If for a moment you thought that the media – with online in tow – was levelling out and there was a clear future ahead, think again.
Being a publisher these days isn’t easy. Many of you reading this will be familiar with the issue anecdotally defined as converting print dollars into digital dimes, where the larger print budgets of advertisers are being slashed in the conversion to digital. In South Africa the problem is no different, although we’re not even in a position to count the dimes properly.
At first glance, the decline in print advertising budgets previously allocated to publishers may not seem like the massive problem it really is. In theory, the loss in print budgets should be offset by a corresponding increase in the digital properties of those same publishers. But we know that theory and practice don’t always march to the same tune.
In South Africa we are in a peculiar position, where accurate industry data is hard to come by, and as a result, we’re unable to measure the size of the digital advertising market. Estimates vary from the low-end of 3% submitted to AdEx measurements up to 10% ‘guesstimations’ by those in the digital know, with failure to submit financial data to a single source at the root of the problem.
By not submitting data, digital publishers are shooting themselves in the foot, as marketers use the very same data to allocate to budgets according to general market spend.
So if the digital industry is under-reporting its figures, and marketers are using those inaccuracies to make decisions, the rapid growth needed to catch up to more developed digital markets remains a pipedream. As a result, the decline in print is shovelled off to other media types, without digital getting its fair share and publishers being left worse off.
But let’s assume for a second the Utopian dream scenario where resources allow us all the luxury of optimal administration efficiency, and submitting financial data means that budgets were allocated in a more accurate reflection of reality, and the corresponding decrease in print allocation is diverted 100% to digital. Just how tight would the economic noose be pulled around the neck of publishers? Unfortunately, the answer is just as tight.
Where before publishers only had to compete with titles that lay to the left or right of them on the newsstand, they now find themselves competing with new ad spend gorillas in the form of Facebook and Google, which didn’t feature in the print world. Most digital campaigns now allow for anything up to 50% to these new ‘publishers’, with traditional players left to bicker over the balance of spend that would have been a rounding error in most print campaigns.
And if you think the picture isn’t looking so rosy, throw in the spectres of ad networks and real-time bidding exchanges and you’ll soon be reaching for the Valium. With the advent of digital publishing came the notion that publishers could create infinite amounts of inventory. Each page has multiple ad slots, and sites with hundreds of thousands of visitors began generating millions of page views per month. Of course few, if any, publishers were able to sell out of this entire inventory and many publishers turned to ad networks like the Google Adsense Network to fill those unsold slots, only for our old friend theory to clash with its bitter rival practice, once again.
While publishers were thankful for the physical cheques sent by Google each month off clicks generated on those unsold spaces, the rates being achieved were the lowest of the low. This allowed agencies and corporates, who cottoned on to the fact, access to publisher’s inventory at a fraction of the rate card prices, further driving the state of digital advertising to a lowest form traded commodity.
And if only the nightmare ended there… Because with cookie dropping and data mining, ad networks and exchanges are now able to sell advertisers the ability to reach most publisher’s audience, on international sites. Where before it was unlikely Business Day would count BBC or the New York Times as competitors, technology has indeed made the world a smaller place, and the real-time bidding exchanges linked to those international sites, in some cases making the purchase and placement of those campaigns less costly and admin intensive than booking direct with local publishers.
And to round off the doom and gloom for publishers, brands formerly known as advertisers now quite fancy themselves as publishers, again channelling budget away from advertising and into creating and curating their own microsites, branded content and forays into social media. All these reallocations cut into the 30% of the advertising pie once held by newspapers and magazines.
Couple all these issues with the macabre circulation losses that most print titles are experiencing and you have the makings of a classic horror story for an industry that now stands at a crossroads. Expect a turbulent ride as publishers strap themselves into the re-engineering rollercoaster. And where the only thing that is certain is an uncertain future.
This story was first published in the December 2013 issue of The Media magazine.