It has become a reflex in this industry of behavioral targeting to minimize the fundamental challenge that the BT model has always posed to traditional media: the longstanding and unchallenged value of context is being at least, qualified -- and at worst, undermined. When technologies emerge that purport to follow “people, not pages” you are challenging the fundamental value proposition of content providers to assemble and understand audiences and create environments where these people are receptive to marketing messages.
To be sure, almost every ad network and tech provider still insists on that inherent value of context, most obviously in the perennial pursuit of marquee media brands and that ever-squishy definition of “premium” inventory. No one dares say that context doesn’t matter anymore, and there are metrics out there demonstrating that “quality” branded media contexts and “premium” content in fact do deliver better ad performance in many cases.
But the audience-centric orientation of the current ad tech ecosystem clearly puts publishers on the defensive over the relative value of their context. Ad tech makes it possible to find that same person elsewhere at a tiny fraction of the cost. In the end the question is not “is context of value?” but is it worth the often incredible differentials between a tech-driven network buy and a direct buy? The wise buyer will likely say that advertisers need a blend of the two to achieve their goals.
Still, there is a real shift in power and even authority going on in this equation, and my impression is that the tension is not surfaced as much as it should be. So I was encouraged by a recent research note from Brian Wieser, formerly of Magna and now senior research analyst at Pivotal Research Group. Wieser posits that the ad tech terrain is creating “circumstances which are highly unfavorable to incumbent publishers....The rise of ad servers, ad networks and ad exchanges paired with the notion of targeting ‘people, not pages’ (i.e. advertisers increasingly favor behavioral targeting rather than contextual buying in their display activities) have created circumstances where advertisers know more about the value of inventory than do publishers.”
This last point seems to me especially important. Traditionally, publishers sold advertisers not just ad space but the understanding of audience. They played an integral market research role as the entities in closest and most friendly contact with the target customer. While technology may not cut media out of that value chain entirely, it certainly gives advertisers a level of insight that is now formidable in its own right.
The ways in which real-time bidding systems, for instance, can reveal to marketers unanticipated audience affinities and pockets of potential buyers is extraordinary. The ability of these technologies also to monetize at much lower costs longer and longer tails of inventory is a direct challenge to the economics of audience-gathering big media. As Wieser puts it, “This structure won’t help publishers very much: those focused on display inventory can generally only grow to the extent their audience grows more rapidly than overall pricing deflates.”
Wieser points to Yahoo as a bellwether of the challenges many publishers will face to manage costs in the face of limited growth in its area of display. Whatever lip service media buyers may pay to resisting the commoditization of display and the inherent value of branded media environments, the allure of getting as good or better results from applying technology to lesser inventory will win out and exert even more pressure on publishers’ business models.