For many publishers, especially medical publishers, advertising dollars have provided reliable revenues for decades, allowing subscription prices to remain relatively low and rewarding wide distribution. As these journals have moved online, there have been many pressures on ad revenues — direct-to-consumer initiatives have siphoned dollars away from professional advertising, a more limited pipeline of new biologics has choked off new promotional spending, and more emphasis within device and drug companies on stock price optimization over R&D investment has further crimped the development pipeline.
It’s also been a rule of thumb that “online generates dimes for every print dollar.” For journals, this isn’t quite true, as online advertising prices are often quite high compared to prices in general media. Furthermore, this quip doesn’t address a deep structural problem with online advertising — it’s much more difficult to commercialize the same audience multiple times online than it ever was in print.
Online advertising is valued based on traffic, which is roughly analogous to print circulation. But that’s where the similarities end.
In print, if you have a circulation of 15,000 professionals, you can sell multiple pages of advertising against these 15,000 recipients as an audience. Another advertiser just means adding another advertising page or unit. And if an advertiser arrives near the deadline, you can easily add another page and sell the same 15,000 exposures yet again. Print advertising has been very scalable, with few rules about saturation of the print edition limiting its potential. In the heyday of print advertising, some books were nearly half ads, meaning this same audience was commercialized dozens of times simultaneously every issue.
With online advertising, the audience is measured in terms of page views. It’s against these that ad impressions are generated. If a site has 2-3 standard ad units, they can monetize these page views 2-3 times. Now, sites are more complex than this, but this is sufficient to outline the problem. I can sell as many impressions as this traffic multiplied by available spots allows. I can’t add traffic on a whim. I can’t easily add spots. I’m essentially capped by traffic and design.
In print, I could grow advertising quickly and easily. Online, advertising is not nearly as scalable.
Adding options is expensive and time-consuming, certainly not as simple as adding another page to the print book. Email alerts carrying ads, new creative positions or options, or new ways to attract traffic all take time to create, cost money to deploy, and suffer from the same scalability issues. That is, once full, they’re full. You can’t just add capacity like you can in print.
Options are expensive and time-consuming for people on both sides of the transaction, as agencies and creative houses have to accommodate multiple sizes (banners, leaderboards, medium rectangles, towers, skyscrapers, and so forth), monitor more data than ever, customize ads based on animation and privacy policies, and so forth. Creating online advertising is complex, expensive, and time-consuming.
We’ve been seeing the difficulties of expanding our online advertising initiatives within our own publications. We’ve spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours making new online advertising vehicles, only to have them sell out within weeks. I’d love to be able to add a few pages to them, but it’s not possible. We have to drive more traffic or create new outlets — essentially, build circulation or create publications, both of which take time and treasure.
Tricking readers by breaking stories across pages, forcing page reloads, is poor usability, making usability another hindrance to selling more online ads. On more commercial sites, you can see the lengths to which some sites will go to in order to accommodate advertisers and generate premium sales positions. But these techniques can irritate readers in ways that an additional 2-3 print ad pages never would.
Advertising works because it takes the same audience and commercializes it multiple times. Billboards, TV ads, print ads, radio ads, and online ads all work this way. But online is capped in new and unfortunate ways, depends on metrics that have nothing to do with traditional advertising’s goals of awareness and brand affinity, and creates costly and ineffective practices on everyone involved.
This has effects on editorial decisions, which have not yet become apparent in scholarly publishing, but which we can see elsewhere, with headlines now super-charged as click-bait, racy photos sprinkled in sidebars and widgets, and more silly lifestyle stories than hard news. If advertising were more scalable and predictable online, the tendency to pimp for traffic would be muted. Good brands would benefit, and good brand-building practices would be incentivized.
One such editorial trick trending these days is a euphemism — “native advertising.” What this used to be called is “sponsored content” or “advertorials” or “marketing copy.” The trick is to make it blend in with regular editorial content so that perhaps its message is mistaken for unbiased news or opinion. As a recent article in TIME notes, however, native advertising and its ilk are based on false premises — namely, that it works. Data show that users sniff it out and don’t scroll into it. (Another interesting chart in this article will make you question your assumptions about engagement, because it shows that social sharing and engagement may be inversely correlated.)
As long as the hot hunt for traffic is the only cure for online advertising woes, this new source of commercial potential — which can help offset subscription prices and hasten the move to full online publishing for major journal properties — will remain throttled and undervalued. It certainly does not scale as easily or inexpensively as print advertising did, and the trends indicate that it will be a long time before it does, if ever.