Friday, July 23, 2004

May the Web Be With You: The Migration from Print is Not so Simple

A recent article by Alan Meckler, (if you download the article, go to page 16 of the PDF) the well-regarded Internet visionary and founder of Jupitermedia, makes a case that, as the headline of his article puts it, "time is running out for tech titles tied to print." Meckler posits that the imminent demise of those print technology magazines is driven by the better ROI advertisers can achieve on the Web. Why can the Web offer better ROI? Because, according to Meckler, vertically-focused Web sites "offer the advertiser an opportunity to rifle-shot his ad to an absolutely focused reader," because a Web site is cheaper to produce than a magazine is to publish, because "a new Web site only requires one writer to start," and because "its distribution cost is virtually zero."

While Meckler makes a compelling case for the rapid demise of print (with the pace varying by markets), it's important to recognize that advertiser excitement about the Web is based more on what we ought to be able to do than what in most cases we actually deliver. It's also worth noting that many of the characteristics of the Web that make it so attractive to publishers also create problems for publishers, and as the Web matures, some of its advantages will disappear. Here are some thoughts on those Web advantages identified by Meckler in his article:

Most print B2B publishers owe their existence to the fact that they have for decades offered their advertisers the opportunity to rifle-shot their ads to a group of absolutely focused readers. Given that, I am hard pressed to see the advantage of Web advertising, unless Web sites are delivering a higher quality or better targeted audience. I would contend, however, that most publishers are currently delivering neither. Most B2B Web sites attract online audiences two to ten times as large as their print audiences. Only a few people question how this can be. Were so many print publishers missing so much of their market for so long, or are all these new online readers marginal if not spurious? Nobody knows, just as very few Web sites have even the most basic sense of who is visiting their sites. I've looked at enough publisher log files and online registration databases to know just how much we don't know about our online audiences. Yes, you can target an audience of one with a Web site, but it's a fruitless exercise unless you confidently know who you are targeting. Contextual advertising is another powerful online advertising tool, one that doesn't require any knowledge of the visitor's identity, but unfortunately most of this revenue is flowing to the search engines, not the publishing industry.

That Web sites are cheaper and faster to launch than print magazines is a two-edged sword. Just as you can compete more easily on the Web, so can others compete against you. Business-oriented Web sites that accept advertising are everywhere on the Web. Most offer little value to advertisers, some are borderline frauds, but they're all clamoring for the same advertising dollar. The result is advertiser confusion, hesitation, and downward pressure on advertising prices. The well-known saying that, "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" goes to the heart of the problem. On the Web, start-ups look just like 100-year old multi-nationals. It's hard to tell who has substance and who will deliver results. So how do you distinguish yourself as a serious publisher?

Ironically, the answer may well be with a companion print product that can reach the not insubstantial segment of the market that prefers print. That's presumably why TechTarget, an online tech publisher Meckler cites in his article, launched print magazines well after it had become successful on the Web. The key is to lead with your Web product, not your print product, and possibly even position the print product as a premium-price supplement to the online product. The technology is just about ready to handle some serious innovation in this area.

As to the ability to launch a Web site with a single writer, I see an apples-to-oranges comparison here. Those who write for the Web aren't inherently more productive than those who write for print, so if your Web site has fewer writers, your Web site will also have fewer stories. If Meckler is suggesting that you can bootstrap a Web launch with modest content, adding more and better content if the site proves itself financially, I believe that the window to operate this way is rapidly closing. The fight for audience mindshare is more intense than I have ever seen, and if your target audience barely has time to read top-notch content, imagine their interest in perusing second-rate content.

I'd make a similar observation on the notion of the Web having virtually zero distribution costs, a technically accurate statement if you are trying to contrast paper and printing costs with Web pages. Yet the reason Web distribution is virtually free is that those who want your information need to come and pick it up, and therein are some serious costs. Search engine optimization and marketing represent substantial and growing costs for many publishers, who spend this money because they understand that, just as in print, you need to find your audience. Only then do the wonderful economics of Web publishing kick in.

Print publications have survived predictions of their imminent demise for nearly 20 years. That said, this time I think it's serious. What's different now is the widespread, fundamental shift in the way users access, read and use information. The future is clearly about speed, the ability to apply information, convenience and personalization. None of those are strengths of print. So Meckler's points should be heeded, but it should also be noted that the online medium still has a way to go to prove itself as an effective advertising vehicle, and that the transition from print to online publishing is neither easy nor automatic.
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