What is a digital media company’s “inventory?”

Sorry, but I can’t resist.

In a press release this morning from IB (Internet Broadcasting Systems Inc.) announcing a new deal with the Journal Broadcast Group, IB CEO Elmer Baldwin said, among other things:

“We’re helping them to discover new ways to monetize their growing digital inventory.”

This statement represents the group delusion under which legacy media companies operate, that an advertising “slot” on a website is inventory to be sold. The problem is that media companies don’t sell “inventory,” per se; they sell audiences, or more specifically, the eyeballs that might view that “inventory.” Many will accuse me of playing semantics, but it’s actually much more basic to business. The price for which this inventory is sold is based on CPM or “cost per thousand.” Thousand what? Thousand pairs of eyeballs. If, for example, the price the advertiser pays is “$10 per thousand,” then the media company gets 10-bucks when a thousand people view that ad as demonstrated by its logs. But the CPM model was created in the mass marketing days and works well when we’re dealing with significant numbers of eyeballs AT THE SAME TIME! It is a terribly inefficient and ineffective formula when applied to what is really a one-to-one environment as opposed to one-to-many.

I have stated ad nauseum that the only winner in these kinds of scenarios is the software serving the ads, because it captures and uses all of the data gathered while serving the ads. Eyeballs in the network increase in value in direct proportion to the data that’s attached to them. And so media companies play this “digital inventory” game as though it was the same game they play with their legacy properties. It’s understandable, of course, but that doesn’t change the reality.

Moreover, what this deal is primarily about is banner advertising. That’s the “inventory” — availabilities or “open slots” for banner ads on a media company website. The format has been dying for years, but if you’re a media company, it’s what you have, and so you make deals like the above and hope for the best. In addition, there’s the assumption that this “inventory” is growing, and that’s an important concept for mass marketers. We’ve never met a number that we didn’t think we could manage our way into making bigger. This is what leads media thinkers to ignore the invasive user experience in favor of tactics that produce more of that “inventory,” tactics like splitting web documents into multiple documents that challenge even the most patient consumer. The user experience MUST be number one, or the eyeballs that we think we can count on will go elsewhere.

The Web is NOT a mass marketing tool, despite what certain “experts” would lead us to believe. It certainly can mimic the properties of mass media, but the truths of everything important to business models lie hidden within the code that makes up the back end of what we offer. Silicon Valley knows this and is happy to play along with the “digital inventory” game, while picking our pockets at every opportunity.

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