Will Ad Networks Usher in a New Media Order?

When I proposed the story on how the economy is hitting online advertising, which appears in this week’s BusinessWeek, I had hoped to take it a little further than I was able to do in a relatively short story. Not least, that was because my thoughts weren’t fully formed, and still aren’t. So I’m going to think out loud a bit and hope to get some feedback from people who know more than I.

When I was trying to figure out all the flavors of ad networks, those middlemen between advertisers and Web publishers, I found some didn’t really fit neatly into the middleman slot. Glam Networks, for instance, has some of its own sites in addition to a stable of similar fashion and beauty blogs and niche sites. NetShelter, an ad network for many tech blogs, prefers to call itself a “vertical media network,” and if it added a consumer-facing home page, it would look to all the world’s tech readers like a “traditional” Web publisher like CNET.

So what are these new things, if they don’t fit neatly into existing categoies? I’m wondering if these kinds of networks constitute a new type of media company that is at once a publisher, an aggregator, and an ad network.

Or something else. Consider the professional networking site LinkedIn, which last summer announced an ad network that uses its users’ profile data to target high-value groups such as small business professionals and corporate executives when they’re browsing on hundreds of other sites. Does that make LinkedIn a media company, at least for the quarter or so of its revenues that come from advertising? In the sense that it’s helping gather audiences of like-minded people and showing them ads, it would seem so. Ad dollars spent there might not get spent on Yahoo or, for that matter, on BusinessWeek.com.

Media businesses that once encompassed creation and distribution of media as well as ad sales are now being assaulted by teams of independent specialists in those areas. As the Internet has done to other industries, it seems like we’re finally seeing it start to disassemble online media—which even now looks largely like traditional publications translated to the Web—and allow it to reassemble into something new. “Ultimately we’re going to have to completely rethink what media are,” says Barry Parr, an analyst with market researcher Forrester.

Honestly, I don’t yet know what they will be. But it sure seems like they won’t be the same for long.

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