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.
Birthday Reading List
So is it Monday or Thursday?
Doesn't matter to me because today is my birthday and I am pretty much goofing off, playing with puppies and clearing out my feed reader of all that good stuff I "saved for later."
Marianne Richmond in The Blogstorm: If you sell your soul, how much should you get for it? has some terrific insights on blogger relations.
The Common Craft Show, fast becoming a favorite for its simple explanations of complex Web 2.0 topics, explains social networking.
And have a terrific weekend!
Advertising Can Be Good
Last weekend, I saw one of the most creative TV commercials I've seen in a long time.
And it was for a Traveler's Insurance, usually a pretty risk averse industry :-)
(tip of the hat to AdRants for the link to the commercial)
Video contests aimed at the younger set -- Chevy and Gourmet Station
Disclosure: my sources in both instances were women bloggers who were involved in the development of the respective projects, Nellie Lide for Chevy and Toby Bloomberg for Gourmet Station, and god bless them, they were asking for my opinion. Lucky for them, I've gotten my cranky post out of the way for today (see earlier "Forget Things Remembered"), so they don't have to be too worried about getting what they wished for.
So, here's the thing I find absolutely the most interesting thing about the two contests. Aimed at similiarly aged audiences -- Chevy directly at college student, Gourmet Station at 20- and early 30-somethings, the approaches are very different. Now, of course, some of this can be laid squarely at budget. Chevy has lotsa bucks, Gourmet Station, not so much. In fact, the need to stay to a tight budget was acknowledged by the folks who developed the Get out of the doghouse campaign for Gourmet Station.
Chevy's contest asks college students to develop a TV commercial to "to reignite the love affair between Americans and Chevrolet." It is supported by a standard format blog and a Web site. Chevy will produce the winning commercial and air it during the Super Bowl. Pretty cool idea. The PR effort used both the standard format press release, and a "social media press release," and you can read Nellie's thoughts about that on the New Persuasion blog. Net: this contest is a good execution of a creative idea using a combination of new and old techniques, but it's not revolutionary.
Still cool though and I'm very much looking forward to seeing the winning commercial since that's the only reason I watch the Super Bowl anyway. Yeah yeah, I know, un-American. Your point?
Gourmet Station's Get out of the doghouse campaign, on the other hand, is a grassroots marketing campaign. Folks are asked to create and submit YouTube videos talking about a time they were in the doghouse, and how they got out of it. The connection to Gourmet Station is the idea that a gift of a gourmet meal is one way to get yourself out. The contest site is on MySpace and they've worked with comedians active on MySpace to attract a younger audience. Props to the company: they are also contributing to Borzoi Rescue as part of the program. So we've got a real revolutionary "smash-up" -- YouTube, MySpace and Gourmet Station's Web site.
I give Toby and Marianne Richmond, her partner in the project, credit for trying something truly new and definitely understand the desire to reach out to the MySpace audience. I hope the MySpacers enter the contest. However, I find the site distracting and am not sure it does justice to the creative idea. The format is just too confining. Which is amusing, given how so many are using MySpace to express their individuality :-)
I wish Gourmet Station had the budget to do a Web site for the contest that communicated the idea more clearly and effectively. They could still have used MySpace to engage the community, but not to tell the whole story. The MySpace site just feels too jumbled.
Now, I will be honest. I do not get MySpace. At all. Am I old and cranky? Perhaps. But it just doesn't seem like an efficient way to convey information. It just reminds me of Web sites in the early days (94-ish) with or without <blink>.
My .02. YMMV. Possibly especially if you are younger :-)
Registration for the Chevy contest is closed, but the Gourmet Station contest is still open until early October. Check it out.
PS: Good Technology still hasn't contacted us about the phone number problem.
Rocketboom. Today's was particularly funny, especially Broke Mac Mountain
Wikipedia. Dr. Myra and the congressional staffers (and Marty Meehan is my rep to boot), and all the other recent transgressions. Don't these people get it? You cannot screw around with a shared, global resource like Wikipedia. You will get caught. And outed. Apply your no doubt significant skills in some other fashion.
The G- D---y Super Bowl commercial. Incest isn't funny. And that is all I can think about when I remember last year's commercial: the G- D---y bimbo shaking her boobs and butt saying the inevitable. It is just yucky. No links. No more discussion. If the commercial comes on while I am (sort of) watching the game, I'm going to take my bathroom break. Seems appropriate somehow. Added: Tip of the hat to Media Orchard for a link to the putative schedule. Now I know when I can safely pee and not miss some play that my husband wants to "discuss." Yawn.
Okay, I cannot be the only person on the planet who finds the latest Gawker media venture a wee bit disturbing. Am I? Just about every blog I read it on today (lots) reported it matter-of-factly or with relish. I'm just thinking, eeww.
More on advertising
Advertising seems to be the topic de la semaine.
Bob Bly posted Is Madison Avenue Advertising a Total Fraud. While I am not sure I'd say total fraud, one of the points he makes is that agencies value creativity more than sales, which is not in the best interests of the client. Now, not all agencies are clueless about the need for actual SALES RESULTS, but I do agree that awards and "cool ads" seem to be more valued than the perhaps less exciting but maybe more effective ad that actually drives response. As I said in my earlier post this week, the message and getting the prospect to take action are the important elements. Art and design help get the message across, they aren't the goal.
Jennifer Rice (What's Your Brand Mantra), commenting on an earlier Bly post about the Madison Avenue Branding Rip-Off, makes some excellent points about advertising and branding:
IMO, there are two core issues here: first is the fallacy of 'brand advertising', and the second is that agencies are usually not well-suited to do brand strategy.
The brand-advertising fallacy:
As a client, I was told by my (nationally recognized) ad agency: "no, we cannot do response-oriented advertising until we've run 'brand' advertising for at least 3 months." Sorry, but that sets off my bullsh*t meter. The imagery, tone of voice, tag line, copy... there are plenty of elements that can deliver the brand message in conjunction with a sales promotion. CFOs don't have the patience for so-called 'brand advertising' anymore, and marketing is now accountable for results.
Absolutely!! Your advertising is ALWAYS brand advertising (even if you don't realize it). Best to do a little selling as well. As well as realize that everything in the business impacts the brand. You can't create a brand image separate from the reality of the organization or the product. It won't work.
Which I suppose bring us back full circle. So much advertising DOES seem to try to create a brand image not grounded in reality that it is ineffective, leading to a conclusion that advertising doesn't work.
On a completely different note, thanks to David Parmet (Marketing Begins At Home) for posting about this non-Christmas carol. If you are getting sick of Jingle Bells and Drummer Boys, you'll get a kick out of it (even if the music itself isn't your favorite genre).
Images of Ad People in the Media
Writing my post on advertising got me thinking about the representations of marketing people in the media. One of the many thoughts that crossed my mind was that the "ad man" [sic] is one of the most despised in popular culture. Along with the sales person and the publicist/PR person ("spin doctors').
The stereotype: The ad guy is a bit of a trickster, perhaps a liar, who will tell you what you want to hear and make you like what you don't ... Wobbly ethics (if any). Slick.
Here are some of the fictional ad and PR people I came up with today. Please add your own.
Deceitful weasels: J. Pierpont Finch, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and pretty much everyone in Wag the Dog. I also remember faintly a British series set in an ad agency where just about everyone was pretty awful.
Unethical deceitful weasels: The tobacco industry. Example, the movie: The Insider
Positive but kinda clueless: Darrin Stephens, Bewitched (the TV show, not the recent movie) and two of the protagonists in the TV series Thirty Something. And both of those shows STILL had "bad/badder ad guys " as counterpoints to the more sympathetic "good guys."
Now, perhaps some advertising guys fit this stereotype, but no one I know. I guess that's why we call it a stereotype :-) But, why do we have so little respect for the "ad man?" If TV and movies are anything to go by, we don't believe a word of what we read/see in ads; we "know" they are lying to us.
But of course, that isn't really true, is it? We do pay attention to ads, and sometimes -- often -- we purchase products as a result. But we can't help wondering... did someone put one over on me?
Or the bane of my existence early in my career, the assertion from any and all that "I could have written a better ad than that..." In other words, no special skills required, anybody could do it...
All leading to no respect for the poor ad guy, even when she gets it right.
So my question is, does this cultural lack of respect for the practitioner and skepticism about the ad content contribute to the trend to less advertising (at least for small to mid sized companies)? Or is it just one of the symptoms? Are we quick to dismiss the form because we are so familiar with the negative stereotype that we easily convince ourselves that ads "don't work?" Or is this negative stereotype just a manifestation of a world view that disparages advertising.
Now, really, the answer to these questions is pretty much irrelevant -- the situation is what it is, and as practical marketers, we just need to get on with it. It's just fun sometimes to wander onto more "philosophical" paths.
Next: my thoughts on trade shows.
The Marketing Plan: Advertising
Advertising. Small to mid-sized companies, whether B2B or B2C, want leads and buyers, not intangible awareness. As a result, they often decide not to advertise. They can't track it, their sales people don't probe inbounds for lead source, they have a limited budget and can't run with any frequency, there seem to be better venues for their marketing dollars. And so on. There are all sorts of reasons (good and bad) why companies pull back from advertising.
Those that do advertise are increasingly pushing their agencies and in-house ad teams to prove that "traditional" advertising works. There are just too many choices for the promotional budget, and too many that CAN be tracked, for the dollars to flow quite so easily into huge media budgets.
It is perhaps more apparent in B2B, where direct mail and online marketing have really damaged the print media. In the technology sector, ad pages are way down from the heyday of 10-15 years ago, and quite a few publications have folded or gone online.
My belief: the right amount of advertising is good for the marketing plan. The key is figuring the right amount is for your market, your product and your situation. Where do we start?
First and foremost, always, is the marketing plan. What are your objectives? Under certain circumstances, an ad may be the best way to reach your audience. Here are just a few:
- New product launch. Ads are an effective supplement to your PR outreach, especially if you have something really new to offer. Yes, you are going to have a comprehensive PR campaign, but you don't control that outcome. Ads, you do. When time is of the essence, a well-placed ad is often the best thing.
- Targeted market with specialized publications. If you know your prospect really is reading the publication, she is likely to see your ad. There are from two to six publications in just about EVERY market. You don't need to be in all of them, all the time. Ask your customers what they read, and go there. For someone on a limited budget, these trade pubs are THE way to go. Smaller circulations mean lower ad rates, but if you've got the right target, nearly all the readers are your audience. Versus more general publications with more readers, but perhaps fewer readers of interest to you.
- You need to reach the audience and you ain't got nothing new. Editors cover new products. Adding a little feature or a new color does not make a product new. It may get picked up, but it probably won't. If you want the readers of a magazine to know about your OLD product, you gotta advertise. This is especially true in very competitive markets where the offerings from the competitors are not highly differentiated. Hard to break through the clutter. And there is an added benefit when you advertise. Typically the pub's editorial staff reads its own pub. It's in the job description :-) Advertising doesn't guarantee that a reporter will write about you, but it improves your chances that she'll remember your company and its products when she writes on the topic.
My rule of thumb: if a publication is of GREAT interest to you and your prospects --what we call a tier one pub for PR purposes -- you should consider advertising. Not all the time, perhaps only in selected targeted issues. But you should support it, and take advantage of the editorial climate it offers to deliver a controlled message. When I was at SurfControl, we noticed that our direct mail responses (the staple of our marketing outreach) declined when we weren't advertising. Clearly, the ads DID affect overall response, even if we couldn't track it exactly.
So how do you maximize your ad expenditure?
- Always include a call to action. Tell the prospect EXACTLY what you want him to do next. Try to get your sales force to capture inbound source information.
- A simple message: Show the reader you understand his pain, tell her you have a solution, deliver the proof that your solution works, and give a call to action. One big benefit. Three features. Three facts. Action.
- Integrate integrate integrate. Use the same messages and images in your advertising as in your direct mail and PR. Repetition helps recall. Schedule things so your prospects get 2-4 impressions from different vehicles within short timeframes. Perhaps a couple of ads, a direct mail campaign and a PR launch or trade show. DO NOT let the members of your team splinter off to "do their own thing."
- Track as much as you can. Easier to do online, which is one of the reasons that I recommend ads (print and online) include a specialized URL whenever possible. Sure, a lot of your response will still come in through the front door, but if you give a good enough reason to go to the special page, you can gather better marketing information about the prospect. You should also track the publication dates of your advertising against your web hits. You may find an uptick when ads appear, which is good supporting data.
- You don't have to run a full page four color ad in every issue. Look at the editorial calendars. Bracket trade shows. Run fractional ads (I like 1/2 page vertical). Challenge the ad rep to give you a good package. They usually have print and online inventory, plus special issues and sister/network publications to throw into the mix to give you a good rate. If you are a company placing the ads direct, DON'T FORGET TO TAKE THE AGENCY DISCOUNT. If you have an agency, negotiate the agency discount. Don't give 15% away without good reason.
- Always include a call to action. Awareness advertising is next to useless. You'll get awareness anyway, so don't forget to ask for the order.
- Don't let design dictate. The message is far more important than what color you use, and you are wasting your money if the ad design HINDERS reader comprehension of what you are selling. It's an ad -- the reader knows you are selling something, so don't try to hide it with "cool design." Images and layout are important but the whole thing has to work together to tell the story, and make the prospect act. I can't tell you how many ads I have seen in my lifetime where the design has actually obfuscated the message. Dumb dumb dumb.
- Did I mention a call to action???
I hope you find this information useful. I'd love to hear YOUR experiences and thoughts about how advertising fits in the marketing plan. Leave your comments or send me a trackback.** I'll also do a summary post of any commentary in early January.
** call to action