Publishers are solving the print-digital advertising disconnection – but is it too late?

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Application programming interface, News International, Online advertising, Patrick Smith, Rupert Murdoch, The Guardian, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, United Kingdom, Facebook, Google, Guardian Media Group, Advertising, Consumer Media, Mobile, Newspapers

The Guardian's Redesign - Colour

When it comes to editorial practices, online and non-online platforms are increasingly given the same importance. Break the story online, give the analysis in print. That’s the approach taken by many B2B magazines, newspapers and even TV news programmes. But commercially, is the gap between bits and bytes still too big and are predominately print-based publishers moving too slowly?

In a low-key announcement yesterday, Guardian News & Media says that as part of its “digital first” strategy it will consolidate print and online advertising systems into one ad selling platform.

While newspapers have been figuring out how and whether to do this, Google has built a $9.72 billion business (and that’s just in Q32011) from its self-service ad platform and Facebook makes £100 million from ads in the UK alone (according to an estimate from the IAB).

Following a similar move from Rupert Murdoch’s News International in September (via NMA, which is paywalled), GNM and others are now stopping the anachronistic and, I would argue, damaging practice of treating print and digital ad space as entirely separate forms of monetisation for unlinked teams to handle.

Here’s a chart which (sort of) shows what the Operative.One system does, including all those invoicing and processing tasks that no one looks forward to…

GNM technology director Andy Beale says in the press release (emphasis is mine): “Our legacy systems were originally built for print only with digital systems often disconnected from the main order-to-fulfillment workflows, leading to expensive manual processing overheads.”

So the Guardian has been serving online readers perfectly well for years, even though Guardian.co.uk readers generate very little revenue for the business. But digital advertisers were a second consideration after the print product. As Beale says, digital ads were considered something else entirely different to print: sales staff were dealing with one client and having to do double the work to process ads across two media. This move decreases costs and, in theory, increases revenue by allowing clients to see where the opportunities are across the business.

Product launch full steam ahead - but where's the money?

The Guardian is pioneering some truly innovative tools and gadgets to increase its engagement with readers. The API-driven @GuardianTagBot, which delivers you topic pages based on what you ask for, is powered by the Guardian’s own Open Platform and just the latest in the long line of impressive products and unique content from a mutualised media business.

This innovation was heralded this week as part of the stuff that will help The Guardian newspaper “survive the digital age”. But what seems to be lacking from many such innovations is a serious revenue model, and surely what the Guardian needs more than anything is to be profitable?

Not so fast - there is a commercial angle here, says GNM content development manager Nina Lovelace. She tell me: "TagBot was built in part to show potential commercial partners how our API can work on social platforms as well as online or mobile.

"We have other examples of how our API can help us build new digital tools, but we've picked up that several clients are interested in social media models, so it's simply another means to help them understand the utility and potential behind OpenPlatform, and particularly our tagging infrastructure."

So this is interesting. When GNM first launched its Open Platform in 2009, at the launch event I asked the team what the commercial model would be but was met with uneasy glances and a muddled answer. But Lovelace says there are specific ways to monetise it:

"We could for example build white label versions of TagBot for clients, on Twitter or other social networks. You could also add other layers of functionality to it to create new tools - for example, create a version of Google-like alerts delivered via Twitter for your favourite content keywords, e.g. latest Guardian news on your favourite football team. But just as importantly it was also built for us to test how useful our keywords are."

She says that the tagbot isn't really a "product" as such and remains an experiment. I ask whether the motivation for product launches at GNM is commercial or simply to build reach - but the answer is to do both.

"I generally work from the principle that reach and engagement are both shared commercial and editorial goals, and if you're ticking those boxes you're probably helping yourself leverage existing or discover new, business models," she says.

GNM revenue fell from £221 million to £198.2 million in the year to August 1. Digital revenue is not yet offsetting print revenue (the so-called Rusbridger cross) and more redundancies are on the way. The time for experimentation, when projects can simply be useful and don’t need to have a revenue model, is running out.

Picture is via Gigijin on Flickr, via a Creative Commons licence.

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