Web Informant #112, 26 May 1998:
There is no demand for messages.


After my essay on Portal, Schmortal (WI #110), I asked Doc Searls, one of the Old Wise Men of Advertising, to expand on one of the themes. He sent this essay. Take it away, Doc.

The web is not TV. Repeat after me: the web is not TV. Excite, Lycos and Yahoo see themselves as the new TV networks. They may have newfangled services, but they make money the old fashioned way: by aggregating scarce access to dumb eyeballs. That model will fail once the web starts meeting its promises:

  1. the need to know; and
  2. the need to buy. In economic terms, these are the only promises made by the web. Neither of these are met by this year's "portals," last year's "push," or the original notion (circa what, 1995?) that all people really want is to surf through web sites the way they click through TV channels.

    Both of these promises are absolutes. You should be able to find what you want and buy what you want, without searching through piles and piles of crap that *might* include what you're looking for.

    The web fails to meet these promises only because it still lacks the ordinary network services we call directory and security. In the absence of a directory-enabled infrastructure, the web (and for that matter the whole Net) will remain a haystack of needles only search engines can find. And without directory support, we won't be able to build the public key infrastructure required for truly secure personal communications, much less for transactions any more sophisticated than we get now from credit cards.

    Don't expect any kind of serious directory and security infrastructure to come from the search engine companies. It's not their business, despite the fact that many search vendors have been buying up directory companies.

    To put this in perspective, imagine what would happen to the TV business if mute buttons delivered "we don't want to hear this" feedback directly to advertisers. It would crash the whole industry's business model in a heartbeat.

    Let's face it: there are only two kinds of advertising demanded by their consumers: yellow pages and classifieds. It's not coincidental that they're both ugly. Beauty isn't a value when the only purpose is to answer the simple demand for useful information.

    The bulk of advertising -- all $160 billion of it (which buys a lot of art) -- is a conversation between advertisers, media and agents for both. That conversation has enormous flywheels that were forged in the Age of Industry, and carry assumptions that are totally obsolete in a new age when the human beings we've been calling "consumers" are no longer dumb targets in a position only to absorb messages and displace cash.

    Remember this essay's title? The main reason I got out of advertising and PR was this epiphany:


    Let me see a show of hands: who here wants a message? Right: none. And who wants to shield themselves from messages they don't want? Exactly: everybody.

    TV advertising has negative demand. It subtracts value.

    The day will come, hopefully soon, when we will measure demand for advertising on a customer-by-customer basis, and not just by its indirect effects on large populations. When that happens, and direct vendor- customer conversations start adding serious value for both parties, that new conversation will disintermediate most media. Companies will drop advertising like a bad packet.

    You know how easy it is to kill an ad budget? It's just a line item. Cash savings, right off the bottom line. Almost nobody gets fired, other than some marcom types and their expensive ad agencies. No tax disincentives. No environmental impact statements. Bang: it's done.

    What about other kinds of advertising? Well, print ads are tolerable and sometimes even welcome, because the reader has some choice about them. Junk mail is 98% waste, by its own admission. And banner ads on the web are in the same range. Most of them are low-impact spam: rarely useful and never welcome. Already some advertisers are only paying for click-throughs. Add a little more accountability, and they might not even pay for that.

    (Testimony to real value: CyberGold actually PAYS you to see its advertising.)

    So when will the web deliver these promises? Maybe Zoomit with its metadirectory (which cries out for somebody to bring to the web, or even just to intranets). Maybe an enlightened fragment of Novell, Microsoft or that Open Source community Netscape just turned loose with its browser souce code.

    I don't know, but whoever it is, I'd love to sell some Yahoo stock and invest in them.

    Thanks, Doc.

    David Strom
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