Content beats chats in online time use, says OPA

The Online Publisher’s Association has published new data to support the argument that content producers aren’t earning advertising revenues that reflect how much time the audience spends perusing published materials. On August 13 OPA released a four-year analysis, performed by the Nielsen/Net Ratings audience measurement firm, of time spent on four broad functions: commerce, communications, content and search. According to OPA’s press release users have changed their mix of activities, as measured by time spent:

“communications accounted for 46 percent of consumers’ time online in 2003. A dramatic shift has taken place since then, with consumers now spending 47 percent of their time with content, compared with 34 percent four years ago.”

The Center for Media Research has republished the OPA results and included charts showing actual time spent on these four broad classes of activities.  There is also a comparison to a table showing unique visitor counts to these four activities. I urge you to read that summary for those additional details.

What interests me is the why of this audience-measurement shift. I don’t know if OPA has issued a communique to this effect but publishers realize the need to recapture the value they feel is currently leaking away from their sites to the search engines that have become the gatekeepers of time in our Attention Economy.

Search has become something akin to the Web browser’s “front page.” The paradigm of communication is shifting from a producer-centric “Here is what we the professionals have published today” to an audience-centered “What interests me?” type of reading or viewing habit.

If you agree with that premise the power of search as an advertising buy becomes clear. There must be a gazillion publishers. As an ad spender, whose content do you buy? With search the advertiser has a chance to capture the many eyeballs who stop at this new “front page” as pause to get directions to some content of interest.

Let me mention one other factor operating against publishers — the search firms have more efficient advertising sales teams. They have people in the faces of the big spenders ready to take their orders and cater to their needs.

Could publishers (legally) create a central sales force that would work in concert to help advertisers drill down to the content where people seem to be spending so much time? Or will those gazillions of publishers have to create gazillions of sales teams at great cost and probably to no good effect? Or could a third-party solution, an advertising sales bazaar, fill this role of connecting the galaxy of content creators to the spenders of advertising dollars?

To the extent that publishers have tried to outsource this advertising connection to programs like Google’s AdSense, it seems unwise that they should entrust their sales and hence their fortunes to their well-positioned competitors in search. I was out with my friend blogger Tom Foremski of SiliconValleyWatcher and he made an observation that panned out: in its second quarter 2007 earnings release Google said ad revenues generated by its own pages increased 74 percent over the Q2 2006 and 9 percent over the Q1 2007. By way of contrast, its revenues for sold on behalf of third parties grew about half as fast in year over year comparisons (36 percent) but were “approximately flat with first quarter 2007 revenues.”

Search will not sell content. Content will have to sell itself.