It is not new or interesting to say the newspaper business is changing, but as a news ex-pat I’m less worried than most about it. The fact is, talented writers will always find work and, as paywalls go up all over the Internet, quality writing will continue to go at a premium. The people at the head of the newspaper panic aren’t the writers. The people at the head of the newspaper panic are the sales people. The most successful ad reps are those with the best ability to adopt others’ opinions. They are followers by nature, and I mean this only in the best way.
If I think you’re stupid, bigoted or ill-informed and I don’t want to tell you, it doesn’t matter. My eyes, face, and aura betray me immediately. I am no poker player. If I had to earn my living dealing in insincerity, I would surely be much more likely to starve than if I had to make my living writing. The point is, sales people have a valuable skill I could never hope to cultivate.
Sales people, particularly those working in print, have no ability to innovate. Newspapers have always been notoriously conservative. Something already has to be successful for them to even consider trying it. People on the editorial side—people like me who have little skill at handling advertisers—rarely make it to publisher. We wouldn’t have made good publishers in the 80s and 90s because it was about selling literal page views.
A Brief History of Ads
Blogging on the side, though, or having relationships with colleagues or friends who blogged on the side, reporters have had at least a notion that quality mattered; that informed readers expected something more. Newspaper publishers, who never have had to worry about competition, were all of a sudden put on the spot and didn’t know what to do about it. The most innovative of them copied sites that were already succeeding.
This had worked in the past. One paper goosed subscriptions by adding color fronts and the rest followed. (During this period many of the publishers said color was a fad. This is all you really need to know about a publisher’s ability to innovate.) USA Today dragged much of the industry to inside color and to more photos and graphics. It was style over substance, and it worked.
But publishing is a glacier, and doing what was successful even as few as three years ago is a waste of time in the Internet age. It is depressing to see papers all over the country working so hard to get page views when they are obviously the Confederate dollar of the Internet.
Informed ad consumers are no longer interested in whether a billion people saw their ad. They only are interested in how many people who saw it became customers. While targeted advertising purports to get your message in front of your potential customers, unless a company has web-based sales, they don’t need a billion fews. They need a better way to talk to local customers. The solution is, of course, outdoor advertising.
Billboards, though, are even less trackable than are print ads or pageviews views. They always have been and will probably remain in the multinational domain. They are a good way to put Coke or Pepsi in your head while you’re driving along. They are good for reinforcing national campaigns. They also are good for reminding people how ineffective they otherwise are. “Caught You Reading!” and “Advertising Works!” just remind me that billboards are mostly empty. They also remind me how rarely (never) I have seen a billboard and made a mental note to go to the company website when I got home.
Just outside of Ocean City is the area’s first digital billboard. Popular in metropolitan areas, where the traffic ups the captive audience, it is the billboard industry’s way of undermining its rural market share. Video billboards allow multiple companies to rent digital time. Unfortunately, because traffic isn’t that bad and because no one can take their eyes off the road for the four minutes it takes to watch the whole cycle, it is for all intents and purposes useless.
All Your Base Are Belong to Us
Imagine you own a 15 second spot on a billboard and realize how unlikely it is people will look at it. One trip past, and it is clear your money would have been spent better on a static ad. Then it starts a person thinking about how useful an expenditure it is. And that is the best case scenario.
Imagine seeing an ad like the one above. An ad (for the ad company) that makes no sense. Ads can be uploaded remotely and are not permanent As a result, they needn’t undergo the kind of rigorous proofing print ads do. Even print publishers, who have decided there are no need for copy editors in the news room, continue to put pressure on the ad proofing mechanism. If a news story has a typo or is unclear, it is still free, but if an ad is wrong, it costs money and space.
It was only because the ad was so bad it caught my eye. I actually turned around (I’m developing a mild Vine addiction) to see if I could incorporate it into a shore movie called “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” of nonsensical ads. Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe if you put up an that’s misspelled or so completely, impenetrably nonsensical people remember it.
Whether they’ll still trust you as a professional is a different question. It is a question ad reps will be asking as soon as someone tells them to.
There’s plenty more on this week’s Todcast, including Bryan returning with the State of the Beer, adventures in ToddManOut, and the debute of my first Vine beer commercial. Take a listen below or subscribe here.