Monday, September 25, 2006

Mediaweek blurs the lines between ads, editorial

(Note: The following post was written and updated in real time throughout the day. By the time you read it, most if not all of the inappropriate links I mention below will have been removed. Please read the entire post and the comments to understand what happened. Thanks.)

If you love B2B journalism as much as I do, you'll get your heart broken.
Often.

And today my heart is aching.
Take a look at this article on the Web site of Mediaweek. Don't bother to read the article. It's not particularly interesting. Just scroll down to the sixth graf. What you'll find there is an advertisement, right smack in the middle of the story. That hypertext link of the word "advertisers" will take you to the site of Vibrant Media's IntelliTXT, an advertising service that places marketing material into editorial space.

IntelliTXT says it uses "in-text placement to cut through the online advertising clutter." But B2B journalists know such "placement" is a violation of our profession's ethics guidelines.
Here's what ASBPE says about such things:
"Whether for editorial or advertising information, hypertext links should be placed at the discretion and approval of editors. Also, advertising and sponsored links should be clearly distinguishable from editorial, and labeled as such ... Contextual links within editorial content should not be sold, and generally should not link to a vendor’s Web site, unless it is pertinent to the editorial content or helpful to the reader."

Now to me, those guidelines are as clear as can be. Putting an ad in a story is wrong. Editors decide on what appears in the copy. Period.
But it appears some folks in B2B publishing continue to struggle with the idea of keeping editorial and advertising separate.

It's unclear to me who is responsible for the inappropriate links on Mediaweek.
I'd like to think it's some new guy on the advertising side, someone who just arrived and doesn't yet know the rules of journalism ethics.
I assume that the folks on the editorial side are furious, that they are raising holy hell and threatening to quit.
But I don't know.
I sent an email last week to Michael Bürgi and Jim Cooper, the editor and managing editor of the publication. I asked what was going on. I asked how the staff was reacting.
I haven't received a response.

Now like I said, what Mediaweek is doing is clearly an ethics violation.
But it's also worth noting that it's a particularly annoying violation.
Here's why:

1. Go back and take a look at that article. What you'll notice is that the ad is the only external link in the copy. Click around the Mediaweek site for awhile and you'll find that the only links in any story are ads. Mediaweek simply doesn't understand the value of links as an editorial function.
For example, the story in question is about a new service on Forbes.com. But Mediaweek doesn't see the value in providing a link so that readers can see the service in question. Or take a look at this story about MTV and Universal Music Group. The story has an inappropriate advertising link in the first paragraph. Think about that -- there's an ad in the lead! But there are no external links that might help the reader put the story in context.
I've complained for a long time about publishers that don't understand the basic concept of online publishing -- the Web is a web. And by now nearly all of the we-don't-link-offsite magazines have come around. But Mediaweek still doesn't get it.

2. Go back and look at that first article. It's about a new development at Forbes. Think about that -- a B2B publication has put an ad in a story about a magazine where the editorial staff had the professionalism and courage to stop a plan to put advertising links from IntelliTXT in their copy. I'm speechless. The Forbes fight over IntelliTXT was one of the most encouraging developments in journalism ethics of the past few years. And Mediaweek seems to .... what? not care? not know? not think that anyone would find this offensive?

3. Mediaweek isn't some tiny publication run by some knucklehead company that no one has ever heard of. It's owned by VNU, which also publishes B2B giants such as Editor & Publisher and Adweek. Furthermore, VNU is the home of National Jeweler and Whitney Sielaff, the recipient of ABM's Timothy White award for editorial integrity. Didn't anyone at VNU think that the praise and honor that Whitney has brought the company might be worth more than cheap cash from IntelliTXT?

ADDENDUM: (10:21, a.m. ET ) Within a few hours of my writing this post, the IntelliTXT links on Mediaweek were removed. I can't say for sure that the decision to pull the links was related to my complaints. Mediaweek has not responded to my email.
But what the heck, I'm going to take credit anyway.
More importantly, I want to offer my thanks and appreciation to Mediaweek for deciding to pull back from this practice.

ADDENDUM 2: (10:57 a.m.) I spoke to soon. Someone just posted a comment to this post saying the IntelliTXT links are back. And when I take a look at Mediaweek, I see that they have, in fact, returned.

ADDENDUM 3: (12:15 p.m.) It appears the IntelliTXT problem at VNU is wider than I thought. Check out this story from Adweek and scroll down to the 13th paragraph. I just left a phone message for Sid Holt, editorial director of all of VNU. I've asked him to respond here, or by email or by phone.

ADDENDUM 4: (12:41 p.m.) The IntelliTXT links also appear on VNU's Brandweek. Look at the lead paragraph of this story. I'm sending a copy of this post to Karen Benezra, editor of Brandweek, asking for her opinion on the links. I'm also going to try and send a copy to Alison Fahey, editor of Adweek, and see if she's able to comment on what's happening. But Alison's email isn't available on the magazine's Web site. So I'm going to have to improvise.

ADDENDUM 5: (3:30 P.M.) Sid Holt, VNU's editorial director, sent me an email saying that the IntelliTXT links are coming down.
According to Holt, "once editorial management became aware that advertising was embedded in editorial content, the ads were removed as quickly as possible (it is taking longer to remove the ads from Adweek than from Brandweek and Mediaweek for purely technical reasons). VNU Business Media has explicit guidelines delineating the relationship between editorial content and marketing messages. Despite occasional misunderstandings, editors and publishers alike understand, respect and observe those guidelines."
That's good news. I applaud VNU for deciding to end this inappropriate practice.
Thanks also to all of you who posted comments, sent emails or called. I'm glad to know that the B2B journalists who read this blog shared my concern about IntelliTXT and VNU.
My broken heart is mending.
Thanks.

For some of my earlier thoughts on unethical behavior click here.
For more on ASBPE's ethics code, click here.
For my advice on how to fight unethical behavior at your publication, click here.

tags: , , , , , , , ,

8 comments:

  1. This is an issue that's just not going to go away. The problem I see is that revenue-generating products have a much shorter life span online than in print. Advertisers are always looking for the next new thing. As revenue falls off from the last new product, the marketing staff scrambles to replace that revenue with something new to ballyhoo. The result is poorly conceived ideas like this one.
    As an editor, I need to stay in close touch with our online marketers to help them maintain perspective as they struggle to keep the revenue coming in. That's something of a change from the old-line print world where editors were suppose to keep their distance from sales. Follow that model today and you'll be stuck with something like this.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Paul, there are lots of 'news' sites running the same sort of in-text link ads.

    And I hate it.

    In fact, I usually won't read stories that have that sort of advertising laced into them, because I feel like I must be looking at some derivative splog site or something, not original content.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Paul...just checked that Mediaweek story, and the link is still there. When I moved the mouse over the underlined word "advertisers" the ad popped up.

    I've seen this before, on a British tech newsblog and found it amazingly unethical. We look to hyperlinks to lead us to further information, not to a ad. Some folks might think that ads are information, but they're certainly not unbiased information--after all, their aim is to get us on their side and buy whatever they're offering. sheesh!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi folks,
    Thanks for your comments.
    This has been a strange morning. I've added two addendums to the original post. One to say that Mediaweek had pulled the ads; a second to say that Mediaweek had apparently put the ads back (Thanks for the tip, Tish!)
    I'll keep updating as I learn more.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is a disturbing trend; I really agree with Jim Mele's comments about advertisers. Hopefully this particular scam (really what it is) doesn't last too long.

    I've been looking through IntelliTXT's website, and I'm mystified by this comment that they make (my bolding.):

    Buy: Our IntelliTXT media plans reach across the entire internet and are not limited to specific sites. Our services include media buying across all sites within your determined media plan.

    How is this possible? I'm really confused now!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Go for it, Paul. A bit of history (if I weren't on vacation, I'd do some googling for you). This is much like the plan Microsoft tried years ago -- wish I could remember the name -- that got universally slammed. Earlier still, Jay Chiat (after he retired) helped fund a startup that was going to offer "contextual advertising" that was, in some instances, sponsored links. I'm not sure where it stands, however, there was controversy surrounding Google's toolbar that actually inserts links in a viewer's "browser" even when the publisher has not linked the word (this is doubly concerning to me as I view what I link to as an editorial decision). I think your point is well made and, despite my support of the concept that sponsored content can have integrity, I believe it should be fully disclosed and labeled as such...and not be embedded within the context of editorial. This can be a fine line, but I think it's easy to see when it is crossed.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi Paul. I'd like to hear your and your readers' thoughts about the value of the Amazon Associates Program's Product Previews vs. IntelliTXT ads.

    In case you haven't heard of Amazon's Product Previews, here's a description from their Web site. "Product previews are a portal into Amazon.com - directly on your Web site. When users hover over a preview-enhanced link, a small window appears containing valuable content and information about the product you're advertising, including an image, new and used price, average customer review and availability. It also gives your visitors the ability to add the item directly to their Amazon.com shopping cart."

    The basic idea here is that Product Previews enhance the user
    experience by providing the user with additional information about a product that the publisher has already endorsed/discussed on their site (and in theory the user wants to learn more about, which is why they're reading the content in the first place) - and linked to Amazon.com. Product Previews may also help publishers monetize their Web site by increasing click-through or conversion on the affiliate links the publisher has added to their site.

    I've added a few links on my blog (http://mark-on-media.blogspot.com) augmented with Amazon's Product Previews if you'd like to see them in action.

    In my opinion, the IntelliTXT links are mostly irrelevant to Web site content and are generally intrusive. They detract from the user experience, and I'd be surprised if they generate a lot of revenue for publishers. And when they do generate revenue for publishers, I wonder if their conversion is high enough to make it worth the advertiser spend.

    Product Previews, on the other hand, can be a valuable addition to a publisher's site - especially if Amazon were to add more information from their site to the preview, such as product reviews, similar products, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I have to say I dislike the Amazon Product Preview links as much as I dislike the IntelliTXT links, and for the very same reason:
    Ads don’t belong in the editorial.
    The truth is that I don’t care how most people do or don’t make money on the Web. Folks are free to try and game Google, send spam, or fill their sites with IntelliTXT links or Amazon pop-ups.
    But professional publishers must hold themselves to a higher standard. There is no room for compromise on this. Every major B2B publisher has agreed to do that by joining groups such as American Business Media, just like thousands of journalists have agreed to do the same by joining ASBPE and similar organizations.
    The rules are clear. They have nothing to do with how effective the ad is, or how closely related it is to editorial.
    1. Ads are ads and must be labeled as such.
    2. Editors must control all the material within a story – the words, the photos, the graphics and the links.
    Paul

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.