The holy grail, Part I

WE know the print publishing model is broken, and increasingly we’re aware that the digital content business is, too. The idea was to set cheap ad rates and make it up in volume. The CPM (cost-per-thousand) model worked in broadcasting where there was a finite amount of time, and a mythically homogenous market. Print publishers, at least in the U.S., followed suit.

On the web a low barrier-to-entry created a lot of content web sites and an unlimited inventory of positions. The market is atomized. The prices for ads have been driven down to the point where the Long Tail can’t make a go of it. Publishers are caught between thinning ad revenue and the audience’s reluctance to pay for content.

Radio ushered in the idea that content could be free 80 years ago. TV confirmed it. The internet circulated the idea that it should be free. This is neither logical nor fair to writers and editors (and art directors)—it’s just the market. If people are accustomed to free content, if their mental price-point is zero, then publishers can’t charge much for a publication, if at all. I know for myself that $5.99 seems like a lot to pay for a digital issue of any magazine, value be damned. But I find myself signing up for 99-cent deals, often with recurring charges to my iTunes account. That amount is negligible. I even paid for a couple of months of The Daily before realizing what was happening, and rushed to the App Store to cancel cancelled. [Note to self: Post question on Quora asking how the hell the Apple Newsstand works, and why I have some magazine and newspaper icons in it that I can’t move elsewhere and others that I can’t find in it?]

So publishers are stuck with little (or no) subscription revenue. That’s the number-one problem with the old model. Problem two is the look and feel of advertising. Web publishers have fallen into the Gresham’s Law of the Web: Crappy advertising drives out the well-designed.

What we have now is the ugliest advertising in the history of the media. I used to say that web sites looked like the walls of a third-world futbol stadium, but that was unfair to the stadiums. Most content sites look so bad they actually repel readers rather than attract them.

The old Times of London with a front page filled with ads looks like an Aldine octavo next to a typical news web site.

The Times of London, 18th Century
The Times of London front page in 1788. From Wikipedia

As the estimable Frédéric Filloux showed a few weeks ago in a Monday Notes blog, the cheapness of web space and the publishers’ resulting hunger for revenue have drowned out the content on the home pages of even the most important news sites in the Europe and the U.S. Filloux presents a series of screen grabs, with the ads indicated by red rectangles. It’s shocking how little content is getting on the home pages.

Worse, he points out, are the story pages.

These pages are being ruined by the “display” ads, not the hideous network ads with their frightening images of teeth whiteners and the bogus news stories: “Woman in ______ [your hometown here] Finds Free Secret to Losing Weight!”

Individually the big ads might be okay, but together they are a discordant mess that swamps the content and the branding of a site. First they cover a page, and then use animation to distract your eye. Increasingly we’re seeing animation on mobile screens. (Remember the blink tag?) We’re wired for motion, so an animated ad always trumps reading, and thus becomes a push-back to the readers.

What happened to the understanding we reached in the 90s, that an animation just ran once and then settled down so people could read?

So, what can be done now? The answer, of course, is design. (If you’re a hammer all problems look like nails.) To solve both the inventory glut and the visual cacophony, the content web community needs, in concert and with no further delay, to:

  • Greatly reduce the number of ad positions
  • Charge more for ads

This means, of course, sponsorship, where an advertiser pays to be the only advertiser on a screen. A content site could sell unique partial avails (a banner or box), or a “full page” before section fronts and within stories. I prefer ads that fall naturally between page turns, like in print. Products that appear in interstitial full-screen ads (that you have to specifically close by hitting a button) should be boycotted.

On a news site, a typical story could start with one big partial-page on the lede, and follow with occasional full pages, and perhaps more partials—as they fit. I sketched this out five years ago, fresh from work on The New York Times Reader, after seeing great story in the print Houston Chronicle (which I helped design) look really bad on the web site. Every page would be sized to fit the screen. (We didn’t have Treesaver yet, and we didn’t have web fonts, but I was ready!) The desktop version would like like this:

Reader sketch for the Houston Chronicle, 2006
A study for a possible Houston Chronicle Reader, 2006
Pixel-for-pixel detail of the Chronicle sketch
The Chronicle reader, pixel-for-pixel, showing the paper’s custom fonts.

I can hear the publishers already objecting that exclusivity would cut out a lot of revenue from their network ads. But don’t throw them out the other ads, blend them in. You can put non-display ads on a page with a display ad, without hurting the advertiser or the reader.  We could take a the cue from the original text ads, which were “pub-set” (that is set in type by the publisher, not the ad agency) in a regular text font—classifieds. The design of classifieds became generic and mean. Only Craigslist is uglier.

The modern example would be Facebook, which simply does not allow display advertising. Everything is pub-set. And they’re going to bringing $3.8 billion of it, estimates Bloomberg.

The key to all of this is to charge more. But if you look at most content web sites, there is not that many different advertisers at any one moment. What’s happening is that the publishers seem to be putting all of their ads on every pages. It’s as though they were afraid no one would read more than one page. But this way, they guarantee it. Look at the Houston Chronicle web page of that same story:

Original article page 2006
Story page from, 2006

If you think that’s bad, look how Gresham’s law has eroded the design in the last five years. Here’s a typical recent news story. story, 2011
Story page from, 2011

Now, tell me you want to read this.

The chances of web publishers and bloggers all rising up together to create scarcity and great design seems unlikely, but all it will take is one great success. I am reminded of a redesign project I worked on in Singapore in the 90s, The Straits Times. They had three ads on the front page, and were reluctant to simplify the page because there was so much money involved. I said, “Charge the same total for just one. Better, don’t just triple the price for a single ad, quadruple it!” And the publisher finally agreed. Well, the page looked better, readers liked it more, the visual brand was improved, and revenue increased. The advertisers bumped off the page took larger ads inside with their same budgets, and the waiting list for Page One was a year long.

The next change for web publishers:

Sell cross-platform ads (web, tablet, mobile) with the same order.

We’ve been hearing about responsive web sites. But what about the ads? Web, tablet and mobiles are sold and served separately, and there are not analytics services that can yet follow a multi-platform campaign. Right now the only way to get responsive advertising is a custom sell, and custom creative.

I’ll tackle this in the next post, but if you are interested, take time to read a thorough review of the issue by Mark Boulton, a fine web designer in Britain.

The time has come to do for advertising what the Boston Globe has done for news sites (with the help of Upstatement and Ethan Marcotte (and a assist from Webtype!). The Globe makes the same content, with the same HTML/CSS feed, look great on any device, OS and screen size that a reader chooses.