“Premium inventory” is one of those squishy industry terms that mutates each time you scrutinize it. Most people can at least agree on this much: A premium “thing” is usually higher quality and higher cost than other available “things” in that category — e.g. a Rolex is premium compared to a Swatch, and a BMW 7 Series is premium compared to the 1975 Pontiac Catalina I drove in grad school. The Ritz-Carlton is premium, Motel 6 is not.
The problems begin when you add the word “inventory.” First, when we’re talking about content (where most inventory lives), whether or not something is “premium” is often in the eye of the beholder. I find the Buzzfeed / Friskies “Dear Kitten” videos endlessly hilarious, and I would call the experience of watching (and sharing) them premium, but my opera-adoring aunt may not.
Second, as smart people have already pointed out before me , the concept of “premium inventory” is a manufactured designation that sellers created to help justify higher prices. That trick really only works when there is a shortage of supply: digital video before YouTube, say, or journalism before blogging.
Third, and perhaps most significant, the term is a vestige of an earlier era, one where “publisher” was synonymous with “audience,” and not simply a proxy for it.
When new things look like old things, we are all prone to applying old mental models (or just dismissing the new thing). Thus we compare digital video to TV, podcasts to radio, and mobile gaming to console gaming.
But what if, zooming out to the widest possible angle, we are actually looking at something new? What happens when a guy named Copernicus comes along and tells you the sun, not the earth, is the center of the universe? How does daily life change after that?
As we go from 1.5 billion PCs to 4 billion iOS and Android devices, and the TV becomes just another piece of glass, we have to acknowledge that the basic physics of the media market have changed — particularly with regard to scarcity, time and substitution.
Scarcity: the story of media over the last 50 years is one of decreasing (inventory) scarcity and increasing (audience) fragmentation, driven by technology. Back in ‘70s, a TV watcher had a whopping 12 channels to choose from (which was still better than staring at the radio). Then along came cable with its hundreds of channels, and Web video with thousands, millions, etc.
Time: the only place where scarcity still exists. Not even the most vigorous multitasker can change the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day.
Substitution: media now competes with non-media experiences for user attention, and in a big way. Mobile messaging and mobile gaming, for example, command huge amounts of user attention, yet the word “inventory” doesn’t really apply here. Who wants to see a banner ad inside a WhatsApp chat?
Not everything has changed, though. At least this much has remained constant: Great advertising never feels like advertising. It feels like an experience, a story that engages me. It feels like something I want.
As soon as you put “user experience” at the center of your worldview, it’s easy to see how brands can play a role in facilitating awesome user experiences. One example is Verizon’s recent integration inside Minecraft. Verizon built a functioning cell network & web browser within the actual game, in a way that is completely authentic to the normal gameplay.
It’s an example of using technology to create an experience that is meaningfully connected to a larger story, and it’s beautiful.