Conversational Marketing

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.

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