Have you ever had the feeling that you were a fly buzzing against a window, not knowing that you could escape if you just moved a few inches to one side? That's how I've felt recently, thinking about how to build an advertising-supported Internet site. I've come to the conclusion that, for all but a handful of sites, it's impossible to build a successful business by depending on advertising.
The classical advertising model was based on an economy with few media outlets and many media consumers. In the U.S., for decades there were three broadcast television networks and three commercial television stations in most markets. In most cities, there were one, or at most two, newspapers. The scarcity of media outlets meant that each outlet had a large audience, and that audience attracted advertisers, who were willing to pay enough to turn the outlets into viable businesses.
The Internet turned the classical model on its head: Instead of having a small number of media outlets, each with large audiences, we have a huge number of outlets, each with small audiences. Only a handful of sites and services on the Internet have been able to attract the audiences necessary to make an advertising-based revenue model work. The cost of setting up an Internet site is tending toward zero, especially if you can convince people to create content for you for free. Operators of these kinds of sites can run them profitably, or at least not at a large loss, right up to the point where they have to pay people for their content and services. That's why The Huffington Post has pushed back so hard against bloggers who want to be paid for the content that they provide to the site. If the HuffPo had to pay for all its content at market rates, it would go bust.
The problem goes beyond the Internet--cable television networks, in the aggregate, have a bigger audience than the broadcast networks, but few cable networks attract a big enough audience on their own to be viable without fees paid by cable, satellite and IPTV services. That's why cable networks and service providers fight so hard against "a la carte" pricing that would allow subscribers to pick and choose channels.
So, what should you do? If you're thinking about starting a business, pick a business and a business model that allows you to charge users. If you're running a business that is advertising-supported, or that you hope to run on advertising revenues in the future, pivot to a business and business model that can be profitable on user fees. If you're an investor and someone comes to you with a business plan that depends on advertising revenues, walk away. In short, if you can't get your users to pay for your service, you're in the wrong business.