If publishers look like kids in a candy store while perusing all the bright new online products to develop, why do so many get stomach aches? It’s because as the online options grow, so do the number of horror stories of promising Web products that sucked up massive resources and generated zilch revenue.
Too often the strategy of picking the next Web-based project is based on what a neighbor is doing. "Another magazine in our company/market/category is having great success with ‘option x.’ Hey, if they can handle it, we can do better!" But development strategy should not be based on what’s going on in other guy’s backyard; it should come from what is going on in yours. Like many things publishing, it starts with a hard look at your market.
How Does Your Market Go to Market?
The first step is to ask, "How do my advertisers sell when they approach their customers?" Your next online product needs to support this process, and this question can eliminate about half of the online options you might consider. For example, "Ask the expert" columns, posted on your Web site, are great for showcasing an advertiser’s expertise and can make them look like industry thought leaders. But be honest, if your advertisers actually do little consultative selling when they go to their customers, this approach could flop.
In markets where advertisers sell with a lot of product detail, building a sponsored white paper section on your Web site can be very lucrative, as many tech and medical publishers well know. But if your advertisers close their business more on relationships and referrals, the white paper approach may be doomed from the start.
Look for Benefit, Not Just Brand Extension
Your brand allows you to offer readers new Web products that they will be inclined to welcome, or at least try. Your brand gives you a similar chance with advertisers. But in the measurable world of online media, that is the end of the free ride. If the product you launch doesn’t deliver an advertiser benefit, it will eventually fail, branded or not.
You have to build products that do something for advertisers. From their point of view online products can:
- Offer a way to set themselves apart from competitors (selling limited ad inventory against specific sections of your Web site, or custom newsletters)
- Generate sales leads (Webinars, or "Click to meeting" e-blasts)
- Offer exposure to a more targeted audience (niche newsletters, or Web site sections)
- Offer industry, category, or niche domination (road block ad schemes, or single sponsorship newsletters)
Seek Advertiser Feedback
Always ask for feedback. Along the way ask, "What are you trying to accomplish with your online ad dollars?" Some of the best ideas come from the dialogue that follows. With luck, you will find an advertiser that may see a new market niche or market trend. If they are looking at it, other advertisers in your market might be too, and you may be well on your way to developing a new product.
Find the Crossroads
Once you have an idea that your advertisers will support, you need your readers on board. Your editor may not happily participate in a process that puts advertisers first, but in the ad-supported world of online product development, no content, no matter how valuable, appears without a business model. After you explain this, politely ask for help. You will need it; no online product will exist for long without the long-term interest or involvement of readers.
The process of blending reader interaction and advertiser interests is often harder than it looks. I once did a reader survey measuring reader interest on a list of possible newsletters. In that market, the top topics for readers had little advertiser interest. We ended up picking the fourth most picked reader idea and used creative editorial to enhance reader interest.
As bandwidth and technology continue to expand, the number of online products we develop will only increase. Keep focused on your advertisers and your readers and you will pick the winners.
Josh Gordon is president of Gordon Communication Strategies, a company that helps publishers take advantage of their new digital opportunities through sales training, strategy consulting, and representation. You can reach Josh through www.joshgordon.com.