Big ones (ideas)…. The difficulty facing sponsored content

Apology ?

Have they worked it out yet ?

I used to have a disagreement with a colleague about how knowledge of digital advertising strategy should intersect with knowledge of offline advertising strategy. The argument was really silly because we couldn’t even agree on certain structural ‘big’ concepts that were fundamental to the topic.

For example, and this pretty much defined my whole position, I don’t think you can claim the mantle of communications strategist, in today’s world unless you have both on and offline knowledge. If you only have one of the 2 then you are a tactician, not a strategist. Clearly, my colleague disagreed.

To be fair the whole topic of strategy, as in what is strategy, is peculiarly fuzzy. There are rabbit holes aplenty waiting to break your ankle when you start trying to put tight definitions on the difference between strategy and tactics. Perspective, vantage point and scope are crucial and can sincerely change the application of the 2 disciplines. As such I’m not having a go at anyone holding job titles such as ‘digital strategist’. I sincerely see the value in the role and I see that it is quite feasible to have a digital advertising strategy. In the same way you can have a sales strategy, a buying strategy, a TV strategy and even a measurement strategy.

Nonetheless the higher up the responsibility ladder you go the less these distinctions can be valid and eventually you get to a point where a strategist needs to be able to cover the lot, handing out iterative briefs to the sector specialists (in this context, tacticians) which will inform the wider strategy. This was the level of application that we were arguing about and I consider it a simple argument, if you haven’t got experience and knowledge across all channels then you can’t call yourself a communications strategist. You might still be a valuable property; it’s just that you aren’t writing the strategy, you are contributing to it.

As acknowledged, there are levels and sub levels and lots of different ways of structuring these 2 disciplines. And, for sure, there are many ways of managing this successfully. However, I still consider the ‘big’ idea here, that strategy at the top table requires knowledge of everything on that top table, is accurate, and most importantly its simple. It, quite frankly causes me more disconcertion that this is considered debatable than any of the challenges involved in actually writing a communication strategy.

And pause…

…that’s been quite a roundabout way of making a simple point, which is this.

In general, but with specific regard to media, technology and marketing, there are some ideas that are deeply formative, affect a considerable percentage of the landscape, are really straightforward to understand but which are aggressively contested.

Easier to understand, but no less troublesome is the fact that sometimes what is contested is how the idea gets applied, as in what it means, as opposed to the idea itself.

This is what’s at the heart of some of the strangely optimistic opinions you will hear about the future of mobile advertising. In that debate the ‘big’ idea, not really challenged by anyone, is that advertising likes to take up as much space as is possible. It’s long been considered that bigger ad units are more effective, and this is reflected, categorically, in the pricing. In newspapers a full page ad is more impactful than a half-page ad, in TV a 60 second ad is more impactful than a 30, outdoor advertising trends to ever bigger spaces and half the appeal of cinema advertising is the size of the screen.

Digital advertising is not well served by this idea. Display units for web advertising, are not only small, but they are fighting for attention alongside the content itself (which is another reason why full pages in magazines and newspapers have been so attractive).

The woes of digital display advertising (Google’s adwords are a significant exception) are best demonstrated by the well documented tribulations of journalism, where online audiences are not able to garner the same revenues as offline audiences did (and this is not a volume trend, the price per thousand, the relative price, is smaller, following the fact that bigger is better and almost always more expensive, although that’s not the only factor, of course).

Fortunately it’s not all bad news though, as there most definitely is a role for digital display advertising, this post is not an anti-digital piece, far from it. I am, however, surprised to hear about and see so many individuals and companies (advertising and tech) waxing lyrical about the new opportunity for mobile display.

The big idea, that big formats are more effective is even more relevant here. Mobile screens are dreadful places to run ads. There is little else to add to the debate beyond the dimensions of the screen, which are small. And to just hammer the point home, small is bad.

I have previously written a more complete treatment of this trend. Which is here.

We are still left with a bit of a predicament, or, if you are in the business of making, selling and planning advertising you are left with a bit of a predicament might just, be more accurate.

People are spending more and more time on their mobile platforms, and, even if we assume a level of sainthood (that doesn’t exist) and limit our money extraction to that which is required to pay for execution and not profit, we still desperately need to monetise all the currently free content and free apps and free services or they will either go away or morph into useless sludge.

There are several options in play.

One that gets a great deal of attention, largely because it’s been championed by Facebook and Twitter is the whole sponsored content idea. Facebook calls its product sponsored stories and they have melded it into the social wrapper that is their landscape, the stream.

It’s not really a new idea though; we used to call them advertorials.  They were considered funny beasts that had a very specific set of uses. There was an admission, which was rarely mentioned explicitly by anyone, that these ad formats worked because they appeared in the media as if they were editorial not advertising. It was a simple deceit, but a deceit for sure. Which is why, at the end of the day, advertorials had to have a big disclaimer at the top of the page outing themselves as ‘Advertising Features’.

There was a, again, somewhat unspoken acknowledgment, that advertising needed to be distinctly separate from editorial. Advertising dollars were not to be seen to buy editorial endorsement. I remember as a junior ad manager at a financial services company, being surprised when over lunch with the ad sales manager and the editor of a tightly targeted magazine (its mission was to give advice to consumers on one specific financial product only, sort of like ‘Savings Account Monthly’ except I’ve clearly made that one up), the editor excused herself when we started to discuss advertising rates (which was the only reason they were footing the bill for lunch, let’s be honest).

As she disappeared (to make a phone call, or a cigarette perhaps) I remember distinctly thinking it was crazy that she would be unaware of the magazine’s rates, or their strategy for attracting advertisers like me. And it would have been crazy if it were true, which it could not have been. The magazine only existed to make a profit, that profit was chiefly derived from advertising revenues and if they routinely told their readers that the bottom half of the financial services market was appalling, then they effectively cut their own possible revenue market in half. Editorial had to have a relationship with revenue.

The whole thing was a charade.  A carefully constructed charade where there was never a conversation about editorial content, simply an unspoken unacknowledged assumption. The editor leaving us to the financial end of the discussion was simply a part of the plausible deniability that she felt was required, I was amazed (or perhaps naïve is a more accurate description of where my mind was that day).

Just revisiting that lunch and typing about it makes me feel old because I’m not sure these quaint barriers exist anymore, at least not in digital domains. And to be sure they were quaint. If that magazine had taken our money and then turned around and trashed us, there would have been angry phone calls indeed, but much more pertinently, a decision to never spend money with them ever again. Everyone involved knew, but it was never once stated out loud.

As a quick aside (relevant) It’s worth looking again, briefly, at what the internet has done to modern journalism. Have you ever wondered why your big weekend Sunday papers have so many (maybe that should be, did have…) lifestyle sections, Cars, Property, 100 best getaways etc? As much as it’s nice to think that it’s because you want to read them, the real reason is that they were created to attract advertisers. In the examples above, that would clearly be advertisers selling cars, houses and holidays. The newspaper was a bundling device and the revenue came from advertisers.

The internet, on the other hand, is the world’s greatest un-bundling device. Say you love the Sunday Telegraph’s news coverage, but hate their automotive correspondent. Online the automotive writer you want to read is only a click away, and increasingly not even in the wrapper of a newspaper at all (so no ad revenue for the Telegraph). It’s a painful double whammy for the old journalism model. They get clobbered by the horrors of small ad units, and then they get walloped by the destruction of their bundled ad revenues also. All this, by the way, explains the continued, and foolish, experiments in trapping users inside walled gardens.

Returning, to my very enjoyable lunch (I recall a thoroughly pleasant afternoon for what it’s worth), you can see that with such a specific editorial remit, we didn’t really need to explain that we expected at the very least to be mentioned neutrally, but under no circumstances would we have imagined an editorial mauling. I should also say, for the record, that we didn’t think we were buying positive editorial at all. We were trying to buy customers as cheaply as possible. Customers that would be attracted to us because we had prominent position with such a relevant magazine, that might have been a cover mounted CD with lots of information about our products on it (provided by us, of course). We were after the unstated, but actual effective endorsement that such an association could bring.

Advertorials, of course, deliver exactly the same thing. It may say in clear language, at the very top of the page, ‘Advertising feature’, but it was no accident that we would have paid for a journalist to write it, instead of an agency copy writer, to get as close to the tone of the publication as possible. No accident at all.

Now, again, I’m not on an anti-advertorial rant here either. I’m very much of the opinion that if you make it plain what you are doing, as in ‘Advertising Feature’, then the consumer has no claim for being duped. Still we knew we were buying a device that more closely generated publication endorsement than a normal ad unit did. It’s a bit like those ads that print fawning quotes from Mr James Walling of Basingstoke. Surely no-one has a clue who James Walling is, but they still buy more products than they do from the same ad without his (possibly fictional) endorsement.

Are people stupid?

No, this isn’t about stupidity, it’s that up to a point people understand what’s going on, and, again up to a point, they don’t mind.

For sure, the ads are using a barrage of psychological tricks to increase their effectiveness, but the people responding to advertorials are not under the impression that they are reading normal editorial copy. They know the advertiser has paid for this ad, and they don’t mind. They are of the opinion that they have decided to purchase, or not, based on the facts of the situation.

There are lines, however, that should not be crossed and the iterative reality of digital communications is going to help us find these lines more quickly than ever before.

The Atlantic recently made a mistake and they have learned from it. Indeed in their apology they say:-

“It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake”

The full apology is in the image at the top of this blog post.

What did they do that was so egregious? They sold a piece of their digital edition to the church of scientology as sponsored content. It turned out to be a big old puff piece.

Sounds unremarkable right? Well, yes and no. They clearly made some mistakes. Or, in the language that I’m trying to explore in this post (which has become 3 times longer than expected), they got the big idea, with regard to advertorials, wrong. How could that happen? Well, for a start, I’ll bet few people have really explored what we know about advertorials and applied it to sponsored content.

Your readers do know what’s going on with paid for content, but they still expect some form of editorial sense to be exercised. For sure, they know that the advertiser paid for the content, but they certainly still want it to exist within certain reasonable limits. Or, more accurately, if the content strays outside of those reasonable limits it will jar and produce a dissonant experience. The reader will lose the trust they have built up with that publication.

This is because, and here is the big idea, (drum roll….) the advertorial works by inducing editorial endorsement. That’s the whole point of an advertorial. The advertiser knows this, the magazine knows this and the reader expects this.

So, when the Atlantic published this huge scientology piece, the fact they labelled it sponsored content, which they did, was immaterial. It wasn’t that the label was too small (although it was), or that the comments seemed to be moderated by the scientologists themselves (I don’t know if they were or not but they shouldn’t have seemed to have been), or that running over several pages it looked like ‘real’ editorial (which is the whole idea).

No, the simple reality is that the reader still expects there to be editorial oversight. If they didn’t then advertorials/sponsored content would be no different to normal ad units.

How could this happen I asked a few paragraphs ago? Here’s the main reason. The Atlantic is experimenting with sponsored content to try and tackle the overarching problem with digital display advertising. As such, they did not think about the effectiveness of the advert from the advertisers perspective, the problem they were trying to solve was getting advertisers to part with advertising budgets. The people running the experiment were probably digital technologists, I’d bet they didn’t once make the connection to advertorial content.

The scientologists have done us a huge favour. If this had simply been a misplaced piece of sponsored content for a product that the Atlantic’s readers did not wish to buy, a weak product, then there would have been no outcry, just a piece of failed advertising.

The Atlantic as endorser of the church of scientology though? That blew the thing up to a point where we could see the challenges facing the whole concept of sponsored content.

Does this mean we should abandon sponsored content as the answer to the woes of online display advertising as a business model? Yes and no.

There is no reason why we should not use the technique, as I said before it has a long and rich, successful history. The trouble is that it can only be used, effectively, relatively sparingly. There was a reason why all advertising was not advertorial advertising. If every advert is an endorsement then NO advert is an endorsement, there has to be real editorial oversight or the reader (prospective customer) will stop fulfilling their half of the bargain.

Let’s zip back to my enjoyable lunch, all those years ago. I made the point that if the magazine I was lunching with trashed the bottom half of the market, then they halved their potential advertiser customer base. That would have been true. The other side of the coin, however, was that if they ran advertorials for the worst products in the market, then their editorial integrity would be shot and their reader base would have deserted them. They could, however, take display advertising from anyone without any challenge to their editorial integrity.

So, there we have the big idea at the heart of sponsored content. However much we go to lengths to demonstrate a divide between advertising dollars and editorial integrity it has to be an artificial divide, the whole success (for the advertiser) depends on the consumer believing there is an implied endorsement. As a result of that it follows that sponsored content can only be a sub section of advertising inventory as implied endorsement is meaningless if everything is an endorsement.

Will this slow down the different sponsored content experiments? Nope. Not by even one second. The first results will look quite good, especially in comparison to similarly priced digital display units. The performance loss (for advertisers) comes after the reader realises that the implicit endorsement is no longer real, and that will take a little time. Doh.


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