Automated Newspaper-Ad Booking Still a Dream

By: Eric Wolferman

Digging through my reading pile, I came across a recent discussion of automated newspaper-ad-booking efforts in Europe. The article was interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking it was deja vu all over again.

Standardized electronic placement of newspaper advertising is one of those ideas that seem to make all the sense in the world, yet defy implementation. There is little doubt that digital methods for orders and space reservations can make the process simpler, faster, and more accurate. Why then have so many efforts to develop an infrastructure for electronic commerce in the publishing industry failed?

John Iobst, vice president for newspaper operations and research at the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), was instrumental in developing a standardized set of transactions for newspaper advertising as far back as the 1980s. Under the guidelines of electronic data interchange (EDI) standards, he fashioned order and invoice records specifically designed for newspaper advertising. Since then, committees and task forces have come and gone, but the utopia of standardized EDI for ads remains elusive.

Both NAA and IFRA, the international newspaper technology association, have taken various stabs at jump-starting industrywide adoption of electronic ad-booking standards. But none has taken a strong enough hold to claim a significant following.

Part of the problem is simple lack of motivation. It is difficult to rally the industry when the most basic incentives — increased revenue and reduced costs — are not explicitly quantifiable. Certainly, automation of the ad-placement process will make it easier for advertisers to buy space — but whether that translates into specific dollars is hard to say. And certainly, EDI will streamline the process for both newspapers and advertisers — but whether that translates into specific reductions of labor and materials is equally hard to pin down.

Another problem is complexity. Ordering a newspaper ad is much more complicated than ordering an ordinary widget. Myriad specifications have to be addressed, including size, price, position, color options, days of publication, technical specifications, discounts, zoning, artwork, and a host of others.

Then there’s the problem of joining up the ad materials, sent separately, with the ad order. Newspapers and media agencies are busy places with busy people. The threshold for technical overload is low. Systems to standardize the ad-placement process must be straightforward and simple. The prospect of another complex system in the shop is sure to scare off potential candidates for EDI.

To be sure, admirable solutions have emerged. The Associated Press has introduced its AdRES service, which allows advertisers to reserve space and submit orders via the Web. Atex Media Solutions has launched an electronic ad-placement system currently in use at the Helsingin Sanomat in Helsinki, Finland.

There are many other creditable systems on the market, but they all suffer from the same drawback: Each uses its own record structure to exchange data. There is nothing wrong with those structures, but it means that newspapers must maintain a variety of systems to deal with each system in use by advertisers. The ad-booking process is complicated enough without having to learn and monitor multiple systems for orders.

A few years ago, the industry faced a similar dilemma in dealing with online classified ads. Dot-coms began teaming with newspapers to present classifieds on the Web. But every host site was using its own record structure to determine the information it needed from the newspaper. Once again, publishers were stuck with the prospect of maintaining multiple systems and approaches.

At the time, NAA formed an industry task force to develop a common format to describe classified ads. The result was a standard that could be used by all parties in the exchange of data. No longer would newspapers have to maintain multiple systems — in theory, one system could handle all the data, regardless of where it originated, because it all arrived in the same format. The standard, called CREST, has not taken the industry by storm. But vendors anxious to ensure compatibility with other systems and with their own future developments are steadily adopting it.

An effort is now under way to translate EDI standards to XML (extensible markup language), a flexible language that lends itself well to the exchange of data. The initial version will be released in the next month. That project, shepherded once again by NAA’s Iobst, may finally lead to an accepted standard for the exchange of commerce data for newspaper ad booking.

A universally endorsed standard for describing transaction information involved in newspaper ad ordering is a critical building block to achieve widespread implementation of electronic ad booking. Without it, we are destined to grapple with imaginative, but isolated, solutions to the problem.

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