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3 digital questions I'd like answered

3 digital questions I'd like answered Michael Estrin

I ask a lot of stupid questions. Seriously. It comes with the territory. Over the course of a given year, I talk and email with hundreds of people who work in digital, and I ask them each dozens of questions. A lot of those questions are stupid, and by that I mean that they serve only to demonstrate that something I thought might have been an interesting topic really isn't all that important. Other questions are solid insofar as they point to issues that are relevant to digital at that particular moment. But there's a third category -- what I like to call recurring questions. These are bigger topics that I often ask about. Usually, I get great, insightful answers. But the trouble is that those answers don't fit neatly into a specific article.


As 2010 draws to a close, you'll see a lot of articles recapping the year. This isn't going to be one of those articles. Sorry. You may also see a few articles that offer bold predictions about what will define the coming year. But I'm not so sure what you'll gain from me playing Nostradamus.


So, with 2011 just around the corner, I've decided to take a slightly different approach, to open up my reporter's notebook and give you a look at some of the bigger questions I've been wondering about. Some of them were asked in 2010, while others are ones that I will be asking throughout 2011. None of them will tell you how to improve your next campaign, how to incorporate Twitter into your media strategy, or anything else that might be defined as "practical and tactical." But these are questions that have been -- and will continue to be -- a big part of the conversation that shapes digital. And so, as we look forward to the coming year, wondering what will come next, it is my hope that these questions will help inform your 10,000-foot view of digital.


If publishers wall it off, will consumers pay?
If you were awake this year, you probably heard bold talk about creating pay walls. That conversation probably included a comparison between what News Corp. has done with The Wall Street Journal and what should be done with The New York Times. I'll spare you the twists and turns of that debate and simply say that we will see more pay walls in 2011. That's hardly a bold prediction. In fact, it's a rather obvious starting point. But the question will be whether consumers will actually pay for content?


To begin with, there are some subscription models out there that work -- ESPN, for example, comes to mind. If you're not a sports fan, ask someone you know why they like ESPN, and if that person pays for the website's content, why they choose to do so when there are countless newspapers and blogs online that cover sports for free. You'll likely get an earful about how ESPN brings something really unique to the space -- something audiences will pay for, and something advertisers are keen to sponsor because the consumer places such a high value on that content. But the question isn't whether subscription models can work (they can -- for some publishers). Rather, the real question is whether there are enough viable subscription publishers out there to push consumers away from free. What remains unclear is whether content producers have really come to terms with the effects of giving away their content. After all, it's very hard -- and maybe impossible -- to put the genie back in the bottle.


Now, at this point, you might ask, so what? After all, advertisers can buy audiences, and audiences exist all over the web. Plus, there are a lot of companies that are really good at aggregating those audiences and giving you better information on the users than the publisher ever could. This is mostly true. But the wheels come off when you start to talk about premium content. Yes, some premium publishers sell off their inventory through ad networks, but they'll never sell enough (at a high enough price) to make the business of creating premium content profitable. Now, I don't mean to suggest that the sky is falling and that premium publishers will soon become extinct. They won't. But they are in trouble, and just about every serious premium publisher in 2010 has talked about the pay wall question. How that question plays out will have a direct impact on advertisers, especially those with branding goals, because that kind of messaging goes hand in hand with premium content. But it's far from a foregone conclusion that audiences will follow content behind a pay wall. Which in turn begs the question: Will advertisers struggle to find premium publishers to work with online?


As usual, I'll probably write about branding a lot in the coming year, but one thing I'll keep my eye on is whether the publishers that have put up pay walls are actually growing their subscriptions. If they don't, and publishers continue to face difficulties, it's hard to see how 2011 will see advances in branding online.


Will someone explain privacy to my mom?


As you're reading this, iMediaConnection is gathering some data. I'd be shocked if you didn't know that. And honestly, some of you can probably explain the mechanics of how that data is being mined far better than I ever could. But you're part of a sophisticated audience -- you all work in digital. Most people don't work in digital, and a lot them really don't understand how their personal information is used.


Now, I know what you're saying -- Seriously! How could they not know? It's 2010 for goodness sake!


Well, that's true. But ask yourself this: How many news stories did you read this year that expressed utter shock at the idea that websites like Facebook were gathering data on consumers? On one side, there were "stunned" consumers who claimed to have "no idea" that kind of data mining was going on. And then there were privacy advocates who were informed, but nevertheless, appalled. Finally, there were people like you -- professionals working in digital -- who probably felt like saying, Yes, this is all an evil plot to give consumers better ads!


Like it or not, this is where we're at. For better or worse, a huge disconnect still exists between consumers and the industry. Yes, there's been outreach, but I'm not so sure it's working. After all, these stories about privacy and the "shocking revelations" that consumers share so much of themselves with advertisers just by going online aren't going away. And while I'll continue to ask specific questions about privacy throughout the year, the bigger question is whether we'll see a serious conservation on the topic -- one that deals with the most pressing questions in ways that are easily understood by the general public? What will that conversation look like exactly? I'm not sure. But I do know that whatever message the industry chooses to present, the reach of the campaign had better be epic. Otherwise, it's just a good message that only reaches a niche audience -- and that conversation has been going on for years. The key will be whether the industry can come together and get the right message in front of people like my mom. If she understands what you're doing with her data -- and she's okay with it -- you won't see any more articles about how people are shocked to learn that advertisers gather their data when they go online.


Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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Commenter: Pat Pending

2010, December 02

'If ... publishers continue to face difficulties, it's hard to see how 2011 will see advances in branding online.'

Why does branding online have to be defined by advertising? The real innovation the web has always offered is not the same, same old. Advertising did not embrace the web until it could shoehorn its tired approaches and formats on to the web.

Now that the web has shown to agencies that it is about a lot more than ad formats these will diminish in importance to genuine brand ideas and innovations (not advertising or formal media) that do not rely on premium content publishers (or any other digital version of a traditional media).

This will not only start to realise the web's potential but and give the customer the experience they seek but also lead to some of the most exciting marketing ever. There is a new tipping point on its way.