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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 8
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Auroville 19
by Srajan Ebaen

Advertising and publishing. Oil and water? Fire and brimstone? Supporters of the Consumer Report format favor zero advertising as the best advertising of all—about unbiased 'tell it as it is' opinion. Of course, advertising is what keeps on-line publishing free to the readers, specialty print magazines without huge readerships affordable at the newsstand. Without ad support, a publication like Stereophile or TAS might have to charge $15/issue or more—certainly not the current subscription fees barely in excess of one dollar that would seem to hardly cover raw print costs alone. Truly, manufacturers bear most the expenses that otherwise would fall on the reader—salaries for Editors, proof readers, copy writers, graphic artists; charges for web hosting or print fees.

What do manufacturers purchase in exchange for keeping magazines in business?

From a magazine's perspective, visibility is the only contractual commodity for sale. It's the only item tied to cash. Call it a fee-based parking space. You pay; you get x-amount of blacktop. It's not the magazine's responsibility should the product you chose to park in your assigned spot attract zero interest. The magazine merely provides showcase and audience. The latter's size is judged by print runs, subscription figures and sell-thru numbers; or unique visitors on-line.

From an advertiser's perspective, the tie-in between x-ad $ spent and x-sales $ generated is nebulous at best. Clearly, people won't buy what they don't know exists. But knowing of and purchasing don't automatically go hand-in-hand. Nobody would argue that visibility is required when a brand first launches. At what later point should a developing distribution network, associated customer feedback and word-of-mouth be considered viable (and free) replacements for this process?

After all, once you've become an established name brand, advertising no longer fulfils its original function of brand equity building. Dealers, distributors and end users now become its primary activists. Should a manufacturer continue to advertise? He could now consider it a waste of money, or else a gesture of good will towards the magazines. While not contractually stipulated—he still purchases paper or pixel space only—he might rightfully expect something else now. This becomes especially salient if he's experimented with periods of intense ad activity and a complete absence in the press, to observe little or no impact on sales either way.

If ads don't outright sell product—or clear evaluations of which ones do and don't are hard to make—why should one suffer the continued expense? Back to the issue of good will. There are presumed benefits, of remaining associated with a magazine: The exposure generated from reviews, show report mentions, designer interviews, factory tours, a surprise product shot in an otherwise unrelated column. None of these are for sale, directly. The precise connection, between ad support and reciprocal appreciation vis--vis such additional free coverage, remains subject of much speculation and controversy, partially because none of it tends to be formally stipulated.

But is the mere existence of such advertiser expectation any different from supporting a small mom 'n 'pop store instead of a Wal-Mart giant? You could get the products elsewhere for less—and with a bigger selection. Alas, you prefer the service ethos, smaller size and personable experience of the independent. You give them your business. Quite naturally, many such establishments will occasionally show their appreciation in specific ways. None of that's contractually formalized. However, should they no longer treat you with respect and courtesy one day; you might find yourself rooting for the mass merchandiser after all. "His prices are better, I can return stuff, and he's open longer. So what if nobody talks to me? At least I won't get attitude."

Consider the substantial expense of full-page full-color print ads in the important print publications. Manufacturers like Cary Audio or Avantgarde Acoustic—well known for extensive ad campaigns—have clearly crossed the line of needing visibility and recognition a long time ago. Spending $50,000/yr or more on one single publication is partially possible only because they're already established and successful. Recognizing this, should the magazine feel beholden to such continued good-will support and reciprocate? Or instead, should they follow the hard line that insists that the only item for sale, as always, is the executive paper parking space?

From a business perspective that values long-term relationships, such an attitude is grossly counter-productive. From a common courtesy perspective, it's plain rude and obnoxious. However, certain readers whose livelihood is not entangled in these interactions insist that such cold shoulder treatment should indeed be the standard. Such readers are clearly correct at insisting that content and advertising must remain separated and independent. But should consistency and scope of advertising buy not opinion but regulated access to the review pipeline? Should these factors commit a magazine to scrupulously comprehensive show reportage, one that insists that each advertising business partner gets the courtesy of a professional visit without fail or oversight, with actual mentions in a report naturally contingent on performance and novelty?

Should the scheduling of special coverage—such as interviews, factory visits—be for sale, again not by effecting content or opinion but by creating formalized access?

From a publisher's perspective—and those he or she employs—it's the advertisers who foot the bill to become the indirect but de facto "employers" (an exception would be an exclusive readership subscription model that takes their place). It's clear then that in order to insure sufficient operational capital; a publisher must offer his sponsors good value. Unless he concentrated solely on up-and-coming firms whose primary need remained brand building, a magazine's secondary benefits—of reviews and other coverage—really become the primary motivators which advertisers hope for by extending their good will.

The often frustrating aspect is a pervasive perception of arbitrariness that governs this process of who gets what freebies when. Remember, as far as the manufacturers are concerned, these aren't freebies at all. Advertising, at a certain point, has very little direct impact on sales. If you continue to spend money, you want something in return. They're thus considered freebies only because you can't outright purchase them cleanly. They are bestowed like quasi acts of grace, with the descent of grace presumed to be facilitated by this presence of good will—cash for intangibles.

Some of the arbitrariness has to do with the direct tie-in between revenue and amount of content. When revenue shrinks as it does during periods of lagging sales, a magazine's size shrinks. These unpredictable fluctuations of how much space is available to publish content can upset methodical scheduling. Some of the arbitrariness is a function of a lack of proper communication channels, lack of formalized etiquette for negotiating or requesting some of these freebies. Some of it is also due to the overall perception of secrecy mixed with impropriety. How to demand or push for a gift you feel you're due while simultaneously appreciating that what you're after—special publicity—is really very much in the nature of a volunteered gift?

Though a favorable review is said to be the best advertising possible, many manufacturers report surprisingly little impact on sales. It's as though the monthly crop of accessible reviews, worldwide, had risen to such a high volume that the auspicious occasion of a review sinks into a morass of sheer mass. Specialness is devalued by commonness, the long legs of trickle-down sales shortened by next month's crop of equally formidable and enthusiast reviews—about the competition.

What happens if reviews no longer factor as hard currency with manufacturers; when a review's lack of positive impact on sales undermines the good will of press support; what shall motivate makers of audio goods then—those who are already well established and focused on maintaining their distribution against competitors and economic hardships—what shall prompt them to keep investing into the press?

These are troubling questions. If what we as members of the press have to offer creates less and less tangible benefits for the makers of the goods we write about, we're in effect biting the hand that feeds us. One obvious solution would be for readers to assume the sole burden of support. That could mean $15 an issue for Stereophile, $30/month to log onto a huge website like the SoundStage! Network. Would those who belabor the grey zone of mutual viability between press and manufacturer, be willing to step up and allow a publication to abandon all reliance on ad support in trade—reader-sponsored audio publishing?

Since on-line publishing doesn't suffer the print and distribution charges of traditional magazines, it seems likely that total reader support for the intrinsically lower-cost virtual magazines would be a more practical and cost-effective solution. Alas, the initial boom of the Internet has trained one and all to expect free access. Transitioning into access code protected content will likely take a few years before it becomes a widely accepted proposition. Until then, the proliferation of the audio press and the overall state of economic affairs conspire to strangulate the available overall ad budget while simultaneously diluting it into more venues. Only on-line stalwart TNT-Audio has managed for 8 years without any advertising whatever—because its writers continue to labor for the sheer love it. Makes you wonder how the press at large will have to adapt to the challenges of a changing environment….

Visit Srajan at his site www.6moons.com

 

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