I am a news guy, not an ad guy. I have, however, sold ads, designed ads, composed ads and even delivered ads at one point or another in my newspapering career. The one thing I've never done is studied ads, so what I'm about to say may seem terribly naive to my academic friends.
But it seems to me that there are two things you can do with advertising. You can create demand. And you can channel demand to a preferred resolution. Some advertising may do both, but they're really different functions.
Printed newspaper classifieds perform both of those functions. You're flipping through the paper, you idly glance through the classifieds, and the next thing you know, you're daydreaming about a "Beautiful home situated on Lake Thurmond w/ dock!" or a 1997 Harley Davidson Softail Classic, less than 14kmi, $10,000." You had no idea that you wanted one, but here you are.
But for years the place where newspaper classifieds really performed beyond all competitors was in the second function: channeling demand to a resolution. You're already looking for a house: Here's what I have to offer this week. You're already looking for a car: Here's what's on my lot.
And this is where print classifieds are really getting clobbered. Forget all the whining about Craigslist; it's a convenient target, but not very important. What hurts print is that it's lost its primacy in channeling existing demand by providing data to the seeker.
Anyone who's looking for a car or a boat or a house, and has half a brain, is going to go straight to the Internet. The listing is out there somewhere. Maybe in a database. Maybe on a dealer's website. The data set may be a mess -- Realtor.com won't tell me about FSBOs -- but across the Internet it's complete.
This doesn't mean newspaper companies are locked out of the action. Far from it; they're very well positioned to channel online demand through behavioral targeting of advertising that helps connect seekers to the treasure they seek.
And both print and Internet advertising can work in that other dimension of advertising, creating demand. I did not know that property up at the lake is selling today for less than half what it was going for before the economy tanked. Probably a good long-term investment, certainly smarter than a Harley. Priced at $70K, a lakefront lot is out of my reach, but not out of reach of others. Demand gets created, maybe a lot gets sold, and somebody gets a 7% commission.
This dimension of creating demand is one that deserves more attention that it gets. Google can't do it. Yellow Pages can't do it. There's plenty of competition -- radio, TV, cable, other print media, even "if you lived here, you'd be home by now" billboards along the highway. But it's not something you can lose to a smarter algorithm. Not yet, anyway.