Print magazines publish two kinds of material in their pages: the stuff they pay for, and they stuff they get paid to run. The first is everything that presumably induces readers to buy the magazine in the first place—articles, reviews, columns and the like. The second are advertisements, which marketers hope will exert their own attraction on the reader, but in any case pay the costs that go into producing the magazine.
Now let’s say that a well-to-do car manufacturer like Acura were to send an ad to Car & Driver with the request that the magazine run it free of charge. Generally speaking, the editors would have to decline. Bad business, they would say, and they’d be right. Were Acura to suggest not only that Car & Driver print it for free, but moreover that they treat the existence of that ad as news… well, laughter would not be the least appropriate response.
One would think the same logic would apply online, but that generally hasn’t been the case. Consider, for example, the movie trailer. It is a promotional device through and through, and yet, movie sites will often report on them as though it were newsworthy that a studio had decided to advertise an upcoming film, rather, presumably, than simply let it languish in box office oblivion.
It’s a curious thing, really—and particularly so since exhibition of a new trailer is the sort of thing for which a movie studio might actually be inclined to pay. They do, in fact, pay for it on the sites of some traditional media sources—movie ads on the New York Times site often come with embedded trailers or links to the official promotional site. When it comes to most movie sites, though, why bother? The studios know that most of them will rush to be the first to report on the release of a new trailer, and will gladly run the link or stream the trailer for free. Some will even jockey for the right to run it as an exclusive.
Arguably, that makes trailers more cost effective advertising than they’ve ever been, but that effectiveness has come at the expense of online publishing. In discussions of the financial stability of web publishing, it’s often argued that web advertising doesn’t work, but the reason may be simply that we’ve redefined advertising to mean “stuff we don’t want to see.” The most effective advertising—the sort of promotional material people will actually click to see—we’ve turned into content.
That may also account for the general lack of scruple many editors seem to feel when it comes to so-called sponsored content. Consciously or not, many of them are already running ads as content, so there’s no real scruple to surmount. To their minds, the only question is whether or not to charge for it. That may seem like a no-brainer, but only until you take a step back. It’s a bit like asking whether ads can be turned into revenue. The answer is, of course they can: the magazine industry has been doing it for more than a century. The question they could be asking themselves instead is, would our “sponsors” be more inclined to pay for it if we weren’t already promoting them for free? And if so, can we go back to running them as ads, rather than as content?
The reasons for all of this are bound up in the culture of the Web. For all their hostility toward blatant advertising, the Web cognoscenti have always been cozy with product. “Shut up and take my money” is usually meant only half in jest—if we’re not online for the specific purpose of shopping, we are at least open to suggestions for products we previously didn’t know we wanted.
And we know we’ll find them because we know that much of the Web is written by comparably suggestible people. Early Web publishing was characterized by its amateur status, yes, but also by the fact that it was made up largely of enthusiasts of one stripe or another. It is little surprise, then, that most modern Web publishing continues in the enthusiast press tradition.
Trailers are just an example, really—they stand in for a wide variety of items that companies produce in order to promote their real product, and that sites report on because they appeal to enthusiasts. There’s also a heavy traffic in swag and novelty items, from the nigh unattainable Hobbit swords attracting attention to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings media empire, to the ill-conceived Zombie Bait statuette Deep Silver used to promote its upcoming sequel to Dead Island. As promotional objects, these things are conceived not so much as products unto themselves, but as attention traps to lure in the enthusiasts. There’s probably no real profit to be made trying to peddle $10,000 swords, but the sheer audacity of the pitch provokes the enthusiast press to report on its existence. As advertising, it’s relatively cheap.
It isn’t always easy to gauge precisely when, but there comes a time in the life of any successful blog when treating promotional material as news turns into a losing proposition. As one of the dominant currencies of the Web, the pageview is subject to a strange form of localized inflation. The more of it you get, the less it might be worth. Perhaps the defining story of social media, by way of illustration, is the catch-22 of passing up revenue opportunities in order to build traffic… on the premise that traffic can be converted into revenue.
Likewise, so long as a Web publisher functions as an enthusiast press, it can seem reasonable to report on promotional material. Posting the trailer can be, at the very least, an honest expression of your enthusiasm, and handled correctly, it can also draw other enthusiasts to your site. But if your goal is something more akin to journalism, and if you’d like to make something like a living from it, then your willingness to run ads for free—to run them, moreover, as news—becomes a liability. That exclusive trailer may seem like a good deal in terms of enthusiasm and pageviews, but you’re getting it because your site already commands an audience big enough to command the studio’s attention. The money you don’t get for running it as an ad is money you can’t spend on other resources, like investigative reporting or Hobbit swords.
Allow me to suggest an enthusiasm waiting period. For any new promotional object coming down the pipeline, ask yourself: Do I have anything to say about this that wouldn’t directly serve the goals of the marketing team of the company that produced it? If the answer is no, then wait. If, after two weeks, you still feel that it merits a new post, then by all means, run with it.
Exercising that waiting period also serves the broader interest of the publishing in general. After all, marketers might be willing to lose out on the promotional power of one or two sites, so long as they can count on a dozen other sites to promote them for free. It’s easy to see those other sites as your competitors, but so long as vendors count on free promotion, all you’re competing for are pageviews with little or no financial value attached. While the industry remains economically afloat, you can afford to be competitors, but when it comes to the seaworthiness of Web publishing, you’re all in the same boat.