The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism State of the News Media 2012 report was just published, and among the findings is that efforts by most top news sites to monetize the web in their own right are still limited. Few news companies, it reports, “have made much progress in some key new digital areas. Among the top news websites, there is little use of the digital advertising that is expected to grow most rapidly, so-called “smart,” or targeted, advertising.”

 

 

Failing to make a lot more hay from digital ads is problematic for traditional news companies given the decline in print circulation and in its ad revenue, too. The report says that in 2011, losses in print advertising dollars outpaced gains in digital revenue by a factor of roughly 10 to 1, which it calls an even worse ratio than in 2010.

J. Brooke Aker, CMO of semantic ad startup ADmantX, says it’s understandable that news organizations have not focused on digital when they are trying to maximize the returns on their existing print business “which is, after all, still 90 percent of the revenue. It is a classic business problem. How do you purposely kill the business (print) that pays the bills so that you can grow the business (digital) that is the future,” he says. Not all the solutions to growing the future business, in his opinion, are technology-based. “Several current efforts seem to hold some promise in making this transition. Incentives for advertising on the digital version of the paper is one. A second phase is to reduce the number of days per week a physical paper is produced, getting readers more used to digital.”

Technology, of course, can help, too. ADmantX, for instance, shows publishers the much greater range of inventory they have in digital versions of the paper for advertisers over the print versions, he says. “We do this by semantically processing every page, image and video on the publisher’s site. Then the paper’s sales group can approach BMW – whose display ad tagline is ‘joy is BMW’ – to advertise not just in the auto section but anywhere the emotions joy, success and prestige are present,” he says. ADmantX’s take on semantics is to understand and mark up not only the traditional entities like names and places, but also to identify emotions and so connect the content to reader motivatations. (See our introduction to the startup here.)

The concept of how advertising can be targeted and smart without intruding on privacy can get sticky without semantics. The Obama administration’s proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, announced earlier this year, included an industry agreement with a group of web advertising networks and Internet biggies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL in support of the Do Not Track feature in browsers so that web users can steer clear of things like advertiser’s tracking cookies and other intrusive ways to personalize ads to them. Last year Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome browsers had the first Do Not Track buttons (see here), and now online ad networks will also be providing a Do Not Track icon on ads.

That said, publishers, as well as search engines, currently aren’t subject to restrictions around collecting user data and serving ads based on that, because they’re considered first-party sites – a nod to promoting the growth of online advertising but still a big annoyance to privacy rights advocates (see this NY Times article for a good discussion of the issue). Over at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Tracking Protection Working Group is working on standardizing the technology and meaning of Do Not Track, including its application to first-party web sites like publishers and third-party ones like ad networks.

So, seems it still may be a good idea for the concept of semantically-enabled advertising to get on publishers’ agendas. And, in addition to semantic ad solutions from companies such as ADmantX, Peer39 and adpepper, the International Press Telecommunications Council-developed rNews standard for using RDFa to embed news-specific metadata (headlines, bylines, publication dates and so on) into content can also come into play. It can help suss out ads that would be useful to readers, or not so much, based on the content of a page rather than user profiling.

The Semantic Web Blog discussed that issue in an interview with the leaders of the rNews effort last April, and it comes up again in a December 2011 newsletter from the IPTC.

There, IPTC editor Jonathan Engel writes that, “without such structured data, social networks, search engines and news aggregation sites struggle to create effective links or alerts to relevant content. What’s more, overly simplistic assumptions from automated classifiers – looking only at the full text of articles – may lead to inappropriate ad placement. [Deputy Director of Schema Standards at the Associated Press and head of the IPTC's working groups on the semantic web and rights expressions Stuart] Myles noted that an ad for a cruise liner once appeared alongside an article about a survivor of the Titanic disaster.”

Jordan Galbraith, COO of React2Media, which provides interactive marketing platforms to publishers as well as media agencies and direct advertisers, cautions that, “if online news publications do not embrace some of the cutting edge tools that are available today to assist in placing advertisements on appropriate content, while also increasing their ECPM [effective cost per thousand impressions], they will see a steady decline of trust from both direct clients and agencies to extend ad budgets their way.”

In his view, it’s only sensible for publishers to purse having direct digital salesforces, as this “allows for a more customized ad integration into the site; such as skins, sponsorships, email marketing. Next, it will help them to better learn what it is advertisers are looking for first hand, in turn, assisting in how they work with technology platforms and networks such as React2Media.”