In this week's episode of Marketing Smarts, Bob Cohn, editor of The Atlantic Digital, called "the independence of editorial from business... a hallmark of good journalism." He also noted, however, "There are those who think that wall is not quite as sturdy in the digital world."
Consider the recent brouhaha surrounding an advertorial run on TheAtlantic.com that was sponsored by the Church of Scientology. The piece was part of a "Sponsor Content" program offered by The Atlantic that allows companies—such as IBM—to publish content on the site in a way that appears "native" (i.e., that looks more or less like "regular" content). It was this blurring of the line between editorial and advertising that led Gawker to accuse The Atlantic of publishing "bizarre, blatant Scientology propaganda."
In the face of the outcry provoked by the Scientology piece, The Atlantic took the ad down and issued an apology that began with the simple and frank admission, "We screwed up."
I interviewed Bob a week or so prior to this episode, but we did actually discuss this particular advertising experiment.
As part of that discussion, Bob said he had two rules for advertising on the site:
- Don't confuse the reader.
- Don't interfere with the reading experience.
"The reader needs to know what is an ad and what is not an ad," he told me. "We are not trying to confuse the reader into reading advertising products and thinking they are reading editorial products."
As far as interfering with the reading experience goes, he added, "I should say, 'Don't unduly interfere' because some people believe that any ads interfere with the reader's experience."
The Scientology incident illustrates the tension at work with these two rules. The Atlantic did place a small "Sponsor Content" tag at the top of the Scientology piece, just as it did with the IBM piece referenced above. Also, "Sponsor Content" is called out quite explicitly as such on the homepage.
These efforts to dispel confusion, however, by being relatively unobtrusive, actually caused confusion. If you clicked on the link from the homepage, everything was hunky dory. If you arrived on the page by other means, however, your initial response would have been, "What the heck is this?"
Does Content Marketing Inevitably Blur the Lines?
"A guy's got to make a living," Bob said, "so we're going to sell ads."
Being in the publishing business myself, I can relate to that and, in fact, think it makes perfect sense for The Atlantic and other publications to experiment with whatever advertising schemes they can devise, so long as they follow the two rules Bob laid out. The Atlantic may have made a misstep in this case, but it seems to me that said misstep may have more to do with the sponsor than with the program. (As far as I can tell, no one thus far has a problem with the IBM campaign.)
The problem is that publishers, such as The Atlantic, which are held to traditional journalistic standards, have to compete for attention with every company that, in the name of content marketing, considers itself a publisher. These companies, however good, useful, and "authentic" their content may be, do not have to maintain a clear line between advertising and editorial because, everything they publish is, in effect, an ad.
Content marketing has given companies the ability to generate inbound traffic without having to rely on renting audiences created by traditional publishers. Traditional publishers thus have to figure out ever more sophisticated ways to entice these marketers back into the fold.
"Sponsor content" is one way to do that, but is it essentially a deal with the devil that signals the inevitable disintegration of the wall between editorial and advertising? And is the devil that opened the door to this confusion content marketing itself?