When the Internet Flapped its Wings

Something disappeared into the ripple by tanakawho
Something disappeared into the ripple by tanakawho

While preparing for a series of meetings on emedia strategy over the weekend, one thought kept nagging at me: What the hell is emedia anyway?

Online and email advertising, webcasts, virtual trade shows, ebooks, ecommerce…oh, my! In the publishing world, it is the holy grail that will save us all thanks to high profit margins and easy scalability (relative to print media), but it seems like the goal posts that define it and its success are getting moved every year as the smoke gets thicker and the mirrors are repositioned.

Where does emedia really fit in the big picture of magazine publishing? Is it another revenue stream running off of Content Mountain — I still believe Content is King, though Context is now his equally powerful Queen — or is it something new and different altogether that calls for a brand new canvas and change of scenery?

If print media is the physical container that content and advertising is packaged into and delivered to the reader, and the subscription and advertising revenues it generates is offset by its related editorial, printing, production, circulation and fulfillment expenses, then shouldn’t emedia be budgeted and defined the same way? Would the profit margins for a website be as high if it had to bear even half of the burden of the expenses of the print container from where much of its content and most of its brand awareness comes from?

If there were no print host, could the electronic parasite survive?

Last year, buried in a glowing American Journalism Review article about the success of The Politico — a politics-only news website that launched a couple of years ago and was getting 25 million page views/month — was the fact that 60% of its revenue came from its laser-targeted, thrice-weekly 27,000 circ print edition, without which, the site would  “be losing catastrophic amounts of money.”

How many print-first publications is this also true for? How many of them have slashed the print side of their business to the bone, including those who actually create the content that is being used in both mediums, in favor of bulking up emedia, effectively trading dollars for pennies in an overleveraged dash for the illusion of short-term profitability at any cost?

I asked this question of several people in several places the past two days and got some interesting answers that are helping me crystallize my own thoughts and develop a solid long-term strategy that allows for maximum flexibility while transforming the publishing business model to one that de-emphasizes ad revenue and emphasizes community building.

(NOTE: I’m writing this at 1am in a hotel in the middle of nowhere on the eve of the strategy meeting’s kicking off. I’m tired, rambling a bit, and arguably a little crankier than usual.)

TechCrunch posted a thought-provoking (and rather long-winded) op-ed on Sunday by Eric Clemons, Professor of Operations and Information Management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, entitled “Why Advertising Is Failing On The Internet” that makes several interesting points about the growing influence of social media, while also inferring broader implications for advertising in general. It is an especially compelling read for anyone in magazine publishing, where too many still see themselves as privileged gatekeepers instead of equal members of a larger community.

My basic premise is that the internet is not replacing advertising but shattering it, and all the king’s horses, all the king’s men, and all the creative talent of Madison Avenue cannot put it together again…

It is frequently argued that the advertising industry will provide sufficient innovation to replace the loss of traditional ads on traditional mass media.  Again, my basic premise rejects this, suggesting that simple commercial messages, pushed through whatever medium, in order to reach a potential customer who is in the middle of doing something else, will fail.  It’s not that we no longer need information to initiate or to complete a transaction; rather, we will no longer need advertising to obtain that information.

I’ve noted in the past that print advertising, as we currently know it — aka, BAD, TRITE advertising — is dead and many magazines that depend on such ads are going to die with them. I’ve posited that publishers need to start building communities around their content and challenging their advertisers to be genuine partners, exhorting them to “authentically engage” their audiences, not just pitch products at them.

Whether in print or online, though, advertising is advertising, and lumping it in with emedia and burying the expenses associated with hosting websites and email lists, serving ads and deploying emails, etc. to make it seem more profitable only sets the stage for failu–

Oh wait, that shoe already dropped.

So, what the hell is emedia anyway?

I’d argue that it’s the pebble in the pond, and significantly less important than the ripples its impact created. No matter how big the splash, the pebble eventually sinks to the bottom alongside all those that preceded it.

The pond itself is what counts, and the ecosystem it sustains, and we should be more focused on the quality of the water than the different types of glasses we can serve it in.

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