Way Beyond the Banner

For an industry whose signature is “the next new thing,” digital media has developed a surprising tendency to resuscitate old models. Pretty much like clockwork, an economic downturn brings predictable cries of “make ’em pay” from publishers who just a few years earlier had championed the “free-content web.” The “three Cs” have re-emerged in a lot of business talk around digital publishing models. Surely there are enough of you out there old enough to remember the Content, Commerce, and Community holy trinity of web media circa 2001?

Selling goods and leveraging community will both be important to content providers moving forward, of course. But one long overdue goal of digital media, to “get beyond the banner,” is going to be critical if traditional media want to retrieve the kinds of revenue many of them are losing in their offline properties. Ultimately, digital media really starts paying off for publishers when they get advertisers to spend more of their budgets online.

For many publishers, getting beyond the banner simply means getting beyond the invisible banner by making ads bigger and more intrusive. In an effort to prove the branding power of display advertising on branded media sites, we now have “push-down” units telescoping our pages with accordion-style creative. Some publishers autorun their video assets everywhere, while interstitials and synchronized leaderboard/skyscraper combos do rich media dance routines.

While more often irritating than entertaining, many of these enhanced display concepts will work for large publishers who can deploy these specialty programs across a network of their own properties. This allows the sales team to deploy truly unique creative at scale and in ways that a remnant inventory network cannot do across thousands of independently owned sites. The new wave of whiz-bang ad units is not just about attention grabbing. It is also aimed at distinguishing media brands from the limitless inventory of the web.

But I would warn against media companies relying too much on fancy displays to move ad revenues to the next level. The fetish of rich media tends to miss the larger shift that is occurring in media buying.

A lot of the activity and revenue growth in coming years is likely to come from even more innovative custom programs that give advertisers access to unique content opportunities or unique access to the publisher’s audience. For instance, one of construction publisher Hanley Wood’s most successful programs last year involved a tricked-out truck it sent to hundreds of Lowe’s stores around the country. The truck featured equipment from 15 sponsors. Hanley Wood used its publishing reach to promote the trek and move readers to the events. President Peter Goldstone told me that it was a revelation to his company to run the numbers and discover that only 25% of his clients’ marketing money went to “above the line” media buying. The real tectonic shift in spending now is away from traditional advertising and toward promotion, marketing, and branded content creation.

Publishers need to get aggressively creative. Consumer media are now starting to sound more like the B2B media of old, and they start talking about doing “lead gen” on behalf of clients. One major bridal magazine publisher recently held an online virtual trade show of content and exhibits for brides. The sponsors had booths in which they could speak directly to potential customers. Like trade publishers, who long ago discovered the importance of conferences and trade shows to their clients, all content providers are starting to see how their brands can not only leap off the page but even leap off of the internet.

And they need to leap into the audience. This is the real crux of the matter. Advertisers are less and less interested in getting close to your content. They want to get close to your audience. That new reality is not only beyond the banner, but it is beyond the comfort zone and skill set of too many publishers. Content is what brings a select group of readers in and helps you define who they are and what they want. But from there, content providers have to become audience experts. Data mining, poll taking, online behavioral analytics, and even content testing will be the new disciplines of publishing. But most of all, they have to be facilitators of relationships, creating marketing products that give clients access to your crowd. “Knowing your audience” is the easy part. Creating ways for advertisers to meet that audience without giving those users up to the advertiser? That is the battle waiting way beyond the banner.