May 29, 2015

I was elsewhere earlier this week when Internet savant Mary Meeker released her gargantuan annual slide deck on big-picture digital trends.  I was not surprised that it received respectful coverage, as is warranted, nor, alas, that her updated chart implying imminent doom for print got special attention.

That’s too bad.  Of the 197 slides, this isn’t one of her best and has a pair of flaws that make it misleadingly alarmist.

If you’ve missed the chart, a staple in her presentation for a decade, it compares time spent on various platforms with ad spend.  For 2014, Meeker found print only gets 4 percent of attention but 19 percent of ad spend. She calls that “over-indexing.”

Internet spend has moved up quickly the last few years, but mobile now accounts for 24 percent of time spent and only 8 percent of ad spend.  Hence, Meeker suggests, there is a $25 billion opportunity for mobile to take away from print.

But can we really assume each medium works as well as another for advertisers?  In a generally positive piece in December 2010, when the report was known mainly to tech and financial specialists and just as she moved from Morgan Stanley to VC firm Kleiner Perkins, I noted:

Meeker’s big picture measure seems to me to suffer from one critical oversimplification: the notion that advertising is more or less equally effective by platform. Give digital its due with the obviously potent search ad format, but display advertising is a different story entirely.

Newspaper, magazines and television each offer mature formats with particular strengths that advertising professionals know how to exploit. By contrast, way too big a share of digital display consists of banners easily ignored or various pop-up formats that annoy more than they sell.

A McKinsey presentation I heard two years ago, crystallized a second, related flaw: total time spent on a platform is not the same as time spent with news and advertising. (McKinsey suggested that 92 percent of time consuming news, in 2013, was still on legacy platforms).

Screen shot,

Screen shot,

You can e-mail, text and play games on a smart phone with no advertising interruption and watch video with minimal breaks for commercials.  Except for a little quality time with the Jumble, you can’t do any of those things with a print newspaper.  But that makes time engaged with an ad — planning shopping with packet of Sunday inserts, for instance — that much more intense and valuable to the marketer.

Longtime Meeker fans Josh Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab and Mathew Ingram, formerly of Gigaom, now at Fortune, both devoted posts to the one slide.  Ingram and his editors opted for the clickbaity headline, “Everything you need to know about the future of print media in a single chart.”

However, each gave a nod to what’s wrong with Meeker’s construct.  Ingram wrote:

Just because print gets a smaller amount of attention doesn’t necessarily mean that the proportion of ad spending should be identical, of course. There are plenty of complicating factors….

Benton notes that while the chart always looks the same, the numbers and headline change year by year. The gap/opportunity for 2014 is less than in some years past.  He also concedes:

It’s not absolute dogma that the two — audience attention and advertising dollars — always be equal.

And props to Wall Street Journal columnist Mike Shields who interviewed advertisers and marketing analysts and concluded “What if Mobile is Getting its Fair Share of Ad Spending?”  The notion that “ad dollars follow eyeballs,” Shields wrote, is a “tired truism.”

Here is my modest proposal for making sense of this perennial:

*The direction is right, even if the $25 billion figure is semi-bogus.  Yes, marketers, and legacy media too, want a stronger mobile presence as usage keeps growing (perhaps a little more slowly now than the last five years).  Budgets will shift, though how quickly is much less clear.

*A metric that is cause for alarm among newspaper and magazine publishers is that even in 2015 print losses continue unabated at the rate of 8 or 9 percent with digital advertising and other income streams failing to make up the difference.

Gordon Borrell offers a version of the same thought: newspapers should be highly concerned whether their digital sites are getting a proportionate share of the total digital ad spend growth.  In the mid-2000s, they were, but not lately.

*Mobile getting its “deserved share” has plenty to do with improving quality and targeting. The search is on for what’s better than banners.  Sponsored content, anyone?

Meanwhile I haven’t read all of Meeker’s other 196 slides, but I promise I will.  The next  10 after the “time spent” chart treat developing mobile ad formats, suggesting she too sees better quality as part of the equation.  And it is the breadth of Meeker’s piece — not that one slide — that makes it a great one-stop shop for suggestive facts and informed speculation on what’s next.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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