starving at the feast

Posted on July 12, 2010


History of media in three paragraphs.

The concept of “mass media” as we know it is relatively new. The first newspaper was published in England in 1620 but only became “mass” media around the 1830’s. Radio began in the 1920’s and TV in the 1940’s. All in all, the entire industry is less than 200 years old and was made possible by the industrial revolution and the printing press.

Each of the technological innovations that followed — the printing press, radio, television — led to a boom that made not only new platforms but all of the previous ones more valuable. Why? Because new technology unleashes a large amount of benefit to society and the economy as a whole. It is hard to imagine the consumer driven economic boom that started in the 1950’s without the advertising that promoted it. It can be construed that a strong symbiosis exists between advertising, the consumption choices people make and thus overall economic stimulus.

As there are tremendous advantages to scale, the media industry has rapidly become controlled by conglomerates, many of them invested in a variety of media. This is not a phenomenon unique to media, but is often more visible in this industry due to the influence that media holds. We have termed these businesses “Big Media” and they control much of today’s traditional media structures.

The economics of Big Media.

It is important to understand that, due to its political influence and power, mass media is highly regulated. Big Media have used this to their advantage by limiting competitors, thus limiting the number of media options available to audience. Limited competition and large audience numbers inevitably equal high levels of profitability due to high prices.

Media markets that have rapidly deregulated have dramatically reduced profitability for the key media players in them, even though the market overall has grown.

The music and film industries are different, however, as their position is not regulated. That said, they have used copyright law and distribution agreements as protective tools to control the distribution of media.[1]

The most critical tools used by mass media to protect their market power are:

Distribution Frequencies and distribution economies to reach markets.
Imperfect information The selection of data for buyer decision making.
Scarcity There is a limited quantity of advertising space and ways to reach an audience.

Distribution is power.

Big Media has control of the airwaves (or cable) via their broadcast licenses.  Print, music and the movies have scale and physical distribution to do the same for them.

Control of distribution provides significant market power as you can limit access. The ability to grant or deny access has always been a strategic position as far back as Leonidas at Thermopylai[2]. It provides significant leverage on resources applied and thus profit. In other words, if you want to reach 6 million people in a specific market segment and I control access to those people, I am in a strong negotiating position. If I have a small competitor set, my position is protected as, assuming sufficient demand in the marketplace, it is in none of my competitors’ interests to significantly undercut prices.

Control of distribution also equals control of what reaches the audience.

The distribution channels are tightly held and thus the only way for the

audience or consumer to engage with content is through the media company and their selection. As Big Media is about mass consumption, the decision for what is “good” and “bad” is often made to fit the lowest common denominator.

This makes it very hard for small content providers to get into the system and develop an audience as they have no cost efficient way to access the market. The high cost of alternative access to audience ensures that no competitors can easily enter the marketplace, thus further maintaining the limited number of competitors and the concentration of audience with big media.

Big Media uses its size to engender trust via their own marketing. By being pervasive in a way only scale allows, they promote their businesses and content offering at no cost, which is a significant strategic advantage over all other industries. The bigger your audience is, or the more limited the selection of media in that category, the more powerful that tool becomes and the harder it is for new entrants to gain a substantial footprint in the market.

Imperfect information.

The other key component for advertising supported media is the paucity of measurement available in traditional media. Most research is based on a small subset of audience which is then extrapolated out to provide a view of the whole market. It’s a well known fact that the measurement tools for traditional media are considered to be imperfect, but as long as everybody is imperfect we accept that the big picture is generally correct.

This means that, as an advertiser, you cannot be certain as to how your advertising is performing without a number of complex measurements in your fulfillment mechanisms. Most advertisers do not do this as that would push up the cost of the campaigns tremendously. Thus, they know that advertising works, but cannot specifically say what advertising works best.

For example, in the newspaper business at the moment (Dec 2009) Rupert Murdoch is publicly blaming the internet and search for the demise of print newspapers. However, if we unpack the business model for newspapers we see that it consciously utilises wastage and imperfect information to capture a higher return from advertisers.

Newspapers are sold on readership. A reader is a multiple of the circulation of the newspaper (the number of newspapers printed and sold or handed out). Let us assume that 3 people on average read a newspaper and that a newspaper has around 100 pages including inserts. Each page represents the opportunity to sell some advertising. That means that for each copy sold we are assuming a potential of 300 page views. We don’t know, however, if the reader actually reads all the pages. They may just be interested in the business section or just in sports. All the newspaper business has to sell, however, is an  estimate. We therefore have a business model based on imperfect information.

As with all imperfect systems, Big Media behaves in ways that are either inconvenient to its audience or even dishonest to “cheat” the measurement of their audience. Whether it is “bulking”[3] by print publications, or the repetition of a radio station name and frequency every 10 minutes [4], both aim to create higher measurement scores and thus increase revenue without providing the advertiser with even a vaguely accurate sense of the extent and nature of engagement with their specific advertisement.

Effectively, imperfect information mixed with power of distribution rewards mediocrity of content. Content doesn’t have to be “the best” for any specific member of your audience, it just needs to be “good enough” for the majority. This also relates to music albums.

Although it is rare for somebody to love all the songs of a band’s album, the record industry’s multi-song album format is based on the delivery mechanism, i.e. an album, rather than the actual value of the songs. The same can be said for pay TV channel bouquets and for most forms of bundled pay broadcasting.


Where there is a physical limit to advertising air-time on television, radio and print space, there will be upward pressure on the price of advertising. Similarly in a world where there are a limited number of options to reach an audience, the more audience you reach, the higher your price climbs. The less advertising space is available, the greater your fee per spot. The key pricing game for media companies is managing the yield per advertising spot versus the number of spots that can be sold,  while still maintaining audience interest. It is thus a “marginal value” analysis where value is defined by audience size due to their interest in the programming and the most advertising breaks they are willing to bear before switching channels.

The scarcity of content is also relevant. By controlling the content flow, you consolidate audiences on a smaller number of platforms. This  increases efficiency and profitability. It therefore isn’t in the media owners’ interests to have too much choice, as creating high quality content is expensive.

Is the impact of the internet the end of Big Media?

From the late 90’s the online media tsunami has been coming in. The cliché that major technology shifts always take longer to arrive then anticipated but their impact is always more severe than imagined, seems to be coming true in the media space.

Record labels such as EMI are in bankruptcy, newspaper revenues in the US have tumbled from $60 Billion to $37 Billion and amid flat advertising growth, internet advertising has overtaken television as the largest advertising medium while radio revenues and profitability are down significantly in developed markets.

While all of these changes are not driven by the emergence of the Internet, it has dramatically shifted the speed with which these changes are happening.

The challenge for Big Media is that the internet reverses the key elements that provide their market power and fundamentally changes price structures.

Distribution From control to anarchy.
Imperfect information From lack of data to in-depth data.
Scarcity From limited ad space and audience to unlimited ad space and audience.

From limited content to unlimited content.


The internet fundamentally changes government’s ability to regulate media and thus the ability of a small number of companies to access to consumers. Whether content is free, “freemium”, or behind a dedicated pay wall, it can be delivered cheaper, faster and without a license.

We have moved from the limitations imposed by lack of frequency or the cost of a subscription to a pay service, to unlimited quantities of content, available through multiple providers and from anywhere in the world.

This loss of control over distribution impacts the business model fundamentally.

First, the cost of entry drops enabling almost anybody to provide media to an audience. In fact, the shift from scarcity to plenty presents a new problem for consumers: they have to sift through all of the content available to discover what they feel is useful. “Search”, provided by companies like Google and Microsoft, is therefore a critical tool in selection of media, effectively becoming its own advertising medium.

Second, audiences can utilize more media with no switching costs, increasing the diverse amount of media they consume and making it excessively hard for media companies to be a viable way to reach an audience. The increasing use by individuals of multiple media means that the same person could be targeted across a variety of platforms, reducing the power any single platform has to demand premium advertising based on scarcity. All this creates new advertising models and technologies which will be discussed at a later in this eBook.

The loss of distribution power is effectively the loss of Big Media’s monopoly. There are limitless new entrants, significantly large numbers of competitors, increasing numbers of ways for advertisers to reach audiences and dramatic impacts on both price, and how media is sold.

Imperfect information.

The move from imperfect information towards perfect information will dramatically change the price of advertising and have a significant impact on the benefit to advertisers.

Traditional advertising pricing models are based on a measure of “wastage”[5]. The selling of media is based on targeting an audience using rough reach measures and broad media.

Further, the difficulty of measuring efficacy limits how refined an advertisement can be to target specific consumers. The old adage, “I know half of my advertising works, I just don’t know which half,” rings true.

The new models, though not foolproof, offer far greater measurability of advertising success, making it easier to monitor both reach and interaction. With measurability comes the ability to understand the efficacy of advertising mediums and executions and deploy advertising spend more effectively.

The change in the level of information available to advertisers will have a significant impact on price. It can be expected that over time the price per interaction will increase and wastage will decrease. Advertisers will be willing to pay more per interaction (or person reached) than they are today.

So, we may see an effect where even though advertisers are spending less overall on advertising, they are paying more per advert. The biggest threat this transition poses to traditional media is that CFO’s and media planners will prefer simple measurability over broad targeting, and this will shift media spend towards a medium or model where Return on Investment is simpler to measure.

Perfect information.

Living in a world of scarcity is something that we are all familiar and comfortable with. Though many New Age types would disagree, scarcity is common in the physical world. The internet, however, has developed to enable a “wealth” of information at our fingertips. Though not limitless, it is generally abundant.

The cause for the abundance of media the ease of adding and accessing information. Where before, Bob the Butterfly Collector couldn’t afford to publish a weekly magazine and the editors of the local newspaper didn’t give him a Butterfly Beat column, now he can reach an audience. And for thousands of other butterfly enthusiasts this is a real benefit.

This same story is repeated literally millions of times, from bloggers to specialist publications. The net result is that media no longer serves the “mass market” only, it starts to serve those at the edges. “The long tail.” The interesting thing about the long tail is that every person is part of a long tail for something.

Now these butterfly enthusiasts are not only into butterflies. They fit into other target markets too. They buy cars, go on holidays and have mobile phones. Reaching them through Butterfly Beat is as viable an option as it is via the New York Times. If the message is crafted, in fact, it may well be more effective on Butterfly Beat.

The abundance of media choices creates another price shift for advertising. The easier it is to reach your audience through a variety of suppliers, the less market power each supplier has, and the lower the price they can charge. The fact that you as an individual in a target market consume 10 different media providers by the time you finish your morning coffee at work gives the advertiser the option to choose how to reach you. Although each medium may have different benefits and qualities an advertiser may wish to employ, they will have very little competitive differentiation as broad tools of reach and frequency.

The declining cost of advertising.

The increasing number of media providers and methods in which the audience can be reached will force a decline in the price of advertising as we know it today. Alternative forms of reach will devalue even traditional advertising models. This will create a significant challenge for media owners unless new models in which value can be unlocked are found.

Relevance over reach.

As already discussed, mass media advertising is currently sold based on a reach model that incorporates high levels of wastage. It reaches not only the target market, but segments that are not in the market. The advertiser, of course, pays for all of them.

From an economic standpoint this is inefficient and advertisers have been looking to find a way to fine tune the targeting of audiences to reach key markets more effectively.

Ideally, providing an advert only to relevant consumers in the market would optimize the spend. Relevance however, is based on a number of factors including propensity to buy and timing, e.g. you may have propensity to buy, but won’t not for the next few years. Currently, relevance is achieved through context, i.e. placing adverts for cars in car magazines.

New advertising models, such as search advertising, have allowed advertisers to purchase relevance without needing to buy a specific context, i.e. the purchase of a search keyword.

Search-based context allows the advertiser to be where the consumer is without having to guess which media they might be consuming. This is relevance driven by demonstrable consumer demand rather than relevance driven by media supply. It provides the insight that people who are in the market for a car may not necessarily be reading car magazines.

The relevance model increases the value of the audience for both advertiser and media owner. The more an advertiser can target an audience, the lower the wastage and the higher the success rate, thus the more they are willing to invest. Their return on investment increases even if they are paying more per interaction because they have stripped out the cost of wastage.

Demand versus supply based pricing.

The Google pricing model has done away with the rate card to enable keyword auctions. The advertiser sets the price of what a keyword typed into a search engine is worth, and as many advertisers compete for the same keyword (seeing it to be highly relevant), the value of the keyword increases as there is still a finite audience typing that keyword into Google.

By helping smaller publishers (as small as a single blog) to solve the problem of selling their sites by providing a self-service system, Google has given itself the opportunity to rapidly expand its audience. The business is built on the basis that advertisers will pay for results (there will be a “cost per click”) and will not be concerned which media provided them the results. This means that, through their network of publishers placing Google advertising spots on their websites, Google can efficiently sell media.

And so, their search engine model is leveraged with a network model providing almost limitless inventory space at no cost. In this way, it’s not an issue whether one site is successful or not. Google can therefore have a success-based model and auction-based pricing because they can deliver a large array of advertisements to make even a 0.02% clickthough rate highly profitable.

By contrast, traditional media owners are caught in an old paradigm where they generate content and have limited audience that comes to them for that specific content. This means that a certain minimum amount needs to be charged for the efforts to be profitable. Letting advertisers select price would be difficult as there is an insufficient audience size to do this effectively.

However, in the face of a changing market paradigm and such attractive pricing models, it is critical for media to differentiate its pricing and provide value to advertisers or face immense pricing model pressures which will make it a struggle to succeed.


Demographic information is already a key value driver for advertisers as it makes it possible to target a specific market. Demographic targeting is currently done using broad research tools and extrapolation of findings across the total market.

With the ability to target advertising on an individual basis (i.e. deliver x banner to y target audience and z banners to w audience) advertisers can enhance their messaging to be more persuasive and effective, thus achieving more with their ad spend. This capability is far more effective than traditional broadcasting, where the same message is delivered to the entire audience.

Beyond demographic targeting, behavioral targeting allows advertisers to deliver messages to customers whose actions and interests are aligned with the target market. Behavioral targeting is gathered by viewing the individual’s journey across a site or even across the internet to discern their interests and potential buying patterns.

Behavioral learning can be across a network of properties and media owners and not just one site, allowing an advertiser to reach an unduplicated[6] audience more effectively.

This means that the new value for media owners is not just understanding the behavior of individuals, but in helping advertisers use this understanding to more effectively target advertising.

Segmentation drives revenue growth.

If you’re able to make advertising more relevant, targeting smaller segments of the overall audience will increase. The sum of the segmented audiences is likely to be worth more than the unsegmented, or bulk, audience currently being sold.

Smaller audiences can be sold at a higher yield than the current bulk advertising deals.

The shift to a bigger market.

The changes in how advertising is priced will mean that, by controlling the amount of reach they are willing to target, smaller advertisers will now have access to the advertising opportunities previously only available to bigger advertisers.

In simple terms, if I can only afford to reach 1000 potential customers this month, I can purchase advertising exposure equal to that. Even if the price per quality interaction is high, the overall price I am paying will be far more effective than the price I would have had to pay in the old media paradigm. The timing and potential cash flow is also more favorable as I am more closely aligning my revenue stream with my advertising costs.

This ability to purchase smaller chunks of advertising was not possible with the traditional broadcast or print media, where one had to pay for the total audience, whether they were relevant or not. The type of advertising could be changed — you could advertise in the classifieds or on the opinion pages of a newspaper — or the timing could be adjusted,  but the impact and quality of your advertising would inevitably be compromised in ways you could only guess at without detailed reporting.

So, lower prices and more segmented sales methods should increase overall demand for advertising as the value of the audience would be defined both by its reach and by targeting factors. This can be seen in the wide range of advertisers that Google and its competitors attract. With more than 2 million customers, their client base ranges from Fortune 500 companies to neighbourhood yoga instructors.

The change in how advertising is sold.

Selling segmented markets and a larger base of advertisers will require new models for advertising sales transactions. Improved systems to enable higher volumes of more complex transactions with a lower revenue per transaction will need to become a core capability of media houses. Self-service, realtime,  automated systems are already part of the backbone of the online advertising. Traditional media will have to match these standards.

The challenge for most media owners is that they don’t provide enough access to specific markets. E.g. would I, as a small business, want to place my advertising with 10 different media owners and negotiate for the best price at each one? Or would I prefer to work with a single provider that can purchase the advertising space for me across a variety of media owners and still achieve my objectives?

The convenience and simplicity argument would show that the trend would be towards the simpler option. Consequently, advertising networks are becoming more powerful. Networks place advertising across a variety of platforms, allowing the advertiser to reach a targeted audience more easily, all through an automated interface.

Advertising networks could displace a large volume of sales both from a media sales force and media buyers, both of whom require a higher transaction cost. Many large advertisers have already taken media buying in-house as these tools continue to demystify the media purchasing process. Smaller advertisers who interact only with an advertising network will completely circumvent much of the value chain created by today’s media industry.

Advertising networks at the moment operate as an unsold inventory channel, buying up available stock at the last minute (“unsold inventory”) and using that to deliver advertising for its clients at a low cost. The move away from unsold inventory solutions to include premium sales has already begun with Google’s DoubleClick’s Ad Exchange program and smarter targeting of site visitors. It is a critical development as digital media buyers will not want to access multiple systems to procure advertising. They will standardize on a small number of systems and those may control the bulk of advertising spend.

The strategic requirements for media houses may end up being to expose data and simplify integration points, rather than building and owning their own advertising networks. The ability to provide and receive information from multiple ad networks, dynamically select optimal price and run the advert will become a critical part of the value chain.

In a world filled with higher levels of targeting, the advertising networks gain significant power. Advertisers will be more interested in Return on Investment in an audience and less worried about where the audience is originated. This will dramatically reduce the power that media brands have to command a premium advertising rates based on the quality of their audience. This has already happened in traditional media, where media is purchased on GRP’s[7] rather than the quality of the audience by media planners. The ROI structure of ad networks creates a further threat as low quality audiences can easily be offset by price, thus creating a numbers-based purchase that erodes all brand value.

What this signifies is a potential shift in market power, away from media owners towards advertising networks. As these networks have reach through their networks of media owners, they have a better ability to direct advertising spend than the media owner directly, especially for the smaller advertiser. A large number of small, targeted media platforms, along with advertising messages tailored to fit, will be a proposition hard to beat.

The battlefields of the future.

While segmentation provides hope for a more profitable future, the route to customers is getting ever more complex for media owners.

Reducing media buying to a function of reach or frequency within a broad target market is a growing risk. With higher levels of automation the ability of sales forces to influence sales will reduce, further limiting revenue optimization opportunities. Media houses have to review their channel strategies, develop the capacity to serve the emerging broad-base advertising market and strengthen relationships with key purchasers that live outside automated systems.

Behavioral targeting will favour either mass media platforms like Facebook, where large audience numbers aggregate but reveal profound insights into personal preferences and behaviours, or sites that hyper-serve defined niches.

It’s premature to predict which system will be the winner in the new media world. Behavioural targeting? Aggregation? Google? Facebook?

It is, in fact, likely that there will be a number of systems which will succeed in providing better media experiences for both advertisers and users. They are certain, however, to have one thing in common:


To survive — and to thrive — Big Media must develop the ability to analyse and segment markets, along with the ability to share the information in a meaningful way with advertisers. Reviewing existing content and product strategies is a key component to creating the depth of inventory needed to compete.

The change from supply to demand side pricing will drive a growing reliance on strong yield management software. Decisions regarding which advert to run based on the highest possible price received from different ad networks will be a key factor in optimizing profitability.

Already, there are Big Media players who are adjusting their perspective and are succeeding. Many, however, have their heads in the sand. Perhaps the question most worth asking is:

Where do you stand?

[1] It was the record industry that first fought against copyright in the law courts as they saw it hurting the then emerging record and gramophone market.

[2] Known in popular culture via the movie “300”. Leonidas held the Thermopylai pass to stop the Persian advance into Greece.

[3] Bulking pertains to giving away free copies of publications and reporting it as added circulation to drive up readership and thus reach. This in turn increases the price of advertising space.

[4] With per track pricing now available via iTunes and so many other online music sellers, it can be seen that most blockbuster artists do not sell albums, but rather that individual “hit” songs. This has impacted label revenues dramatically even though a greater volume of purchases is being generated.

[5] Wastage identifies the target audience reached that is not core or interested in the offering.

[6] Duplication of audience refers to reaching the same person through a variety of media, thus spending more than is needed. Unduplicated means that you have reached the person with the targeted frequency (number of times) and not more than that.

[7] Gross Rating Point – a measure of reach and frequency to reach a target market.