Wild, Wild Web
Last month, magazine industry consultant and blogger Paul Conley took VNU's Mediaweek to task for placing hypertext ad links into the body of news stories on its Web site [paulconleyblogspot.com, "Mediaweek blurs the lines between ads and editorial."]
"Editors decide on what appears in the copy," wrote Conley. "Period. But it appears some folks in the b2b publishing industry continue to struggle with the idea of keeping editorial and advertising separate."
VNU quickly removed the links and editorial director Sid Holt released a statement saying, "VNU Business Media has explicit guidelines delineating the relationship between editorial content and marketing messages. Despite occasional misunderstandings, both editors and publishers alike understand, respect and observe those guidelines."
That's a tightrope many publishers, both b-to-b and consumer, are walking as the demand for online packages evolves beyond banners to online advertorials, sponsored areas, micro-sites and vendor-generated content. Publishers are quick to acknowledge the need to distinguish original editorial from sponsored content, but also say that the Internet is evolving so fast that the line between edit and marketing message is more blurred than in print. "Publishers and clients are more accepting of the gray area;it's a brave new world," says Prescott Shibles, vice president of online development at Prism Business Media. "I think readers are accepting of it if they know what they're getting. If you start seeing some sites put out a lot of advertorial Webinars or advertorial e-blasts you're going to see fatigue of your lists and a decrease in performance. That's why we're so focused on defining standards internally."
Or as one publisher puts it, "It's like the Wild West out there."
Done right, online advertorials or sponsored content offer readers the best in edit and advertising, particularly if it leverages the Web's sense of community. "Our users find white paper content just as important as editorial," says Bob Carrigan, president of IDG Communications. "For them, the wisdom of the crowd is just as important as the wisdom of a few editors. I can't overstate the importance of community;that's one area where magazines have the advantage."
Online advertorials can be engaging and creative;much more than in a static print package. Hachette Filipacchi is about to launch a program with caranddriver.com that would enable visitors to take a virtual test drive of select models that enables them to look at every aspect of the vehicle. The program will also use real Car and Driver editorial reviews to describe the experience. "Obviously, because the client is paying for this and it's custom, we're not going to include anything critical," says Marta Wohlre, vice president of digital media. "But it is genuine editorial and that's what's really attractive, this idea of guided discovery where Car and Driver editors are taking you on a journey. It will be transparent that this is sponsored content."
Rodale draws a distinction between sponsored content and advertorials and attempts to steer advertisers toward sponsored content, such as Celebrex sponsoring a channel on pain management and arthritis in the healing center section of Prevention.com. "In the beginning, we were getting these calls saying ďľ‘we want an advertorial, we want an advertorial,'" say Ron Bernstein, vice president of ad sales at Rodale Interactive. "We'd say, ďľ‘why would you want an advertorial when you can have a sponsored section that the editors really believe will attract attention and interest?' The only caveat is that with sponsored content, which is true content, you as an advertiser can't dictate what we write about. Eighty percent of the time we've been approached, we end up doing sponsored content."
Rodale does build micro-sites for sponsors in areas "where we don't have much content," says Bernstein, such as micro-sites for Depends or sleep-aid Rosarum. A message at the bottom of the screen says the content is directed by advertisers, not users. "We've asked for feedback from users and we haven't received many complaints," he adds. "Of course, we're not doing many of them and it is credible content."
Sponsored content is changing formats, including Webinars, podcasts and blogs. And it doesn't have to be complicated. Prism offers a product called Ask the Experts that lets sponsors choose a representative to field questions from readers online. At www.ecmweb.com, Ask the Expert has yielded 51 pages of archived questions. At a simple $2,500 a pop, "That's done almost as much revenue as our Webinars," says Shibles. "The more you're able to take that sponsored content and mix in that community aspect you're able to command premiums for it. Once you've done it a few times, you have a better way of telling the client how it works, and managing their expectations out of the gate. That's critically important. For them, online is a different world and our editorial integrity is extremely important. We're always speaking with editors about ways this can be handled."
Last month Prism launched a service for clients that will syndicate links to related Prism articles. Readers can go to the article page and see a number of related articles from clients who have micro-sites. "For us, it's not just about creating new content, it's about creating a marketing solution," says Shibles. "I can tell anyone how we did this;creating the product is not the hard part, it's creating the interaction."
Still, many of these programs are extremely labor intensive for publishers to create. Sports Illustrated offers a series of cross-platform packages such as one for Miller Light and its Man-Laws campaign, which lets readers vote on football "Man Laws" each week and drives traffic to a micro-site devoted to the effort. "When we got to August, we realized we were at the breaking point," says Jeff Price, president of SI Digital. "We had 19 or 20 programs that were either active, in development or just about to sell. For our best ideas, we want advertisers to step up and make a commitment to the franchise. If it's not a program that will bring in at least a quarter of a million dollars, its hard to justify bringing in all the assets and resources it will take."
When the Target-sponsored issue of The New Yorker caused an uproar last year, the publishing industry reaffirmed its commitment to editorial guidelines in print. While some half-hearted attempts were made to regulate online, the medium is just moving too fast right now for formal guidelines.
"Particularly in the technical and marketing fields, there's a real value being put on vendor content," says Shibles. "The danger is in crossing that church-state line."
Webinars, in particular, are in danger of crossing the editorial/advertorial line. "It's an editorial-driven product with a sponsor packaged around it until the sponsor threatens to pull out if you don't cover X-Y-Z," Shibles adds. "Once you've invested that much time and you've got $17,000-$20,000 in revenue riding on it, the pressure is much more substantial."
Neither the American Society of Magazine Editors nor the American Society of Business Publication Editors have a clear answer at this point and both are revising their online editorial guidelines. "The attitude of ASME is that the basic rules should still apply as in print and a reader should know whether you're looking at editorial content or advertiser sponsor-content," says Cynthia Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour and current president of ASME. "What that means and how it's interpreted can be very different online than in a magazine. The basic principle is you want readers to know what they're looking at. The Web changes every 10 seconds and I don't think anybody expected the guidelines ASME adopted several years ago to last for decades. We're in the process of talking to editors right now to see if our guidelines adequately address what they encounter on regular basis."
For its part, ASBPE opposes the term "advertorial." "From what I hear, advertisers seem most inventive about ways to get their messages on the screen, from pop-ups to messages that scroll across page to podcasts," says Roy Harris, senior editor at CFO and current president of ASBPE. "The publications are being inventive, too, looking for ways to get advertisers' dollars. The problem comes from balancing the importance of editorial, and making sure it isn't overshadowed. These are the same kinds of decisions magazine editors and publishers make about what kinds of ads may run. Yet there clearly are differences between online and print in how ads appear. Most magazines don't want ads right in the middle of news copy, for example. But it seems to be the norm for online advertising."
Can The Web Be Self-Policing?
Yet while industry associations grapple with what's appropriate online, there is a sense among publishers that the Web (or at least Web audiences) will naturally favor publishers who do it "the right way." "I don't know if there's an organization that's policing online but because the feedback is minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour, day-to-day, you don't really need anyone to police it," says Matt Sweeney, president of Computerworld, which currently sees 40 percent of its online revenue come from sponsored content. "You can see it with how often people come to the site and how long they spend there. If they thought they were mislead, they wouldn't spend as much time on site. The last thing we want to do is mislead people."
Pricing is one way publishers may be able to govern online content. "If you feel very strongly about the editorial content you can encourage behavior based on pricing," says Shibles. "Price your editorial areas as a premium to showcase how valuable your expertise is."
And while advertorials are the closest thing the print world may have to "invasive" marketing, online advertorials need to offer value to get visitors to interact. CNNMoney.com has created micro-site programs for sponsors such as NASDAQ, Chrysler and IBM. "We're very careful with what we ask our audience to do," says Greg Schwartz, vice president of sales at CNNMoney.com, part of the Time Inc. Business & Finance Network. "We're not in the business of manufacturing audiences nor advertisers. We sell very valuable real estate in context. You're not doing the advertiser any service if now you have to manufacture an audience. Often that's not the same audience advertisers are thinking of when they first commit."
Nissan runs a promotion in each Sports Illustrated preview issue that drives readers to a Web site where the brand is able to capture data through registrations. "Two years ago, the idea was to build a mini-site that lives on its own and drives traffic and that's all it should do," adds Price. "Now most of programs tie into why consumers are sports fans rather than build a destination that's going to be difficult to drive traffic to. Nissan builds off our equity. We no longer create an online-only world and hope people end up there. When readers flip through the magazine, it automatically pulls them in. Online, you really have to appeal to them to pull them in."
ASME Online Editorial Guidelines
1) The home page and all subsequent pages of a publication's Web site should display the publication's name and logo prominently, in order to clarify who controls the content of the site.
2) All online pages should clearly distinguish between editorial and advertising or sponsored content. If any content comes from a source other than the editors, it should be clearly labeled. A magazine's name or logo should not be used in a way that suggests editorial endorsement of an advertiser. The site's sponsorship policies should be clearly noted, either in text accompanying the article or on a disclosure page (see item 8), to clarify that the sponsor had no input regarding the content.
3) Hypertext links that appear within the editorial content of a site, including those within graphics, should be at the discretion of the editors. If links are paid for by advertisers, that should be disclosed to users.
4) Special advertising or "advertorial" features should be labeled as such.
5) To protect the brand, editors/producers should not permit their content to be used on an advertiser's site without an explanation of the relationship (e.g. "Reprinted with permission").
6) E-commerce commissions and other affiliate fees should be reported on a disclosure page, so users can see that the content is credible and free of commercial influence. Exact fees need not be mentioned, of course, but users who are concerned about underlying business relationships can be thus reassured.
7) Advertisers or e-commerce partners should not receive preferential treatment in search engines, price comparisons, and other applications presented under the content provider's brand. An editorial site should not try to vouch for others' tools that it may offer.
Source: ASME. Guidelines are currently under revisement.