Google’s Second Big Print Buying Test

    February 21, 2006

Google has some obstacles to overcome before it can convince more than a handful of Adwords advertisers that print is a medium worth investing in, even if pages are purchased at a steep discount.

When Mr. Frog received an e-mail from the Inside Adwords Team last Friday announcing that the close date of Google’s print-buying auction had been extended from February 20th to February 24th, the first thought that popped into his amphibian brain was that Google was having trouble booking ads.

Hmm, he thought. Maybe the traditional media skeptics were right about Google having no business in offline media. Maybe print really is a medium that shouldn’t be bought using an auction model. Maybe Google should just stick to what it does very well: serving up PPC ads, and leave the print buying to the folks who’ve been doing it for the last 100 years or so. On the other hand perhaps fear of the unknown was scaring off those within the hundreds of thousands of Google’s advertisers who also already advertise in print.

But rather than engage in further speculation, here’s what he observed about Google’s second print test.

An Expanding Roster of Magazines

When Google conducted its first print buying test last year, only PC Magazine and Maximum PC — two fairly geeky titles — participated. This time around, 26 magazines decided to take part, including general interest titles such as Car and Driver, Road & Track, Martha Stewart Living, and Women’s Health.

Why so much interest from these mainstream publishers? Well, it’s not exactly a secret that consumer magazines aren’t exactly thriving right now. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, ad pages increased just 0.3% in the first 10 months of 2005, and 2006 doesn’t look much better. The ad spending tracker firm TNS Media Intelligence predicts that consumer magazine ad spending will grow just 4 percent in 2006, less than half the forecast 9.1 growth rate for online advertising. At the same time, magazines, even top-brand consumer titles like ‘O: The Oprah Magazine” are facing declining or flat circulation numbers which undermine the fees they can charge advertisers to buy pages.

Magazines aren’t going away this year or next. But the weakness of the magazine sector means that publishers may be willing to heavily discount their ad rates to survive, and that’s an opportunity that some Adwords advertisers will find too good to miss out on. Of course, if enough advertisers participate in a print ad auction then ad rates might even increase to a level commensurate with slightly discounted negotiated direct advertising rates.

Will Adwords Advertisers Take the plunge?

Google has some obstacles to overcome before it can convince more than a handful of Adwords advertisers that print is a medium worth investing in, unless pages are purchased at a steep discount. Print is inherently less timely than the PPC ad medium: a two-month lead time is typical in the print world, whereas Adwords ad copy, landing pages, and other variables can be changed in real time, yielding much richer data to optimize a PPC campaign. Measuring the ROI of a print campaign is far harder to measure, although this weakness can be compensated for somewhat by including a special URL or toll-free number in the ad that can be used to track the effectiveness of a print ad.

Print does, of course, have certain advantages: it’s a completely portable medium with high-potential “pass along” rates (a typical copy of Car and Driver has about 8 individual readers). Consumer titles have enormous reach (Car and Driver is read by 10.198 million Americans). And a well designed print ad can provide a branding experience that’s certainly not possible with a text ad, or even a Website.

Still, it may be a hard sell for Google to convince Adwords advertisers — even high-spenders laying out $100,000 a month (enough to buy a single undiscounted page in Car and Driver) — that taking advantage of the special qualities of print are worth the trouble. Unlike PPC ads, where copy quality, position, and landing pages rule supreme, in print, there are a whole host of variables which matter to advertisers. Where exactly in the magazine will the ad appear (the first and last pages of a magazine are far more valuable real estate than the inner pages)? Will the ad appear adjacent to ads from competitors? What will the editorial content of a given issue be? All of these variables are important, and right now, Google doesn’t disclose anything about them. In many cases, more informative data, including the all-important editorial calendar, and more detailed demographics are available from a given publishers’ online media kit than on Google’s pages.

Will it Fail?

If Google’s latest print auction test falls short of expectations, it’s a sure bet that you’ll hear a chorus of “told you so’s” emanating from the group of old media ad buyers who want to see Google fail. But any such joy from this crowd would be ill-placed. Because if Google fails to book its inventory, it may not be because auctions are the wrong way to buy print media and Google is the wrong vehicle to broker print ads. In fact many of Google’s largest advertisers manage their Google spending though interactive agencies or search marketing agencies which may not have access to print budgets currently. Traditional ad agencies may be boycotting the auctions based on speaking to their sales reps at publications or simply out of unfamiliarity.

A far scarier thought is that any such failure will happen because Google’s many online advertisers are so happy with search and contextual-based advertising that moving into a medium like print has zero appeal. As a commentator on a Web forum put it, the nightmare scenario is this: “first Google demonstrates that 75% discounts off the rate card are available. Then (Google) shows that even heavily discounted ads are a waste of money.” As the commentator noted, “if the magazine gets any more help like this, they’ll all be out of business.”

Whatever the results of this latest test, it only takes a bit of surfing around Google’s job boards to see that Google isn’t toying with print ad buying. In fact, it’s building a first-class team of print media buyers and planners. Right now, its New York office is seeking a Print Media Planner, a Publication Ads Media Buyer, a Publications Partner Manager, a Publication Ad Sales Director, and two Publication Partners Account Coordinators. This staffing effort proves what Madison Avenue fears: that Google is positioning itself to plan, execute and book ad pages, cutting out the traditional agencies and dealing directly with publishers in a relationship that looks more and more like a partnership.

Google would not be hiring these people if it didn’t think that print buys are something it’s going to be “testing” for a long time. And Google has time (and money) to play with different buying models, magazine title selections, more insertion options, and other methods to make add print buying a more desirable Adwords extension.

If you’re a marketer who believes in the power of magazine advertising and wants to take a chance on getting a great deal, you have until Friday to get your bid in at:

Mr. Frog is a leading Search industry visionary. Mr. Frog is a member of the Did-it Search Marketing team which accompanies him to most major
marketing conferences.