In my previous article, I pointed out that the rules of the advertising game changed after the media revolution. This goes without saying, as revolutions naturally leave a vacuum. Now, the lack of industry-wide standards for the boundaries between editorial attention and paid publicity increasingly leads to concerns. The following three trends play a role:
- PR agencies have always thought every journalist, blogger or influencer will write editorial articles about topics that are newsworthy;
- Traditional journalism sails a very straight editorial course: topics have news value and get written about … or they don’t and fall off the radar. If the latter is the case, the best strategy is to buy advertising space or advertorials;
- New media have very different business models. This is especially the case for lifestyle and influencer blogs, which are less transparent. This type of media became influential through honest editorial (and unpaid) content, but of late, most articles about companies, products or brands are bought and paid for. That new business model has very little to do with the original one.
After careful examination of these trends, we can safely say that media operating according to strict guidelines or editorial compasses will generate less revenue. This is surprising, considering that readers turn to specific sources of information according to their credibility. One can only wonder how long this situation will last.
How sustainable is this business model?
Interested parties such as media and content agencies will not blow the whistle on this dilemma; as long as they can sell advertorials and rake in pay-per-click revenue, they will keep quiet. They do not need to protect their editorial honour; that would only muddy the waters of their business model. The question is whether that is a smart course of action. Remember Nokia and Kodak? They also thought their original business model was future-proof, but by refusing to invest in new products because those might threaten the revenue stream of their existing products, they learned a very hard lesson indeed.
If we don’t want to end up with paid-content-only blogs and the resulting lack of credibility, it is high time for a new leader to stand up and take charge. The solution to the problem lies in finding the right balance in the give-and-take relationship between brands on the one hand and bloggers and influencers on the other. The correct mix of paid content and free publicity will benefit brands, agencies and publishers alike and help to form sustainable alliances.
Free publicity first
More and more, PR agencies are taking on the role of guardian of campaign content. Thorough coordination is essential, especially when PR and Native Advertising are simultaneously involved. Media and PR agencies should not get in each other’s way, but somehow this is still a regular occurrence. It happens, for instance, with free publicity stunts in the form of select experiences that are offered to media outlets, such as press trips, special events or exclusive interviews. Free publicity can be a very valuable and constructive tool, but if media can get paid for creating that same content, why would they bother writing it for free? Such cases are in clear need of better management. We say ‘free publicity first’, but it all comes down to transparency and clear coordination between media and PR agencies. For that to happen, unambiguous guidelines and clear communication are needed.
Is this the end of editorial creativity?
An illustrative example: we recently produced a campaign, whose budget provided for the purchase of editorials, around a unique experience. We decided to only invite those media outlets that were interested in writing about the event. After the happening, those parties were rewarded with an advertising budget which would allow them to showcase the campaign in their own words at a later point in time. As media real estate had also been bought through other channels, we considered this the most transparent and open way to reward those media outlets with a clear editorial compass and avoid penalising the ones with different editorial directions.
After organising another–but similar–event, we were faced with a number of unpleasant reactions. As the event had been positively reviewed and many editors paid a visit based on editorial grounds, we were surprised about the lack of articles. The message in the replies we received was: ‘pay before we publish’. So, here we are, inviting guests who have accepted to participate in a special event with a solid story behind it that will also bring in money. These people then turn this into an after-the-fact sales opportunity and demand to be paid several thousand euros. That, in my humble opinion, is a strange way of doing business. Take, take–and take some more.
What’s more: readers miss out on a good story because of business practices like these. On top of that, the existing business relationship is endangered as well, because I honestly can’t say I would like to do business with those parties again in the future.
Give and take
Tonight my wife is having dinner with a friend and I will babysit. Next week, she’ll watch our child while I go out with my friends. It’s a simple arrangement, balancing out the giving and the taking. The media world also revolves around give-and-take relationships, but those are not as smooth. There are bloggers who only take and place their profit front and centre. They will even have clients pay for Facebook adverts that do not only bring exposure to that particular blog post, but effectively promote the entire blog itself. These are the media outlets that use PR events as an after-sales money-making tool and who destabilise said the precious give-and-take balance.
There are exceptions, of course, and media partners such as Flabber.nl, understand this balancing act perfectly. When there is a good story that needs publishing, they step up without asking for payment–and they are honest about whether or not they need financial assistance to get the message out. That is how partnerships work. When it comes to media purchasing, many of our large clients ask for our advice or let us handle it entirely–because they know we strive to use our influence for the benefit of their brand. We always seek out the platforms that best suit our content, in order to create a sustainable relationship that both gives and takes.