What is an online publisher?

On a recent flight from Phoenix to attend Ad:Tech Chicago, I was sitting near a young boy and his father. As we accelerated down the runway, the boy beamed with anticipation for the moment we would leave the ground. As we lifted off and began our rapid ascent, he gazed out the window and proclaimed to his father, “Look dad, the earth is tilting.” From his perspective, it seemed perfectly logical to conclude that the earth must be tilting since he was still sitting in his seat and the horizon was no longer flat. While my perspective in that airplane led me to a different assessment of our situation, I understood the alternate view from the four-year-old boy sitting across the aisle from me.

Individual perspective can cause two people who observe the exact same thing to interpret it differently. Such was the case in a recent Online Publishing Insider column I wrote about Facebook. In that column I referred to Facebook as a publisher. From my perspective, working for an ad network, there are two very broad categories for companies that conduct business on the Internet: advertisers and publishers. From that vantage point, Facebook falls into the publisher bucket. That perspective, however, was not shared by one of the column’s readers. In his comment posted to the Online Publishing Insider blog, he wrote, “They [Facebook] are a content aggregator or a repository of their user’s content,” inferring that they were not a publisher. I apparently lost all credibility in his eyes when referring to Facebook as a publisher since the company clearly doesn’t publish any of its own content.

Unsure of the validity of my perspective, I went to Ad:Tech seeking out some additional opinions. In one of the sessions I attended, Liz Ross, CEO and Global Chief Marketing Officer at Tribal DDB, made a comment that caught my attention. She said that one of her agency’s clients, Pepsi, produces so much online content that it would consider itself an online publisher. While that may be a stretch, even for me, it was clear that the traditional definition of an online publisher might need to be expanded.

While at the conference I also had the opportunity to speak with Shiv Singh, vice president of social media & global strategic initiatives for Avenue A | Razorfish. I asked him for his definition of a publisher, and his response was sufficiently broad as well. Singh said that a publisher is, “Anyone who has an audience and accepts advertising.” He added that he believes that more traditional publishers are going to start looking like the Facebooks and MySpaces of the online world as they integrate social network features that will create blurring from both directions (social networks and traditional publishers).

If you agree with his definition, then an individual blogger could potentially be a publisher as well. With advertising widgets like lemonade and blog-centric ad networks, bloggers that can attract an audience can also monetize their content.

Is the earth tilting or is the plane ascending? Is a publisher defined as a media site that produces and publishes its own content, or could a publisher be just an individual blogger? It all depends on your perspective. What’s yours?

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