For many in B2B publishing, the future hinges on a simple question: Is online advertising viable? The answer, unfortunately, is not yet clear. But to me, at least, one thing is certain: advertising will only work where it is based on transparent, equal, and positive relationships among publisher, advertiser, and consumer.
This was a topic raised in last week’s episode of This Week in Google. At about 46 minutes in, the conversation turned to a recent dispute between Microsoft and the Apache Software Foundation involving the way websites track users with cookies, a key requirement for many online advertisers. For unclear reasons, Microsoft’s newest web browser, Internet Explorer 10, comes with user preferences set to Do Not Track, rejecting all cookies by default. Apache, which makes the software that runs most websites, objects, saying users should make that decision, not Microsoft.
Whatever comes of this controversy, the danger it represents is clear. If advertisers are denied even basic information about who clicks on their ads, they will have little incentive to continue advertising. And independent content providers, in turn, will have even less revenue to keep them going.
As “This Week in Google” host Leo Laporte said, how people think about cookies and privacy really depends on how you frame the discussion. If you start by saying that cookies are used to track and collate information about your behavior on the web, it sounds bad. If you say instead that they help websites and advertisers deliver personalized information that you want, it’s more acceptable.
My point isn’t to say that tracking is always a good thing. It isn’t, particularly as used in a mass-media context. But in the healthy sort of relationship between publisher, advertiser, and reader/visitor that you traditionally find in the B2B world, it’s not just a good thing, but a necessary thing. As Jeff Jarvis said in response to Laporte, “media needs to build a relationship with people, but that relationship requires knowing you, and knowing something about you, and being able to act positively on that” (58:19).
In practice, this means two things for publishers. First, earning and keeping the trust of their users is paramount. They must respect their audience and practice transparency in all their dealings with them.
Second, publishers need to hedge their bets and search vigorously for advertising innovations and alternatives. As David Johnson wrote today on MediaShift, the “online advertising experience is awful. There’s no dancing around it, and all the talk about saving journalism isn’t dealing with that fundamental problem.”
Ultimately, audience and advertiser need each other, and will find ways to share their information. It is a necessary relationship. But if independent publishers cannot find persuasive ways to demonstrate their value in that relationship, they will be cast aside with few regrets.
Photo by Chris Wheal