Journalism traditionalists who suffer from high blood pressure probably shouldn’t read this piece by Forbes editor Lewis DVorkin. In it, he outlines the role of what he calls “brand journalism” in the evolution of Forbes.com, and even in Forbes magazine. He also scolds journalists for their objections to this increasingly popular concept, saying that their interest in keeping marketing content cordoned off from staff editorial is in part an instinct to minimize competition.
DVorkin has been a vocal critic of those who cling to the traditional Chinese wall principle of strict separation between advertising and editorial. In his view, the new economics of the profession demand radical new ideas, and journalists are standing in the way. “After five years of media turmoil, the profession I love clings to the belief…that the industry’s problems are for other people to solve. And when steps are taken to solve them, my colleagues will put up a fight if they can’t do exactly what they did before,” he wrote a couple of weeks ago in a summary of the changing advertising landscape and Forbes’ adaptation strategy.
Like it or not, DVorkin’s vision of increased integration between marketing and editorial content is gaining favor in traditional publishing circles. The trend is called “brand journalism,” “native advertising” or “content marketing,” but whatever the title, it’s breaking down some traditional walls.
Boston.com, which is the online arm of the Boston Globe, recently launched “Insights,” a sponsored advertising feature that showcases blog posts from advertisers. Boston.com is a little more aggressive about labeling Insights material as advertising than some other brand journalism practitioners, but it’s the same basic idea. The publisher appears to have no problem with participants like Business Intelligence Solutions embedding the banner ad at right on its blog, saying nothing about the sponsorship arrangement.
Some other publishers have all but erased the lines between staff and brand content. BuzzFeed, which is one of the new breed of breathless, celebrity-stuffed news sites for the ADD set, expects to derive nearly all of its revenue from branded content and sponsored posts. So far, things are going pretty well. The site was a magnet for political advertising during the US presidential campaign and is expected to triple revenues this year. Branded features, like this one from JetBlue, look the same as BuzzFeed content and carry only lightweight advertiser labeling. The Atlantic is also in the pool with Quartz, a news site that blends branded and staff-written content more or less seamlessly.
Writing on emedia, Rob O’Regan has a good summary of this trend, which has been fueled by Twitter’s sponsored tweets and Facebook’s sponsored stories. Those companies, which have no preconceptions about ad/edit separation, say these new vehicles are a resounding success. Publishers are taking notice, but a news site is not a social network. News organizations trade on credibility, and “native” ads tread into new territory. Recent research by Mediabrix and Harris Interactive found that readers often feel confused or misled by branded content.
The reason all this is happening, of course, is that the traditional print advertising model doesn’t work in the highly targeted online world. Display advertising is the fastest growing category of online advertising, and publishers have always known that display ads surrounded by compatible content perform best. Advertisers have traditionally bought space next to compatible content, but now they want to provide the content, too, because people are rejecting traditional messaging.
Businesses are quickly glomming onto this trend. Cisco relaunched its press room last year as a news stream, hiring laid-off journalists from major business publications to write thoughtful trend pieces. Intel is doing the same thing. Coca-Cola just overhauled its corporate site as a lifestyle news magazine under the “Coca-Cola Journey” brand. Expect many others to follow.
Sponsored content is nothing new. Mobil Oil bought space on The New York Times‘s op-ed page in the 1950s. What’s different today is that a severely weakened mainstream media is willing to be more the creative than ever in placement and labeling – even if that means potentially compromising their own brands.
Is this a horrifying development? The journalism purest in us says yes, but we’re inclined to keep an open mind. Lewis DVorkin has a point when he says journalists live in a bubble. Social media have shown that good information can come from anywhere, even from people who aren’t journalists. As media organizations have learned to their chagrin in recent years, you can’t shove anything you want down people’s throats when they have infinite choice. The same applies to advertisers.
Regardless of who the author is, anyone who publishes content is at the mercy of readers. Marketers who publish the same dreck on branded media sites that they use to fill their purchased ad units won’t see much return on their investment. If people don’t want the content, it doesn’t matter how much you pay to publish it.
So the stakes are higher for marketers, too. The question is how many of them can successfully change their perspective to think like publishers. In our experience, precious few can. The natural instincts of people who have grown up in the traditional marketing world is to sell at every opportunity, not to serve the informational needs of the audience.
This will change over time as a new generation steps in, and publishers will play a key role in effecting that change. They will need to work with their clients to make sure the sponsored content they carry is worthy of their brand. It can be done. Admit it: If you clicked on the JetBlue link above, you scrolled down the entire page. It’s good stuff, even though it’s sponsored.
The silver lining is that if “native advertising” can become a major new revenue source, it can enable publishers to re-invest in quality journalism. In the end, that’s more important than labels or Chinese walls.
- Lewis D’Vorkin and j-students lively 90 min conversation about the future of journalism
- Inside Forbes ‘sustainable” model for journalism: It’s 4:30 pm
- Coca-ColaCompany.com Relaunches as Brand Journalism Site
- Inside Forbes: The Birth of Brand Journalism and Why It’s Good for the New Business
- Media Walls Crumble: Brands Benefit
- The newsonomics of native, indigenous, and immigrant content (niemanlab.org)