When I’m driving, I listen to radio. Radio is a pretty pure medium, particularly AM. I’ve always thought AM talk radio (I listen to sports radio when I’m bored with NPR, which is a lot, honestly) was a lot like blogging – you have a host who sits in the middle of a conversation, and the best ones are really good at getting the community involved. They have regulars, they have a defined area of coverage, they clearly connect to their audience. Anyway, as I was listening to AM radio on my way back from the gym, an ad for something pretty random came on. I don’t recall the ad exactly, but it felt extremely…non-endemic. After all, everyone listening is really into sports, right? (I was listening because the Giants are back in spring training, the blossoms are on the fruit trees, and all is right in the world…)
Anyway, this advertiser sent me on a reverie. Why, in all honesty, was this advertiser buying the ad space on the radio in the first place? Was it to reach men, 24-54? Yes, certainly. Was it to reach men, 24-54 with an interest in sports, and engage them in a conversation that was related to the product they were selling? No, not really, as the ad was for something else – maybe it was a mortgage refinancing offer. Was it to speak to this audience in the language they were all speaking at the point of context – the language characterized by the host? Clearly not. The ad was abrasive, a pushy come on.
So why did the advertiser buy the ad?
And then it hit me. The advertiser bought the ad to gain access to distribution. The advertiser wanted to speak to a big group of men, and the best outlet the advertiser could find was the radio station. At that time, in the Bay area, there simply was no other option. For the most part, the advertiser ignored the context of the endemic conversation it had interrupted (sports talk, in this case), and took over the distribution channel for its thirty seconds, pushing a presumptive and noisome message into my ears.
We have all come to accept this, because that’s the cost of a closed distribution system – those with the most money will pay the most to gain access to that distribution – in short, they rent it for the highest dollar. In nearly all “old” media, sales teams spend nearly all their time hawking this fact: buy our audience, and say pretty much whatever you want to them (as long as its not illegal).
But what happens to advertising when distribution is secondary, and audience and content is primary?
That is exactly the question internet publishing and blogging opens up (at least, the best forms of it). Internet based publishers don’t control access to some finite distribution system, all they control is access to the audience itself. This, in turn, can and should skew the conversation around internet advertising to one based on endemics – is this advertiser a good fit to the audience in the *context* the site provides? Can the advertiser address the audience in a voice that respects and even adds to the conversation occurring at that site? The lack of distribution scarcity creates a subtle but important forcing mechanism – It lets the best publishers (to my mind) say “Sure, we’ll take advertising, but only advertising that respects the conversation present on a site will truly flourish.” That, in the end, creates an ecology which rewards the strongest content and authors/sites which have durable and vibrant bonds with their communities. And that, I must say, makes this publisher a very optimistic fellow.