Monthly Archives: March 2013

Native Advertising By Any Other Name

While reading an interview in Forbes with former NY Times Editor, Bill Keller, there was a feeling of deja vu – or at least just the feeling we’ve seen this all before.  The interview was wrapped in the blanket of technology and how that’s affected traditional media stalwarts like the NY Times.  One of the lead-off questions related to Native Advertising – the creation and placement of editorial-like content by advertisers on news or editorially driven sites. The thing that’s clear is that Native Advertising is just a catchy new name for something that’s been around forever – it’s just a bit blurrier.

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For decades – if not centuries or millennia – content has been pitched for sponsorship. What more recently was considered advertorial – where a company could write content and have it show up in a publication with clear demarkation as advertising – has become easier to pull off and produce within digital media.

This form of advertising through “legitimate” means goes back to patrons of religion, gifts for kings and even the holy of holies, Disney – you didn’t think that the Carnation Cafe is on Main Street just because it fit the them, did you? The problem is that many of the leading digital news outlets and even some traditionals are allowing pure advertising to be pay-for-play while misleading many readers about its origins.

Again, we’ve known this type of thing has gone on forever, but maybe we’ve gotten too lazy about it in the search for bigger dollars.  Maybe we’re OK with changing our ways from selling the advertising surrounding good content to just selling the content – good or bad.

Where there was a clearer delineation between advertising and publicity – with the only correlation was that the more content people read, the more it attracted advertisers.  Now, advertisers are trying to be both sides of the coin and it causes problems that time will tell whether it makes a difference or not.

One of those problems is that it is up to the reader to figure out whether they are reading unbiased news or corporate spin. It might have been easier before, but it is no longer.  Some trade blogs and sites are almost completely populated with thinly veiled advertisements.

The other problem – and one that certainly hits far fewer people – is the way these practices have shifted the very form of publicity. What may have been the challenge of pitching a compelling story that a reporter would cover, shifted first to being included as a value-add to a media spend – and finally to just a matter of having a piece written and receiving paid-placement on a publisher site with little to no editorial involvement. It becomes a problematic when companies feel that they can just post releases on the wire and reporters are waiting at the ready to write about them.

As money becomes harder to come by and the ability to keep commerce and sound reporting separate, opportunity arises for advertisers to benefit.  But, regardless of the name you might want to affix, is Native Advertising the way to go? If history is any proof, it’s the only way it’s ever really been – just a little more shrouded in technology.

Lessons From SXSW About Authenticity

At the SXSW Tech Conference, downtown Austin was flush with participants pitching their products and more people clamoring for and chasing insights into those products and more. Steve Smith points to the search for Authenticity in his MediaPost blog – Chasing Authenticity At SXSW.  While he was talking about Authenticity in relation to products and their intended users, the same lessons hold true for communication.

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Essentially, Smith captured statements from Walgreens and HBO executives about the development of their companies’ Apps.  In the case of Walgreens, they found that people didn’t care about games – they just wanted to do core activities like simple filling of prescriptions. At HBO, consumers wanted to view original content on the HBO Go App.  In both instances, the companies were able to build user-base solely on the core features and then they were able to expand to other functionality. They realized that they couldn’t hide their “authentic” product to build excitement for something that didn’t make sense for their intended audience right off the bat.

Too often in marketing, we see messaging that is spun too far from the truth.  Or, we see products from publishers, companies and organizations that just don’t ring true to what we believe them to be. We’ve all been there – where we might be too heavily immersed in a product to take a step back and ask the right questions. The right question is not always “Will anyone care/buy?”, but “Does this product make sense coming from us?”

We’ve referenced the common occurrence of utilizing campaign products that are the shiny-object-du-jour and how marketers should really analyze whether that makes sense.  Sometimes, you’ve got to bite the bullet to present what management asks for.  But, we should all be striving to present the authentic core of what our companies represent. The litmus test for any product development or campaign is whether people will immediately understand why you’re releasing/communicating this.  If its not immediately clear to the end user, then you might need to reconsider.

The business world is awash with terms like “optimize” and “leverage” and that’s for a reason.  Sadly, many don’t follow through with the core elements of each. Subsequent campaigns and communications are that much easier when they are derivative of the core values or message.  Through that authentic development and communication, you’ll make bring the right products and campaigns to market with the strongest economic benefit and upside.

The Growing Pains Of Vision

Last week, NPR ran a piece on the challenges that JC Penney is facing while they shift the way they do business under (relatively) new CEO, Ron Johnson. While listening, it brought to mind some of the factors we often deal with when working with clients, management, and teams to institute new programs, processes and functions. Regardless of vision or how great we believe that change will be in the name of growth or optimization, those growing pains cannot be overlooked in either the planning or the execution.

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Regardless of how strong your vision is, the ability to convey that vision to all participants is paramount. In some cases, it even requires that solutions for bypassing participant buy-in should they can not see what the company is trying to do. But, you’ve got to make sure the vision is realistic – and without taking a moment to consider any move from most sides is a recipe for disaster.

In the case of JC Penney, we don’t know how things will play out in the end.  But, the NPR report highlights how the regular JC Penney customers were less than thrilled.  The environment that was created for those consumers was one that they connected with emotionally – to the point you would think they’ve lost a loved one when talking about how it used to be. Though sales were down 30% in Q4 ’12 from ’11, could that be tied to disgruntled regulars?  Or, is it tied to the pains of shifting from one client type to another? By reading the comments below the NPR report, you can see there are enough counter examples pointing to the change being positive for JC Penney.

Recent work with one of my clients has brought the same challenge to light.  How do you bring vision, instill new processes and get buy-in from the people who are key to turning those changes into company success.  Interestingly, the most important people to get buy-in from are not the C-Levels (though they do give the approval on the spend) – it is the people who will be carrying out these new processes. A broken record comes to mind when thinking about how much communication is required to convey what you are intending to do.

Sometimes the illustration of the new versus the old can offend those who are fine with the way that might not be truly effective – so you can’t just rely on illustrating the benefits in light of the situation they are now in. The element of democracy that is prevalent in the workforce these days requires something akin to a PR campaign just to put those new processes in place. Again, you can have the strongest vision and product in place, but if there’s no buy-in, you’ve wasted time and resources. Even with the installation of automated processes, if there’s a human that needs to interact with that process, you need to negotiate and guide them through those growing pains.

Hopefully, JC Penney and Johnson’s team will be given the leeway to work this transition through. Far too many changes are abandoned at the first glimmer of failure. But as with any challenge, there is a sliver of failure, you’ve just got to push through smartly. Because, ultimately, a smart vision and strategic growth always has growing pains as a byproduct. You’ve just got to guide that pain into profit and not breakage.