page: "Representing the highest standards in online publishing."

This is a clarion call to the thousands of dedicated Internet publishers that the OPA, guardian of high standards, should be working to support among the world's brand advertisers.

But last week the OPA released the latest in a series of reports that once again dashed the hope for an industry brand champion. In its study, "Improving Ad Performance Online: The Impact of Advertising on Content Sites," the OPA dismissed the role that virtually all online publishing properties can play in the grown-up brand advertising world -- with the exception of its member sites. The results of the study contend ad networks as well as portals were inferior to everything but OPA websites -- not "content sites," as the title of the report implied, but the "OPA sites," as stated in the summary of the report.

OPA members were supposed to serve as a proxy for content sites in the report. Proxy means the authority to act for another and, in this case, we'd assume, it means the countless other quality content sites on the web unable to foot the cost of a Dynamic Logic study (or OPA membership). Forget it.

The proxy pretense started to dry up as the results of the study got bundled into four groups labeled as follows: the OPA (not its proxies, content sites), ad networks, portals, and "Market Norms," which referred to the benchmark results derived from Dynamic Logic's AdIndex. By the summary page the notion of proxy had evaporated entirely and the results declared, "OPA Member sites's ad effectiveness outperformed other sites -- including portals and ad networks..."

The OPA has about 50 members. The rest of the Internet -- at least all of those that choose to -- participates in the advertising economy thanks, substantially, to the efforts of ad networks and portals. Accordingly, the OPA's study last week attempted to invalidate the rest of the internet among brand advertisers.

As I noted in earlier on my blog: There are 450,000 words in the English language and there are seven you can't say on television. What a ratio, the great George Carlin once observed. Add to it, now, that there are 10 billion websites on the Internet and only 50 on which you can advertise successfully.

They must be reeeally goood.

Or, looked at another way, the findings make the Internet the biggest, dumbest waste of space on earth. Of course, I don't feel that way as a user. Google doesn't feel that way as a lucrative search engine. Discount the field of 10 billion by 1,000. Discount it by another 1,000. The notion that the OPA has managed to corner the market on the "highest standards in online publishing" with 50 members is absurd -- even without starting to question the standards of its members, which can be, on any given day, as questionable as the rest of them.

But, fine. No one is expected to take the OPA study at full face value. It's not in the nature of studies to be that way. They are instruments of state propaganda. The OPA has had a recognizable agenda, which has been the defense of media brands against the onslaught of the non-branded world. That agenda needs to change for three reasons:

  1. Coming at the expense of all other players online the agenda is absurd (see above);
  2. The "highest standards in online publishing" means something different than the highest standards offline. Namely, high standards online can come in small packages. It does not cost a fortune to have, or project, high standards online. Therefore;
  3. The OPA has a chance to truly stand for high publishing standards, not just high production values, by more broadly embracing quality content online, including deep into the Long Tail.

We live in an image business and none more so than members of the OPA. Our advertising clients work in an image business, as well, and none more so than the brand advertisers. But brands are not all about image. Brands are mostly about promises. The OPA has a chance to lead us in living more substantive lives online by focusing on the promises, not the images, associated with quality content. These are the promises of which consumers have always been aware online: timely, relevant, personal and interactive. These are also the promises some of us would say connect them in important new ways to advertisers. They are the relationship builders anticipated in new media.

No one disputes the power of content as the OPA would have us think of it. We believe in the results ascribed to their members by their study. We just don't believe those results are reserved exclusively to them.

Most importantly, we don't believe in the principle that making the rest of the world appear smaller is a good way to make you appear bigger.

Let's face it: the contest online is not between the branded content the OPA represents and the independent publishers they're afraid will nibble them to death. The contest today is between content and audience data. It ought to be a fair fight, with compelling arguments on both sides; but right now, because the OPA is unwilling to draw many thousands of others to its side in support of the value of content, the value of content is getting creamed. One would never have thought that possible, but such are the consequences of playing not to lose, instead of playing to win. Kingdoms have been squandered in this way, forever, and it's always been a failure of leadership.

Jarvis Coffin is CEO of Burst Media. You can follow his musings on the industry on Burst's blog and in his Twitter feed.
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