Many in the advertising industry have blamed the race to the bottom in the newspaper industry on staff layoffs and lack of innovation in the face of a natural evolution from print to digital technology. But to say that print brands were dinosaurs that just never got it as technology raced away from them is an oversimplification.
Digital media is not merely a change in the delivery system of product content. The capacity for interactivity makes digital wholly different from print -- and from radio and broadcast, for that matter. We couldn't expect a newspaper with an established print brand to automatically make money online by delivering that same product digitally. Adapting to the unique realities of the digital world requires publishers to examine ways they can change -- having nothing to do with their print products and everything to do with leveraging the interactive channel.
Take, for example, the policy of charging readers for premium content. This model has characteristically supported substantial journalism in the digital era, but it is contracting quickly. Consumers still expect the web and its content for free. They don't want to pay for content with money from their pockets, nor do they want to pay for it with their data, by providing information about themselves.
Of course, real journalists and the content they generate have historically been considered worth much more than what your friend posts on social media. This gives owners of the premium content an opportunity to leverage social media and create new syndication and attribution models. Many top publishers, for instance, are embedding an automatic disclaimer when someone copies a link -- prompting him or her to use the sharing tools, rather than cut and paste, to share. This makes the user provide an e-mail address or some other login, or allows for tracking what is being sent so that it can be optimized.
But this is not enough. The very concept of premium needs to be redefined and retooled.
If traditional assets were shut down, the digital business as currently constituted could never fully support the premium-content operation. Media owners must fully embrace interactivity as never before -- and be wiling to provide its benefits for both the consumer and the ad buyer. The bottom line is that it's not the content that is truly premium -- it's the audience.
Publishers are under pressure to adopt technology that can support programmatic audience buying because that is how more media will be purchased going forward. Increasingly, media buyers expect this. Publishers will have to rethink how ads are integrated into their pages and go through massive redesigns to incorporate advertising that includes traditional IAB formats, native ads and Rising Stars to suit all the various digital devices.
The investment is large and the upside of revenue is not predictable. So what are publishers to do?
First, our improvements as an industry had better mean more transparency and standardization of measurement -- along with a far more sophisticated understanding of the interactive relationship with the reader of premium content. Every leading publisher and brand online needs to convey clearly just what the quid pro of interactive media is , and nurture its core media asset -- the readers -- with more transparency than before, and perhaps more exclusivity.
The collective work does not stop there. The above principles must be the base of all products and technologies that support our ecosystem. This is the genius of the Digital Advertising Alliance's industry self-regulatory program, and perhaps why the Federal Trade Commission supports it. Increased transparency into our world should make privacy concerns dissipate and continue to grow our thriving (job-creating) ecosystem.
Premium brands are beginning to expect transparency and are increasingly rewarding the technologies and media entities that stand by it. Perhaps more importantly, consumers are too. After all, premium is not a cost per mille (CPM) level. It is not a high-impact ad position or a cookie data point. It is a representation of principles that publishers, agencies and brands understand as the base of expectations around their business and consumer relationships. And right now, premium is suffering.
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