Redrawing the Line Between Content and Commerce

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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Business Alliances
Closely related to the sponsorship situation, but much less apparent to the reader, is the relationship a content site holds with a partner or a support service, like online banking, order fulfillment, or site maintenance. Will writers and editors shy away from stories that are critical of these entities? What about a publisher using content as leverage to use a partner's product? In 1997, the venerable Wall Street Journal bowed to financial pressures from a major partner and promised "free" subscriptions to The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition to users of Microsoft Internet Explorer. In 1999, General Electric's CNBC unit acquired a 12.4% stake in Archipelago Holdings, an electronic communications network for trading stocks. CNBC visitors could link directly into the network, so CNBC then found itself in the awkward position of both providing coverage of online trading and profiting from the click-through's. Being in a position to bite the hand that feeds you is a precarious one, at best.

Pay for Play
Recommendations or rankings by many content sites and search engines are based on money changing hands, rather than editorial consideration. Amazon.com was castigated a couple of years ago for accepting promotional payments from publishers to hype new books through beneficient editorial reviews, without informing its customers of the practice. While Amazon promised full disclosure of such agreements in the future, it got hammered again this February for pushing books whose publishers had paid as much as $10,000 for placement in its email newsletter to customers. The respected health site, DrKoop.com, once charged hospitals to be placed in its list of most innovative health care providers, without disclosing the arrangement to users. Search engines, formerly the last bastion of objectivity for Internet purists, have succumbed to economic pressures and have started listing or ranking sites based on straight pay or placement "auction." About.com allows Web sites to buy higher rankings in search results. These are labeled as business relationships, however, as are those in GoTo.com, Google.com, and Yahoo.com. LookSmart, on the other hand, doesn't label its paid-for site listings as such.

Advertorial
Advertorials are ads gussied up to look like editorial copy issued from the same publication or home site. The technology of the Web makes it easy to duplicate the colors, fonts, graphics-the whole look of a parent site. Often it is virtually impossible to distinguish the two, without some labeling. The rationale is that the similarity prevents disruption in the reader's flow, making the ad copy seem more like an organic part of the editorial site. However, this also gives the reader the impression of editorial endorsement. IPC Magazine calls this the "halo effect" of credibility. For instance, we've all seen special advertorial sections within online versions of magazines like Time, Newsweek, or Forbes themed "Technology in Education," or something similar-copy that had been shaped, if not created, by companies like Intel, Gateway, or IBM.

Morphing Ads with the News
Nowhere is the practice of blending content and commerce more reviled than in the world of online news. Paula Madison, general manager and vice president of KNBC television in Los Angeles, said in an interview with Electronic Media, "News is news, and sales is sales, and everybody has to walk their [sic] side of the street." The high cost of generating content coupled with the pressure for online scoops has caused some publishers and distributors to simply take corporate press releases and forward them as news, along with the content supplied by such bona fide providers as Reuters and the Associated Press. This endows the PR pieces with the same halo effect of credibility mentioned earlier. Under the rubric "integrated media," Procter and Gamble recently sponsored 90-second news segments in health and wellness on local TV stations around the country, followed by a recommendation to get more information on the topic, e.g., "This Year's Flu," on the station Web site. If the viewer goes to the station Web site and clicks on the icon for the "news" segment, he or she will link directly to material which is nestled on the Web site of a particular P & G product, like Dayquil.

Location, Location, Location
The next three strategies leverage proximity to the surrounding content.

Affiliate Marketing
When a product is reviewed, and a nearby link or button connects to a service that allows the user to buy the item, this is called affiliate marketing. At the time the New York Times first incorporated links to Barnes and Noble at the bottom of book reviews, allowing users to buy books online, there was some speculation as to whether inclusion in the Times was driven by dollars. Granted, the Times has an unassailable reputation for journalistic ethics, but what about less accountable content sites?

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