The Revenue Shmevenue Streams of 2009

Time once again to crawl out on that slippery limb encrusted with winter ice: the predictions branch. Above and beyond the expected recession woes, digital content is dangling over some sharp challenges in 2009, or at least it looks that way from my chilly perch. Look out below for falling commentators.

Distribution shmistribution: Widgets, social media applications, RSS feeds, SEO, and syndication—how will we make money off of this stuff? Even professional econtent found itself playing the hyperdistribution game in 2008. Getting the brand out there into the ecosystem was the paramount concern, but monetizing this outreach was left to the home sites you hoped users would reach. If and how advertising travels with content around the web is going to become a hot topic this year. Putting content everywhere and anywhere is not necessarily the best thing for advertisers who like to maintain control of the context. How contextual ad models align with decontextualized distribution mechanisms is a question too few people are asking right now.

Mobile shmobile: I know you have heard this before, but let me put the mobile imperative to you this way: How many professionals in your segment currently triage their email on a smartphone? If the answer is "lots of them," then your audience is encountering all of your newsletters and alerts on their phones even before they see them in an Outlook inbox. Can these brand loyalists click any of the links in that email and expect a reasonable mobile experience straight from their likely daily point of contact? The point is that whether you think so or not, your users probably already encounter you on their phones. The brands that recognize and respond to this shift of habits and over-serve expectations with a seamless cross-platform experience will be rewarded. The others … well, they will have to wait for their users to get back to the office and retriage their email on the PC.

Network shmetwork: The arguments over the true value of ad networks in the branded content ecosystem will get more confusing this year. Publishers complain that the automating and consolidating of massive remnant inventory is depressing all CPMs, and some content providers say they plan to sell their own inventory from now on. Networks counter that their model brings necessary scale to the market. There will be no resolution in 2009, but expect vertical ad networks to flourish and compete for scalability. Also, the ad exchange model is gaining favor among some publishers who see a better environment in it for getting the CPMs they want on remnant inventory. But the market will suffer a glut of both verticals and exchanges. Even on the web there is only so much inventory to go around and so many vendors both sellers and buyers will tolerate. Many of these companies will simply disappear.

Privacy shmivacy: The elephant in the living room just woke up. Advanced ad targeting and personalization have always relied on tracking users, but until now, the techniques have been innocuous. That is all about to change. Layering behavioral tracking onto search hits everyone in the query box. Various arms of the U.S. government will be looking closely at the privacy implications of the media mergers already taking place (especially Google/Doubleclick). As behavioral tracking moves from simple banner ad networks to search, mobile, and eventually set-top boxes and geolocation devices, the marginal complaints of advocacy groups will become political causes. This is one issue that is fundamental to the way digital media works and supports business models. Unless publishers, advertisers, technology providers, and legislators sit down and make clear rules about what data is gathered and how it will be secured, the digital industry cannot move forward toward the kinds of revenue the analog worlds commanded.

Digital shmigital: Which brings us to the big issue facing most content providers this year: How can digital gains offset losses elsewhere? The revenue gap between digital and offline economies has been looming for years—finally, publishers take them seriously. Unless and until the value of online eyeballs escalates, digital will operate under a significant discount from the kinds of rates company spreadsheets are accustomed to receiving from print, TV, and live events. Each of those analog worlds has an emerging digital antecedent we are all pursuing. The hard reality is that media companies large and small will rarely see the same level of income from these models. Monetization has been the battle cry of the last five years on the web. Scale and speed are the watchwords of the next five.