Last week I wrote about integrated advertising and the growing trend toward "subtle" product placements and brand promotion. Turns out the topic is hotter than I thought. A few days ago I came across an article in Marketing Magazine (a Canadian weekly for marketing professionals), addressing this very subject. It specifically discussed the controversial issue of crossing the boundary between editorial content and advertising, citing numerous examples of magazine advertorials and newspaper cover wraps that could cause even the most jaded advertiser to raise an eyebrow.
To my surprise, the piece made no mention of the online realm, where these lines are being blurred every day. Why the slight? Honestly, we shouldn't be surprised. No matter how ingenious online advertising may be, offline journalists often ignore it (aside from the endless references to pop-up ads, of course). By now, most analysts know Internet advertising is a pretty progressive business. Could it be it's just too revolutionary for conventional media to accept?
In all fairness, our world can be rather intimidating -- especially where content-integrated advertising is concerned. Take a look at some of the formats advertisers are using online: pop-ups, interstitials, Superstitials.... They all intrude on site content, and they're all over the Web.
Our extremism isn't limited to our ad formats, either. The ways in which advertisers are integrating their own content into publishers' sites is getting more innovative every day. Campaigns are becoming increasingly customized. The days of calling in a media buy like you would a pizza order are coming to an end.
Consider, for example, a most interesting marketing paradigm Chevy Tahoe recently employed. In lieu of launching another clichéd banner campaign, the likes of which experienced Internet users are apt to disregard, the marketers behind this brand partnered up with RealSimple.com, the Internet counterpart of the women-oriented offline lifestyle magazine.
Together, they created a splash page of sorts promoting the overall spirit and function of the Chevy Tahoe brand, instead of any particular contest or offer. The page features content from the advertiser's own site alongside links to RealSimple articles, all relating to the vehicle-appropriate theme of "Great Escapes." Banners driving traffic to the page appear throughout RealSimple.com alongside interactive buttons quizzing the site's users on their favorite way to "escape" from the day-to-day grind.
How does this tactic benefit the advertiser? It's all about credibility. As with print advertorials, it's thought creating an association between a product and an already-trusted brand online will improve the users' attitude toward that advertiser and his offerings. Blending advertising and editorial content also increases the likelihood audiences will take the time to read up on a product they may otherwise have overlooked.
As increasingly common as this type of advertising may be, there are those who prefer to stick with the classical approach, such as buying button ads beside pertinent editorial content on sites relating to their industry. Even these traditionalists are finding ways to make their ad messages appear more integrated. Take a look at Martha Stewart's Web site for an excellent example. You'll see that Kraft Foods has chosen the colors for its interactive creative shrewdly, matching its button ad with other design components of the site, to give users the impression it's not so much an ad as sponsored editorial content. One look at the same placement occupied by a less inspired advertiser is enough to drive the impact of this strategy home.
Some critics insist these approaches are unscrupulous or deceitful to consumers, but they should note the advertisers' sponsorships of the sections in question are clearly marked, just as they are in most print advertorials offline. Also, one click on a link within the sponsored content takes users straight to the advertisers' consumer sites, eliminating any possible misconceptions about the nature of the page. Placements of this nature aren't meant to deceive but instead to educate and inform relevant audiences -- in a familiar and accessible environment -- about goods that should theoretically be of interest to them.
There seems to be a case of advertising atavism in the works online as interactive marketers revisit concepts such as those that earned soap operas their cryptic name. Will the offline world be as accepting of this trend as online advertisers and media buyers are proving to be? We await the outcome of the revolution for our reply.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.
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