You can fool people for months, years, decades, centuries, millenia, but eventually what comes to rest is that unworkable solutions always collapse, even if people by believing in them keep them afloat for a long time.
Most of the discussion of ad spending and GDP (non)growth skips lightly over the question of value, but it's a question that's worth asking. Specifically, what if the end result of all of this pain and trauma will be not a return to the "normalcy" of the past decade but a reappraisal and repricing of the basic units of online display advertising?
What advertisers buy when they purchase a magazine or TV ad is slice of the attention of some subset of that media object's audience. And the ads that they create for those purchased slices are attention-worthy objects in and of themselves, e.g., Angelina Jolie posing with a diamond watch, or a hilarious vignette centered around a brand of beer.
A web page, in contrast, is typically festooned with hyperlinked visual objects that fall all over themselves in competing to take you elsewhere immediately once you're done consuming whatever it is that you came to that page for. So the page itself is just one very small slice of an unbounded media experience in which a nearly infinite number of media objects are scrambling for a vanishingly small sliver of your attention.
This being the case, it's entirely possible that cash-strapped advertisers will have exactly the same kind of "moment of clarity" that shopaholic consumers are reportedly having now that they've seen entire store inventories marked down 50 percent or more in pre-Christmas sales—that is, they may say to themselves, "We knew all along that this stuff was made in China for a tiny fraction of what it sells for here; we were nuts to pay so much in markup for it."
In conclusion, the online advertising experiment in which so many of us have engaged is really only ten years or so old. Those who say that it's "mature" are not only mistaken, but they drastically underestimate what a true break the web is from the offline media that came before.
There's also an even bigger problem -- the net ad-clickers tend to be the least desirable consumers, which is people working unimportant cubicle jobs and voting democratic or staying at home on disability:
The study illustrates that heavy clickers represent just 6% of the online population yet account for 50% of all display ad clicks. While many online media companies use click-through rate as an ad negotiation currency, the study shows that heavy clickers are not representative of the general public. In fact, heavy clickers skew towards Internet users between the ages of 25-44 and households with an income under $40,000. Heavy clickers behave very differently online than the typical Internet user, and while they spend four times more time online than non-clickers, their spending does not proportionately reflect this very heavy Internet usage. Heavy clickers are also relatively more likely to visit auctions, gambling, and career services sites – a markedly different surfing pattern than non-clickers.
So what we're seeing is hype on two levels:
- The idea that internet clicks come from a valuable audience. The valuable audience shops by research; internet clicks come from people with nothing better to do.
- The idea that internet advertising supplants big media advertising. In contrast, people arrive at sites because big media hypes them; they then are saturated in ads during a flurry of click-throughs and retain little.
This in turn conceals an ugly truth -- people are hungry for some kind of gatekeeper of the information they trust:
"The one-to-many road of traditional journalism, yes, it is threatened. And professional journalists need to acclimate themselves to an environment in which there are many more contributors to the discourse," says Mr Nachison.
"The notion of a gatekeeper who filters and decides what's acceptable for public consumption and what isn't, that's gone forever."
Mr Nachison argues blogs have become independent sources for images and ideas that circumvent traditional sources of news and information such as newspapers, TV and radio.
"We have to acknowledge that in all of these cases, mainstream media actually plays a role in the discussion and the distribution of these ideas," he told the BBC News website.
I'll submit a further observation: blogs follow the mainstream media.
Although the BBC hasn't discovered this, blogs are a hierarchy. The big ones bring in 100,000 people or more a day, and the little ones bring in fifty or more a day, with several levels in between. In five years, most of the 50-people-a-day blogs will be gone because they take a ton of time and don't return enough prestige or money to be worth it.
They also encourage paranoiac personal drama. Remember Justin Hall and Links.net
? (For the record, I spoke with him via email back in the day, and he's a good fellow who got caught up in a bad practice.)
The biggest blogs cite sources we can all trust: The Chicago Tribune. The Wall Street Journal. The Economist. The Washington Post. They are using big media as their sources, beginning conversations on the implications of what the media reports in an attempt to be "objective."
Occasionally, blogs break stories... by publishing rumors that respectable outlets won't touch, in the same way the National Enquirer beat us all to the John Edwords lovechild story.
But what defines the news these blogs are reporting is the mainstream media, because as much as we hate to admit it, the "one reporting to many" model is where we can get everyone on the same page about an issue and begin that conversation. If it's continued in blogs or their pre-internet version, the pub, great.
We have learned too many times that internet email chains, blogs, specialty newspapers and the like can be wrong and do little to correct themselves
Watch for this recession to show us the declining value of internet advertising, and the rising value of respectable centralized media that is willing to, like 2008's mega-success story The Economist, stick to the facts and check them well.