The recession is hitting publishers hard. This is true online and offline as advertisers aren’t limiting what gets put on the chopping block.

Many believe that the trackability and accountability will keep online publishers in good stead and despite declining online ad spend, it’s easy as an online publisher to look at the woes of the newspaper industry and feel pretty confident about the future.

Ben Kunz, director of strategic planning at media planning agency Mediassociates, wrote an interesting guest piece on BusinessWeek that suggested online publishers may be in more trouble than they think.

His argument: behavioral targeting technology is giving advertisers the ability to reach their target audiences for less and this is squeezing publishers, especially those at the high-end.

It’s an interesting argument and he provides an example that he says is based on a real cost reduction experienced by one of his clients:

Say your company sells “Bidgets,” a luxury product. Ordinarily you’d run banner ads on FancyOldSite.com, which reaches your target audience of men and women who earn more than $150,000 a year. The ads are expensive—say $60 per thousand impressions—but they reach your ideal audience.

You might instead embed a snippet of code in the banners that run on FancyOldSite.com. This places so-called cookies on the computers of everyone who sees the ad so you can track them when they visit other Web sites. That’s where retargeting kicks in. Every time a former FancyOldSite.com reader who saw your ad visits other Web sites, your Bidget banner ads pop up again. The banner ads reappear because the cookie on that computer flags a retargeting “network” of thousands of sites, saying “This desirable reader is back.” These new ads are cheap—$3 CPM—but they reach exactly the same audience.

According to Kunz, retargeting gives advertisers a huge opportunity to save money and achieve their goals and it poses a threat to online publishers who don’t choose to track their own audience data and sell aggressively against it.

Kunz is right on many counts but as an online publisher myself I think he misses one important point: many times, it’s not just about the audience.

While nobody is going to advocate spending $60 on something that you can get for $3, there are often intangibles that make a campaign cost analysis more nuanced.

Example: if I’m a financial services firm, even though I might be able to reach an affluent audience on the cheap through retargeting networks, paying a significantly higher CPM for a campaign on the Wall Street Journal website may make sense. I personally think there’s often value in the association that advertisers receive when they advertise with recognized and respected brands and a particular advertiser may receive more value advertising with the WSJ than with a hodgepodge of sites that have a similar audience.

When paying more, there’s often the ability to haggle for throw-ins that have real value and the brand-name publishers that usually have higher CPMs are often more experienced when it comes to execution and delivering on higher-impact custom campaigns.

All of these things might factor into advertiser spending decisions and they’re not immediately obvious if all you look at is CPM and audience profiles.

What I do think Kunz’s article makes clear: online publishers need to know what they have and what they’re selling. Whether you’re selling your audience, your brand, your multi-platform capabilities, etc., you can’t just sit back. Newspapers aren’t struggling primarily because their business models died; they’re struggling because they got too comfortable cashing checks and they forgot what they were selling.

Photo credit: wili_hybrid via Flickr.