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As Voice Posts Add to Content Experience, Readers Demand Access

Over dinner last weekend with Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz, he told me some readers of the site have emailed the Boing Boing editors because they couldn’t view or access the voice post player (those who use Flash blockers), and given that the Boing Boing editors are using the technology to integrate complementary audio elements into stories, those readers were feeling short changed. So Boing Boing has begun to publish text-based instructions at the bottom of voice post stories:

[Browser-compatibility note: The audio link in this post appears as embedded Flash, and is brought to you by HP's iPaq 510 Voice Messenger. If your web reader doesn't allow you to access Flash, here's a direct MP3 Link. Enjoy!]

What a win for HP, the sponsor of the voice post series! I don’t think I’ve ever before seen editors publish a guide to help their readers turn off ad-blockers, let alone a guide that mentions the sponsor by name.

BB Audio from Guatemala

WebEx Sponsors Conversations — Without Meddling In Them

Every brand marketer, these days, wants his or her brand to be “part of the conversation.” Last month’s launch of editorial voice posts on a handful of FM sites, and HP’s sponsorship of the series, reminded me to review data from WebEx’s sponsorship of several editorial audiocasts earlier in Q2.

Sponsored editorial webcasts raise the same questions as does HP’s un-meddling sponsorship of the voice posts: When it’s your advertising money, why fund editorial projects over which you have no influence? When there are ample opportunities for advertorials about your own company and products, why pay to sponsor content that isn’t a direct plug for you?

The WebEx experience provides one answer. As part of a paid sponsorship arrangement with several FM sites (John Jantsch’s Duct Tape Marketing, John Battelle’s Searchblog, and others), WebEx asked authors if they’d host one thread of their conversations-in-progress — their on-going, organic, editorial conversations — on a live, webinar platform. In other words, WebEx was not involved in the content, just the format. WebEx provided the technology platform and bought co-branded ads on each site inviting readers to join the events. In John Jantsch’s case, he picked as a topic “Feeding the Small Business Ecosystem” and blogged an invitation to his readers to join the live discussion. Battelle invited his readers to help him pick the topic (fifteen of his readers volunteered ideas here), then reminded them to tune in,
and finally thanked them (and WebEx!) for making the event a success.

Why would WebEx do this, pony up sponsorship dollars but give up control of the message? Well, they recognized that it’s easier to join an organic conversation than to create a new one, especially if your expertise is in software, not conversation-starting. So they tracked down their customers (business professionals) and found them already engaged in a variety of conversations — at sites like Duct Tape Marketing and Searchblog — on topics of their own choosing. When WebEx paid to sponsor a new technology platform on which to host those same conversations, they found themselves, obviously, sponsoring web events that their customers wanted to join, so the ad units promoting the events delivered click-through rates on the high end of the spectrum.

The campaign succeeded in another way, too. Since the authors of these sites signed up to host the events, they had skin — or at least some ego — in the game. Above and beyond the promotional units WebEx bought to promote the events, the authors used editorial real-estate to encourage their readers to tune in. To be clear, the authors were not obligated to talk about the WebEx brand or services. And these editorial plugs didn’t say anything nice about WebEx or their products (other than “thanks, WebEx” in cases where the authors opted to say so) — that, or course, would jeopardize their journalistic cred — but they did drive more business professionals to the events, where each one gave the WebEx platform a test drive.

In the case of the Duct Tape Marketing webcast, in fact, 93% of the traffic to the registration page got there by way of the editorial promotions versus the ad units.

Update 9/19: Here’s a screenshot of Searchblog with a co-branded ad from WebEx.

WebEx ad on Searchblog

Ask.com Marketing Getting More Interactive?

According to IAC CFO Tom McInerney during this week’s quarterly call (from PaidContent):

“As you know, the business is related to driving new users, obviously frequency and retention we have seen good improvements in frequency and retention, but it’s offset by not having the growth in new users on the Ask.com business…we can very scientifically look at the marketing spend in the US and relate that to new user growth and so the way to measure it is by new users showing up at the site and we’re not seeing it with this marketing campaign, the way we have seen it with prior marketing campaigns. What we’re doing on that front is retooling the marketing campaign, making it a much stronger call to action and much more product demo spots for later in the year and we hope that will have some effect.

I hope he means fewer ads on billboards, and more stuff like Ask’s sponsorship Ask A Ninja. Can’t be a bad move to “retool” toward more tactics that deliver 8.3% trial rates!

FM's Conversational Marketing Summit, Sept 11-12

FM’s Conversational Marketing Summit is offering early-bird discounts, register here. The speaker roster is filling out, too:

Jay Adelson; CEO, Digg.com.
Heather Armstrong; Founder, Dooce.
Jon Armstrong; Founder, Dooce.
Paul Beck; Senior Partner, Ogilvy.
Barak Berkowitz; CEO, Six Apart.
Matt Cohler; VP Strategy, Facebook.
Laura Desmond; CEO, Starcom MediaVest Group/The Americas.
Scott Donaton; Publisher, AdAge.
Sarah Fay; President, Isobar US.
Shawn Gold; SVP Marketing & Content, MySpace.com.
David Grubb; Worldwide Media Director; Microsoft.
Curt Hecht; EVP, Chief Digital Officer, Starcom MediaVest Group.
Carla Hendra; Co-CEO, Ogilvy North America.
Casey Jones; VP Marketing, Dell.
Patrick Keane; EVP, CMO, CBS Interactive.
David Lawee; VP Marketing, Google.
Ross Levinsohn; Former President, Fox Interactive Media.
Daina Middleton; Dir, Global Interactive Marketing , Imaging and Printing Group, HP.
Jon Miller; Former Chairman & CEO, AOL Inc.
Kent Nichols; Writer, Performer, Beatbox Giant Productions.
Greg Ott; VP, Global Marketing, Ask.com.
Randall Rothenberg; President & CEO, Interactive Advertising Bureau.
Suzie Reider; Head of Advertising Sales, Youtube.
Douglas Sarine; Writer, Performer, Beatbox Giant Productions.
Tina Sharkey; Chairman and Global President, BabyCenter, LLC.
Suhaila Suhimi-Waldner; East Coast Director, Digital, OMD.
Rishad Tobaccowala; CEO, Denuo.
Johnny Vulkan; Founder, Anomaly.
Jeff Weiner; EVP, Network Division, Yahoo!

Voice Posts Roll Out on Ars Technica, Searchblog

The voice post technology arrives just in time for John Battelle at Searchblog, who broke one of his typing hands last week at camp with the kids. I know what you’re thinking — I made him break his hand as part of the HP sponsorship deal, but, alas, I didn’t.  Also, Ken Fisher at Ars Technica debuts his site’s voice post series with a review of Tivo HD.

Voice Posts: Conversational Marketing Gets a Voice

Earlier this week, several FM sites rolled out their first “voice posts,” a new series of editorial segments served up as audio files on blog sites. HP is the sponsor of the series, meaning their logo appears under the audio file with copy that says “voice post technology sponsored by HP iPaq 510.” HP also bought banner ads on the sites. Beyond that, though, HP has no relationship to or influence over the content of the voice posts — a brilliant stroke on their part. Why? Two reasons.

HP voice post player
First, by giving blog authors a new, easy-to-use platform to talk to their readers (listeners?) about topics of their own choosing, HP stands a much better chance of creating a “voice post habit” among top independent bloggers. Mark Frauenfelder, for example, one of Boing Boing’s editors, reads an excerpt from his book, “The World’s Worst.” According to Amazon, the paperback edition is 176 pages long. If Mark gets good feedback from Boing Boing readers, he’s got a lot more book to read — in his own voice! — for voice-posting on the site. Not that HP’s logo will necessarily accompany hundreds of future voice posts on Boing Boing (their current sponsorship runs for 2 months); but presumably the HP and the iPaq brands benefit if more bloggers and more online media consumers get comfortable with voice-to-text and text-to-voice activities.

Second, not every visitor to these sites will understand what’s meant by “voice post technology sponsored by HP iPaq 510.” So David Ponce at OhGizmo used a voice post to explain to his audience exactly what HP paid for (ads on his site and the HP logo under voice posts), and what they didn’t (his editorial content). Transparency and full disclosure, never bad things, are enormously important practices for independent publishers (who tend to face greater, or at least more vocal, scrutiny than traditional publishers, see this or this) and for publishers exploring marketing that goes beyond standard ad banners. And while HP didn’t pay OhGizmo to write or “voice” a disclosure, they benefited from it: It’s impossible for an author to disclose a sponsorship relationship without naming the involved sponsor. In OhGizmo’s case, David mentions HP or iPaq five times in the voice post and another five times in the accompanying text post, both under the headline “Voice Posts On OhGizmo: An Explanation, A Disclaimer And An Example.”

Nice going, HP.

(Disclosure: FM represents OhGizmo and Boing Boing and takes a commission on advertising that runs on those sites, and I work for FM.)

Update 7/24: The voice post technology arrives just in time for John Battelle at Searchblog, who broke one of his typing hands last week at camp with the kids. I know what you’re thinking — I made him break his hand as part of the HP sponsorship deal, but, alas, I didn’t. Also, Ken Fisher at Ars Technica debuts his site’s voice post series with a review of Tivo HD.

Update 7/31: Boing Boing uses voice posts to add the soundtrack to their site.

Update 8/14: As voice posts add to content, readers demand access. Here’s what the editors at Boing Boing are doing about it, according to David Pescovitz.

BB Audio from Guatemala


Update 8/31: HP marketing staffer and blogger Tac Anderson asks the question, Is This Really Advertising?, to which he replies:

“Technically yes. The better answer is that this is the way new media advertising *should* be done. It leverages ad dollars to bring additional value to a community that is not interruptive. I don’t know who on the HP side came up with this but I think it’s great.”

Update 9/15: Here’s a handful of comments from readers of Battelle’s Searchblog.
SB LogoSearchblog comments

Corporations Still Control Marketing Conversation, But Less Now Than Before

Nick Carr’s recent column for Guardian Unlimited is called, “How corporations still control the marketing conversation.”

I like the implied admission that these conversations — what we used to call publications — are controlled at some level by the corporations who pay the bills through advertising. (Excluding, of course, Ms Magazine and Consumer Reports.) Hey, admitting the problem is a great place to start! He even turns the mirror on his own sector of the media business:

“Even in traditional media, the line dividing marketing and editorial content has long been a blurry one. Many newspapers and magazines publish in their pages advertorials written by companies, even though they know that many readers don’t distinguish the paid content from the articles written by journalists.”

But, ironically, he concludes with this:

“It has long been assumed that the internet, by democratising media, would level the playing field, shifting power away from corporations and to individuals. A lone person, using a computer and a web connection, could broadcast his opinion about a company or a product to the entire world. There’s truth in that, but it’s not the whole truth. As the line between media and marketing blurs further, corporations are finding that the web may give them more power to influence what people see and do. In the end, conversational marketing is more about marketing than about conversation.”

When the NY Times let ATT wallpaper the print pages of the business section in January 2007, horrified readers didn’t have an easy channel to voice their feedback. Or when it has launched new sections of the newspaper — such as Automobiles or Small Business — not because there was suddenly more news about those topics, but because advertisers would pay the Times more if they wrote more stories on those topics, there was no forum for public discussion. When the Wall Street Journal promoted Dell advertorial videos as video news coverage (with another tech vendor’s commercials running before and after the advertorial, to make the ruse complete!) the traditional journalists at the Journal and its competitors looked the other way. When CNET, ZDNet, PC Magazine, CNN, Fortune, or Car and Driver have lent their voices, words, logos and names to advertisers for use in ad creative — it’s something we consumers just have to deal with, quietly.

When websites — especially the new generation of “conversational” sites that , oh my!, make it easy for their readers to express themselves right there in the publications (attached to the story itself, not on page 28 where “letters to the editor” are hidden) — explore more relevant approaches to advertising, they DO open themselves up for criticism, actively. They invite it, in fact, because they recognize their survival depends on listening to reader feedback and improving from it. Conversational media and conversational marketing certainly “level the playing field” and “shift the power away from corporations” more than old school media and marketing ever has. It ain’t perfect yet, but it’s a move in the right direction.

WSJ Videos: Edit or Advertising?

I like to consider myself an expert on sniffing out advertiser messages among editorial content. But today’s edition of the Wall Street Journal’s MEDIA AND MARKETING EDITION newsletter has me stumped!

The email arrives daily with “WSJ.com Editors” in the From field, and most of the links are to editorial stories — so I’ve always pegged this an editorial product. There are advertising links, which are generally marked as such. Today’s first link is one of those: “Advertising: Dell is rolling out a TV, print and online ad campaign aimed at promoting its new line of colorful notebook computers, the company’s latest step to jump-start lagging sales,” just above the link to the Dell ad.

The second story, though, is marked “WSJ Video” but also says it’s an invitation to watch a Dell commercial: “WSJ Video: Watch an ad for Dell’s new line of notebook computers.” When I followed the link to the WSJ.com site and watched the videos, they appear to be advertorials or what PR firms used to call “video news releases.” Toward the end of the video segment, text in the video window announced the content was provided “courtesy of Dell via Beam TV” — aha! It’s an ad! But before and after the segment, the screen filled up with the WSJ Online logo along with text that said “presented” by WSJ. And the WSJ logo ran as a watermark over the video the whole time (like CNN or MSNBC does over their own news footage, but not commercials on those networks), and nothing on the website or player window (nothing I could find, anyway) disclosed that it was sponsored or advertising content — though WSJ did post a disclosure on the player window while traditional Cisco video ads ran before and after the Dell advertorial.

Wait a second! The WSJ crew convinced Cisco to run commercials around Dell commercials! (Assuming those Dell videos are, in fact, commercials.) The entire ad-sales team here at ChasNote is humbled. Wow.

Stuck at LAX Again, Thinking About Conversational Marketing

I spent last Friday evening at LAX and the Burbank airport (and trafficky freeways between the two) on a 9 hour quest to get back to San Francisco. Lucky for me, I found myself distracted by an engaging and spirited discussion of advertising models, journalistic ethics and best practices for conversational marketing! A week later I find myself, again, stuck in Los Angeles waiting out flight delays — and collecting my thoughts on last week’s hoopla around conversational marketing.

Earlier this week I had a frank conversation with the folks at Microsoft to get their take. After revisiting the elements of the ad campaign, we agreed that this sort of “conversational marketing” doesn’t violate ethics (marketer or journalistic) or intentionally mislead readers. Still, they are taking seriously the perception among some commentators that we all could have done more to disclose the details on the campaign. More transparency can’t be a bad thing. Most importantly, Microsoft is listening and trying to learn from the feedback. I was thrilled to hear all of that.

That’s what makes conversational marketing so compelling to me (and my colleagues at FM) — it allows our customers to give us feedback. Honest feedback isn’t always nice to hear, but it’s important that we hear it, that we listen and that we grow from it. We’ll keep at it because we’re committed to finding more relevant, natural ways to communicate to our customers, and (let’s hope) we get better each time.

Anil Dash on Conversational Marketing

Anil Dash, Chief Evangelist at Six Apart and among the folks credited with launching the blog movement (here’s his bio), added this to the discussion of conversational marketing:

“There’s been a (mostly boring) conversation going between some blogs over the past few days regarding the line between editorial and advertising. Largely, this is a case of the same silly-meme-into-faux-fact path that I tried to document yesterday. In this case, it’s a little lessinnocent — Nick Denton used a Valleywag blog post to take a jab at John Battelle and FM Pub by implying its writers sold out by creating copy for a Microsoft campaign that ran on their sites.

“The whole thing is, as I said, mostly boring, except that the idea of the post is what ended up being debated, instead of the fact that this is really a case of a not-that-serious personal rivalry turning into an assault on the credibility of a number of good bloggers. And a number of overrated ones, but that’s beside the point.

“Again with the disclaimers: I know both Nick and John, and like them both for what they’re good at, as well as for what makes them different. And I have good friends in both of their companies. This isn’t name-dropping; A big part of my job is making connections to people who do innovative things with blogs and in the blogging industry, and they both fall squarely into that description.

“But Nick is being pretty transparently intellectually dishonest here — throwing bombs at John and FM not because he believes what he’s saying, but because he knows it’ll get attention. The idea of advertising becoming more blog-like is a good thing. If every ad were written by an actual human, had a permanent link to its location, and let people share or tag it, we’d end up with a radically better advertising culture.

The idea of a media team creating advertising content isn’t new — it’s as old as publishing itself. And it continues today. Here’s Ziff Davis’ Contract Publishing services. In public media, here’s PBS’ Red Book guidelines for underwriting content. Sure, it makes sense to have different teams be responsible for money and editorial. But in blogging, where the editor is the publisher and you can’t split a one-person staff in half, merging these functions isn’t just logical, it’s inevitable. Perhaps if Nick hadn’t been a pioneering blogger himself, I’d have believed he was simply mistaken.

“In this case, though, we’re fortunate to have some pretty articulate advocates for the idea of conversational marketing. For example, FM Pub’s Chas Edwards does a great job of telling the story (link).

“But perhaps the best advocate for this style of conversational marketing is Nick Denton. From three years ago…..”

In Anil’s post, he’s pulled material from Gawker Media’s own media kit from 3 years ago, including the offer to “provide editorial talent and oversight” and the statement that “campaign weblogs allow a marketer to participate in the weblog conversation, rather than observe it as a passive sponsor.”

I think Nick and I agree more than I thought!