The Advertising Platform To Save Content Providers?

Okay, I’m probably missing something. But here ‘goes.

The great challenge for content-generators (writers, particularly) in an age of free digital reproduction is: how does anybody get paid?

The answer, typically, is: by attracting eyeballs that can be delivered advertising content along with the desired content.

This gives all power to the content aggregators – small fry like Andrew Sullivan, who have an audience that they feed content that is mostly produced by others (and mostly not paid for), but much more so great white sharks like Google’s search engine, which is the mother of all aggregators.

Content-generation becomes organized around feeding these aggregators, in the hopes of attracting eyeballs. But unless a regular stream of eyeballs is attracted this way, there’s still no way to generate income for the downstream content generator.

What you need is a micropayment mechanism, whereby downstream content generators get a tiny amount of money per eyeball for the eyeballs directed their way, in recognition of the fact that their content was the plankton, if you will, on which the great white sharks at the top of the food chain ultimately depend. But even if you had such a mechanism, why would the great white sharks agree? How do the downstream content generators get the leverage to force some kind of sharing agreement?

One sometimes-suggested solution would be to create an advertising platform that is content-independent. Ads would be delivered based on personal profile information that would be augmented by knowledge of browsing and search history. But there are two problems with this: first, how many people would consent to create such a profile (what’s in it for them?); second, how does this browser-based ad platform give any greater leverage to downstream content providers? Wouldn’t it, in fact, reduce their leverage?

Well, here’s one thought. Advertisers don’t like to compete with each other. A browser-based, profile-based ad platform would be more successful if it were an exclusive platform – if it made arrangements with websites to share revenue in exchange for disabling any other ad-delivery mechanisms that they had going when their “viewers” tuned in.

Instead of serving up whatever ad content Hulu or Salon or whatever want to serve up, the browser-based ad platform would take over and serve up something more tailored to your specific profile. And, in exchange for no longer competing with these other ad platforms, the browser-based ad platform would share revenue with the content site.

That creates an incentive for people to sign up with the platform – yes, you’re getting ads when sometimes in other circumstances you wouldn’t – but you’re also obliterating ads that, in other circumstances, you’d be stuck getting. And, all things being equal, you’re getting “better” ads – ads that fit your profile better.

Sure, lots of people still won’t sign up for privacy reasons. But probably most people won’t be deterred by privacy concerns. They rarely are when there is actually something in it for them. Which, in this case, there is. (You could even imagine a revenue-share of some kind for the recipient of the ads – something dependent on click-through purchases, presumably, but whatever.)

The heavy negotiation would be between content-providers with substantial ad revenue and the browser-based ad platform. But once that structure was in place, it would be logically extensible to content-providers generally. Not necessarily on identical terms, but the browser-based ad platform would have a reason to sign a contract with even marginal content-providers: they would need access to their code to assure their ads were disabled when browser-based-ad-platform-subscribers visited. Which would give even marginal content providers some marginal leverage to get the bargain-basement contract for downstreaming revenue.

The main people who would appear to be threatened, if such a mechanism really got off the ground, would be the content-aggregators themselves, particularly the search engines, who would for that reason be unlikely to sign any agreement with the browser-based ad platform. But Google ads are (a) relatively unobtrusive; (b) not designed to “distract” from content – rather, they are intended to be a form of content, to be relevant “answers” to search queries. As such, they aren’t really a competing platform. People don’t “hang out” at search engines distracted by the ads. So it’s not actually obvious that there’s any competition there. The competition would be with platforms that sell ads directly on websites. But what the existence of such a platform would do is free content-providers from their dependence on search engines for audience. They would be free to pursue an audience by more traditional means – directly, and via aggregators who are “taste-makers” (like Andrew Sullivan) rather than automated search functions – and would now have some basis for generating revenue from such activities. I suspect such revenue would continue to be very, very small for nearly all websites. But there is an enormous difference between small and zero. Add a lot of small numbers together and you just might get something. Zero never adds up to anything.

Ultimately, nobody gets paid unless somebody visits, to view or read. Content has to attract eyeballs, or there’s nothing to monetize. The question is first, how to capture whatever value is associated with that viewing/reading time, and, second, how to create a mechanism that would justify downstreaming some of that value-capture to the actual content provider. I think the mechanism I’ve outlined could do both things.

Anybody out there know if this idea is even technically feasible?