Blurring the lines -- just what is advertising on a blog?
Most online advertising is easy to spot. Skyscrapers or banners with blinking lights and flash animations. Text ads with the clear tag "XYZ Ad Network" or Google Adsense.
But what about blogs that are sponsored by a company. For example, Scratchings and Sniffings, a pet blog sponsored by Purina.
Or blogger relations -- where companies reach out directly to bloggers with products and exclusive stories and other blog-worthy material?.
Are the posts that result from these efforts advertising or editorial? It has to be one thing or another, right? After all, in the" good old days," it was black or white. It was advertising or it was editorial and never the twain shall meet. Right?
I mean, we've never had evaluation labs that did paid reviews of products and applied a seal of approval. Oh wait a minute. Yes we did.
Magazines and newspapers never sold editorial-like space for advertisers to write their own stories. Oh wait a minute. Yes we did. And do.
And it wasn't really a problem. It just was.
And is. Readers have always been, and still are, able to apply their own judgment to the material they read, no matter how stupid advertisers seem to think we are. The Web is no different.
And all these approaches have their place in our informational ecosystem. So, let's put a little definition around the issue.
What is advertising, what qualifies as "advertorial," and when can we expect that a blog, podcast or Web site is serving up "pure" editorial content?
Advertising. The advertiser has complete control over the ad content and landing pages. Paid or pro bono, using rate cards not that different from the old magazine CPM. Examples: site advertising, Google AdSense, BlogHer ad network, Blogads.
Advertorial. This is where I put things like Pay Per Post and blog networks like Parent Bloggers Network. In the print world, of course, the advertiser has complete content control and the magazine simply dictates a common format. Online, it is a bit different, but the end result isn't. Online, the advertiser has control over the initial factors -- what is to be reviewed or written about and who will be writing. But, after that, the blogger is more or less free to write what he pleases.
That said, we can certainly expect a certain cognitive dissonance effect; paid reviewers will be more likely to be positive about a product, regardless of their opinion, or lack thereof, before starting the review. While they aren't being paid to voice a view contrary to their own opinons, as were the subjects in Leon Festinger's original research in the 50s, the mere fact that they are being paid by an entity with a vested interest is bound to shape the review.
But so what. Readers can make up their own minds. And will. However, full disclosure of relationships is absolutely essential. If the service or network does not require full disclosure, I strongly advise both advertising companies and bloggers to stay away.
Sponsored blogs fit in the advertorial category. Even if the writer is totally independent, a certain sensibility is bound to affect the blog. The sponsor may not say "don't trash me" but the writer isn't going to. Unless there is such an egregious situation that the blogger wants to divorce the sponsor. Likewise, I consider review networks like Parent Bloggers to be advertorial because even though the writer is free to write whatever she wishes about the product or services, there is a prior agreement that there will be a post.
Caveat: Do not confuse pay-per-post type writing with freelance writing. Paid posts on a personal blog reflect the personal opinion and style of the blogger -- some are short and breezy, some funny, some deep and introspective. The clients are not paying for the in-depth research, impartiality and writing skills that we might see on a sponsored blog or from a professional freelance writer.
This does not mean that bloggers cannot be freelance writers. They can. It just means that we need to understand that there is a real difference between pay-per-post writing and freelance writing, and the fees each type of writing should command.
Independent editorial. The blogger may take advertising, but the expectation is that the blog contents are 100% owned by the blogger, in all senses of the word. The blogger may be receptive to pitches from blogger relations, marketing and PR firms, but there is no quid pro quo. The company making the pitch had better tell a compelling, relevant story that offers something of value to the blogger. Or risk being ignored, or worse, ridiculed.
Companies that get this right can have long, mutually beneficial relationships with bloggers. Get it wrong? Just ask Wal*Mart.
Pay Per Post and other paid blogging services can supplement blogger relations, but in my opinion, do not replace it.
They can however coexist. Just as advertising, editorial and advertorial have been working together to tell us the story for years.
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