You're going to create scarcity on the web? Wow. Let me know how that turns out.

I just met with a true innovator in public media this week, someone that’s a bit of a hero, really, and in this brief conversation I was surprised to hear a comment about the web that was, well… stunning. (And I’m not going to divulge the identity of this person because it’s irrelevant to the story.)

When asked by a colleague of mine whether this public media company was currently selling online advertising via their web presence, the answer was not only “no,” but “no, and we don’t plan to.” This person went on to say that the cost of putting together and managing an online advertising system would outweigh the advertising revenue that could be gained. Their take is that careful cost analysis must be done before they do any new projects and right now the web doesn’t look like a good cost bet.

Fair enough. That’s actually the tack I’ve taken at our shop in Anchorage. Why bother with the rules, the systems, the web redesigns required when the payback would be so small on sites with comparatively low traffic numbers?  I’ve avoided it to date.

But the comments didn’t stop there. This person further said they were going to wait until they had created a “scarcity” in the market for web advertising (on their properties) and then set prices for online ads when companies are “begging” to get their ads on the target site(s).

You’re going to create scarcity? On the web? Really?

I almost started to counter this idea right there, but out of respect left it alone.

Later I checked my RSS feed subscriptions and discovered a blog post from Google talking about how many pages there are in their index of the online world. Their numbers:

  • 1998 — 26,000,000 pages (26 million)
  • 2000 — 1,000,000,000 pages (1 billion)
  • 2008 — 1,000,000,000,000 pages (1 trillion)

And presently the index grows by several billion pages each day.

But you’re going to create scarcity. Mmm-hmmm.

Okay, snarkiness aside… you can create scarcities online, I know. And public media entities are in a fairly good position to do that if they can gather their comparatively rarified audiences in the online space in large numbers and on a regular basis.

But there are two problems with this notion:

  1. You’re not the only property online with desirable demographics for advertisers, because your web audience also visits lots of other sites and other sites can offer more targeted demographics.
  2. Public media sites, especially for local stations, are… well… pretty bad as core web destinations. You’ll never be able to profitably sell such small and fairly broad audiences to advertisers in a market where #1 is true.

For the most part our public media (station) web sites are sorry shadows of our on-air presentations (there are, of course, a few exceptions where real investments have been made, mostly in the largest markets). Why?

  • Our web services are typically afterthoughts.
  • We do them because we “have to.”
  • They are not must-see daily destinations.
  • They are not valuable social networks.
  • They have a fraction of the news presented by any local newspaper site.
  • They are often unattractive and hard to navigate or bland, boring and so on.

The site visitor counts are understandably low.

And I level that charge against my own sites as well as the sites of other public media companies. They’re just not worth visiting regularly unless there’s something you heard/saw on air that you needed to hear/see again or you want to make a pledge online.

Further, if you did sell online advertising, how would you do it? You’d use your existing development / sales staff, wouldn’t you?  Commissions, salaries, healthcare costs, etc. all loaded up on top of the sales.  And then there’s the overhead costs of the rest of the organization as well.  No wonder web advertising isn’t worth it — it works on a different scale.

And thus we return to the same point made recently about the Bryant Park Project failure at NPR: you cannot expect broadcast economics success from a web economics property. Web properties work on a different scale than radio or TV. It’s a smaller, lighter scale. It supports fewer overhead costs and requires less staff.

Two solutions:

  1. Create a web property that works on a web scale and draws its own audience and community. Make something that is a must-see daily destination, or create a site that solves people’s problems or provides a core service they need every day.
  2. Create your web property in an economic “bubble” outside the normal expectations of staffing and profitability of broadcasting — at least to start. If you want your web property to help pay your transmitter bills, you’re dreaming now and probably forever.

So I agree — don’t bother selling advertising on bland sites with low traffic. I wouldn’t try to “monetize” most station sites today.

Instead, discover how network economics can work for you and build something compelling outside the expectations of the legacy properties. This might even be — or probably should be — a spin-off property, a la Mark Fuerst‘s recommendation, captured on video here:

One thought on “You're going to create scarcity on the web? Wow. Let me know how that turns out.

  1. Just wrote about this in a draft of my book. Old media created and exploited scarcity. Google manages abundance. We are very much in a post-scarcity economy and trying to manage as if scarcity exists or will again is suicidal.

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