Commentary

What If We Build It… And They Don’t Come?

  • by , Featured Contributor, February 25, 2002
Among the numerous fallacies that helped propel the Internet meteor across the financial night skies was the assumption that “if we build it, they will come.”

That misplaced assumption was based on the formula of how virtually all mass media had grown up in this country over the past century.

“We will provide compelling content that will attract an audience, which we can then sell to advertisers.” This seemed somewhat prescient given the rapid rise in Internet use while traditional media (read: broadcast TV and newspapers), which were getting the lion’s share of advertising dollars, were losing audience at record rates.

There was lots of excitement about one-to-one marketing fueled in part by preposterous promises made by ad serving companies that they could target left handed, male golfers with handicaps under 20 but with HHIs over $500,000, etc. etc.

But when that meteor flamed out, web publishers found themselves with huge audiences that nobody wanted to pay for because media companies didn’t have a clue where that rich, left handed male golfer was or how to get an ad in front of his routinely over counted eyeballs.

Now, the remedy seems to be in programs that help web publishers collect information about who comes to their sites, build profiles so that they can separate the rich left handed golfers from the sports car buyers, the grocery shoppers and the teenagers desperately trying find to revealing candids of Britney Spears. Then the profiles can be aggregated into not only quantifiable but qualifiable audience segments. Publishers can then sell their audiences in ways similar to other media and in ways more familiar to media buyers. Advertisers will be able to target better prospects and see an impressive increase in their ROI.

To this “win-win” scenario you can add another less obvious “win.” One of the byproducts of better understanding who your web audience is and how they relate to your content, is that you come to find out there are parts of your site that ought be shot and buried in the Pine Barrens. Why? Because they are not producing high-value traffic which in turn could produce advertising opportunities.

That’s right, if they don’t come, tear it down.

I can just see this being forwarded by email to editors by nervous, but gleeful publishers. In traditional publishing where a wall supposedly separates church (editorial) and state (sales), it would be considered the highest form of heresy to suggest to your editor that readers thought parts of what he/she produces kind of sucks and ought be fixed or eliminated. The mantra is that you trust the editor completely and if you don’t like the product’s performance you replace the editor, but NEVER tinker with his toy.

A couple thousand-point drop in the NASDAQ should have been the wake up call that there is no bottom line point in producing content that you can can’t sell to advertisers because not enough high quality users spend time on that part of the site.

There is precedent in other media. In television they routinely cancel shows that don’t attract a sellable audience, sometimes after only one or two episodes. While the guy who fishes his newspaper out of the hedge each morning THINKS he is getting all the news that’s fit to print, he in fact is getting all the news the publisher allow the editors each day based on recent classified and display ad sales. In other words the publisher is saying, “You can produce this much news, because that’s all we can afford.” (Yes, yes there are 9/11 exceptions when the budget is ignored to properly cover big stories, but day in day out the department stores and car dealers determine just how much news you get.)

And so should it be for the web. Publish what you can afford to publish and dump the rest. You will indeed get 12 angry e mails from the dozen or so heavy traffickers of the Junior High Sports Page, but send them back a note suggesting they get 250,000 of their closest friends to click on all the banners next to the basketball schedule and you’ll keep the page up.

Perhaps you are clever enough to figure out how to sell ad inventory on the back waters of your site, but I see lots of publishers sinking like a stone trying to get even a $1 CPM or accepting highly unprofitable click per action business because that is all they are ever going to get.

Dumping unprofitable content will not only save you the heartache of trying to sell it with dignity, you will also save on the cost to produce it.

Yet another win-win.

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