No, B2B Media Doesn’t Have an Ethics Problem

It broke my heart when I read the recent blog post “B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences,” which argued the majority of B2B/trade publishers have a problem of selling out editorial integrity to advertisers. In the piece, Publishing Executive editor-in-chief Denis Wilson wrote, “If you think your organization is immune (from editorial integrity issues), I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong.”

It broke my heart when I read the recent blog post “B2B Media, The Ethics Virus & The Pursuit of Consumer-Grade Experiences,” which argued the majority of B2B/trade publishers have a problem of selling out editorial integrity to advertisers. In the piece, Publishing Executive editor-in-chief Denis Wilson wrote, “If you think your organization is immune (from editorial integrity issues), I’d wager you’re a minority or just wrong.” Also, that “B2B media has an especially nefarious legacy of playing fast and loose with the journalistic craft.”

I may have taken the post personally, having been a B2B publisher on and off for 40 years. I never sold a word and, must admit, I have no memory of thinking my competition did either. I do not suggest all B2B publishers are beyond reproach when it comes to bending to advertiser pressure. I do say the vast majority do not do so, nor do they have a culture of selling out.

When I came up in the business, there were storied trade publishers like McGraw Hill, Chilton, Gralla, Penton, CMP and many others. There were fat magazines with solid content that industries relied upon, such as Variety, Automotive Week, Billboard, American Banker and Aviation Week. I used to read Crain publications like the old Ad Age with as much enjoyment as consumer books. Women’s Wear Daily, famously known as WWD, had such quality journalism it gained a significant consumer readership.

In the post, Wilson talks about how B2B publishers today are finally learning “quality original content drives audience engagement and monetization.” Those publishers mentioned support my view the industry was built on quality content.

The ASBPE Focus on Ethics

Ethics was indeed discussed at the ASBPE conference. As Wilson points out, that is to the credit of the journalists in attendance. I heard everything Wilson did, but recognized that those few stories of difficult advertiser pressure were presented not as the norm. The example of one publisher giving into ad pressure was worthy of discussion, because that publication had never crossed a similar line before.

We heard about when the rigid wall between church and state required an editor to stop dating an advertising sales assistant or be fired. Another example described when a feature story was written about an industry problem for which a big client happened to advertise a solution. The advertiser relationship had not driven the story. The fact the publisher had to pull their hair out over whether to run the ad opposite the story opener speaks to their integrity. They were worried that although ad and story had no causal relationship, it would simply look like they did. In my opinion they made the correct decision to run the ad opposite the opener, that it was helpful to readers and no lines were crossed.

Yet Wilson and I reached different conclusions as to why ethics was discussed so prominently. To me, it was a reflection of a profession that thinks that is how important editorial ethics are, not to cure endemic problems.

Think back to all the articles Publishing Executive and other media publications ran when native advertising first became a thing. Despite most of us having published advertorials in the past, there was overwhelming pushback that native adverting crossed a line. It was not just theoretical venting. Truly, a majority of B2B publishers during those days told me their staffs would not let them entertain the notion of native. The knee-jerk resistance speaks to a culture not in the habit of doing things for advertisers.

Editorial Contributions

The article correctly acknowledged the importance of editorial contributions from industry experts who happen to work for advertisers or potential advertisers. I’ve been an editor and publisher my entire career, but today as I write for Publishing Executive I am a vendor. My instincts have me steer clear of writing about what I sell and Wilson and I discuss anything I fear may be too close to the line. That has worked out well.

In his post, Wilson attributes industry contributors to low budgets. No doubt that is a huge driver; but there is more to it. I was associate publisher of a trade book called Modern Horsebreeding in the ’80s. Guess who knew much more than all of our writers? The veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies. We did occasionally run articles by their experts — there were no such thing as blogs — though never once tied them to advertising.

When I published a magazine and then website about RFID technology, we were thrilled to get some deeply knowledgeable pieces from industry experts. Sadly, most were not advertisers. But this was terrific content and simply had nothing to do with advertising. If a prospective advertiser really liked that we ran their engineer’s helpful information, great. We’ll take all the good vibes we can get with prospective advertisers. Conversely, when an advertiser complained that we didn’t run their content, we would invite them to suggest a topic. We provided written guidelines they must adhere to, advertiser or non-advertiser. We edited each piece and were glad to consult as they worked on it. I believe approaches like these and those of PubExec are the norm.

The Opposite Reality

From what I have seen, advertiser pressure is something ad salesmen feel more than it being a routine reality. I personally sold ads for decades and ran ad sales teams. Ad salespeople are always hopeful the magazine runs articles plugging clients; it’s in the blood. They sometimes whine to editors about running more copy on their clients. In my experience, editors mostly ignore them with thinly veiled pity.

One speaker at ASBPE said advertisers were purposely overlooked and not written about to avoid the appearance of corruption. As Wilson wrote, “the sticky politics of accepting vendor contributions wasn’t worth the trouble.” In my experience, this is far and away the bigger secret we all carry: advertisers tend to get screwed. We heard how one company mandated that editors not use advertisers as sources for stories. I have personally seen multiple situations where editors avoid calling executives at advertiser companies for quotes out of fear it would look like the publication was kissing advertiser butt.

Big advertisers are often the larger companies in any given industry. These same companies have the biggest budgets for research. These companies are often actually involved in many newsworthy issues and situations because of their commercial reach. It would be self-defeating to avoid tapping their knowledge; yet because of the fear of appearing unethical, I have seen this time and time again.

Advertisers, too, might surprise you. I will never forget at my RFID publication a news investigation that we ran on the cover slammed perhaps the largest company in the industry at that time. They were not advertisers and I thought, well, we’ll never see a dime from them. But it was an important, well-reported story. To the lasting credit of an SVP of Intermec, he told his ad department to place some cover ads in our new magazine. He felt the industry had to support quality journalism.

I repeat: Of course I have heard stories of pay-to-play. The few I’ve heard are memorable because they are rare, not pervasive. One former VP of editorial told me long ago he was made to run feature interviews with some advertisers. Again, that stood out in his mind because it was the opposite of everything else in his career.

I am not saying B2B publishers are ethical saints. Wilson made some excellent suggestions in his post on what editors should watch out for. However, I do believe the B2B publishing industry overall is not rife with virulent ethical lapses.

Living With (and Working Against) Fake News

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

Second, there’s been a lot of media attention around “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “bad ads” this past week, and in this digital age, it’s not surprising to see these phenomena come forward. These are not political manifestations — I believe they happen because of human nature, unchanged over time, and in the digital realm, there are new opportunities for bad behavior.

My point here is that we’ve allowed this to happen.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: decades past have had their days of yellow journalism and snake-oil salesman. While I may long for the days of fair and impartial voices in journalism — a la, Walter Cronkite — there’s always been an element in media that’s sponsored by one interest or another, perhaps for entertainment, even if the veneer is authoritative, informative and educational. For years, “feel good” stories are inserted in evening newscasts. And product placements appear in morning television. In cable television news, is there any news at all or is it mostly commentary and entertainment? So, I continue to worry about who pays the freight for U.S. journalism, even as I recognize and welcome the fact that advertising foots the bill.

We need, perhaps desperately, in American democracy the check and balance of a well-financed, vibrant Fourth Estate. The “Media Opposition Party” is hardly monolithic — and that’s why I still care about the practice of journalism that takes time to fact check and to keep its editorial opinions on the Editorial Page. That’s why I also watch public television and listen to public radio — no interest there, except to the public (or at least the members of the public that is its donor base). News versus analysis versus commentary — there needs to be a distinction.

Once again, we’re in a new age where there’s a slush — not a firewall — between church and state (publishing and editorial). The rise of “Native Advertising,” social influencers, “clickbait content,” brand journalism, pay-to-play speaking gigs, even who’s sitting next to you in a bar, muddies the distinction between editorial and paid content — particularly on a digital or mobile device. One from the other is a click away to an untrained eye. It is true that there is value, immense value, in paid content, but it’s also wise to know — as a citizen, as a consumer — when you’re engaged with paid media, from earned media, from editorial opinion, from entertainment.

Sometimes, when a PR practitioner is pitching an editor, reporter or conference organizer for earned media, he or she is presented with a paid media option instead. My client may well opt for the paid media option, but I make sure that my editorial pitch is really about editorial content. I’ll let my client know the availability of a paid media option, should they wish to pursue this.

Now, all that being said, I’m happy accepting earned media assignments (my bread and butter), as well as paid media assignments (content marketing). Let’s simply make sure they are distinct and differentiated when and where they appear. It’s not just the Federal Trade Commission who cares about this, I do, too! Hence, my blog today — and it is not a soap box.

How Does Native Advertising Survive in an Age of Transparency?

Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.

Native advertising goes by many names including: sponsored content, sponsored posts, paid posts, brand services, custom solutions, branded content and probably dozens of other titles. Regardless of the name, the product is essentially the same.

Native ads are pieces of paid content ranging across articles, videos, infographics or images delivered in the flow of editorial content and consistent with the editorial style and tone of the publication. Typically, they have a teeny, tiny stamp that marks them as advertising or sponsored content — if you know what to look for. However, not everyone does know what to look for and research suggests that most users don’t recognize it as advertising.

The implicit agreement of the Web is that content is largely free and that ad exposures pay for the significant costs to create and deliver all that content to users. This keeps it simple — church and state, advertising and editorial — and maintains a mutually beneficial balance. Native advertising subverts that trade-off for the benefit of publishers/advertisers in much the same way that ad blockers tip the scales for consumers.

In fact, many assert that native advertising arose as a publisher solution to outsmart ad blocker software allowing growing numbers of consumers to remove ads from their online experience.

The rise of native advertising under its multitude of names has been impressive. Higher click and engagement rates compared to other forms of online advertising have driven brands on board with flexible formats across social and mobile platforms, in particular. Business Insider Intelligence predicts that spending on native ads will rise to $21 billion in 2018 from just $4.7 billion in 2013. Almost half of online advertisers have adopted native ads into their plans as of 2016, according to a recent survey.

But the widespread usage of this format is not without its costs. A recent Penn State study found there may be negative perceptions attached to publishers who blur the lines of advertising and editorial. Brands using the tactic apparently get more leeway since they are expected to promote themselves.

Still, publishers chasing much needed revenue have almost universally adopted this highly effective approach, including expected sources like Buzzfeed, Outbrain and Facebook plus other, more traditional and mainstream, publishers like USA Today, The New York Times, Conde Nast, The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal.Forbes cover with native advertisingForbes actually devoted part of its cover to a native ad for Fidelity in its latest issue, prompting AdAge to proclaim “Another Taboo Broken.”

Smart algorithms drive the money machine that is native advertising even as popular criticisms emerge in voices as unexpected as John Oliver and South Park:

https://youtu.be/IVfslRsNXUc

The reproaches vary but tend to reflect the core concern that users may mistake paid content for unpaid content.

Well, yeah. Native advertising done well will blur the line between content and ads. That is the goal of the format — to keep readers in the stream of their content experience and not disrupt them with a blatant ad. But, if we don’t disclose the commercial intent in a visible and noticeable way, we are using trickery that runs counter to the transparency that users demand in their Web experience today.

How do advertisers capitalize on the opportunities presented by these new innovative ad vehicles without stepping over that thin line? The Federal Trade Commission published specific guidelines late in 2015 to help brands avoid deceptive practices, and the IAB has weighed in as well (opens as a PDF). Guidelines reduce to simply how visible and clear the disclosure needs to be.

Web users demand transparency and punish brands that aren’t truthful at the same time they reward brands that succeed in delivering honest ideas and communications. #Fails abound for hapless brand campaigns that ring false with their audiences.

But, marketers lured by the promise of improved results may minimize or rationalize their deception and probably don’t even consider the broader possible impact on the industry. Like most things, the danger is in the aggregate.

There may be increased backlash coming as more and more consumers come to recognize and resent the frequent sleight of hand integral to many native ad executions. And it won’t just damage the already challenged reputation of the advertising industry, but will also tarnish publishers and brands making it harder for even forthright ad executions to gain acceptance.

For the industry to continue innovating successfully, the public trust must be prioritized with both publishers and advertisers acting responsibly. For native ads, that means a minimum of clear naming and prominent labeling. It’s the law, it’s the right thing to do and it’s smart business.

How ‘Frienemy Marketing’ Can Save Your Online (and Offline) Business

With the economic climate as crazy as it’s been, now more than ever businesses large and small are looking for creative ways to increase visibility, sales and leads. One effective way is to leverage the relationships with your ‘friendly’ competition. By friendly, I mean synergistic and respected formidable adversaries with a like-minded community of followers to your own.

With the economic climate as crazy as it’s been, now more than ever businesses large and small are looking for creative ways to increase visibility, sales and leads.

One effective way is to leverage the relationships with your ‘friendly’ competition. By friendly, I mean synergistic and respected formidable adversaries with a like-minded community of followers to your own.

You can look to this niche for opportunities to help grow your list and add extra revenues to your bottom line. Even better, this can be done for virtually no out-of-pocket cost.

This is a great way to leverage your content and increase market share, enhance brand awareness, grow sales and leads, and establish credibility with a new, yet synergistic list.

As a consultant, and even back in the days when I was leading the marketing efforts at top publishers, it’s important for me to be “strategically creative” and deploy as many no-cost online marketing tactics as possible for greater return on investment (ROI).

I like to concentrate on the marketing and editorial relationships I have forged with fellow publishers and aggressively pursue ad swaps, guest editorials and joint ventures (JV). I’ll explain a little more about these three opportunities in a moment.

With “frienemy marketing,” the idea is to develop synergistic relationships that are mutually beneficial—to look for areas of deficiency in your competitors and think of ways your company can fill the void.

One potential partner may have a great front-end product (e.g., a low cost e-book) but no up-sell (e.g., a higher-priced related kit containing DVDs, CDs and workbooks). Another potential partner may have an innovative back-end product but no cost-effective front-end product to bring new customers in the door. Still others may have large, qualified lists but need editorial to bond with their lists.

Some tips to keep in mind when looking for partnerships with friendly competitors:

Do your homework. Find out, in advance, who will be at industry events that you’ll be attending. (Check the program for speakers, vendors and participants.) Sign up for their e-newsletters. Read their promotional emails. Maybe even purchase some of their products.

Look at EVERY opportunity as a way to maximize your company’s brand during presentation breaks, lunch time and cocktail parties. When you go to industry events, don’t eat dinner alone in your hotel room. Go to functions. Mingle. Network. Have a genuine conversation with a potential partner … then, if there’s a synergy between your two companies, exchange business cards.

Before you contact a potential partner, get familiar with his products and target audience and figure out how your company may be able to dovetail with his product line or marketing efforts.

So, once you’ve made the connection, now what? You need to look at potential marketing and editorial opportunities …

Ad swaps are a form of revenue sharing. Typically, this can be a text or graphic ad two publishers place in each other’s e-newsletters and each keep 100 percent of the sales they get from their respective ads, no strings attached. Other things to know: Both list sizes should be close in circulation size, hence the reciprocity. You both keep any sales or email addresses collected, and call it a day. Know your “opportunity cost”—the “cost” you will incur for running an outside ad to your list instead of your own ad. If you normally sell ad space in your e-newsletter, this cost could simply be the flat rate fee you typically charge. Or, if you know the average revenues an issue brings in, you could calculate the potential “missed opportunity” of letting another ad run to your list on a given day. You should also agree to share important information with your partner. Before his ad runs in your e-newsletter, point out any creative issues. Provide your partner with your e-newsletter’s sent and deliverability sizes, open rate and ad click rate. Exchanging performance data is critical to a long and mutually beneficial relationship. It has to be a win/win situation for the partnership to work.

Guest editorials are offering content (editorial) that is relevant and targeted for an external publication and reciprocate. This is a great way to get introduced to a new list with the “implied” endorsement of the publisher. His endorsement gives you credibility. And if you provide his readers with good, solid, useful information, they will bond with you quickly.

This is a soft-sell approach that may or may not yield results on its own. At the end or beginning of the article is an Editorial Note or Byline, which can have author attribution, back-link to your website and short sentence for cross-selling, which help with sales, traffic generation and link-building efforts.

Joint ventures are similar to affiliate relationships, with the difference that instead of an affiliate program that is openly marketed, this relationship is more personal—it’s usually a company that you’ve built and cultivated a relationship with and are looking forward to a variety of ongoing business ventures down the road. There’s more of a vested interest. This is a quick and cost-effective way to make money with your list even if you have not yet developed any products.

To determine the viability of a potential JV product, there are several strategic marketing variables to consider. I like to think of them as “PPPGS”:

P = Product quality
P = Price point
P = Performance (when promoted to your potential partner’s house list, as well as to outside lists)
G = General market demand
S = Subscriber interest (when promoted to your list, as determined by feedback, surveys, etc.)

Remember, with “frienemy marketing” you’re looking for long-term partners, not one-hit-wonders. So carefully select the people you approach, making sure their products, brand and message make sense to your business … and, together, you can reap the unlimited profit potential of this underutilized business builder.

13 Things You Must Do This Year To Boost Your Biz! Part Two

In Part One, I mentioned some great, low-to-no cost tactics to help boost your business this year, including affiliate marketing, content syndication, search engine optimization, online lead generation polls, viral marketing and cost-effective media buying.

[Editor’s note: This is Part Two of a two-part series.]

In Part One, I mentioned some great, low-to-no cost tactics to help boost your business this year, including affiliate marketing, content syndication, search engine optimization, online lead generation polls, viral marketing and cost-effective media buying.

Today, I’m wrapping up the list with even more tips and tricks to get the most out of your marketing efforts (and marketing budget!) this year.

7. Pay Per Click (PPC). Many people try pay per click only to spend thousands of dollars with little results. Creating a successful PPC campaign is an art—one that I’ve had success with. If PPC is new for you, then don’t start out with the big guys like Google or Yahoo, run your “test” campaign on smaller search engines such as Bing, as well as second-tier networks, such as Adbrite, Miva and Kanoodle. In addition, you must make sure you have a strong text ad and landing page and that the ad is keyword dense. You must also have a compelling offer and make sure you do your keyword research. Picking the correct keywords that coincide with your actual ad and landing page is crucial. You don’t want to pick keywords that are too vague, too competitive or unpopular. You also need to be active with your campaign management which includes bid amounts and daily budget. All these things—bid, budget, keywords, popularity and placement—will determine the success of the campaign. And most campaigns are trial and error and take anywhere from three to six weeks to optimize.

8. Free Teleseminars or Webinars. These are a great way to collect names for list building, then cross-sell to those names once they’re in your sales funnel. You can use services like FreeConferenceCall.com, where it’s a toll (not toll free) call. But in my experience, if the value proposition of the subject matter is strong, people will pay that nominal fee. Promote a free teleseminar or webinar to prospects (that is not your internal list). Remember, this is for lead generation. So your goal is to give away valuable information in exchange for an email address. You can have a ‘soft sell’ at the end of the call and follow up with an email blast within 24 hours. But the most important thing is getting that name, THEN bonding with them through your editorial.

9. Free Online classified ads. Using CraigsList or similar high traffic classified sites is a great way to sell a products or get leads. The trick is ad copy that is powerful and persuasive, as well as geo-targeting—picking the right location and category to run your ad in. Hint: think of your ideal audience. Ads are free, so why not test it out.

10. Reciprocal Ad Swaps. One of the best kept secrets in the industry: Some of your best resources will be your fellow publishers. This channel often gets overlooked by marketers who don’t give it the respect it deserves. In the work I do for my clients, I spend a good portion of my time researching publishers and websites in related, synergistic industries. I look for relevant connections between their publications (print and online) and list (subscribers). Let’s say I come across a natural health e-letter that has a list of readers similar in size to one of my clients, who is a supplement manufacturer. Since many of their audience share similar interests, cross-marketing each other products (or even lead gen efforts) can be mutually rewarding. Swapping ads will save you money on lead-generation initiatives. Since you won’t be paying for access to the other publisher’s list of subscribers, you can get new customers for free. The only “cost” is an opportunity cost—allowing the other publisher to access your own list. It’s a win-win situation. This technique also opens the door to potential joint-venture opportunities for revenue sharing (sales).

11. Guest Editorials and Editorial Contributions. Another popular favorite used in the publishing industry is editorial contributions. This is where you provide quality editorial (article, interview, Q&A) to a synergistic publication and in return get a byline and/or editorial note in your article. In addition to an editorial opportunity, this is a marketing opportunity. You see, within the byline or ed. note you can include author attribution plus a back-link to your site. Some ed. notes can even be advertorial in nature, linking to a promotional landing page. Relationship networking and cultivation come into play when coordinating these, as it’s usually someone in the editorial or marketing department that spearheads such arrangements. These are great for increasing exposure to other lists, which can be beneficial for increasing market share, bonding, sales and lead generation efforts.

12. Snail Mail. Direct mail is still a consumer favorite—and another good way to get your sales message out. It can be especially effective used in conjunction with another effort, such as an email campaign. Studies indicate that 70 percent of respondents prefer receiving correspondence via mail vs. email. As with any marketing medium, though, you can end up paying a lot between production costs, list rental costs, and mail shop/postage costs. The most costly direct mail packages are magalogs and tabloids (four-color mailers that look like magazines). However, 6 x 9 postcards, tri-fold self-mailers and simple sales letters are three low-cost ways of taking advantage of this channel. Note that copywriting, list selection and geo-targeting can be crucial for direct mail success, no matter which cost-effective mail format you pick. Although 100 percent ROI (return on investment) is what you should aim for, many direct mailers these days are content with 80 percent returns. This lower figure takes into consideration the lifetime value of the names that come in from this channel, because they are typically reliable buyers in the future and snail mail address are more solid—they don’t change as often as email addresses.

13. Print Ads. This is another channel that gets a raw deal. One reason is because it can be costly. To place an ad in a high-circulation magazine or newspaper, you could shell out serious money. But you don’t need a big budget to take advantage of print ads. If you don’t have deep pockets, consider targeted newspapers and periodicals. Let’s say you’re selling an investment report. Try using the Internet to research the wealthiest cities in America. Once you get that list, look online for local newspapers in those communities. These smaller newspapers hit your target audience and offer a much cheaper ad rate than some of the larger, broad-circulation publications. You end up getting quality rather than quantity. I once paid for an ad in a local newspaper in Aspen, CO, that had a flat rate of less than $500 for a half page ad. My ROI on this effort turned out to be more than 1,000 percent. Most important rule: Know your audience. That will determine placement and price.