In search of digital dollars

With ad revenue falling, industrial action, threatened job cuts, and share prices at all time lows, it’s hard to know where the sunshine might start to peek through the clouds.

And that’s the print business.

From a digital perspective, the signals have been almost as problematic. The Facebook IPO had been predicted by some as a sure bet and an indicator of the continuing digital media boom.

But even that much-hyped event failed to live up to anticipation, and the subsequent drop in share price has brought out the gloom merchants.

Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff went so far as to say: “Facebook is not only on course to go bust, but will take the rest of the ad-supported Web with it”.

That may sound like pure hyperbole, but it’s still blindingly obvious that digital ad revenue is not replacing lost print advertising dollar for dollar.

Wolff says that the expectation that web advertising can provide a better targeted, “more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media” is just plain wrong.

Google is the only business that has actually been able to deliver on this promise.

Wolff uses The New York Times as his example, but the same logic applies to Australian newspaper companies.

Traditionally, print subscribers are significantly more valuable than online users. Extend that logic and you inevitably arrive at online digital subscriptions.

We are starting to see the results of the early adoption of digital subscriptions in our markets. They are not a silver bullet and it’s going to be a long road before the print dollars to digital cents equation starts to find a happier equilibrium.

In the meantime, the flood of cheap online inventory is making the job of maintaining any sort decent yield harder than ever.

Five years ago the big publishers were able to charge around $20 CPM for targeted inventory. But now there’s a flood of supply available for a fraction of that price. And that’s before you factor in mobile inventory.

If we end up with a scenario whereby most of our biggest news sites are behind paywalls, then we’d certainly expect to see a reduction in inventory supply that would have a positive effect on CPMs.

The problem is the beneficiaries may be those sites which choose not to erect a paywall.

Publishers have been focusing on quality environments for some time, but with yields still under such enormous pressure there needs to be a radical change of approach to building some kind of revenue growth back into digital budgets.

NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal knew what he was talking about when he said: “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.”

Maybe Shaq’s logic ought to rub off on more media people. Because the least unpleasant alternative is further cost cutting.

Hugh Martin is CEO of Crown Content. Follow him on Twitter @hughjm

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