Trade Marketing, Or Trade-Off Marketing?

I still can't watch Super Bowl ads without thinking about 1999 and 2000, and the frenzy then to "aggregate eyeballs." No term has become so archaic so quickly as "aggregate eyeballs." Even now, hearing it in my mind makes me uneasy, as I would feel if I met someone at a cocktail party tonight and he introduced himself proudly as a "Dot-com CEO."

And that's a shame, because while the theory and actual execution of "aggregating eyeballs" six years ago was often folly at its worst and suspect at its best, the need for online publishers to continually innovate in consumer marketing has not changed. But many online publishers seem to have thrown the Bubble out with the bathwater, and have diverted all their marketing resources towards the trade.

In my role, I work with marketing directors at online publishers every day. In most cases, their principal responsibility is trade marketing--marketing to advertisers and agencies in order to court online media spend. Many are also responsible for consumer marketing, and tell me that it's a small fraction of the total work they do.

I also work with publishers' research directors. Their primary function seems to be trade research: funding and managing studies that prove the effectiveness either of the online medium in general, or their property in particular, designed to arm the marketing director with ammunition for future campaigns targeting advertisers and agencies, in order to court online media spends.

PR and communications directors work closely with marketing and research. They collaborate with me on securing speaking opportunities for sales executives, so they can present and discuss the research supplied by the research director and framed neatly by the marketing director.

And more often than not, research, marketing and PR all report to the head of sales.

Trade marketing is important, and over the past few years it has been positively vital. But there is a landscape shift occurring that publishers need to tap into right about now.

At online publishers' print counterparts, there are entire departments devoted to circulation--funding their own research, and with separate conference and education budgets. This function is considered mission-critical in print, because print executives understand, precisely, the metrics of lifetime customer value and customer churn. The Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) devotes entire events to circulation and consumer marketing, even offering specialized certification programs in the field. Its membership is as active with circulation professionals as it is with sales departments.

But almost nowhere in online publishing does circulation's equivalent--audience development--enjoy the same prominence within the organization. Why? Three reasons:

1) Audiences at online publishers have so far grown organically, simply through growth of online users and an increase in their time online.
2) Consolidation after 2001 pared down the competitive landscape, leaving less incentive for publishers to invest forcefully in consumer marketing.
3) Up until just recently, publishers' problems were more of the advertiser demand variety than publisher supply.

But the more important question is, why not? Why doesn't audience development play the same role at online publishers as circulation does in the print industry? Today, right now, online publishers face two immediate threats: 1) shortage of premium inventory, 2) terabytes of competing content (and millions of competing content creators) in blogs, photo streams, vlogs, podcasts and whatever else consumers and small publishers produce.

It's entirely possible that these two issues will self-regulate, and the competing content will swiftly cure online publishers' inventory shortfalls by drawing off advertisers. But both problems can also be addressed in the publishers' favor, and through initiatives that print publishers turned to aggressively when they perceived the threat from the online channel: bring in new readers, and do a better job keeping those they have.

Organic growth online will soon level off; competition from small publishers will kick in; and established online publishers will inevitably see their audiences constrict. When that happens, publishers who've focused largely on trade marketing will wish they had harvested their print counterparts not just for "eyeballs"--but for lessons as well.

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