Does Relevant Advertising Mean Selling Out?

Over the past 2 years, FM has worked with dozens of advertisers and 100+ leading independent authors, editors and publishers in an effort to give readers and marketers a better opportunity to talk to each other. We call it “conversational marketing.”

The idea is simple. The best publications have always been dialogs between great writers, passionate readers, and, yes, advertisers. This “conversation” is more obvious and more iterative among today’s social media communities, but it’s been happening since long before the Internet. The most successful advertisers have always been the ones that recognize and respect this conversation — rather than those who see media as a “delivery platform” for their pitch or an opportunity to “target their demo.” Advertisers that license New Yorker cartoons for their print ads in that publication, Wired advertisers that write ad copy in the definitive grammar of that publication, and tech advertisers that re-use in their ad units favorable reviews from CNET and PC Magazine are three examples.

To be clear, I’m not talking about advertorials; I’m talking about ads, those things that every human over the age of 7 recognizes as paid messages from a marketer. Provided publishers follow two long-standing guidelines — be transparent, listen to reader feedback — advertisers can join the conversation without tainting anyone’s credibility.

During the 1990s hey-days of tech magazines, readers of PC Magazine and PC World said they spent as much time with the ads as they did the editorial content. And that’s not because IT professionals are so dumb they can’t tell the difference (please!) — it’s because ads that work hard to join the conversation, to be relevant to participants in that conversation, are more valuable than generic ads that attempt to interrupt the conversation and steal your attention for half a minute.

This is all to say: I’m a believer that highly relevant advertising — advertising that joins the conversation — is better for all involved parties.

So I took issue with Nick Denton’s Friday post on ValleyWag accusing some of the web’s most highly respected, most experienced professional journalists of selling out their credibility to help Microsoft bring more relevant ads to their readers.

One of Microsoft’s marketing messages is built around the phrase “people ready,” and the equation “software + people = business success.” It’s a mouthful, and — to me, anyway — not immediately digestible. So, working with FM, Microsoft invited 8 FM authors to talk about the concept of “people ready” in their own words, in language that might resonate better with their readers. What those authors wrote was featured in the campaign that ensued.

Did Microsoft ask the authors to endorse their brand, use their products, or tell their readers what to do? Of course not.

Did Microsoft or these journalist try to sneak these ads past their readers, in a costume of editorial or even advertorial? Nope. Microsoft paid for ad impressions, and the rates for advertising on each of these sites is published at FM’s website. Quite obviously, Microsoft was running paid ads on their sites. John Battelle took the added measure of blogging about his participation in the campaign (see Searchblog) — and that’s a great idea to make the self-evident even more evident!

Did readers get confused by what they were looking at in those ad banners? Well, Cisco did something similar last fall, around their “Welcome to the Human Network” campaign. A dozen leading tech and business journalists affiliated with FM wrote their own definitions of “human network” that they let Cisco use in ad banners on their sites. Like Microsoft, Cisco didn’t guide or edit or participate in the copy written by these journalists. And readers seemed OK with the project. Thousands of them clicked on the Cisco ads to read more definitions and voted on their favorites. Nearly 900 of them went back to their own blogs and wrote up the experience (not all were positive reviews, but most were). The Wikipedians added “human network” as entry to their encyclopedia, and made reference to Cisco’s “commercial use of the phrase,” so the distinction between advertising and editorial was clear to them, too. And for the past 2 months — the Microsoft campaign started running on these sites in April — readers of those sites haven’t raised an outcry.

So there’s a fair amount of evidence Denton is raising a stink all by himself. Or perhaps his disdain for the advertisers that support his business (Gawker Media), our business (Federated Media), and every other ad-supported content business online or offline, is so great that he feels they don’t belong in the conversation at all. Except, of course, the conversation in which they agree to pay him, then shut up. At FM, we think that — for commercially supported sites, anyway — marketers might just have something to add to the conversation. And we’ll keep working on innovative ways for them to do just that.

Other coverage:

Robert Scoble at Scobleizer.
Fred Wilson at AVC.
Mike Arrington at TechCrunch.
Richard MacManus at Read/Write Web.
Don Park at Daily Habit.
Neil Chase at FM’s blog.
John Battelle at FM’s blog.
Om Malik at GigaOM.
Paul Kedrosky at Infectious Greed.

  1. # Jeff Jarvis said: June 24th, 2007 at 9:03 am

    Chas,
    Instead of just being defensive about your program – which is clearly advertorial in my marketing dictionary, except you used your respected writers in it (what if Business 2.0 tried to do that with Om?) — I’d feel much more comfortable with Federated’s prospects if you took seriously the wide-ranging discussion — it’s far more than Nick Denton causing you trouble — and considered the valid and thoughtful points being made to perhaps learn and even change.

  2. # Clyde Smith said: June 24th, 2007 at 9:30 am

    I think there are all sorts of possibiities that are ok as long as the relationships remain transparent.

    The ad Valleywag reproduces looks like an ad in which Om Malik has endorsed or become a spokesperson for Microsoft.

    You say that’s not what’s going on and I understand why you say that but the end effect in the minds of most viewers, IMHO, is that Om Malik is endorsing Microsoft.

    As long as he’s comfortable with that and not practicing denial via the deeper conversation you folks are having, then that’s fine. But if your explanation and the further discussions try to bypass that by explaining that what’s going on at a deeper level is the only thing happening, you’re just kidding yourself about the obvious message folks will take from that ad.

  3. # Rick said: June 24th, 2007 at 10:56 am

    “So, working with FM, Microsoft invited 8 FM authors to talk about the concept of “people ready” in their own words”

    That snippet alone contains the two fundamental contradictions with which this campaign is being defended.

    A) Those words were to be used, and were used, in the campaign that followed. The authors profited directly from that campaign because the ads ran on their sites. In other words: those words were bought and paid for in a way which can hardly be called indirect or accidental. “Invited” is a pretty lame euphemism for promising to deposit $$$ in someones bank account in exchange for services rendered.

    B) It weren’t their own words. None of them would ever have used the term “People Ready”, let alone spontaneously written anything about it. Not only their words, but their voice was bought. Microsoft didn’t influence what they wrote? For f*** sake, MS told them what to write about and which exact words to use! If you don’t call that influencing, what would you call putting a gun to someones head? Mild encouragement? A minor incentive? I little nudge in the right direction?

    Besides that, their voices were bought to shout out a marketing slogan. “Think different. Just Do It. Where Do You Want To Go Today. People Ready.”. Plain and simple old school advertising slogans. No conversation, and very little relevance. Which makes all this stuff about new ways of advertising and conversational marketing very hard to believe.

  4. # Tom Foremski said: June 24th, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    I agree with Nick. It feels a bit sleazy even though the authors maintain that they are independent and are unbiased in their opinions. By including their comments in the banner ad MSFT and FM are clearly trying to make the ads more effective in selling products. Is there something wrong about that? Yes, because it does cast a shadow on the independence of the authors and thus damages their brands. This will make them less effective as vehicles for carrying MSFT/FM marketing messages over the long term, imho.

    FM should make sure that its publishing network maintains high standards and that there is no opportunity to question the integrity of those publishers.

    All these explanations attract attention to the fact that there is something not quite kosher in all of this. I bet you don’t do it again… :-)

  5. # Marc Cohen said: June 25th, 2007 at 9:27 am

    I agree. Relevant advertising in the proper format delivered at the right time can enhance the content experience.

    Check out the Ad-Supported Music Central blog:
    http://ad-supported-music.blogspot.com/

  6. # Bradley J. Fikes said: June 25th, 2007 at 5:20 pm

    Yes, it is selling out. Just the first step in the process, and it’s easy to delude yourself about what’s going on.

    As Jeff Jarvis wrote:

    “In each of these cases, the advertiser’s effort is to get more closely associated with us, our content, our reputations, our brands . . . They want us to speak their names. Nicely. Or at least be near them, associated with them. This happens at every editorial product I know and it becomes incumbent upon their editors to resist and to protect their integrity from integration.”

  7. # Jeff Jarvis said: June 25th, 2007 at 7:14 pm

    I would also feel more comfortable if you meant it about conversation and had one in comments here and on the Federated blog.

  8. # DAR said: June 26th, 2007 at 7:09 am

    You wrote:

    “So, working with FM, Microsoft invited 8 FM authors to talk about the concept of “people ready” in their own words, in language that might resonate better with their readers. What those authors wrote was featured in the campaign that ensued.”

    Sorry, but apparently that’s not true. As Arrington wrote:

    “generally FM suggests some language and we approve or tweak it to make it less lame”

    So you guys wrote the ad copy for him.

    And then later:

    “In the case of the Microsoft ad, we were quoted how we had become “people ready,” whatever that means”

    So basically Arrington et al get paid for allowing their name to be used on a quote they didn’t write, and go on record as supporting an ad campaign that he doesn’t even believe in.

    You can call it “conversational marketing” if you like. But “shilling” and “pimping” sound more accurate to me.

  9. # dan tynan said: June 26th, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    chas:

    found your blog via charles cooper at cnet. I think you’re missing the point. it’s not about how relevant advertising is to readers, or even how important. as an editor at pc world in the 90s I knew exactly how important the ads were to readers. but if an advertiser (let’s say microsoft, for fun) asked pcw staffers or columnists to ‘participate in a conversation’ about a marketing slogan it wanted to promote, then use those comments in ads, pcw would have told them to go “pound sand,” as mike arrington likes to say. that would have been a clear breach of editorial independence, not to mention integrity.

    yes, the internet is different. but not that much.

    in the end, the writer’s (and the publication’s) job is to serve the readers. you don’t serve readers by helping an advertiser inject a lame catch phrase into popular usage.

    that’s the real issue. and it’s a lot bigger than nick denton and valleywag. it speaks to the core of what you’re allegedly trying to do — give people useful information to improve their lives. if the source of that information is tainted, even if only in the readers’ minds…. game over.

    cheers,

    dt

  10. # Chas said: July 20th, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Dan, Jeff, Bradley, Marc, Tom, Rick, DAR and Clyde–Sorry for the delay! And thanks for your feedback.

    Jeff–I did follow much of the discussion and the voices beyond Denton who contributed to it. Most of the thoughtful critics (the ones I saw) raised two issues.

    One, it’s wrong for journalists to endorse a companies products by saying nice things about them as part of an ad relationship. I agree with that (and in the People Ready case, nobody was endorsing Microsoft’s products or services), but at the same time I don’t think that journalists and bloggers are corrupted by letting their words or names be associated with a marketer. I don’t think this program is in the “advertorial” family of concepts; I think it’s much closer to ads in which marketers pull quotes from credible reviewers and re-use their words in an ad. Only in this case, nobody said anything nice about Microsoft.

    Two, the terms of the sponsorship relationship weren’t clear to all readers. I think most people understood that the banners were ad units from Microsoft, and that Microsoft presumably paid the websites for advertising on them. What some people didn’t understand was whether or not that meant that the editorial coverage on those sites was now guided by Microsoft. This criticism surprised me. When the financial details of an advertising transaction are murkier — at traditional media entities — it’s assumed that journalists don’t know where the money comes from, and therefore the writers are unbiased by business considerations. Since the journalists at WSJ (by this logic) don’t know that Microsoft advertises with them, their editorial content is unbiased. But since many blog publications are authored by the same person who manages the business operations, he or she is held to a different standard — since blog authors know which advertisers are supporting the site…..

    Clyde–The authors are tacitly endorsing all the advertisers that run on their sites, in the sense that they have the right to say no to advertisers they feel don’t belong on their sites. But the quotes themselves (I wish more folks read through them!) aren’t endorsements of Microsoft’s products or services.

    Rick–To point A, yes the words were paid for by Microsoft, and the authors profited directly from Microsoft’s advertising on their sites. This is how the journalists at the NY Times and Wall Street Journal are paid, too, only in those cases the authors get a smaller piece of the advertising fees. No apologies for that! To point B, Microsoft did pay the authors to write up an anecdote of when they first felt “people ready.” These were not spontaneous write-ups, certainly. But beyond posing the question — which did include Microsoft’s words, People Ready — Microsoft didn’t tell them what to say. When you review the quotes themselves, it becomes more obvious. Did Microsoft tell Battelle to give a happy, Microsoft-friendly anecdote about having to fire a bunch of people from a previous job?! Trust me, Microsoft didn’t get involved in writing the copy!

    Dan–You bring up an enormously important part of all this: Forget about the specific details for a second, do the readers of GigaOM or TechCrunch or VentureBeat ascribe less credibility to the authors of those sites? In other words, it’s the perception that’s as important as the facts. I don’t agree with you that it’s a disservice to readers to bring advertisers into the conversation, but I agree wholeheartedly that these kinds of programs need to think carefully about perception alone.

    Thank you, all, for the feedback. We’re treading on some new ground, learning from past models that have worked in certain contexts (advertorials in print, DJ reads on radio, pull-quotes in print ads, etc), and looking for even better models enabled by digital publishing platforms. And the key to us (FM and our partners) is models that “work” for all parties — the marketers, the authors / publishers, AND the readers. Sometimes this means pushing the envelope, and it certainly means screwing up and trying hard the next time. Some of the criticism is tough to hear — that’s for sure!! — but I’m doing my best to hear it and grow from it. Thanks again.

  11. # Gerry Muir said: September 6th, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    I don’t know if this question is in your purview, but I need advice on how to sell an advertising idea to an advertiser (specifically, any bank) or its ad agency. Having worked at ad agencies for many years, I know they actively discourage this, for fear they might think up the same idea in the future, then get sued. As for the advertisers, I figure they’d refer all such inquiries to their agencies. So I’d like to know how to pass these barriers and sell my idea. Many thanx in advance for any help or advice you can give me!

  12. # The Songnumbers Team said: March 31st, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Great info, we DO expect (though) that the ad-supported model WILL work. //keeping our noses down and pushing ahead…
    Sincerely,
    The Songnumbers Team
    PS, we just pushed out BETA 2 of our site!

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