Eyeballs at any cost: “value” from a link economy or the prerequisite to paid content?


IIMA will soon release a report about recreating the market value for news content, a snapshot of the paid content debate – with lots of INMA twists involving a global view, other media industries, a marketing vantage point, and my interactions with the subject visiting publishers worldwide.

I authored the report, which aims to demonstrate four broad themes:

  • Creating value for content will require publishers to carve scarcity from an abundance of information.

  • Value is about a smart linking of unique content with a tightly defined audience with an effective platform.

  • Generating value in the consumer’s mind is a pre-condition for placing a price tag on content.

  • “Value” to publishers employing professional journalists must have a tangible, financial return on investment.

Central to the new report is the most misunderstood word in the paid content debate: “value.”

When the smartest digital consultants talk about a “link economy” that builds “value” (think Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky), they are on the opposite side of the canyon from publishers that desperately need to see money from that “value” (think Rupert Murdoch).

“Value” of content to those who believe in a link economy is a blind numbers game – total audience no matter the source. The more links, the better. The bigger the audience, the bigger the influence for the publisher. Ultimately, this is better for an informed democracy.

Who isn’t for democracy and bigger audiences?

Yet the digital consultants aren’t talking the same language as the publishers.

Same word, different meaning.

One side aspirational, one side practical.

“Value” of content to publishers is about the ability to demonstrate a financial return on investment. If we can create scarcity and match content/audience/platform, we can put a price tag on the content or charge a premium to advertisers.

The digital consultants are trying to make a business argument using a 180-year-old CPM model. Instead, media companies are increasingly being rewarded for efficiently derived target audiences rather than mass numbers.

The disconnect between the two camps yelling past each other is an old chestnut in our industry: What business are we in?

In the perfect world, we all want what newspapers once had: a broad audience and healthy revenue streams. We all want a CPM model to work. But it hasn’t, it isn’t, and it won’t – at least for the foreseeable future.

Now we’ll try something else. Let’s see if paid content models work – smartly done and with the consumer’s perception of value central to anything we try.

How can one word (value) be used so differently?

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