What a deep moral struggle it must be, to be a publisher. You most likely believe firmly in the tenets of journalism and the ethics that surround it. There are rules that govern your behavior and a sacred trust of the public that not only reads your words, but relies on your objectivity. You must float above all innuendo, calling the dude-who-obviously-did-it a "suspect" and not printing anything unless you're absolutely sure not only of its veracity, but that it wasn't cribbed from any other publication. Publishing is not for the fast-and-loose people of this world.
Among the complicated world in which publishers must live their lives and make money is the golden rule that editorial and advertising must never mix. Certainly there is the occasional grey area: a movie review next to the ad for the movie and such. But good publishers know that they must keep a solid wall between the world of the content creators and the world of the people selling the space around the content.
They also know, though, that that wall is getting pushed on by all sides. The fact that editorial and advertising have begun to get squishy would be easy to write off as a fact that publishers need to figure out ways to make money or they're cooked ("publish and perish" could be the motto of the newspaper industry), but that doesn't tell the whole story. It would ignore the simple fact that creating content and creating advertising have changed so dramatically as to create a new opportunity - some kind of new approach that blends the two together in a successful and attractive cocktail.
In fact, the person, agency, or group who can claim to have the solution for the blending of advertising and content is bound to be successful this year. But it will not be without a lot of controversy - like what's happening with the AP and Twitter.
Sell Your Feed!
The Associated Press - the source for thousands of news articles, each day - put its Twitter feed up for sale, during the Consumer Electronics Show. Samsung was the high bidder, so it gets to put its messages out to the AP's 1.5 million followers. Twitter, which traditionally has prevented these sorts of deals from being struck, seems to be totally cool with this, which means there are at least two levels of issues that need to be navigated: who should get paid (and how much) and is it OK for a source of news to run ads within the flow of news.
Let's take that second point, first. There's no reason to believe that AP stories from CES will give Samsung any special treatment or favorability. If the new Samsung device is found to turn people into rabbits (as opposed to enabling Facebook updates, say), we should expect that the AP will report this story, as it always would.
What's odd is that the ads will come sequentially from the AP, along with its stories. Newspapers are random access: you can go from one article to another to an ad to an article however you see fit. But a feed is different, since it's a consistent flow of information and an ad will plop in the middle of it. That's actually more like the TV or radio model. The ads will be marked as "sponsored" and that's bound to be enough to alert people that it's an ad. But this is an experience that's unique for the web and interactive media. On Twitter, you get one continuous voice from the AP, and some of those will be (clearly) sponsored. I do think that this will have a different feel from TV, where it's clear that Wolf Blitzer has stopped talking and that you're now watching a car ad. We'll see if consumers actually care, but I feel that a threshold has been crossed. The fact that this is the AP (and not a news source without such a sterling brand) is bound to be noticed; if the AP did it, why not us?
The other issue is the purely financial one. Twitter built the platform, but isn't the publisher. It's an enabler. Twitter didn't get the AP all those followers. The AP did. If we built an analogy to the world of print, Twitter is the printing press and the AP is The New York Times. The printing press gets a fee, regardless of whether the ads on the page cost $1 or $1 million.
Of course, complicating all of this is the fact that Twitter sells ads of its own. Brands that have done the work of attracting millions to Twitter don't get any benefit of those ads being clicked (as opposed to, say, the Google Content Network, which rewards brands and pages that attract clicking audiences). Twitter seems to be satisfied to let this one go, but we should assume that it will now be inundated by similar requests: if the AP did it, why not us?
Cleaning Up the Big Mess (or, You Know…Not)
The way that the advertising and editorial streams have crossed is creating a whole lot of new questions, challenges, and issues, and we need to make sure that it gets cleaned up. Just not too quickly.
We know that advertising and editorial have a symbiotic relationship. Advertising funds the creation of content; the content draws in the people to watch the advertising. Neither one wants to kill the other side. The way that the AP and Twitter have mashed up is difficult to sort out, but it's through this type of challenge to the natural order that we'll see the new models start to emerge.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014