"Eyeballs are back." The New York Times declared it so a few months ago. And who can deny it? Once again web properties can be sold based upon size of audience. And once again, web publishers are sold out of inventory. Gone are the CPA deals that were rife when inventory was unsold.
Back in the day of the internet bubble, we pioneered the concept of audience development for web properties. In an era when IPO and merger valuations were driven by how many eyeballs a site had, this was a good business. While the phrase had long been attached to increasing theater attendance and later for TV show promotion, it was a new and useful concept for internet media.
When the bubble burst, so too did the vogue for audience development. Why? Sites had more inventory than they could sell. And there was no need to pay for more audience if they could not monetize it. And the day when you could be acquired just because of the size of your audience was long gone.
The time has now come again for audience development. Web media properties have the problem again of inventory shortage. Unlike traditional print publications, where increased readership yields higher page rates but does not increase inventory, on the web more visitors does mean more inventory. Once again, web properties need to rapidly grow audience size to either meet projections, to be able to implement an ad sales model, to seize market share or just to meet advertiser demand.
As the tide rises again, there is an arbitrage available between the cost of acquisition and the value of the user/reader (i.e. audience). As one Mediasmith client stated back in the heyday, "If you can buy page views cheaper than I can sell page views, I can make money on the difference."
The tools of internet audience development have been augmented since the bubble. In addition to the usual tools of direct email, search marketing, contests and promotions, banner ads and word of web, there are now blogs, social networks, peer to peer, RSS feeds and many others. These Web 2.0 tools help facilitate the re-invention of audience development as Audience Development 2.0.
It's important not to neglect the old mainstays, search engine optimization and search engine marketing. Making sure the site is well listed and easy to be found on search engines is still job one. Direct email, banner ads, contests and promotions all still are important. Banner ads (which have been touted as dead many times), other IMUs and rich media should not be discounted as great vehicles for this technique. After all, they give the opportunity to tell a story, especially with expandable banners and video units that give the reader a clear reason as to why to try out the site advertised.
So are techniques of Audience Development 2.0 just new versions of old favorites? "Old wine in new bottles," as the saying goes?
Surely search marketing has been transformed, mostly by the success of Google. Spend on search now rivals spend on banners. Direct email's efficacy has declined, now that spam has degraded the medium. Word of web has come into its own with more measurability. Chat and listservs are now dressed up and on steroids as blogs and wikis. Social networking technologies exponentially expand the reach that could be achieved back in the day. Video sharing is new, though long expected. Now, a company might build audience and loyalty by having an open API (like Amazon), by disseminating podcasts and RSS feeds, by targeting target-rich peer-to-peer audiences or by propagating messages on the red-hot video upload sites.
The entire trend to user-generated content is a boon to audience development as such content provides editorial product, draws visitors and deepens engagement. All of these can result in greater audience potential for the site promotion.
Five years ago, when the internet tide washed out, we were just beginning to implement segmentation and targeting techniques; the vision that had been put forth by such writers as Regis McKenna and Peppers & Rogers were about to be realized. Instead, many of these ideas got implemented in the form of bloated CRM systems that are more often likely to automate annoyance than to generate audience.
Today, we have far more advanced analytic Web 2.0 tools that enable rapid and granular segmentation and targeting. In Audience Development 2.0 we can formulate strategies and tactics for not only growing audience size, but also to migrate users up the food chain from being aware to being engaged, and on to loyalty and evangelism, thereby creating a Virtuous Cycle applicable to both web publishers and brands.
Bob Heyman is chief search officer for Mediasmith -- a full service advertising media agency headquartered in San Francisco, California -- and is the co-author of Net Results.2 (New Riders) and the Auction App (McGraw-Hill). .