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Online predicted to pass print advertising this year

A major watershed has been reached (according to one forecaster): For the first time ever, more money will be spent this year on digital advertising than on print advertising.

Outsell Research released results of a survey of major advertisers showing that 32.5 percent of advertising dollars will be spent this year on digital – compared with 30.3 percent for print.

Outsell had earlier predicted that online advertising would surpass print advertising in 2013 or 2014. The company revised its forecast, in part, because of the continuing struggles of print newspapers.

The digital category includes online publications, video, search engine keywords and email marketing.

The study, at least to my thinking, shows that newspapers need to be careful about how they limit access to content on their Web sites. If publishers become too restrictive, they will limit their potential in the highest growing revenue categories.

The old shovelware solution of simply moving print content from print to Web (reading the newspaper over the radio) needs to die. That solution doesn’t help the print product, nor does it create dynamic online products.

Instead of trying to share one set of content (the print newspapers’ traditional news and advertising), publishers need to think of their online products as separate – and needing different content.

A publisher friend told me the story of his predecessor who returned from World War I and bought the local AM radio station. For content, the publisher simply read the printed newspaper over the radio station. It took a while, but the World War I-era publisher finally figured out that radio is not an electronic newspaper. Instead it is a medium with a separate set of strengths and weaknesses.

When the station started playing music – eureka! – the new medium caught the fancy of area residents. Sure the radio station did some news and some public service programming (and competed for local advertising), but the newspaper and radio station learned to live in harmony.

Just like the radio station, newspaper Web sites need separate identities and content. I think special emphasis needs to be placed on content that can’t be published in print – video, audio, user-generated content (commenting and blogs), links to social network sites, polls, interactive business directories, syndication and aggregation of other content on the Internet, etc.

Publish on the Web what you can’t publish in print because of space limitations: Multiple photos from news and sporting events; sermons from local ministers, priest and rabbis (maybe even podcasts); full text of speeches; press releases; full details of weddings, anniversaries, family reunions; videos of prettiest gardens, ugliest pet, cutest baby, etc.; videos from local bands and other performers (link to your interactive calendar).

Go into competition with the local TV station(s) by posting videos of breaking news and other local events. Do video interviews with local coaches and players. Do video features on new or remodeled local businesses, chamber leaders, and civic events, etc. Video cameras are inexpensive, editing software relatively simple – and you don’t have to demand world class results from your staff or user-generated video (your audience will like a touch of hometown flavor).

Add a Web cam or two that shows (for example) traffic backups at regular trouble spots, or river flooding levels, or just show folks walking on Main Street.

Promote the online product in print, and the print product online. Train your sales staff to sell online-only products, print-only products, and bundled products. Make sure your merchants and readers know you are the No. 1 source of online and print media.

Digital advertising will likely continue to grow in relation to print revenues (which will never go away). Community publishers need to own the two best media properties in the trade area – the printed newspaper and the online newspaper.

Newspapers publishers need to have excellent Web products because – in the famous words of bank robber Willie Sutton – “that’s where the money is.”

(Marc Wilson is general manager of TownNews.com. He’s reachable at [email protected].)

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