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March 25, 2010, noon

The Newsonomics of online ad spending, and its costs

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

It’s a complaint we’ve long heard in the newspaper industry: It’s the 25-year-old media buyers who are driving the business into wrack and ruin. If they only understood the world wasn’t just made up of people just like them — the wired, the mobile, the people whose parents read newspapers — advertising spending would be more rational.

Much of that talk, of course, is sour grapes, the inevitably griping we hear when change is in the air, when disruption messes with our views of the way the world should be, with our careers, with our paychecks.

We’ve also heard, mainly in the past year or so, that news companies just don’t think there’s much ad money on the web. Rupert Murdoch and Arthur Sulzberger have been vocal about the need to get greater revenues from readers, given what they’ve said is an historic change in ad revenues. That philosophy has fueled much of the push to find paid content models that work and work big.

Let’s look at some of the data about ad spend, and at least one innovation that may impact revenue allocations in the next several years.

First, and maybe most importantly, usage of digital media — in time — far outweighs, in proportion, the ad dollars spent on it. From a recent JP Morgan report, we see the estimate that adults are spending 29 percent of their time on the web, but advertisers are only putting 8 percent of their ad spend on the web. Meanwhile, newspapers only get 8 percent of our attention, but 20 percent of the ad dollars. That’s a big, continuing disparity. We wouldn’t expcct a one-to-one relationship between time and dollars spent — too many mitigating factors — but given the trajectory of online usage, we’d expect less disparity over time.

In 2009, most reports put the total of online advertising spending in the U.S. at about $23 billion. The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) puts daily newspaper online revenue at about $3.5 billion. That’s 15 percent of the total, a number that I think is a bit high, given the bundling and difficulty of separating out print from digital buys. Even at 15 percent, though, it’s less than the historic 20 percent of the national ad spend that newspapers — in print — long took out of the market. $3.5 billion (or even $4.6 billion, had the industry maintained its print percentage) isn’t a big number — and it’s peanuts compared to print revenues lost over the last couple of years.

Yet, the $23 billion number is a big one, and the fastest growing in advertising overall. Significantly, the top 10 websites take in 72 percent of that revenue, a share three percentage points greater than a year earlier, according to Interactive Advertising Bureau. The concentration in spending on bigger properties has accelerated.

So the spoils of the new medium have gone to a relative few, most of them content aggregators, as Yahoo, Google, AOL, and MSN top these revenue charts. The New York Times is represented, but most local newspaper companies and sites fare relatively poorly. It’s not just dimes of Internet revenue to dollars of print revenue; it’s trickle-down ad spend.

Why? One key reason is scale. It’s simply easier to buy the big sites than smaller ones. That’s especially true when we consider how new and how immature the digital ad spending landscape is.

That 25-year-old buyer may now be reaching the terrifying age of 30, but she or he isn’t the problem. The problem is at least, in part, structural. The American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) has estimated that it costs twice as much to manage the placement of digital ads as compared to print and broadcast.

“If traditional services are assumed to require staffing and fees that imply an effective commission rate in the range of 12%–15% (with media planning and buying services assumed to be 1/3 of the total), Digital can typically require resources equating to an effective commission rate ranging from 25%–30% (with media planning and buying services assumed to be 1/2 of the total),” says the 2009 report.

So, the 30-year-old media buyer finds herself in a system that’s overburdened. TMI, too much information flowing in, too little time to absorb and make sense of it and not enough staff to work it. One result: More money spent on bigger ad buys, which, of course, take less time to place.

Against this backdrop, we see the value of Yahoo’s Newspaper Consortium, streamlining the buying process for all those newspaper properties. That’s boosted online revenue by the tens of millions.

Now Centro, one of the news industry’s top suppliers of digital advertising (about $100 million in ad business moved through Centro to media overall in 2009) is demoing a streamlining product. It is called Transis, and it was unveiled at AAAA’s early March conference. The product’s ambitious goal: “Transis automates the entire digital media buying process from planning through billing and centralizes all related communication. It aims to bring the diverse tasks of ad placement — from building media plans, handling RFPs and insertion orders, billing and reconciliation — into a single console for ad agencies. The intent: more ad volume for Centro and the 2,000 or so websites on which it places ads.

Ten digital agencies are now testing Transis, a trial that could last six months. So, if Transis has an impact on the revenues of non-Top 10 websites — the broad swath of local websites that Centro President Shawn Riegsecker calls “B” placement sites — it will be in 2011. Of course, Transis, or something like it, would have to become a standard to drive a major change in ad revenue buys and splits. Its principle, though, is one to watch, and one that could be more ad dollars going to smaller sites.

Further, it’s another indication that the digital industry’s out-of-the-chutes growth is based on many first-generation practices and habits. As it emerges out of gawky adolescence and matures, new technologies may have the capacity of changing how we think of business models and business potentials, and how new journalism will be funded.

POSTED     March 25, 2010, noon
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