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The Advertiser -- Your New Competitor?

Posted on Tuesday, December 30, 2014 at 6:42 PM

The old separation-of-editorial-from-advertising precept has a new wrinkle to it.

By William Dunkerley

As editors, we tend to think of advertisers as being in a separate domain. We realize that in most cases ad money plays a large role in supporting our budgets. But beyond that we look upon advertisers as the other side of a church-state separation.

But now, metaphorically speaking, if we're the church and advertisers are the state, the state is trying to get into the church business. And as this new paradigm unfolds, it will create a situation wherein we can no longer ignore the advertisers as we did in the past. They'll be our direct content competitors.

How Did This Happen?

This all has come about because it has become increasingly difficult for advertisers to attract prospects. The reasons involve the changes we've been seeing in information and communications technology. Evolving consumer behavior plays a big role, too. But the bottom line is that advertisers are having a more difficult time connecting with prospective buyers.

It's widely accepted that consumers are increasingly sales resistant. They're bombarded with advertising messages at every turn, and they aren't looking for more of them. This is true whether an advertiser is in a business-to-consumer or business-to-business environment.

So what's an advertiser to do?

In Search of a Solution

A solution that is increasingly trendy is "content marketing." The idea behind it is to attract prospects by publishing interesting content. Through that process they first establish a relationship with the prospect. Then, at some point, the advertiser switches the conversation from content to sales messaging.

Marketo, a marketing services provider, puts it this way:

Content Marketing has become an increasingly important part of a successful and strategic marketing mix. Today, marketers can become their own content publishers and develop audiences to attract attention. This benefits them in three key ways: it builds brand awareness, creates brand preference, and expands the brand's reach to more buyers and potential customers at a much lower cost.

An Undeclared War

The advertisers who are buying into this concept are making a de facto declaration-of-competitor status with magazine content producers.

There's something these new competitors have going for them: they very well may have bigger budgets than we do for developing content.

Many editorial staffs are still laboring in the wake of cutbacks that were instituted during the Great Recession. Lamentably, editorial staffing and budgets were prime targets when expenditures had to be slashed. It was a difficult time in the editorial field. In 2009 Editors Only ran an article lead that said, "These days when editors speak of 'future tense' they're not talking about grammar."

Has a New Day Dawned?

Now many editorial departments have reconstituted themselves, while others have not. But the question at hand is whether any are up to competing with well-financed editorial efforts put on by advertisers.

We've seen nascent remnants of that in the form of native advertising in our own pages. (That's the current euphemism for the advertorial.)

Several months ago I saw a print magazine that was replete with native advertising. I must confess that visually it was hard to deal with. The magazine editorial had a well-designed and consistent appearance, but the native advertising was all over the place. Collectively it looked awful.

It is one thing when ads are largely graphical elements within our pages. But when they are ad copy masquerading as editorial, all with their own typography and style, they make a magazine look like a hodgepodge. I wonder how readers will react to that in the long run.

Advertiser-generated content outside the pages of magazines is a different proposition. That's where we start to become head-to-head competitors with the advertisers.

She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

This has got to be a kind of love-hate relationship for editors. On one hand we rely upon our publication's advertising revenue for our budgetary support. On the other hand, if advertisers are signally successful in producing engaging content on their own, it tends to obviate our role as content curators.

That means we have to compete, but not in a way that will alienate the competitor, the advertiser.

How Can We Do That?

This predicament means that we must produce content that is of a higher quality and is more engaging than anything that a well-financed advertiser-based editorial team can accomplish. Here are a few tips for accomplishing that:

--Admit to yourself that first you must satisfy the readers who will be the best prospective customers for the advertisers. That idea may actually sound repugnant to some editors, but it is a practical reality. If you have a problem with it, you've got to get over it.

--Just as you have been reviewing the content of competing magazines, you now must acquaint yourself with the content that advertisers are putting out. You must stay a jump ahead of them.

--Survey readers more often and conduct more focus groups. Know intimately what your readers want.

--Put more effort into creating engaging headlines, decks, and leads. Be sure to fulfill the promises that they make.

--Finally, there is one ace-in-the-hole that we possess:

Advertisers are on a course of seduction toward the presentation of a marketing message. We, on the other hand, can concentrate on engaging the reader for the sake of the reader. We have greater flexibility in tailoring content to the needs and interests of our readers.

Our Salvation

One survey found that "71 percent of consumers trust solutions that provide useful information -- without trying to sell them something." That means that consumers are averse to being attracted by content that is obviously intended to lead to a sale -- like content produced by a seller.

That just may be a fatal flaw in the idea of advertisers becoming editors and publishers. And it presents an opportunity for us. It shows that there is a rare quality that we can offer: reader trust. If we achieve it, advertisements in our pages will share in it.

Our editorial brand needs to earn that trust and be worthy of it. That's how we can successfully compete with advertiser-generated content.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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