How Facebook Becomes the Biggest Player In Advertising’s $540 Billion World

This article was published as a guest post at AdAge, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Facebook will replace online display advertising as we know it. It will save digital media by reversing the commodity pricing trend. And it will become the highest grossing media property in history.

Believe me? If you’re one of the investors who was burned by Facebook’s disappointing IPO, you might not be so bullish. At a multiple of 28X last year’s earnings, Facebook’s offering price presumed fast-growing and scalable revenue streams. But the reality of Facebook’s advertising trajectory has been lagging, and continued percentage growth isn’t going to make it up.

Facebook needs a huge discontinuity in its advertising revenues to make that math go round.

Fortunately, I think we’re about to see a huge discontinuity. Facebook’s great opportunity is to create an advertising product that the world has never seen. And it can be done.

The key is in a single idea, and Facebook is singularly able to deliver on it: SELL RELATIONSHIPS, NOT IMPRESSIONS.

The first 100 years of brand advertising was built on the paradigm of a captive audience with interruption advertising in TV, radio, print, and online. That created a $540 billion market to reach a mostly-right audience at the mostly-right time, with a sometimes-right message delivered via occasionally-great creative. The basic idea being that if you reach those people with enough frequency and decent creative, they’ll eventually hear your message.

But never, ever, ever has any brand had an advertising platform that could create a relationship with a consumer before she makes a purchase.

Until now.

A relationship is worth a hundred or a thousand times an impression – or more – depending on how you monetize it.

The ability to sell relationships puts Facebook in a completely different business than every other media company – and their product is orders of magnitude more valuable. To undermine that premium would be absolute folly. That’s why Facebook should never, ever sell impressions.

But with no proven model for selling relationships, how will Facebook make relationships a reality? Here are five unwritten rules that should guide them, memorialized here so we will all know what to expect:

1. Create an offering that can’t be price-shopped or commoditized
Facebook has the commodities of digital media in abundance: 900 million users, 1 in 7 minutes of our online attention, and 500 billion pageviews per month.

But they won’t – and shouldn’t – open the banner ad floodgates, because they saw this movie back in 2007: MySpace flooded the market with banner ad inventory and watched their value plummet to pennies per thousand views. There’s no scarcity of ways to reach a target demographic with a banner ad, and anything remotely similar to a banner ad will be price-compared to a banner ad.

By creating truly original ad products that have no comparables in the market, Facebook will be able to create and sustain its own price point. And because Facebook is the only game in town when it comes to selling consumer relationships at full scale, they have a lock on that market. Scarcity of sources with huge reach and a product that cements relationship for life could be a killer combination. (Sidenote to Adam Bain: shouldn’t you sell Promoted Follows for 100X the value of Promoted Tweets?)

2. Create an offering that can’t be measured in one-time conversions
Back when she was at Google, Sheryl Sandberg designed AdWords and AdSense to do something nobody had ever done before at scale: form a direct link between the cost and value of an ad. She had pretty good results – today Google owns more than 60% of the market for direct response advertising.

Now that she’s with Facebook, Sheryl knows better than to fight Google for the same pie – especially when Facebook’s opportunity is so much larger. As a medium of connection rather than transaction, social is perfectly suited to brand advertising. And the market for brand advertising happens to be 9 times the size of the direct response advertising universe that Google has increasingly dominated.

What’s more, advertisers have been pent up, waiting to invest in brand advertising on the web. To date, they’ve allocated only 40% of their online ad spend to branding, even though more broadly brand advertising garners 90%. As a relationship broker, Facebook is the one who can convince them to spend. Just as Google proved the value of direct marketing online, Facebook can prove that brand relationships can be built more effectively on social media than through any magazine spread.

3. Create an offering that enhances rather than compromises the user experience
The holy grail of media is advertising that actually adds to the value of the content. You can see it today in the print editions of magazines like GQ and Vogue – the advertising spreads are so gorgeous and smart that readers think of them as content.

Not so online. Users often think of ads as a tradeoff, a price to pay for access to free content and services. (For some high-end brands, online advertising is even seen as an image liability. That’s why Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton have yet to embrace digital ads – they know it is interruptive rather than additive.)

Facebook is poised for this challenge. Zuckerberg has always put the user experience forever ahead of revenue today. He knows better than to devalue the audience’s experience with advertising products that serve advertisers while frustrating users. No doubt advertisers – not to mention Wall Street investors – will continue to be annoyed by their second-class status in the short term, but Facebook’s unyielding focus on user experience will serve all their constituencies well in the end.

4. Create an offering that closely guards the data
Facebook’s greatest competitive advantage is the incomparably rich dataset it owns about each and every one of its 900 million users. That data is scarce and tremendously valuable for targeting – which means that Facebook will be able to charge a premium for every advertising offering it puts forth using it.

Much to the chagrin of advertisers and publishers alike, there is overwhelming strategic value in keeping that data limited rather than selling it wholesale. Facebook will never give advertisers the data. They could sell access to the list of people predisposed to buy your product, or they could make all user data available and let anyone analyze it. The former preserves scarcity and the other destroys it.

And that’s also why Facebook will lend its data sparingly. Even in the most recent FBX announcement (an enhancement to its least valuable form of advertising), Facebook kept their own dataset out of it completely, allowing use of third-party data only. When it comes time to sell, or more realistically, lease, that data, Facebook will do it with tight controls and at a huge premium.

Remember: the media industry was once robust and profitable. What was different then? The targets were the same, but the ways to reach them were fewer.

5. Create a supernetwork that has no borders
If Facebook plays by the four rules above, they will create the killer ad offering that will finally bring the big brand advertising dollars online. But Facebook ads on Facebook will be only the beginning. Just a few days ago, Facebook took its first step in the direction of the bigger opportunity: extending those services to other publishers on the web.

I’m not talking about AdSense – I’m talking about creating a far more intelligent programmatic relationship between users, their interests, and branded content. Every publisher would be better off if they were using Facebook’s comprehensive and lifelong relationship with users to inform their advertising – and if they themselves had a way to sell relationships, not impressions. Ultimately, exporting the offering to the rest of the web (86% of user attention is spent elsewhere, after all) will send more value right back to Facebook in the form of a larger dataset. Not to mention a nice cut of the revenues that Facebook would be entitled to.

This is a huge opportunity for the entire digital media industry. Online advertising has become a commodity (thanks, Google!). Facebook is digital media’s one best hope to reverse that trend and make online advertising more valuable than offline advertising by tenfold. Google took direct marketing and made it extremely efficient, allowing advertisers to spend less. Facebook has something to sell that might actually make advertisers open their wallets more: a magic brand relationship machine that far exceeds the value of transactional clicks.

Wall Street would much rather that Facebook ignored the five rules above, because Wall Street wants profits now. Facebook wants profits forever. May the latter prevail.

Why Google Needs a Buddy

I was intrigued to find that despite having some of the deepest pockets in the industry, Google seems to have lost a bid for social media marketing company Buddy Media (according to Peter Kafka at AllThingsD).

Buddy Media may sound like a counter-intuitive soulmate for Google:  Does Google really want to help brands have a presence on Facebook?  And those competitive considerations, plus regulatory concerns, might have held them back from paying top dollar.  But it’s a shame they didn’t dig a little deeper, because nobody needs a buddy in social more than Google does.

As the premier search destination, Google has no trouble earning consumer attention or selling search ads.  But in social, the company has struggled.  They could keep trying to woo social users with new offerings, or they could try the back door:  social advertising.  But Google+ doesn’t yet translate into an attractive social ad buy, and so the company’s only option is to use competitors’ platforms (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter) to broaden their advertising efforts.  In which case, a play for Buddy Media was really quite smart.

An acquisition of Buddy Media would have helped to protect Google’s position as the leader in online advertising.  They control 44% of global ad spend today (compared to Facebook’s 3%), but if social advertising becomes more important than search – and I predict that it will – those tables could turn with alarming speed.  Google is struggling to stay relevant in an increasingly social world, and if they don’t find a social buddy, they could lose their grip on the internet advertising needs of their clients.  Google needs to stay forward on the leading edge of advertising.  And the leading edge is social.

When Google acquired DoubleClick for $3.1B in 2007, it was with the recognition that to be a pro-level player in advertising online, Google simply had to have access to advertisers’ display budgets.  Now, this interest in social looks like it signals that Google has the same recognition when it comes to social spend.  Simply put, the social advertising market is about to grow to a level so high that Google can’t afford not to offer it to clients.

Even though Buddy Media would not have solved Google’s top-of-mind problem – convincing users to hang out, rather than search and leave – it would have helped to position them as an expert in social media marketing.  And that might have helped them develop, over time and with a new perspective, the formula for that elusive social secret sauce.

That alone would be invaluable to Google.  It’s no secret that the company that excelled in search doesn’t have social in its DNA, and it is unlikely to change that without help.  An acquisition is one of the few course-changing options that could make the difference.

More than anything, this week’s news demonstrates that Google sees tremendous value in social.  Now that the acquisition appears unlikely to happen, Google needs to turn its attention to other game-changers that could inject it with some social DNA.  Of course, Pinterest and Twitter should be on the list, and are probably worth far more to Google than any financial valuation would suggest.  But just as valuable would be a company that uses the social web to drive usage, audience, or conversion. Each of these would help Google advance its media offering and rewire itself for social.

Stay tuned:  I bet more news will be coming soon.  It’s good to see Google getting more aggressive.

What to Expect When Facebook Is Expecting: Five Predictions for Facebook’s First Public Year

This article was published as a guest post at AllThingsD, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Mark Zuckerberg’s baby will be coming of age in a few days, just eight years after it was born in a Harvard dorm room. We’ve been there for the first steps, and the first missteps. But do any of us know what Facebook-all-grown-up-as-a-public-company will look like?

I have five predictions of how Facebook will be maturing in the first year after its IPO:

1. Search

Facebook has become home base for users in many ways. But when it comes to search, Facebook makes you take a bus transfer at Google every time you want to leave the house.

And that’s a shame, because Google starts each search from a place of knowing almost nothing about me. When I’m taking a vacation to Bali, I’m far less interested in Google’s generic recommendations of things to do than I am in recommendations from my friends who have been there.

Facebook already knows which of my friends have been to Bali, and which restaurants and attractions they liked the best. It can even differentiate between the friend I trust for restaurant recs and the friend who always finds the best surfing spots.

There is a clear battle between Google and Facebook. But it’s not over “search vs. discovery,” as it is often framed. Rather, it’s “transaction vs. relationship” — which is why Facebook has the potential to disrupt search as we know it.

Prediction: Facebook will launch a purely social search by the end of 2012 (before tackling the whole hog in 2013).

2. Advertising

Despite the company’s fierce ethos of consumer experience first, business concerns second, an IPO will inevitably put upward pressure on the latter. With the numbers published quarterly and the prices reset every day, Facebook will be forced to support that share price (if not for the sake of its shareholders, then at least for its employees!) by expanding its advertising revenues.

Facebook today brings in quarterly ad revenue of $872M — just a tiny fraction of Google’s $9B. But transactions are by nature pecuniary — and relationships are priceless. As a gatekeeper to nearly a billion consumer relationships, Facebook can roll out new advertising products that are far more valuable than AdWords.

The market for online brand advertising is already huge at $85B today. As soon as Facebook unlocks the potential of relationship-based advertising, the market will open up by tens of billions more.

Prediction: By Q2 2013, Facebook will have more than tripled ad revenues to $3B per quarter.

3. Open Graph

Occupy Facebook! Oh wait, we already do. Or does Facebook occupy us? Facebook currently occupies 1 in 7 minutes of all time spent online.

As the locus of consumer identity, attention and relationships, Facebook has the potential to be the one true platform that links together every destination on the web.

But it’s not there yet. Open Graph was a start, but it lacks a complete and actionable vision for how publishers can connect, access data and establish relationships. Publishers don’t want bits and pieces of data that they need to analyze themselves — they want a unified schema that bridges their audiences’ online worlds and real lives.

When I buy a chicken at Whole Foods using a Facebook app’s mobile grocery coupon, Facebook can match that incoming data point with the fact that I read Cooks Illustrated and that I’ve been on an Indian food kick lately (based on my restaurant check-ins). By the time that chicken is in my reusable bag and I’m hauling it out the door, there should be chicken curry recipe suggestions on my Facebook page.

Facebook has an opportunity to turn data from the long tail of Facebook apps into real inferences about you and me that publishers and other brands on the web can actually use.

Prediction: Facebook will completely redesign their analytics offering by Q2 2013 to provide not just data but real, integrated audience insights that will guide brands’ personalization efforts.

4. Commerce and Currency

Advertising won’t be the only revenue play Facebook makes in its first year as a public company.

Digital commerce (i.e. digital goods) already represents more than $16B in market size, and is projected to grow to $36B globally by 2014. E-commerce is another $680B on top of that. Both are currently conducted by arcane means: Visa card numbers and PayPal accounts.

Why have digital payments been so slow to evolve? Because even the most trusting of us only allow a few close associates access to our most private details. Who knows me the best? My bank, my lawyer, my mother and Facebook. In fact, no one owns my identity as well as Facebook these days (sorry, Mom!). Just because Facebook doesn’t have access to my wallet yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

A host of companies today (Google, Apple, Square) are trying to become your digital wallet, but Facebook holds a valuable advantage: it is already the locus of your relationships with third-party Web sites through Open Graph. While the logistics will certainly be no piece of cake, commerce is right up Facebook’s alley.

Prediction: By Q2 2013, Facebook will be presiding over $2B in transactions.

5. Timeline

There’s nothing more core to Facebook than its user experience, and Facebook has since its birth shown a consistent healthy dissatisfaction with it no matter what the status quo.

The current timeline experience is a nice try, but it’s not quite right. Timeline solved one problem — the indigestible frequency and quantity of updates at all levels of priority — while creating several more. New Problem #1: Timeline’s intuition about what’s important is too frequently just plain wrong. And while it gives us a great retrospective on people, it does a surprisingly poor job of helping us stay up to date with them. New Problem #2: Timeline depends heavily on Open Graph widgets to summarize our lives.

The latter is both ambitious and troubling. We admire great biographers for their ability to identify and communicate the essence of a person. It’s an insult say that a Nike Fuel score algorithm can capture the “real me” in the same way.

Timeline is a v1 product. It will take significant and deep tuning over many versions to reach its full potential.

This may seem like it’s just a UI update, but it’s not. Timeline is the clearinghouse for everything that happens on Facebook. Getting Timeline right is probably the single most valuable thing Facebook can do to grow its effectiveness with users — and its revenues.

Prediction: Facebook will release the first major redesign of Timeline by the first half of 2013.

Will the precocious kid that Facebook is today grow into a smart, savvy adult? A boatload of investors and J.P. Morgan certainly seem to think so. Over the long term, it will depend on Facebook’s ability to leave its youthful single-minded focus on users behind and execute consistently against two metrics: great user experience and revenues to match.

VIDEO: Rebooting Media Think-Tank: Paid vs. Earned Media

Paid vs. Earned Media is the third and final video of our Rebooting Media think-tank series.  This time we asked:

What are the implications (and opportunities) of social web distribution eclipsing paid impressions?

See our thought leaders tackle this question and read conversation highlights below.

 

You pay for earned media, too.

There is no earned media without paid media.  Social network distribution hinges on quality content at the outset, which means that investing in your content before you publish it in the social feed is crucial.

“People loved the Old Spice ads.  They were great and funny and they blew up on YouTube, and there was a lot of earned media behind that.  And none of it would have existed if there wasn’t a TV spot that was made and bought and placed and that was very, very good.” —Greg Clayman, The Daily

“A lot of the ‘earned’ arguments came from viral sensations wearing as a badge of honor: ‘we spent no money on traditional marketing.’  People forget the impact that print, radio, and television have on online traffic.  When I was at MTV Networks, I used to joke that the channels were only there to promote the websites.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined

“Now, the people who are getting paid are the people who know how to make media get earned.” —Jeff Bercovici, Forbes

 

Social is better than search for brand building.

Search advertising lacks the brand-building potential of TV and print.  Social, on the other hand, is ideal for brand-building.  Advertisers have been slow to embrace this, and we need to provide them with a compelling return story before they’ll be willing to make the leap.

“Social has enormous potential to be a brand accelerator.   Through social, I think you can build a brand much more rapidly than you can through search.” —Wenda Harris Millard, Media Link

“On the advertising side, there’s an argument that social has the potential to be a vehicle for brand advertising in a way that search can’t be.  But what should be the metric for brand?  Brand impressions are so much further up the funnel before you have an action.  I think people are trying to find some metric between CPM and CPA.”  —Erick Schonfeld, TechCrunch

 

It’s time to find the magic metric.

Even though social has been around for a while, most people don’t know how to measure success.  At Wetpaint we’ve made huge strides in this area, and other people in the room were clearly ready to make this a priority.

“There’s a tremendous amount of money being spent by the film studios specifically on television advertising, and it’s a very inefficient spend; it’s carpet bombing.  Virality and targeted advertising are a much more efficient spend, but so far digital media hasn’t been able to show the lift those properties need; they don’t see the payback.  They know it’s happening, but they don’t know how to quantify it.” —Jason Hirschhorn, Media ReDEFined

“We don’t have a choice.  We’re either going to figure this out, or we’re going to live another ridiculous couple of decades without understanding why money is spent.  Have I seen a magic metric?  Not yet.” —Wenda Harris Millard, Media Link

 

THAT’S ALL, FOLKS

I hope you enjoyed our Rebooting Media think-tank series, and most importantly I hope it pushes you to join the conversation. 

What does the next decade look like?  One thing is for sure: it will look nothing like the last one.

Search vs. social, curated vs. created, owned vs. earned – these are not binary outcomes.  How do we combine them in a way that meets the needs of the audience?

These are early days still, and there’s a huge opportunity for media players with the imagination, the brains and the courage to get there first.

 

Want more?  Download a PDF of the full published collection of perspectives prepared by these participants and others at Rebooting Media:  The Digital Publishing Revolution for a Fully Social Web

And if you missed part 1 or part 2, you can find them here:

Big Change For a Big Media Change Agent and a Big Publisher

Laura Lang has a proven and powerful track record as a media change agent.

As CEO of Digitas, she helped uber-marketers like Procter & Gamble and American Express move smartly into digital advertising. And she is conversant and fluid with new publishing platforms – and knows how to make them profitable.

Now, she’s been asked to lead Time Inc., and its 21 venerable titles, which include Time, People and Sports Illustrated.

Time Inc. has absolutely amazing brands with outstanding reputation, heritage, editorial staff, and customer bases; but, at the same time, the business model of magazines is structurally breaking.

What an interesting – and tantalizing – choice.

And you can’t be a media leader today, unless you’re willing to innovate on the business model itself.

Which is why Laura seems so promising.

I love the idea that at Time Inc. she’ll be able to innovate in core product, just like she did at Digitas. I also love the notion that she’ll aggressively develop new products for advertisers.

What will be new to her is the actual business of publishing – a business where Time Inc. stands stronger than almost any other player.

The central question for me is whether Time Inc. is ready for the change that a leader like Laura will want to (and need to) bring.

Indeed, Time Inc. has fundamental open questions to address when it comes to its own relevance in the digital world.

While the powerful brand of Time magazine has set the American agenda for decades, Time.com has wandered.  In the past, Fortune magazine always spoke to the most important business issues and people; but today, its online brand is less clear, with basic confusion even in its home-page address (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/). This simply muddles Fortune, Money, and CNN.

To be as successful in the next century as it’s been in the past, Time Inc. will have to adapt more fully to the digital world. That means developing new business models, as well as new attitudes toward consumers, advertisers, and the product itself. It will also require a healthy reinvigoration of key brands, an area where I think Laura may especially shine.

All of this will take nuance, to bend things without breaking them.

I’ll end the year on an optimistic note, and say that I hope Laura can finesse major innovation for this major publisher. If she can, watch out world – because very interesting and far-reaching things will happen.

Why Rupert Murdoch Is Right About The Daily

This article was published as a guest post on paidContent.org

There are plenty of naysayers who point out that Rupert Murdoch’s new initiative The Daily — the first major-media publication created expressly for tablet computers like the iPad — is an expensive and risky bet.

But here are four reasons why Rupert is right:

1) Rupert knows the ad model of publishing is doomed. Print and broadcast command the heftiest premiums, and both are at risk of price and volume erosion as consumers cut their ties to offline media. In the digital environment, online advertising is highly commoditized: the explosion of content publishers is outpacing the shift in demand, while technologies target audience ever more efficiently. Advertisers have plentiful ways to reach a consumer.

For his part, Rupert knows that his offline publications are at risk from decreasing ad revenues, and web-advertising models are hardly an adequate solution. Whether it’s out of desperation or vision, Rupert is willing to break through — and lose money in the short term — in pursuit of a better model.

2) Rupert can afford a long-shot bet — and can’t afford not to make one. He’s leveraging his considerable influence by putting something out there that can be truly cutting-edge. A $30 million investment may seem ridiculous for a new publication — and it is. But even with that hefty price tag, this is an insignificant bet relative to the industry and consumer behavior Rupert is trying to move. Throwing money at this is OK, because the possibilities are so great; if The Daily succeeds — or even provides the key insights so his next venture can succeed — it will be worth billions.

3) Rupert has influence to change consumer and industry behavior. He beat his drum loudly last year to get paywalls on the agendas of other publishers’ boardrooms. And it’s worked; just look at The New York Times’ pending move to a metered system. This is what I love about Rupert: Unlike other leaders in publishing, he uses his voice — and his treasury — to influence the industry and consumer behavior. He’s all about trying to get to a more successful model.

4) Rupert has a friend in Steve. Steve Jobs has a lot riding on this, too. Is Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) in the device business or the media business? To date, the lion’s share of its revenue and growth has come from the sales of ever-more-advanced devices. But as device categories mature, Jobs knows growth will get harder to come by: iPod sales grew at just 2% for Apple in 2010, as the venerable device line nears saturation.

In a world where mobile devices are ubiquitous and fiercely competitive, the fat margins of media revenue-share arrangements can powerfully fuel profits. But even more attractive is the tremendous expanse of the pool:  Apple’s media revenues are currently around $5 billion — a paltry sum compared to the global media and entertainment market that PricewaterhouseCoopers pegs at $1.3 trillion.

Apple has already proven that in its remarkably successful closed media ecosystem, the company’s store can earn an estimated 30% of the top-line for media sales — without having to produce any media. This happens when Apple creates compelling devices, exciting user-experience platforms, and fresh marketplaces. For Steve, the upside here is huge. And so he should be happy to tie that upside with anyone who is as crazy-aggressive as he is about getting legions of consumers in the habit of paying for media. And that list has just one name on it: Rupert Murdoch.

A fresh start and a new division — with a new concept and a new design for a new platform — is the only way someone like Rupert can have the freedom he needs to reinvent media for a new age. And only Rupert can do this — without falling into the ruts of compatibility with existing businesses or holdover assumptions from old models.

Kudos to Mr. Murdoch for summoning up the courage, and putting up the money.

Online Experience for Publishers: Innovate or Die

We need an experience revolution.Revolution Fist

Each week, we hear of major publications and traditional broadcasters who are struggling to stay afloat in a digital age with new economics and new expectations.  Despite the promise of interactivity made with the internet revolution over the last 15 years, most publishers have done little more than replicate dead trees online, with zero innovation beyond the hyperlink, the slideshow, and an embedded video now and then.

And yet we can see from the rising successes of the last decade like Facebook, Google, Zynga, YouTube, and others that what catches audience attention is interactivity.

To earn loyal audiences today, publishers need to go beyond content creation:  they need to produce compelling experiences that distinguish them and get the consumer coming back for more.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded that “when asked whether they have a favorite online news source, the majority of online news users (65%) say they do not.”  In an era where the consumer’s cost to switch is the flick of a click, publishers must offer compelling, differentiated experiences to earn loyalty.  Choices abound consumers:  there are scads of publishers online in every category; content suggestions offered constantly via social networks; and blue links proffered by search engines dozens of times per day per reader.  In an environment of choice, as brand experts have known for years, nothing builds loyalty like a great experience.

And now is the perfect time to create those breakthrough experiences.  The enabling technologies for the digital customer experience have improved considerably in recent years: we now have ubiquitous broadband, flash and other streaming video, plus HTML5 and maturing mobile application platforms.   Add to that personalization, targeting and social graph access, and there are some amazing opportunities to innovate.

It’s not just consumers that are thirsty for upgraded experiences.  Advertisers are showing that they will pay more for immersive interaction over basic display ads next to text.   Video ads during full TV episodes on ABC.com, Hulu, and others, or mid-day live sporting broadcasts command many times the CPM of typical display ads. Indeed, according to Michael Learmonth at AdAge, The Wall Street Journal’s online video content is bringing in envy-inspiring CPMs at $75 – $100.

But video is not the only way to create an immersive customer experience online.  Online sites of traditional publishers like Better Homes and Gardens are experience train wrecks (to be fair, they’re not alone in that regard).   Contrast that with the much more successful (certainly from an ad rate perspective) MarthaStewart.com which has many of the same elements – a top stories slideshow, cross-promotions for the print magazine, etc., and it’s a substantially better experience due to the focus on design and usability that is expected of the Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) brand.

Even still, much more can be done with today’s technology to put the consumer’s needs and interests first.  The latest example I’ve seen of true creativity in user experience design is Microsoft’s (MSFT) Glo.    There are additional signs of greatness in the tablet demo that Time Warner (TWX) built for its Sports Illustrated brand.   And The New York Times (NYT) continues to excel in their applications and interactive graphics which enjoy significant pass around (bit.ly shows over 5,000 social media clicks to a recent budget infographic and today’s “A Moment in Time” project has already generated over 100 tweets in the first 15 hours).  But too few companies are making similar efforts to distinguish themselves.  The opportunities are there, and we need to step up.

Consumers will decide which brands deserve their loyalty and content alone won’t cut it.  We are on the brink of a total revolution of experience.  For publishers, it’s reinvent or fail.

Do you know additional examples of publishers innovating?

People StyleWatch: Print Magazine Learns Five Lessons From Digital Media

People StyleWatchDespite the significant economic pressure they are under, it’s all too rare to see a print magazine let go of tradition and embrace a new model.  So I was delighted to find that at least one Time Inc. magazine is doing just that.

Stephanie Clifford’s article about People StyleWatch in the New York Times last week shows what happens when offline executives adopt a digital mindset.  Clifford points to a number of things that Susan Kaufman, People StyleWatch’s editor, is doing well, and notes the results:  8.6% circulation growth in the second half of 2009 and 130% growth in ad pages in the first quarter, easily besting a shrinking industry.

Although I wouldn’t call it top-tier journalism (does “Find Your Perfect T-Shirt Bra!” really merit an exclamation point?), People StyleWatch replaces an elitist, artistic view of its subject with a pragmatic appreciation of what their audience likes.  It’s a habit learned online and applied offline.

Here are five lessons from online media that the publication is successfully bringing to print:

  1. The text is brief.  Photo-heavy pages with short captions work.  They make for easy scanning, moreover it’s a fashion shopping magazine; ultimately readers care more about the products than a writer’s description of them.  Ironically, although the content is brief, it is resulting in 93 minutes average engagement, with each easily consumable section leading to the next.
  2. The content is advertiser-friendly.  Any web site that is ad-sponsored knows how important it is to create “context” and targeting for advertisers in order to add value and charge higher rates.   Shopping is one of those brilliant subject choices where advertising is content and vice-versa.  It is analogous to paid search online: because searchers are often looking for businesses, their click throughs and effective CPMs are far above internet average.  Moreover, People StyleWatch is open to creating pseudo-editorial sections with featured retailers (such as the recently announced JCPenney partnership).
  3. They offer exclusive discounts. Consumers love to get a deal, and coupon / discount web services (including the recently hyped group-coupon genre) are very popular with women online.   People StyleWatch goes beyond the celebrity watching and fashion trends to become part of their readers’ lives, changing the value proposition from just entertainment to a great way to get more for less.  In so doing, they are enhancing the reader’s experience.
  4. There is a clear call to action.  Most of the products include not only pricing information, but web sites, 800 numbers, and in some cases, text messaging options for buying information.   This is beneficial for both readers and advertisers.
  5. Content costs are low. Some of the most successful online properties such as Facebook, YouTube, and Yelp rely primarily on user-generated content.  Successful online publications like The Huffington Post regularly feature guest bloggers.    Traditional high-cost content is increasingly difficult to support profitably with advertising given the fragmentation of media consumption in recent years.  People StyleWatch features lower cost content, with research consisting of quick calls to publicists or product marketers, and images from paparazzi or retailers rather than expensive celebrity photo shoots.

This is more than just flexing editorial styles to meet the expectations of web-addicted younger readers.   The magazine is embracing a new business model with lower costs and more attractive content for advertisers that allows it to grow in an otherwise contracting space.  They are hitting on one of the key success factors for Publishing 2.0, namely an adaptive business model.  Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore, who has led the People brand for more than a decade in various roles, no doubt is taking notice.

Regardless of your personal opinions of the content, the results – in both readership and profitability – are hard to dispute.