Moving away from advertising math

May 9, 2011

Who’s afraid of cannibals? News executives are: there’s a pervasive attitude in the media industry that if you give your content away for free in one place, then people won’t pay for it somewhere else. On this view, if a newspaper loses circulation and has a free website, then the circulation loss can be attributed not to the infinite and wonderful world of other free information available online, but just to the fact that the newspaper’s own content is available online.

This mindset has helped to hobble the online expansion of hundreds of media properties, even when there’s precious little empirical evidence to suggest that it’s based in reality. In fact, the opposite is true: Tyler Green has a fantastic post looking at museum memberships, showing that they generally increased after museums moved to free admission. Economically, that doesn’t make sense, insofar as people buy memberships to save on the cost of repeat visits to the museum. But maybe that’s not the main reason people buy memberships — or maybe people don’t always act in an economically rational way.

A similar economically-literalist mindset exists on the digital advertising side of things: Kendall Allen calls it the “math state,” where everything gets measured and auctioned and quantified, and geeks rise up the greasy pole while creatives find themselves increasingly marginalized.

Today marks an important point in the evolution of digital media: the new iPad app for the New Yorker allows for subscriptions (rather than just per-issue sales), and what’s more allows existing print subscribers to read the magazine on their iPads at no extra cost. I was doing that on the subway this morning, and from an ad-impressions standpoint it’s quite clever. You don’t just scroll a long page to read each story: instead, each piece is paginated, and occasionally the route to the next page is interrupted by an ad. The third page of Anthony Lane’s piece on Pixar, for example, is a Movado ad, while the seventh page is for Castello cheese.

The ads look great on the iPad: even if they’re not clever interactive rich-media things, they still glow in hi-res glory, filling the screen and grabbing attention in a way that banner ads on websites can’t really compete with. If I was an advertiser buying a full-page ad in the magazine, I’d be more than happy to accept this kind of thing as an alternative way of getting my message across. Especially since people who download an issue on their iPad are more likely to read it than print subscribers with a teetering bedside pile of unread New Yorkers growing by the week.

But of course advertisers and media buyers are dragging their feet on this: David Carr quotes MediaVest’s Robin Steinberg as saying that an iPad reader should not simply be considered equivalent to a reader of the paper magazine; Carr’s clear that she wants iPad pricing to be closer to bargain-basement web prices than to premium print prices.

I don’t think that’s really constructive. Magazines economics are based on the institution of the “rate base,” a circulation number guaranteed by the publisher to its advertisers. A digital edition downloaded by an iPad subscriber can and should be considered pari passu to a paper edition, for such purposes — that’s the easy and elegant solution to an otherwise very hard-to-measure problem of how to charge for access to the upscale and desirable iPad audience. iPad ads are no less glossy than their print counterparts, and are even harder to ignore. So let’s hope that advertisers will get out of their math state, and instead embrace a digital world where they can beef up their print buys with exciting and creative implementations for the iPad.

The more that both publishers and advertisers concentrate on the creative side of things, and the less they worry about the distractions of granular economics, the more successful both are likely to be. Digital display and brand advertising is still very young. Let’s nurture it without giving too much authority to the bean counters. If they stifle it now, they’ll end up suffocating the very digital publishers that they’re going to need, in future, as print slowly dies and consumption moves to tablets.


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