To new-media trailblazers, newspaper tribulations sometimes seem adorably quaint. Consider the controversy over front-page newspaper ads reported by Donna Shaw in AJR's last issue ( "A Fading Taboo," June/July). "Page-one ads may net premium prices," Shaw writes, "but they're distasteful to many journalists who believe they violate the purity of page one and the sacred wall between news and business. From a design standpoint, they can detract from the flow and order of a page."
Front-page purity? Online news sites waived that notion a long time ago. Design flow and order? It's a nice ideal, seldom achieved on the Web. Standards of taste, meanwhile, are flexible. If you have doubts about that, just picture the gyrating silhouettes on those ubiquitous ads for LowerMyBills.com. Or the mélange of "rich media" ads that push down, pop up and take over entire pages.
In her piece, Shaw listed the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Minneapolis' Star Tribune among papers that didn't allow ads on their front pages. (The L.A. Times is now planning to do so.) But look at their Web sites. At the moment, there are 13 ads on the home page of NYTimes.com , 13 on Boston.com and a relatively conservative four on LATimes.com . StarTribune.com loads against a full-page background of bright red wallpaper advertising an auto dealer. The page itself offers nine ads.
Apparently the practice of labeling Web ads has gone by the wayside, along with any limits on the number that can appear on a page. As of this writing, LATimes.com is the only site of the four above that labels all of its home-page ads. Boston.com labels most ads; NYTimes.com and StarTribune.com haven't bothered at all. While most Web users will recognize a standard-sized banner or square display ad, these sites offer several unlabeled ads that are not so obvious.
Why is there such a glaring double standard between print and online editions when it comes to advertising? As Shaw explains, newspapers have a decades-long legacy of rejecting page-one ads in order to demonstrate their objectivity. Things played out differently on the Web, in an era when the separation of editorial and sales was more firmly established and the Internet was expected to topple traditional rules. News sites initially shunned home-page banner ads, but that didn't last long.
Then the pressure grew to make Web sites profitable, and to show some indication that they could eventually replace revenue losses on the print side. Most news sites have scrambled to collect as many advertisers as possible, simply carving out new ad positions when existing inventory is full. The ethic of separating news coverage from business interests has generally remained intact, but respect for the consumer experience has suffered. ( "Annoying online ads can be effective," declared a recent San Jose Mercury News headline. Effective, perhaps. Loyalty-inspiring, not so much.)
Setting aside the user experience for a moment, the hodgepodge of ads on many news sites might be viewed as a sign that they're selling successfully and possibly hitting their Web revenue targets. But selling a lot of ads is not the same thing as having an advertising strategy.
In fact, the motley clusters of ads are a clear sign of an immature sales strategy. To date, many media sites – especially local ones – have focused on coaxing advertisers who already buy space on a traditional platform to give the Web a try. It's typical to see a large number of ads crowding the most prominent pages of a site. How much value is each advertiser getting – and how much are they paying?
A June report by Borrell Associates found that growth in convergence sales at media sites is already slowing, as the pool of print and TV advertisers who are willing to try the Web begins to drain. In the first quarter of 2007, local online ad revenue for the newspapers in Borrell's report grew 17.9 percent compared with 35 percent overall growth in local online advertising. As the low-hanging fruit withers, news sites will need to reach nontraditional advertisers (the ones who are probably advertising with Google or Yahoo! ) and new revenue streams.
They will have to become more sophisticated when it comes to creating and proving value to their advertisers. And that means less clutter and greater consumer loyalty – not additional ad positions. The most popular news sites – Yahoo! News, CNN.com and MSNBC.com -- have far fewer home-page ads than a typical news site, and you can bet they charge a premium for each one.
In Shaw's article, one of the reasons newspaper managers give for protecting page one is curb appeal; the front page lures readers into the paper and sets the tone for their experience. "In the long run, the big necessity is to get and maintain readers," said former New York Times Managing Editor Gene Roberts, "and I think without question that front-page ads work against readership."
Front-page Web ads aren't going away, nor should they. But Web managers would benefit in the long run from a philosophy that is more attuned to what consumers want than what they'll tolerate. A more loyal audience will produce higher value for advertisers. That's not a quaint throwback; it's smart strategy.