Commentary

Digital Frontiers: A Chat With Online Publishing Association Chief Michael Zimbalist

No organization has done more to generate research and analysis about the efficacy and power of online advertising than the Online Publishing Association (OPA). Comprised of all the top quality content publishers (my own The Washington Post, The New York Times, ESPN, MSNBC, Conde Nast, USA Today, CBS MarketWatch, WSJ.com to name a few), OPA has been steered by the drive, energy, and sophistication of Michael Zimbalist. He is an encyclopedia of learning on Web marketing and content, and has seen it all.

CMS: The first quarter seemed to come roaring back in the industry, and while things are still good, there is a sense things have slowed a bit. What's going on out there?

MZ: Business was very good in the first two quarters. There's always a bit of a slowdown in the third quarter, which this year may be amplified slightly by mixed signals in the economy and the upcoming election. But my sense - and it's very anecdotal - is that business is strong, online publishers and advertisers are on plan, and they're gearing up for quarter four.

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CMS: What are your members making of the whole search craze? Threat, opportunity, different business?

MZ: Different business all together. We're a bit concerned that the growth expectations for search may be unrealistic and that if that is indeed the case, Wall Street may overreact and beat back the whole sector. But we continue to differentiate search - which is really a tactic for finding in-market customers - from display advertising, which is a means to convey your brand image. To the extent that the OPA has been successful in doing this, I believe our members may be insulated from any potential disappointments should the growth expectations for search prove to be overblown.

CMS: What do you make of the "arbitragers" -- groups like advertising.com who make a spread between their cost of inventory (or cost of key word acquisition) and what they can sell directly to marketers?

MZ: I think they're smart. I also think that over time, publishers will gain some of that knowledge and the arbitragers will get smaller as a result.

CMS: But, taken to an extreme, arbitragers are saying to marketers "don't worry what site your on. Worry where your customers are and we'll find them." Desktop applications like WeatherBug really are saying the same thing. What do quality content sites make of this?

MZ: We believe that the Internet is a platform that supports many different business models. In fact, we just launched a service on our Web site called the Internet Activity Index which compares the time people spend in content, communications, commerce, and search - all of which are different Internet-enabled businesses. There is certainly room in this ecosystem for desktop applications. But applications can never offer the kinds of integrated advertising programs that content sites can, programs which pull together rich media, contextual, and behavioral targeting, all within a known and trusted environment with a highly engaged user.

CMS: What's the best innovation you've seen in the last year?

MZ: Truthfully, I think this has been a year in which people in our industry have focused on fundamentals, so in that respect innovation has been on the back burner. But I'd point to audience-level targeting from Tacoda and Revenue Science; the new 100 K streaming rich media ads from PointRoll and Eyeblaster, and the new broadcast-quality video commercial from Unicast.

CMS: What keeps you up late at night?

MZ: I worry about people in our business becoming overly euphoric again. I worry that in spite of our spectacular growth of late, we're still a very small part of media and advertising. But mostly what keeps me up at night are my three little kids. Although I have no worries that in their lifetime our industry will reach the sort of scale we all expect.

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