The Online Publishers Association has released its latest hope-filled and hype-filled update of its questionable figures about the growth of paid online content in the US. We write the monthly Publishing: Free to Fee columns for JupiterMedia’s ClickZ.com, so we think we have a modicum of knowledge about online paid content. So, last year when the ONA began releasing its ‘paid content’ growth report, we lambasted their methodology. We still stand by that.
Although the OPA’s membership consists of About.com/PRIMEDIA, BankRate.com, Belo Interactive, CBS MarketWatch, CNET Networks, CondéNet, Cox Enterprises, Edmunds.com, ESPN.com, Forbes.com, Internet Broadcasting Systems, Knight Ridder Digital, Le Monde Interactif, Meredith Corporation, MSNBC.com, New York Times Digital, Scripps Networks, Slate, SportingNews.com, Tribune Interactive, USATODAY.com, Wall Street Journal Online, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive.com, and Weather.com in other words, mostly traditional media companies the OPA defines online consumer ‘paid content’ this way:
- “We restrict our definition of ‘paid content’ to digital intellectual property purchased through a Web browser by an individual.”
Although that definition might sound reasonable, it actually lets the OPA include lots of things that aren’t actually parts of their membership’s lines of business. Things such as:
- Business-to-business reports, such as Internet industry reports purchased from eMarketer.com or professional wiring reports purchased from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ site. The ONA counts these B2B sales as purchases by consumers.
- Paid subscription directories, such as Ancestry.com and Classmates.com.
- Consumer credit help lines, such as ConsumerInfo.com and CreditExpert.
- Personal growth services, such as eDiets and WeightWatchers.com.
- Online greeting cards services, such AmericanGreeting.com, Blue Mountain Arts, and Hallmark.com.
- All paid downloads of streaming media. Not just from radio and TV stations, but from all paid streaming music downlaods from Real.com, Pressplay, etc.
- Playable online game, such as Alien Adoption Agency, Case’s Ladder, and The Well Dressed SIM).
- Online dating or matchmaking services, such as Match.com, Singles.com, and kiss.com.
- Even downloadable pinups and pictures from Playboy.com.
When we criticized the OPA for overstretching a definition of online paid content to the point that it wasn’t even wildly applicable to its membership, OPA defenders responded that the categories included could someday be part of the membership’s lines of business. Well, we’re still awaiting launches of New York Times Digital’s Bop William Safire online game, the Wall Street Journal Online’s Brokers to Love dating service, or ESPN.com’s online greeting cards.
Meanwhile, we think the OPA wants to create REMARKABLY BIG FIGURES by overinflating a definition of consumer paid online content. Because these overinflated figures include online dating, B2B sales, and other extraneous categories, the OPA claims to show a rapidly growing pace for consumer paid online content. Why? Because most OPA members are executives working for onlien subsidiaries of traditional media companies. Those executives are working on their own companies’ online paid content initiatives. The actual growth of consumer paid content online revenue for most of the OPA member companies has hardly been stellar. But what better way to show their superiors the potential promise of their endeavors than to overinflate market demand figures.
However, maybe a little air escaped the balloon this time around. The latest OPA survey:
- “determined that consumer spending for online content in the U.S. grew to $748 million in the first half of 2003, an increase of 23 percent over the same period last year.”
Not quite as good as the meteoric 131 percent rise this OPA survey reported last year.
We’re not the only ones skeptical about the OPA’s latest survey nor to call attention to the hopeful conjectures in the survey’s executive summary:
- “While slowing growth is indicative of a maturing market, we may also be in the midst of a quiet period during which content providers are readying new premium paid services for an increasingly receptiove public.
“In many quarters there is a sense of anticipation that the next wave of consumer paid content spending is about to be unleashed.”
So, the reason growth has slowed is that online publishers might have let it slow? We don’t think so. (However, someone in the OPA could have a great future at a public relations agency.) The OPA’s own figures are inadvertently a form of an online game and, if the OPA charged for the report, it could count it among its own figures. If a publishers organization does want to track the pace of consumer spending for their content, it should do so accurately.