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Tearing Up the Line Between Edit and Advertising

In the entertainment-media world, content and advertising have a way of getting along like old, familiar friends. Product placement in sitcoms, live reads on talk radio, and custom-created video games—obviously, and for good reason, popular with marketers—don’t ruffle feathers with audiences either because viewers, listeners and players don’t demand “editorial credibility” from their entertainment suppliers. News publishers and broadcasters, on the other hand, pride themselves on the permanent-ink line they draw between editorial and advertising. They have a clear definition of editorial content, and everything outside that definition is therefore advertising of some sort. But lately editorial policies are getting a second look. Even the American Society of Magazine Editors is considering a softer policy on the extent to which church and state may coordinate efforts (Wall St Journal, “Blurring the Line?” 8/9/04).

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Internet media companies are changing their own rules every other week. But amid the criticism aimed at Forbes.com for inserting ad links in the text of their news stories (NY Times) and blogger Fark.com for surreptitiously posting paid story links intermingled with non-paid links (Wired News)—just two of the latest controversies—the bulk of the commentary addresses the age-old argument over how publishers should separate the unbiased editorial stuff from all other stuff. Where should they draw that line?

But they are asking the wrong question. The entertainment-media asks a very different question, one that those of us on the news-publishing side should ask too: What does my audience want?

In the case of news sites like Forbes.com or CNET’s News.com (CNET Networks pays the bills here at ChasNote), unbiased editorial reporting, along with comprehensive coverage, analysis and spirited columnists, may be exactly what they want. If that’s the case, then Forbes.com’s embedded ad links will likely alienate readers by failing to deliver on audience expectations. But before we divide the rest of online-media universe into two buckets—editorial content and advertising messages—we should do a serious check-in with our audiences.

Given the HTTP structure of the Internet, the user-feedback channel is always open to online publishers. Not that user behavior is exactly synonymous with “what users want,” but it’s not a bad starting point. Unlike viewership ratings, circulation audits or focus groups that guess at audience reach and interests based on small subsets of that audience, website user logs do at least provide the full report on activities by 100% of a particular audience.

One immediate answer we extract from user data is that online news consumers don’t divide the content world into two buckets the way editorial boards do. They don’t subscribe to the chuch-or-state model. I looked at consumption rates for various PDF assets served by CNET’s IT directory engine. IT Papers aggregates over 30,000 whitepapers and posts relevant links to pages of News.com, ZDNet and TechRepublic. The directory contains purely editorial products, purely advertorial products, and products that evade easy categorization. Vendors supply the advertorial assets; CNET Networks publishes editorial job aids under the ZDNet brand (eg, ZDNet Make The Case business templates); and CNET collaborates with vendors on co-branded products where vendors put their content within or around previously-published editorial content (eg, TechRepublic eBooks or sponsored versions of Make The Case). CNET Networks takes pains to identify vendor involvement in co-branded products. The co-branded assets, in fact, are promoted like purely advertorial vendor whitepapers rather than risk confusion with editorial documents.

Yet visitors to News.com, ZDNet, TechRepublic and ITPapers.com recognize different value in each of the three offerings—not merely a distinction between two, editorial and advertorial—and respond accordingly. Not surprisingly, editorial assets capture the greatest activity. In a given month, 10 editorial Make The Case assets generate the same interest (measured in downloads) as all 6000 whitepapers from one leading software vendor. (Granted, vendor whitepapers often discuss narrow product-specific topics, and vendor priorities are not necessarily aligned with buyers’ interests, but 600-times better performance suggests that the unbiased, vendor-neutral perspective is more valuable to more decision makers planning IT projects. Especially when you consider that CNET Networks has a financial motivation, one that it acts upon, to promote vendor documents better than un-sponsored documents.) Vendor-driven topics, branded and presented as vendor-sponsored assets—even those that leverage ZDNet or TechRepublic content—ought to perform at similar levels to pure vendor whitepapers.

But user data tells a different story. Vendor-sponsored eBooks perform significantly better than vendor whitepapers from the same vendor, even whitepapers on similar topics. And unlike sponsorship programs that boost short-term performance by misleading their consumers (Forbes and Fark programs might fall into this category, though it’s too soon to tell), relative performance rates for the various asset-types in CNET’s IT directory hasn’t changed in the 12 months since the sponsored co-branded products rolled out.

This little experiment won’t quiet most of the passionate editorial board arguments underway right now. But I hope it does suggest a new approach to those arguments. Rather than building rules for this new medium on the foundation of traditional media—platforms that don’t permit real-time audience feedback—each online publisher should build its rules (some will be new, some will be stolen from traditional outlets) based on what its audience wants and expects to gain from visiting that site.

Blurring the line, if that means finding new content types that don’t easily fit the traditional definitions of “edit” or “advertising,” may be a good thing. Consumers tell us these new formats are useful and we should continue to provide them. But blurring the line, if it means misrepresenting the source or potential bias of certain content types in order to inflate response rates or brand impact, can accomplish only short-term benefit to publishers or marketers. If consumers (or business buyers) want information from vendors to answer certain questions—we owe it to them to provide that info when and where they need it. If consumers want content that brings together editorial insight with info from vendors on specific solutions, and user data indicates they often do, then it is misplaced ethics that get in the way of delivering this kind of content.

Sneaking vendor messaging into content labeled editorial will fool consumers the first time—driving short-term spikes in response—but they won’t fall for it next time. Not because they share with traditional editorial boards the binary edit-or-ad view of content, but because we know what they want in a certain context (say unbiased editorial in a news environment), but choose to give them something else hiding below a misleading label.