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A New Idea for Publishing

Smart Web ads could restore the balance between publishers, their audience, and advertisers.
January 1, 2005

Ideally, commercial media would consist of equal partnerships between three parties: publishers, the audience, and advertisers. In reality, advertisers, the group with the most money, hold all the cards. Publishers have been relegated to the role of supplicant, and the audience – well, we pretty much have to swallow whatever deal the publisher and the advertisers cut.

For the most part, the Internet has inherited this model from print publishing: on the Web, there are far more publishers trolling for ad dollars than there are advertisers doling them out. But the Internet’s interactivity suggests an alternative economy in which the long-standing imbalance between publisher, audience, and advertiser could be corrected. A system of Internet-based marketing, which I’ll call Publisher-Driven Advertising, or PDA, may be soon possible. In this system, publishers would pick and choose from a vast supply of advertisers.

The first step toward building such a system has already been taken: the pay-per-click (PPC) network. If you have ever visited Google or any content site that runs Google’s ads, you’ve seen it (for more on Google’s advertising networks). Those text-based ads on the right side of the screen represent two shifts in the traditional relationship between publishers and advertisers. First, the advertiser pays only when the ad performs – when someone clicks on the ad itself. Second, paid search networks “disaggregate” advertisers from publishers – that is, advertisers no longer purchase space on the publisher’s site but instead pay for keywords.

When PPC networks were first introduced, publishers were understandably concerned. PPC undermined what they had worked hard to build: a community of loyal readers. PPC networks claimed that those readers were only valuable if they acted – that is, clicked on an ad.

Advertisers initially loved paid search for one simple reason: it worked, driving valuable leads to their sites. But the publishers’ concerns were well-founded. After all, paid search can undermine the value of a publisher-created community. It also fails to garner the benefits of a publisher’s influence and endorsement. Finally, advertisers care a lot about where their ads appear. A big question arises: can we create an advertising model that has all the benefits of paid search and at the same time values the relationship between publisher and audience?

Imagine that we start with the idea of PPC – that advertisers pay publishers only if their ads are acted upon by readers. Next, imagine that, instead of buying into PPC networks or specific sites, advertisers release their ads onto the Internet.

Because an Internet-based ad is already a little piece of software, it can be tagged with information about its target audience, how much the advertiser is willing to spend to reach that audience (and how much each click will cost), what kind of websites are acceptable or forbidden (such as porn sites), and any number of other attributes. Most important, each ad could communicate with a “home” application that tracks its progress and status.

Once these tagged ads are let loose, publishers could simply copy and paste them into their own websites. Through connections to their home sites, the ads would report which publishers have pasted them where, how many clicks they’ve received, and how much money is left in the advertiser’s bank account. The ad propagates until it runs out of money. If it is working, the advertiser simply fills up the tank with more money.

Why is this model better than the current one? Because publishers know their audiences best. There’s no incentive for publishers to place ads that don’t perform or that offend their readers.

How might such an idea take root? Weblogs. These “micropublishers” have credibility and influence with their online communities, and if they decided to run PDA-based advertising, it could be taken as tantamount to an endorsement of the system itself.

This adds yet another element to the PDA system: publisher influence. PDA allows publishers to declare their support of certain advertisers by deciding to run their ads. This new system of advertising might even incorporate a “cost-per-influence” metric that would reward publishers for propagating ads to other sites*.

Although there are technological and business problems that still need to be ironed out, Publisher-Driven Advertising could work, especially because it benefits all the parties involved. When PPC was first proposed, it was dismissed as a joke. Today, it’s a $5 billion industry.

*This article was inspired by many things, particularly by Ross Mayfield’s “Cost Per Influence” past at http://ross.typepad.com/.

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