For some reason or other, I had to sign up for Delphi Forums at some point. (They apparently host several hundred thousand forums; that's kinda impressive.) I'm not sure why I signed up; I think I wanted tech support for a cool piece of software called Joust. I've been ignoring all email from Delphi for some months now, but haven't been annoyed by it enough to get off their list.
Tonight they sent me a fascinating piece of mail; the subject line (something like "An urgent message about the future of Delphi forums") got me to read it. It noted that the advertising model ain't working for anybody on the Net, and said that Delphi Forums can't continue in their present form without more revenue, and asked that people sign up for a for-pay version of the forums. All of that is somewhat interesting but not terribly surprising; more and more organizations are headed that way.
What surprised me was the candor of the message. It said things like:
Advertising on the Internet has not been a windfall for anyone. You know it, and we know it. More importantly you have proven it by ignoring almost all Delphi Forums advertising efforts.
Internet advertising is interruptive and distracting yet, for an Internet communication and content company, it has been the traditional means of generating revenue, regardless of how inappropriate or counterintuitive it is. If you walked into the grocery store, in a hurry to purchase milk, bread, and eggs, and a stock boy grabbed you by the arm and kept distracting you from your list, instead trying to sell you fertilizer, you'd be furious. You would eventually quit coming to the store, ignore the help, or whack the stock boy.
Our community does not click on the banner ads that we attract (not that we blame you). Our community does not open or respond to email marketing. Advertising on the Internet has evolved into a bad idea.
They continued in that vein, and finally came to discussing the new for-pay service, DelphiPlus. They note that "DelphiPlus is worth more than the price of a movie ticket per month (and DelphiPlus costs less than most movies)" and then added: "If you're not convinced of that, then we're in the wrong business." I don't know whether they meant that sincerely, or whether they really meant "But you are convinced of that, so we're in the right business." It'll be interesting to see whether this approach workswhether, in fact, they're in the wrong business after all.
On the one hand, I never use Delphi Forums, and I have no interest in signing up for their premium service. On the other hand, I do approve of online forums in general (colossal timewasters though they generally be), and all of the fuss about online advertising not working really does make me wonder about the future of the Web. Is there a revenue model that can actually be made to work online? I just don't know. For almost as long as there's been a commercial side to the Web, I've been one of those people saying that the big problem with the Web is nobody knows how to make money from it; it looked for a couple years like I was wrong, but it seems to be true again. (This bad attitude despite the fact that some friends of mine were among the first to have a business that conducted commercial transactions online.) A company can use the Web as a front-end to its product-sales system, or it can sell content if it can get anyone to buy; there doesn't seem to be much in the way of other viable money-making options right now. (I'm not counting donation-supported organizations like SH; that works fine for us, but only because nobody on staff gets paid.)
I'm still holding out for a viable micropayment system; I think that could really change things in a big way. Hope we get a chance to find out.