August 22nd, 2007

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


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 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.

  • 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 blogs. Wordpress can block it at anytime (remember youtube videos on Myspace?). 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.

  • @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.

  • Let me raise another issue: displaying ads on RSS also means displaying ads on, 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.

  • Ike

    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 -

  • @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.


    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.


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

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