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Update 3/29/09: Danny Sullivan correctly pointed out to me that he is a publisher and an advertiser.  I’ll disagree on the idea that he is a “real user”, by which I meant “regular user”, because he is not nor I am.  We study websites, traffic and human behavior – we notice and ignore and react to things very differently than a user just flying by to get the latest news and views.  I do agree with Danny that my argument mostly matches his… thus, I’m only calling out Clemons argument.

Update 3/28/09: Techcrunch keeps stirring this up.  Now Danny Sullivan replies…

The most damaging part of both of their arguments is that neither one is arguing Clemons original argument and rebuttal mostly fail to convince his claims about the death of Internet Advertising.  He’s conclusions don’t match actual data and experience from the perspectives of an advertiser, a publisher nor really a regular user.

These points are not defensible without real data:

Users don’t trust ads
Users don’t want to view ads
Users don’t need ads
Ads cannot be the sole source of funding for the internet
Ad revenue will diminish because of brutal competition brought on by an oversupply of inventory, and it will be replaced in many instances by micropayments and subscription payments for content.
There are numerous other business models that will work on the net, that will be tried, and that will succeed.

In fact, let’s consider some counter examples:

Someone sold 4 million Snuggies based on ads.  Did the people who responded to those ads not trust the ads?  Their behavior shows they did enough to fork over $15 bucks for a blanket with holes in it.  The better statement is some users don’t trust some ads.

Users do want to view ads.  Millions of people love superbowl ads and actually seek them out online and on their TIVOs.  Online only ads that people do want to view include the millions of mini games they play, youtube videos they watch, contests they enter.  A better statement is that some users to want to view some ads, especially when the ads are not engaging, useful or catchy.

Users do need ads.  Search engines and social graphs can only show you information about things that are already popular/reached tipping point.  They cannot show you stuff just coming out of the labs.  Users need ads to learn about new and different products and services.  And the only way to introduce people to new things is put new things alongside already known things.

Ads are not the sole source of funding for the internet. Anyone who is claiming this is what web companies think clearly has not really studied the industry or worked at a web company and/or companies that extensively use the web in their business models.

Ad revenue will continue to grow in the long run.  As long as businesses need to sell more product, more ad revenue will go into the market.  The difference is that the ad spend is spread among more and more entities, so individual businesses will get less ad revenue.

Many other business models already work. and more will be created.  Selling apps, selling computer time, renting server space, selling subscriptions, donor models, barters, licensing, premium access…. I mean, gosh.  I don’t think we lack for business models that work.  The media is simply pointing to the high profile failures of big media companies that haven’t figured out to how to shoehorn it’s model into the internet way of doing things.

Once again we see that pundits rarely represent the real story.  They don’t know the price of milk. Just talking to people in the industry and summarizing the conversation is not enough to predict the end of online advertising.

See below for rest of my original response.

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Despite the impressive length,  a recent TechCrunch guest feature on the failure of internet advertising fails to reveal what’s really destroying the ad model online.  Clemons neither states what he claims is actually failing and doesn’t really prove it is. Alas, I will still attempt to refute the possible implications of his claim.

It is not a particularly insightful observation that “The problem is not the medium, the problem is the message, and the fact that it is not trusted, not wanted, and not needed”. Of course people don’t like being distracted with ad messages.  That’s always been the case, that’s why marketers have to pay for ad placement.  Nothing new here.

Advertising itself is not broken nor will ever go away.  As long as companies have products they need to push into market, they have to advertise, regardless of nature of the medium.  Play with the language and state definitions all you want – advertising will always be a part of our lives and media experiences.

What’s wrong with the business models of sites that rely on advertising is the pricing, not the actual idea of advertising.  Spending in terms of dollars is down in all mediums, certainly.  However, the amount of advertising we’re exposed to is likely still growing.   I have a long post on all sorts of data points on this topic here.  The short of it:  marketers have a growing number  advertising impressions out there, everyone know’s how well they perform and thus the pricing is coming way down from the relatively overpriced “older” advertising models in print, radio and tv.  This shrinking pricing model puts pressure on the business from a margin standpoint and so the less efficient businesses fail.

Yes, I generally hate banner, text, billboard ads and neon signs like everyone else. Except when I don’t.  And when I don’t that’s valuable to the company that paid for that placement and it’s valuable to me to be notified of something I might have missed.  We’re just arguing price.

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Failure to understand how users and money flow through the Internet costs media and etailers a lot of money every day.  There are huge misconceptions about where the “value” actually lives for user data, advertising performance and profit margins on all this high tech.

The following figures attempt to disambiguate some of the confusion.  The summarized conclusions come from a variety of data sources and real life experiences analyzing financial statements, traffic reports, advertiser analysis and experimentation.  Specifically one could get someone exact figures by combining comScore, Quantcast, Compete, Google Analytics, TNS, @Plan, SEC Filings, internal reports, revenue statements and DART forecasting as I have done several times.

This post is meant to be a demonstration of the core concepts, not a statistical treatise on the topic.

If you hate reading too much, skip to the end for a somewhat realistic example of how traffic flows.

Traffic on the Internet roughly splits 7 segments.  (as shown in the figures below).  These segments are defined by where the sit in the user experience by amount of consumptive behavior (clicks, reading, sharing, watching). How the user gets from segment to segment is not completely linear in actuality, but when you coagulate a users behavior you’ll roughly see a funnel in terms of time spent, pageviews and ad impressions.

Traffic Funnel

Traffic Funnel

The segments can be characterized also by their ad performance, ad targeting (how specific is the user in their activity), and their audience coverage (how much of the particular audience segment does a type of site/service reach)

Funnel Traffic Segments

Funnel Traffic Segments

Each segment has a different cost profile.  Here I look at labor costs to maintain and capital expenses to build and power.

Where's the Cost?

Where's the Cost?

As you can guess, each traffic segment has a different profit profile too.  This is largely the result of combining the advertising/revenue performance with the cost profile.  Certain Internet services simply do not have a strong profit opportunity because they borrow old models and/or cost more than the market is willing to pay. (Perhaps that will stabilize one day, but I think software tools and low cost hardware disrupt the demand curve A LOT because users can often supply their own demands once the cost gets too high, hence why TOOLS are the most profitable segment.)

Profit Margins by Segment

Profit Margins by Segment

Make no mistake about what I’m presenting here.  The profit online is all in retailing, portals/search and tools/utilities.  The stuff in the middle of the funnel is highly susceptible to competitive displacement and has very little intellectual property protection.  You can verify this conclusion by reviewing revenue statements and SEC filings for the big tech and internet companies.

The advent of citizen journalism and self publishing flattened the media market.  Owning a printing press was once “high tech” and a capital investment barrier.  Owning the right location on the main street was once a logistical barrier.  High speed computers and difficult programming languages was once a technical barrier.  Those 3 feature are gone.  Media is now, well, almost purely a creative barrier.  There’s a huge pool of creative talent constantly struggling against each other.  Creativity is worth a lot once it rises above everything else.  That happens so rarely to make it a bad investment.  Every minute more and more people enter the creative market (how many blog posts per hour? how many videos go up each day?… a lot.)

organizing, sifting, filtering, distributing, aggregating… that’s the sweet spot.  There is a technical hurdle, but the investment is worth it as there will never be less of a need to filter, sift, find, distribute.

This week we had a beautiful illustration of these concepts with the Presdential Inauguration.

Most of the US users watched the Inauguration, most on TV, a lot with online video streams and 2 million in person.  During and Immediately following the inauguration the Internet lit up with content creation and massive usage.  The portals and search engines featured as many new links and breaking stories to the news coverage.

The social networks shot pictures, tweets and status updates around, occassionally referencing links to the confirmation gaff, benediction speech text, and satelite pictures from DC.

Micro bloggers summarized everything as fast as they could, while the search engines and utilities sucked in that content.  The original content creators probably released a previously composed story and put that live.

Mainstream users shut down their video streams and took to the portals and search engine, seeking more info on what just happened or insight into a specific moment.  Most times they ended up at CNN or NYTimes.  Many times, but less frequently, they hit a blog that had some recent content.  Most users probably ran into a wikipedia reference link or youtube video.

Some users ended up on amazon to buy Obama’s books or some inauguration swag.  Finally as the day concluded and original content creators finally had enough time to craft something, users might find themselves falling asleep to a good OpEd on the history of the day or an interview with the Michelle Obama dress designers.

By 3 days later the amount of content available on the inauguration is 1000x greater than within the first 10 minutes.  Original content creators are hopelessly buried amongst the blog posts, tweets, continuosly AP feed CNN articles and YouTube embeds.  The bloggers are buried by other bloggers.  The news stories give way to other news stories.

The utilities that sort, sift, filter and monetize on it all just got a 1000x better experience and continue to catch the huge volume of user investigation and digging.  The own the head, the trunk and that dreaded long tail and collect user targeting data all along the way.

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