Two events caught my eye this week, which are closely linked and point to an apparent malaise in online advertising. IPC Media, which has long struggled to make its women's lifestyle portal BeMe.com a success, has announced that it's cutting back the website to reduce costs. At the same time, Neil Holloway, Microsoft's UK managing director, is looking at charging MSN users, which up until now has been a free internet portal.
There is speculation that this could prompt the demise of free internet portals.
The story behind these two moves is the softening of the online advertising market. But the big question is, are advertisers running out of steam because they are less than impressed with a lot of the online offerings out there in terms of content? Or is it merely down to the exit of dotcom advertisers last year, whose reversed fortunes led to a gaping hole in online advertising revenues?
I would argue that it is a bit of both with a more serious creative issue thrown in too. Let's take the case of BeMe.com which bravely launched on to the market after the likes of Charlotte Street and Handbag.com and didn't baulk at addressing such a hard-to-please, broad market (ie. 'wimmin') when companies such as the National Magazine Company ditched plans to launch its own UK portal because the market was seen as too difficult to crack.
BeMe's site had masses of layers to it, lots of pretty pastel colours and dollops of content which, though meant well, failed to set my world alight. For me it was a classic illustration of how magazine publishers can fail to interpret the very different mind-set of the internet. For advertisers, who are becoming increasingly obsessed with more focused consumer targeting, the site was arguably too wide in its brief, while failing to come up with a product that would drive women to the site in droves.
Sly Bailey, the chief executive of IPC Media, has described the last year as one of learning and has duly decided to focus BeMe's content towards the more specific areas of beauty, fashion and health. Perhaps with better, more targeted content, BeMe will be able to draw in more advertising as its site traffic improves.
MSN and its rival portals face the problem of providing truly sticky content for the increasingly sophisticated user and therefore it could be argued that advertisers are not likely to be queuing up to use the site, since more people are using these destinations as true portals.
But there is also the issue of online advertising and its quality, which is generally poor. I am keen to find more examples of clever online advertising for Campaign's Media Choice section, but the offerings are rare. It is down to agencies to start generating truly interesting advertising opportunities and give traditional advertisers the confidence to spend more of their money on the web.