Breaking out of the Box

I got a call the other day from the World’s Leading Expert.

After chatting for a few moments, he finally revealed his problem. The advertising market has completely dried up, he said. He has gone from a weekly to a monthly publication on one title, and no one has missed him.

“Well,” I asked, “have you gotten your circulation audited?” That is, can you tell an advertiser who your readers are so he or she can compare your reach to, say, that of Ad Age or Business Week?

That wasn’t necessarily what the World’s Leading Expert wanted to hear. When you’re losing money, it’s hard to see that part of the solution is spending more. But the sad fact is that online publications must adopt the metrics of their print counterparts if they’re to compete for those advertisers.

Many online publishers will find it hard to ask for this data. Print readers think nothing of giving detailed information on their companies and operations to a print publisher for a title they want.

Online readers have never done it before. Give them an incentive, an “upsell,” something free, I suggested, and you may be surprised at the good response. If you have to threaten to cut some readers off if they don’t comply, do that, too, but do it judiciously. If you’re going to use the stick, have a carrot ready.

But even after you do all that, I warned, don’t expect a quick turnaround. The fact is that the Internet recession has become a general technology recession. It might, by the time you read this, be a general economic recession. No one is immune, and anyone serving the affected markets is going to suffer for an unknown period of time.

That’s not what the World’s Leading Expert wanted to hear, but he didn’t get to be who he is by being easily discouraged. He said he still has hope for his advice column, which he wants to syndicate to newspapers. He’s also writing a book, which will be branded to the column.

Having a name and a little fame is a wonderful thing, and I am confident the World’s Leading Expert will succeed. Acknowledging the applause and never letting them see you sweat can get you through most crises — especially if you have a little saved up for a rainy day.

For the rest of us, it’s going to be harder. Technology publishers have been trying for decades to “break out of the box” of technology advertising. They dream of running ads for cars and liquor and cigarettes in their pages — geeks drive and drink and smoke, don’t they? But to date they haven’t succeeded.

And while these advertisers are also hurting and seeing bargains in their regular ad channels, now may not look like a good time for e-publishers to be assaulting the parapets.

But, then again, maybe now is the best time. That’s really what the Internet Advertising Bureau’s new work is all about, matching our industry’s metrics to those of the “real” world so we can compete on an equal footing. If the recession has slowed your work and you want to be in this industry for the recovery (not running a bed-and-breakfast), you might offer to lend a hand. The World’s Leading Expert and I will thank you for it.

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