Print Media Is Dying. Online Revenues Are Tiny. What If the Ads Are to Blame?

The media business is dying. But what if it’s not the fault of publishers? What if the crappy state of Internet ads is to blame?

SpongeCell ads

By now, we’re all familiar with the gruesome predicament of print media: Print readership is falling, and ad revenues are disappearing as a result. The Web hasn’t been any kind of savior, for a simple reason: No matter how good your newspaper or magazine’s site is, advertisers still don’t pay as much to reach a Web reader as they will for a print reader, to the tune of about ten cents on the dollar. No wonder print publications have been so scared to migrate their businesses online–it’s like asking them to move into a shiny new house that happens to be on pile of toxic waste.


But what if it’s not all the publisher’s fault? What if the crappy state of Internet advertising is to blame?

That was my overriding impression last night at the New York Tech Meet Up, where SpongeCell showed off its latest interactive online ads. Their banner ads don’t just sit on a page, blinking dumbly. Rather, they have all kinds of interactive features, right inside the pane–buttons to email the ad contents, watch videos, set yourself a reminder for an event, browse the goods in the picture, even relay them via Twitter. Nothing technically fancy here, just the addition of some useful functionality.

And that’s when Ben Kartzman, SpongeCell’s CEO, dropped a bomb: Thanks to those simple interactive features, SpongeCell’s ads increase click throughs by as much as 70%.

Part of the big problem with getting advertisers to pay for Web ads is that they see the miserable click-through rates and figure, why bother? (It’s a mystery why they continue to pay a premium for print ads–the rationale goes that they’re more eager to take part in a carefully curated magazine or media outlet.) SpongeCell’s figures, if accurate, set off a whole host of possibilities. First, if click-through rates were almost double what they are now, media outlets would be able to charge higher premiums for their ad space.

Granted, the allure of SpongeCell’s product falls to zero if they don’t deliver better click-through rates–and history tells us that readers become immune to one kind of advertising gimmick after another. But it does make you realize: Banner ads were the bastard product of media companies thinking that they could use basically the same sort of big, boring ad on the Web that they always relied on in print. But that’s obviously wrong, because readers don’t interact with a browser in the same way as they do with a magazine or a newspaper, taking time to flip through the pages.


If Web advertising’s formats were half as clever as all the internet content out there, wouldn’t everyone be better off, and making a lot more money?

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.