March 17th, 2007

Why Online Advertising Economics Are So Messed Up


We’ve all heard that page views are dying. Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed pointed out a few weeks ago the problem with scaling an online advertising business based on revenue per thousand page views, an analysis which has now been picked up by the Dan Mitchell at the NYT. Jeremy’s analysis is correct, on one level, but it also exposes a deep flaw in the way online media is currently valued and sold to advertisers.

According to Jeremy, untargeted, run-of-site page views are worth about $1 per thousand. It’s RPM because it’s taking into account ALL forms of advertising on the page, including display ads sold on a cost per thousand impressions basis, pay-per-click ads, and pay-per-action ads. $1 per thousand sounds about right, but it’s also deeply disturbing.

Part of the problem is that there’s a disconnect between page views and human beings. On a site with very low page views per user, a thousand page views could be generated by a thousand people. Or, across a month, it could represent the activity of a single highly active user. So imagine a page with three display ads sold on a cost per thousand basis. An advertiser could, in theory, be paying $1 OR LESS to reach a thousand people with all three display ads.

In what other medium can you pay $1 to reach a thousand people with three ads each???

At that rate, you could reach 1 million people for $1,000. Now, granted most thousand page views are generated by less than a thousand people (in many cases far less). And granted we’re talking about untarget advertising. A highly targeted site can earn a revenue per thousand pages of, say, $20. But still, $20 is a pretty good deal to reach as many as a thousand people with your advertising. And if you assume that $20 is from multiple ad sources on each page, then each source is paying less than $20 to reach a highly targeted audience of up to a thousand people.

Compared to other media, online publishers are pretty much giving it away. Because the reality is that EVERY page view is in viewed by someone who has some value to some advertiser. The problem is when you DON’T KNOW who your users are.

This is the problem with all the focus (particularly in Web 2.0 circles) on total traffic numbers — 10 million uniques is great, but not so much if you don’t know who these people are.

Of course, you know why so many sites are valuing their traffic in bulk — Google AdSense, which doesn’t care who your users are, as long as they click on ads. Pay-per-click advertising is, on one level, all about targeting, but on another level it’s a volume game.

Is it possible that Google, the great driver of efficiency in online advertising — and the great democratizer of online ad revenue — has in fact dragged down the average value of ALL page views?

So what is online media to do? It already commands a third of total media attention, rivaling television, the ultimate monopoly medium. So why can’t websites charge monopoly prices? Well, the handful of big online media brands, like Yahoo, AOL, MySpace (homepage), MSNBC, CNN, etc. DO charge premium prices for their premium inventory. The top online destinations can and do price like high-priced offline media.

But for as the long tail — it just doesn’t scale.

  • What is the reasonable CPM? It depends.

    What Is Your Goal?

    Legacy publications, like a magazine or local newspaper, don't target $50 million businesses. A publication with $500,000 income can be highly profitable and sustainable. Thousands of publishers have followed this formula to profitable, long lasting ventures...

  • Believe it or not, there is actually a very simple reason that online ads are not yet valued like real-world ads: volume.

    As the market fragments across thousands or hundreds of thousands of sites, what ad buyer can afford to make the tiny, targeted buys -- or even know where to make these buys. It simply isn't worth their time.

    If you're buying ads for, say, Sony, you'd much rather stick with an old-school medium -- like TV -- or an enormous web property -- like Yahoo -- where you can drop your million bucks and be done with it.

    Until ad networks become savvier, more powerful, and more, let's face it, monopolistic (with control over virtually all the ad inventory out there), no one but the biggest fish in the pond will be commanding the really high CPMs.

    Oh and also, the ability to perfectly measure your traffic is a curse. Think of how traditional newspapers sell advertising -- they tell advertisers how many subscribers they have. But how many of their subscribers didn't even read the paper that day? Or never saw the specific ad that was paid for? I'm sure if there were a print-world equivalent of Google Analytics, that had the same level of fidelity, advertisers wouldn't stand for their low ad impression rates and print advertising rates would fall off a cliff -- frankly, the whole thing is built on an illusion.

  • why do game web sight's and outher say "" free ""
    are nat at all ""free "" isint that fraud and if i did that !!!... i'd be in Jail... so tell "" ALL "" web's to tell the truth and stop the B.S. we Don't need it there like a bad date she sead yes and now it's JAIL.... Thank's for at Least Looking...
    Robin DeArcos Peoria,il

  • Scott, I think your $1 CPM number is way off for many sites. Look at what and VA Software (publisher of Slashdot) said about their CPMs on their most recent conference calls:

  • disqusererer

    Many low traffic AdSense sites average over $50 CPM. Largely the issues with cheap ad prices are
    - glut of inventory where few matching profitable business models exist (blogs, etc.)
    - advertising on sites where the audience is largely ad blind
    - poor ad placement (right rail, top of page, etc.)
    - poor ad targeting due to CMS issues and people writing on a diverse set of topics

    Another big issue with web ads is the plainness of many of them...105 text characters near other ads is nowhere near as good as 15 seconds of undivided attention.

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