In A Word: Fair

I am putting the finishing touches on a new study we undertook of buying guide advertiser attitudes towards print and online advertising. It's likely the largest survey ever undertaken of this unexplored corner of the advertising universe, and there are a number of eye-opening findings.

Most significant to me was strong confirmation that the boom in paid search isn't really about an exciting new way to reach new customers cost-effectively. Instead, it's about shifting the advertising risk from the advertiser back to the publisher. What's fueling paid search is the pay-for-performance model, where advertisers don't pay unless something happens.

I've spent a lot of time railing about the fact that the click-throughs advertisers are buying are in many cases not worth the paper they're not printed on, but this argument really hasn't sunk in with advertisers yet. Instead, they're excited if not entranced by the notion of only paying for advertising if it works. It's the way they believe the world should work, and in describing this, the word "fair" kept coming up over and over again. To advertisers, "fair" is shorthand for re-balancing advertising risk. Simply put, a very large number of advertisers don't believe deep down they are getting value for their advertising dollars. This may not stop them from advertising, but it does tend to limit their advertising, and this skepticism about value makes advertising harder to sell.

Take away this skepticism, and you open the advertising floodgates, as the explosive growth of paid search clearly shows. While the growth of paid search is certain to slow in coming years, the notion of fairness as expressed through pay-for-performance pricing, appears to be with us permanently. It's something that all advertising-based publishers will have to address. It doesn't necessarily mean moving to pay-for-performance pricing, but without it your advertising story and sales proposition is far less compelling, and you will need to work hard to find other ways to establish value.

While this desire to shift risk is certainly rational behavior, we can't conclude that everything advertisers do is entirely rational. Another finding of our study is that all online media are basking in the reflected glow of paid search. For the moment at least, it appears all online advertising is good, no matter what form it takes. That will make it easier to sell for a while, but increased advertiser expectations will also make this advertising harder to renew.

But lest you conclude that buying guide advertisers may not be all that clever, consider another important finding of the study: the decision by advertisers where to advertise is surprisingly sophisticated and nuanced. Advertisers look hard at the audience for online buying guides and the reputation of the publisher, rating these both much more important to their decision than overall site traffic. That's good news for buying guide publishers, or it will be, once they start taking advantage of it. Another finding of the study is that a large majority of buying guide publishers continue to sell based largely on their overall site traffic.

The overall portrait of the buying guide advertiser is a complex one, largely a reflection of the confusing transition period in which we are all operating. Nobody knows with certainty what's right, leaving all parties open to constantly shifting interpretations of what is right ... and fair.

PS: If you would like to be notified and receive a copy of the table of contents when this study is available, please drop an email to Roxanne Christensen .