An article today in Forbes on ethics in sponsored content brought back memories of our recent discussions regarding UBM Tech's methodology changes and the larger discussion about whether corporations can be expected to deliver ethical content.
The article points out that Edelman has posted their own set of ethics regarding sponsored content that remarkably mirrors Footwasher Media's position: That it isn't PR or advertising. It's something different from what most corporate advocates practice and it must be, by nature, ethical or it loses all value.
Many people in the news business have taken ethical standards for granted. They seem to believe that they are intertwined with the genesis of journalism itself. It isn't true. The news business, supported by advertising began in the 1700s with Benjamin Franklin's founding of the Pennsylvania Gazette, but the separation of advertising from editorial did not appear until the mid 20th century, and the codified standard of ethics for journalists did not appear until 1973 (I know because I helped write them). Even today, however, you would be hard pressed to find a journalist who knows what those standards are or even applies them in full.
We are entering a new age in journalism and communications. It is different from what it was 50 years previous. I imagine it will look different from now in another 50 years. Ethics will arise from the practice as an evolutionary process, no matter what anyone else thinks.
This post is likely to piss off a lot of people, but here goes.
The discussion regarding credibility and ethics related to sponsored-content as been civil and illuminating, and has generally reaffirmed my belief that there are now many forms of valid B2B communication, even if one believes one is morally superior to all others. The one uncomfortable part of the discussion has been the veiled accusations of moral failure for certain individuals and organizations.
So last night I did a quick content snapshot of several publications. On one side I looked at sponsored-content sites, including New Tech Press in that category. On the other side I looked at three sites that identify themselves as independent journalism. This is what I found.
On the independent sites, there were 40 to 50 pieces of content. On one site, eight pieces were original and the other 42 were press releases, articles paid for by sponsors, and ads. On the second site there were five rewritten press releases, a video interview of an executive from an advertising company, 20 verbatim press releases, seven ads and two pieces of original reporting. On the third site there were 8 ads, 15 pieces of original content feature representatives of site advertisers, and 10 verbatim press releases, and three pieces of original content not featuring advertisers.
Over on the sponsored sites, all content was original, New Tech Press had three pieces that mentioned sponsors, but were primarily about applications that included several companies' technologies, and 10 non-sponsored pieces. Spark and Intel Free Press, on the other hand, did not mention the sponsoring companies in the content at all, except to point out that the content had been subsidized. There were no ads, press releases (rewritten or verbatim), no contributed opinion pieces from corporations. Moreover, the links in the text directed readers away from the sites 9 times out of 10, and always to other independent sources.
What can we assume from this? Does true journalistic independence mean that multiple sponsors pay the freight in exchange for 80 percent of the real estate on the site... or is it based on personal intent?
The wall has disappeared
The argument that a medium is independent, ethical and credible simply because it accepts advertising from multiple sources does not hold water. The esteemed "wall" between advertising and editorial in the B2B world was obliterated decades ago when publications started accepting contributed articles. Every time a journalist sits down with an advertiser to discuss his latest product announcement, and then writes a story about it, the wall does not exist. Every time a journalist picks up a print edition a thumbs through it... and sees who is advertising... the wall does not exist.
A medium is independent because the people operating it have decided to be independent and ethical. Only they know the real truth. In the end, it is up to the medium's audience to decide what is credible. If the journalist is intentionally acting independently, or is acting in collusion with the corporation to delude customers, the audience will figure it out.
Not to get religious on you, but this guy named Jesus said it this way: Don't condemn the intentions of others, unless you want to be condemned as well.
First, some details. There will still be publications like EE Times, EBN, EDN and Information Week, but they will all be online. These publications, however, are no longer publications but “communities” where information is shared and discussed under the eye of content managers...which used to be called journalists. These managers will still be developing original content on the sites, but that content is meant to drive readers to additional content placed by sponsors...which used to be called advertisers.
Here’s where it gets interesting. All this content is focused on one direction: the events that UBM puts on including Design West, ARM Tech Con, DesignCon, the Black Hat Conference and hundreds of others. Why are they doing this? Because advertising in print has dropped to 8 percent of their total revenue per annum and revenue from events is growing by leaps and bounds. Currently, UBM is number 4 in the trade show industry behind Reed Exhibitions, Messe Frankfurt, and GL Events. Interestingly enough, Reed sold all of its print and online publications a few years ago, several of them to UBM. But UBM is integrating those publications into their events business now which creates a massive promotional engine for their events.
Several years ago, UBM Tech CEO Paul Miller told me that UBM will soon not be a media company but a marketing company and it seems the transition is complete. Apparently, UBM even killed EE Times Confidential, the subscription-only publication that Miller had crowed about to me as recently as January 2012 as an example of how a magazine can be run profitably. The last issue I can find is March 2012 and the last article on line is a wrap up of ARM Tech Con from October.
(That’s a little embarrassing for me because I’ve been using EET Confidential as an example of how people will pay for good content.)
This move has significant implications for everyone. If you are a startup company hoping to get a few lines of decent press from a UBM “content manager” then you will need to be spending some money on at least one of their trade shows; or you will have to start looking at one of the media companies that still serves your niche. And many of the latter are developing their own niche communities where the sponsors hold sway over the content...and in many cases create themselves.
If you are a media company, a door of opportunity has just swung wide open for you to fill the gap with independent content, or at least a repository for sponsored content that doesn’t come with a big trade show price tag.
Any company that wants to get their story out into the world is going to have to learn how to create compelling engaging content or be overwhelmed by competitors who do.
Is this a good move for UBM? I think it is. The media world would have loved to continue being sources of unbiased content, but no one wanted to pay for it under that paradigm. Now, to be successful, companies are going to have to be concerned with developing that content themselves, and companies like UBM are going to profit from that. So is everyone involved in real journalism.
It’s a sellers market for journalists now. Evolve or follow the Dodo.
Want to start developing effective content for the new paradigm? Call us.
Footwasher Media has been pushing this idea as a means of saving the press for, oh, about 7 years, and we're glad to see that it's finally reaching mainstream. But here's the thing, folks: If you don't do it right, it's going to come back to bite you.
Sponsored content is about thought leadership, not selling products. Your customers don't trust you and everytime you try to sneak a product pitch by them under this concept, it's going to make it worse. So plan on hiring someone who knows what they are doing, and make sure it's not someone who's in marketing.