Eyeballs and The Promise

The nascent Internet and its growing cornucopia of niche content offerings for every taste held considerable promise for late 20th century marketers who suddenly could pinpoint their commercial messages to the exact audience for which their products and services were designed.

The targeting efficiencies were obvious. It was no longer about the number of eyeballs, but instead the age, size, shape, location and color of those eyeballs.

In fact, The New York Times’s flagship website, while free at the time, had the foresight to require visitors to provide some basic demographic data in exchange for editorial access. That aggregated data gave the site a powerful, and perhaps pioneering advantage in its efforts to persuade advertisers that their ads not only could work better, e.g., click throughs, but if they didn’t, the creative could be swapped out instantaneously until the message did produce a response.

I remember accompanying The Times’s digital marketing team to Boston to meet with several influential industry analysts to make a case for this marketing revelation. It was easy to understand that a pharmaceutical company that made estrogen replacement therapy had little interest in reaching men or 20-something women. The Times flagship site could demographically (and anonymously) parse its visitors. The analysts listened with interest.

Several years later, but still before it was de rigeur (and smart) for marketers to earmark dollars to the Internet, we organized presentations in NY and SF for a handful of top-tier online publishers to try to convince jaded tech reporters that online advertising had turned the corner. They weren’t completely buying. While Internet penetration was growing, it had yet to achieve critical mass. Broadband was nowhere.

Flash forward to Kit Seelye’s piece in today’s New York Times in which she reports on the migration of mainstream print reporters to niche interest online sites, and in particular, Politico, a soon-to-debut national political site founded and financed by the 30-something scion of Allbritton Communications.

“It seems riskier to stay in print than to go to something new,” said Ben Smith, 30, a reporter for The Daily News in New York, who will be writing a blog for The Politico about the 2008 presidential campaign.

By the way, it was Ben who broke the story on Rudy’s lost and leaked Presidential plan.

“Newspapers have to be all things to all people,” Mr. Allbritton said. “On the Internet, there is no one site that delivers everything. It’s broken down into mini-mini-subdivisions of interests and they attract people who are passionately interested in one subject.”

Kurt Anderson, whose Inside.com emerged on the online publishing scene with great fanfare, but at just the wrong time, had some insights worth sharing:

“We were ahead of our time,” said Kurt Andersen, one of the founders of Inside.com and now a contributing editor at New York magazine. He said The Politico had an advantage because “there is now this huge online ad sales culture.”

“But,” he added, “you wonder, with this narrowly defined, very Washington-centric political focus, no matter how great it is, what is the size of that audience? You can be the best, but if it doesn’t have a gigantic audience, advertisers won’t be interested.”

Today, checking Technorati’s list of most popular blogs, those devoted to the political discourse occupy the #3, #6 and #11 spots. I suspect they are profitable.