And the Digital Pendulum Takes a Big Swing Back

Talk about a pendulum swing. Wow.

It wasn’t all that long ago we saw stories everywhere about how digital was killing off print. I’ll admit we got a bit tired of the hysterics; in fact, we were already rolling our eyes about print’s death more than two years ago.

Now, the tide has turned. And how.

“In a single week it emerged that Buzzfeed and Vice are going to miss their revenue targets, Mashable was sold for $50 million, and the resistance to the Duopoly is growing as Broadcasters, the FT’s Lionel Barber and the Guardian’s Kath Viner have all waded in,” writes Esther Kesia Thorpe in Media Voices.

By Thorpe’s account, the idea of digital being the future of was “dead from start – at least as a sole revenue source – despite all the hope and all the resources that companies have been pouring into it.”

She cites recent news – like Buzzfeed and Vice missing their revenue targets, and Mashable’s sell-off for 20% under its 2016 valuation – as proof that digital is, well, not the great end-all it was cracked up to be.

Many argue that this doesn’t signal the death of digital so much as the death of overvalued digital assets, which is a solid point. As Neil Thackray of Briefing Media notes, overzealous VCs often make for disappointed investors.

The fact remains that digital is facing a reckoning.

“In and of itself, that wouldn’t necessarily be a big thing,” notes Chris Sutcliff in the Media Voices podcast, noting that “obviously 2017 has been a very difficult year for digital media properties. But it’s far from an isolated case, he reminds us.

“Buzzfeed, whose page revenue per 1000 impressions is high compared to legacy publishers, the fact that they’re going to miss their revenue targets even with having recently opened up their pages to programmatic and banner advertising…doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about the state of digital advertising?” Sutcliffe continues.

Many point to the enormous revenues being amassed by Facebook and Google as evidence that a digital ad revenue model can indeed work – yet as the duopoly increases its share of online revenues, the remaining competition continues to be further squeezed.

All of this comes at a time when the digital honeymoon seems to be over for a lot of us, thanks to the eroding quality of the online experience, the scourge of fake news and its impact on native ad revenues, and even concerns about social media and mental health.

So, is digital dying? As a stand-alone source of massive revenue, yeah, it appears to be. When the best of the best like Mashable and Buzzfeed aren’t cutting it, clearly there’s a problem.

Will the digital ad industry die off completely? Of course not. As a channel, it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future. What is becoming clear is that the successful publisher of the future will be grounded in multi-channel revenue.

Looking at organizations that are doing well, Sutcliffe notes one common denominator.

“They have fingers in all the pies that they can find. They have a finger in print, a finger in digital, a finger in ecommerce, a finger in events…they have a finger in every revenue stream you can think of.”

They aren’t pivoting to video just because Facebook says they should; and they aren’t killing off print to go all in on digital either.

Pendulums swing. It’s what they do. We watch, we see, we learn and we come up with publishing models based on consumer behaviors and audience needs. As for us, we’ll just keep those presses running over here.