August 22nd, 2007

New York Times Can’t Sell And Advertisers Refuse to Buy Full Feed Advertising: Stop Betting Against The Internet!

by

Freakonomics author and blogger Stephen Dubner has a long, tortured post about why the New York Times will only offer a partial RSS feed for the Freakonomics blog now that it’s being published on NYTimes.com. The most interesting and utterly damning part by far is this:

But can’t they sell ads on a full feed, so that feed readers can still get all the content they want delivered to their computers for free without having to visit a single web site? The short answer is yes, they can, and our friends at FeedBurner, who have been distributing our feed, created a great business by doing so. But the Times and its advertisers aren’t crazy about this option. (Nor are they alone, apparently.) Why? This is the fundamental point: many advertisers do not value feed readers as much as they value site readers, since they believe that feed readers are far harder to measure and track. (The folks at FeedBurner have a different view, of course.)

You can put this up there with other mind-blowingly foolish thinking on the part of publishers and advertisers, such as “let’s block Google from crawling our site so they don’t get our content for free” or “let’s only allocate 3% of our ad budget to online media even though our target consumers spend more than half their media time online.”

The first time I heard Eric Schmidt talk about people who are still “betting against the Internet,” I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Who in the post-Google era would be dumb enough to bet against the Internet? But since then, I’ve seen many examples of precisely that mindset.

Any advertiser who asserts that you can’t effectively “measure and track” people who consumer content via RSS feed readers probably has never even seen the data that FeedBurner can provide. Sure, you can’t place tracking cookies in these people’s browsers or serve behaviorally target ads. But HOW IS THAT BETTER THAN NOT REACHING THEM AT ALL???

The idea that publishers, under pressure from advertisers, can put the horses back in the barn and get people to consume content through channels that publishers fully control, just like in old offline monopoly media, is so reactionary that it really does amount to betting against the Internet.

It’s true that adoption of RSS is still relatively low, but when you take the case of the Freakonomics blog — where MOST of the readers read it via RSS — the idea that you could somehow change ALL of their behavior, i.e. force them to come to the New York Times, is just ludicrous. There’s no other word for it.

Really, what’s the point of “partnering” with the Freakonomics blog only to alienate the vast majority of the readers? How is that creating value for advertisers? So you can show ads to the few angry, resentful readers who reluctantly come to the New York Times?

I can just imagine the debate that went on inside the Times. Well, if we offer Freakonomics in full content feed, then readers will expect all of our feeds to be full content, and the it will be chaos, advertisers jumping ship, “human sacrifice, dogs and cats, living together… mass hysteria!

But they are just putting off the inevitable — rather than fighting the hard battle of monetizing full feed content, i.e. the hard work of pulling advertisers into the future, which I know takes time (sometimes a long time), they are opting instead to shrink the audience, i.e. cede all of those readers to the competition — which makes those readers IMPOSSIBLE to monetize, ever.

This “bet against the Internet” attitude also looks unfavorably at CBS videos appearing on Google News via their deal with YouTube. But CBS, unlike the Times in this instance, is smart enough to know that forcing people to come to them to get their content is not a sustainable model on the Web.

FeedBurner has made revolutionary strides in enabling publishers to attach advertising to content distributed via feeds, and to make both the consumption of the feed content and the ads measurable and trackable.

I know (almost) exactly how many people read Publishing 2.0 via RSS. I know how many use Google Reader, Bloglines, etc. I know how many people viewed each of the items published in the feed, and how many clicked through to the site. When I was using FeedBurner’s Ad Network, I knew exactly how many impressions for which campaigns were served and how many clicks each ad got.

Sure, I know less about those people than when they visit the site, but the issue is not how much less, or what types of advertising I can do in the feed vs. on the site. The issues is — what’s the alternative?

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Apparently, in their eagerness to bet against the Internet, this is an alternative that many publishers and advertisers still prefer.

The New York Times is apparently still operating with the hubris to believe that the content they provide is so good it will force people to change their media consumption habits (see TimesSelect). But the reality is that there’s a sea of great content on the Web (even when you filter out all the crap). Freakconomics may be a unique and fascinating blog, but there are TONS of other unique and fascinating blogs on similar topics, written by really smart people, that offer full feeds that suit people’s media consumption habits and preferences.

Remember that Freakonomics developed a huge readership WITHOUT the NYT’s controlled distribution models. That means people who might otherwise have been reading smart daily content from the Times, found it also — or instead — on Freakonomics, which is what lead the Times to partner with them, instead of creating it themselves, as they would have in the past.

Great content still rules, but the playing field has been leveled, and by offering partial feeds, the New York Times and other publishers are tying one arm behind their backs.

I can understand why publishers are clinging so tightly to the old monopoly distribution model — it was a hell of a business. But it’s over.

Comments (26 Responses so far)

  1. [...] of good transition to big media site that maintained good faith with original readers. Update: Here is an excellent post by Scott Karp that addresses rss feed issue perfectly. Can you win betting [...]

  2. IMO, The Times has always been a rather pompous bunch who viewed themselves as being above every other news organization, so no surprise here.

  3. One example of a blogger that stuck to his guns is Henry Abbot of True Hoop. He made a deal with ESPN but was insistent that nothing would change because he didn’t want to alienate his readers. ESPN didn’t monkey with feed and everyone is happy. So there are some old media people that are either more prescient or have better business sense.

    This is an interesting aspect of this space and I’m sure we’ll have many more examples of this in the near and distant future.

  4. I completely understand and agree with your argument, but when I look at my own behavior, as someone who subscribes to about a dozen NY Times category feeds, I do find myself clicking through much more often than I would if it were a full feed. Why? Because it’s the Times, and they consistently deliver a good read.

    I like the Gawker solution to the full vs partial feeds debate. Gawker blogs serve partial feeds without ads, and full feeds with ads. And it makes everyone happy.

  5. We did research on this topic – the CTR on full content feeds vs. summary. The difference is small. Bottom line is in either case users do go back to the publisher’s site no matter if the publisher is creating full or partial feeds. The details can be found here: http://www.pheedo.info/pheedread/Pheedo_Pheed_Read_3_Spring.2006.pdf

    And in regards to in-feed advertising, advertisers want performance – period. Full feed or summary feed that isn’t part of the discussion. How well will the advertising perform in-feed, on site or search.

    Best regards,
    Bill Flitter
    Pheedo

  6. It’s a bit ironic that the NYT suits and advertisers would disregard logic, economics and statistical analysis in making an argument against advertising on full post feeds — on the *Freakonomics* blog. Have they ever read it? Have they read the book? Did they think the Freakonomics authors (and readers) would buy their intuitive — but wrong — assumptions about the economics of advertising on feeds vs. sites?

  7. Gaaaaah! Who would possibly want to sell anything to a bunch of tech-savvy male professional early adopters with a geeky streak?!!??? Keep them away!

  8. All of this is not uncommon. Bigger companies / older companies are just not as quick and not as willing to change. They are conservative, they are risk averse and at times they think that if they wait things will blow over.

    Think IBM => Microsoft, think Microsoft => Google. Same trend.

    Alex

  9. I think they are stupid! Internet is the great storage of informathion and we have use it right…

  10. [...] New York Times Can’t Sell And Advertisers Refuse to Buy Full Feed Advertising: Stop Betting Agains… People like this clearly don’t understand humans and have never worked at a large corporation with other said humans. (tags: OTP) Posted by ANP on August 23rd, 2007 filed in Rando | [...]

  11. Scott, you’re right… RSS adoption outside technology, finance and a few other areas has been slow. However, the bigger point you don’t mention is that one reason RSS took off in certain segments is because people got sick of advertising and wanted a method of getting content without receiving spam, seeing pop-ups, etc. Now that publishers (and RSS readers) are more sophisticated, advertising is getting included. Is anyone measuring/monitoring reader reaction to this?

  12. Well, I for one am impressed and surprised by the Times’ on this one. See, I think Scott and the commentators on this site have their expectations set too high for the Grey Lady. See, you expect the Times to be forward thinking and intelligent with regards to the internet, and I just don’t think that’s realistic. Bill Keller is the man, after all, who came to my college and proclaimed that blogs were simply a href=http://media.www.columbiaspectator.com/media/storage/paper865/news/2005/02/21/News/Nyt-Journalist.Talks.Journalism-2031718.shtml>”a one man circle jerk”> (no pictures, please Scott).

  13. [...] more valuable and otherwise harder to reach. If you’ve got them, nurture them! Scott Karp passionately weighs in: But they are just putting off the inevitable — rather than fighting the hard battle of [...]

  14. There are a lot of reasons why RSS ads are significantly lower in value compared to web display ads. You mention behavioral and cookies — yes, these are unavailable. But so it rich media, by far the most valuable ads to sell. So is agency-side tracking, a requirement for any major buyer. So is geo-targeting, frequency capping, daypart targeting — the list goes on. RSS display advertising is totally unproven while web advertising is extremely valuable.

    That’s not to say that you don’t have a point about following the audience, etc. But you have to understand that RSS vs web advertising isn’t even a contest from a value perspective and won’t be for 10 years.

  15. Ari,
    you can make almost the same argument about ads in email, yet The Times manages to sell for those, and at a higher CPM than web ads.

    I subscribe to 2 Times newsletters, and both are very well produced. It’s a stark contrast to their anemic feeds.

  16. @Ari

    But that assumes you have a choice between serving ads to a certain audience segment in RSS or on your site. But what if the choice is between serving ads to this audience in RSS or NOT AT ALL because they AREN’T COMING to your site, and you can’t force them to by using monopoly distribution tactics. It’s a free market for content, and this audience that favors RSS will go ELSEWHERE, which means their advertising value is ZERO.

    As Bill Flitter and others point out, full feed readers to visit the site to see comments, etc., so by using partial feeds, you don’t get to serve ads to these people on the site OR in the feed.

    How does this possibly make any sense?

    I can tell you that Publishing 2.0 gets a large volume of clickthroughs from feed readers where people have access to full content — those clickthroughs go up proportional to the number of comments on a post — this post we’re discussing is a perfect example.

    @Rob

    I don’t buy that no advertising is a significant value proposition for RSS. It’s almost entirely about consuming all of your content easily in one place. RSS advertising has been around for years now, and I think you’d have a tough time proving that it’s a barrier to use.

    @Rex,

    Indeed, the irony is so rich I can barely stand it.

  17. Scott – the legions of Freakoids leaving couldn’t articulate the issue the way you did, and that’s why they are being dismissed.

    I’m still waiting for someone to pick up on the change that I think will affect them long-term: the disruption of the community – http://occamsrazr.com/2007/08/08/killing-the-goose-that-laid-the-orange-apple/

  18. Let me raise another issue: displaying ads on RSS also means displaying ads on my.yahoo, Google, or any web based rss agregator. I m not sure, if it becomes a real business that all these big players will let ad revenues be generated from their plateform without taking their part.

    I m afraid this is not a simple question of full text or not. The business of agregators is tolerated because we can assume to share value by receiving trafic. Put full text here and we will move to something we already know : syndication model. I m not sure it’s a good idea to put all our value in the hand of portals.

  19. @Emmanuel

    That’s a fascinating question, but I just don’t see it — Google wanting a share of ads displayed in RSS feeds in Google Reader would be like them wanting a share of ads displayed in email newsletters that I receive in Gmail. Sure Google may display ADDITIONAL ads next to RSS feed content on Google Reader, as they already do in Gmail, but I don’t see on what basis they could lay claim to monetization of content that travels through the service.

    Of course, we’re in uncharted territory here, where software is now media, all the lines are blurred, and that probably means all bets are off.

  20. [...] une pratique largement majoritaire en ce qui concerne les flux RSS. Une situation qui provoque la colère de Scott Karp sur Publishing 2.0 qui reproche au NYTimes et aux annonceurs un raisonnement [...]

  21. Google can simply cut the ads, or yes accept it. “what basis”? Just because he is publishing the whole thing.
    Just think about the opposite situation, ads on Youtube videos:
    – Youtube videos are displayed on WordPress.com blogs. WordPress can block it at anytime (remember youtube videos on Myspace?). WordPress.com can claim for part of the revenues as distributor.
    – Now look at CBS videos on Youtube. Why CBS didn’t sell their own ads on videos and put it on Youtube to get full part of revenues? Yes because Google can provide visibility and few guaranties (remember when you said few mont ago “why paying to be on Myspace if you can build your own promotion page”?).

    But answer is more brutal: Google owns the network, control the distribution and their policy. Google makes the rules and can provide value added features to convince you’d better have to negociate.

    RSS is great but I m not sure the business is on it, rather on the way to use it.

  22. [...] Karp, de Publishing 2.0, hace un análisis muy completo de la decisión de The New York Times de ofrecer feeds parciales de su blog [...]

  23. [...] Karp wrote quite a good (and full fead) post about how the New York Time can’t sell and Advertisers Refuse to buy full feed Advertising.. The article hit home with me, as I’d just unsubscribed from the Freakonomics Blog. All [...]

  24. [...] New York Times Can’t Sell And Advertisers Refuse to Buy Full Feed Advertising: Stop Betting Agains… “rather than fighting the hard battle of monetizing full feeds, i.e. pulling advertisers into the future, they are opting to shrink the audience, i.e. cede all those readers to the competition — which makes those readers IMPOSSIBLE to monetize, ever.” (tags: feeds controversy advertising media+evolution business publishing) [...]

  25. [...] Freakonomics RSS feed into partial text since it adopted the site, because, the NYT alleges, they can’t sell them. Scott’s point is that this is a kind of surrender, and that by trying to force people back [...]

  26. [...] Of course, the only way to do that is click on 50 RSS buttons one at a time. And they only publish partial feeds. [...]

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