With today’s focus on the ongoing demise of newspapers, one of the questions that keeps popping up is: how do newspapers (or any other content creator) make money online? Unlike the way newspapers have traditionally made money, online revenue models are not based on advertising…they’re based on selling things. I know, I know, the social networking sites we all enjoy so much are sponsored by those horrible banner ads we do our best to ignore…but that model is obviously still far from codified. At least let’s hope so.

I would argue that online advertising doesn’t do branding it does selling. You click through a link to get a deal and complete a purchase. The internet is actually REALLY good at selling, in part because it’s targeting people already looking for something. For those companies who have tweaked their organic search terms to put them on top (a constantly moving target, btw) or have employed Google Adwords or Reach Local or other paid ways of getting found – this method of getting in front of the most likely customer is incredibly effective.

So…who cares about branding if you’re making sales?

The pace and focus of the internet doesn’t lend itself to creating the sort of emotional connections that brands count on to create loyalty and a presence. Some corporate websites are trying to do this…but for my money, they still have a long road to travel. Most sites create, at best, a single static brand impression, rather than an evolving and deepening brand story arc.

In other words, selling makes individual customers one at a time. Branding helps steer societal trends. Selling allows people to acquire things they desire. Branding creates the desire in the first place. Branding is what makes people feel the way they do about a product or company – it creates an emotional connection. Selling is often purely a numbers game – low prices are thin nails on which to hang a brand.

Traditional media still does branding well…but these days it takes a particularly courageous client to look at the long arc, and invest in long-term brand capital. Too often clients expect the immediate spike that a sale, coupon, promotional event or Internet campaign can generate from their traditional media advertising.

But that’s not what those media do best (with the exception of the aforementioned—and apparently dying —newspaper advertisement).

Will we ever figure out how to make money with content on the internet? Could it be as simple as borrowing the model from the early days of television, i.e. branding entertainment itself as the “Westinghouse Theater” used to, and sites like Revver have recently? Will branding fade as the art of shilling reemerges? As always, your thoughts are welcome.