Sponsored Content Is Here To Stay

Posted on November 10, 2010. Filed under: Public Relations, Public Relations Commentary | Tags: , , , , , , |

Forbes

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Will ForbesAdVoice Be The Model – PRSA Chief Says No

Old media lions sure don’t lack for chutzpah.

Case in point: Forbes magazine.

Forbes, it seems, is jumping into the online sponsored content game with both feet (or is that with both hands open and outstretched?).

The venerable business bi-weekly magazine is running an online section called “ForbesAdVoice”. Sponsors pay for the privilege (and what price, privilege?) of having their self-penned content nicely laid out on a page that bears a striking resemblance to the general editorial production of the magazine.

The copy is clearly labelled, at the top, as being a ForbesAdvoice section.

Even at first glance, it seems obvious this is purchased space. Nothing unusual about that, except that the section is so cleverly designed that it could, stress could, fool the unassuming reader into thinking it was real journalism they were looking at.

Unassuming Reader, Beware

Happily, my first encounter with the suspected offender was anything but unassuming. A column in Advertising Age, written by Public Relations Society of America Chairman and CEO Gary McCormick, had alerted me to the dangers ahead. McCormick had gone so far as to call this a “nefarious” endeavor.

I as a reader was on my guard, determined to not only spot the fraud but expose it on the spot, via my Twitter button if need be.

A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing?

Imagine my surprise when I saw nothing more squalid than a banner ad from SAP advising me to run my business better (damned good idea there) and a by-lined column (AKA a blog post) from a SAP executive disputing the notion that business software was dead. Below that, links to more SAP-sponsored AdVoice bloggings, links to SAP web pages, and an assortment of links to various technology-related stories authored by real Forbes journalists.

McCormick makes an excellent point in his Ad Age piece about the need for “transparent PR.”

Sponsored Content: It’s A PR Thing

Sponsored content is one of the fastest growing segments in online marketing and communications, so it stands to reason that many PR people will be involved in writing and influencing such material. Publishers such as Forbes, have a responsibility to be up front with readers about what’s legitimate journalism and what’s a commercial product paid for by an outside source. Ultimately it’s in their best interest to be above-board with readers. That’s especially true with a publication like Forbes with its large following within the investment community, a group most susceptible to being both duped and able to spot the main chance.

People don’t like to feel like they’re being duped.

Nothing To Tweet About

But I’m not so worried that the readers of Forbes will be duped by the AdVoice section. Even though the labelling doesn’t scream that this is sponsored content, it’s still hard to miss. And you might expect Forbes readers to be a somewhat media savvy lot to begin with. (A telling point: only two readers had Tweeted the SAP-authored article when I visited the page on Wednesday morning, Nov. 10, which isn’t a lot of traction in the Twitterverse.)

What McCormick seems to be most worried about – and this is a very legitimate point – is what will happen If publishers start to push the envelope with even more cleverly disguised sponsored content features. If that happens – and given that it’s the Internet, it undoubtedly will happen – then I expect we could see some blowback in the form of more government regulation. That’s not a happy thought, however. Let’s hope the publishing world, especially those with reputable leanings, musters up the resolve to police itself.

In the meantime, I may go and try to dig up that cat-shaped mousey electronic device that Forbes dropped on me as a loyal subscriber sometime back in the early years of the dot-com age. I never did use it as it was intended, mostly because I couldn’t figure out what it was actually intended to be used for. I seem to recall putting it in a corner of the basement where in hopes of entertaining a few real mice.

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