Is The Future Of Advertising Public Relations?

by Jason Falls |
Jason Falls
By Jason Falls

I recently arranged for a group of bloggers in a certain industry to receive some exclusivity in advance notice of a new product. There was no stipulation from my client that they write about the product, though we anticipated they would given some of the first, hands-on exposure to it. All of them wrote about it and most in favorable fashion. The new product is off to a good start and I’m happy that some good, new-fashioned public relations helped.

(I say new-fashioned because old-fashioned is sending blast emails to hundreds of media outlets or bloggers and calling it a day. New-fashioned is reaching out personally to individuals to build a relationship and working with them to meet their needs and yours in symbiotic fashion.)

What’s even more impressive about the success of the new product outreach is that when I originally approached this group of bloggers about the possibility of getting them on the inside of a product launch they responded with a complaint.

“Why is it that your clients think we’re good enough to try and hock their PR crap on, but when we approach them for advertising dollars we get the run-around?”

Fair question.

The answer wasn’t easy for them to swallow, but here it is:

Crystal Ball, Exterior by Bitterjugg on FlickrFirst, you don’t have eyeballs. Clients who work with advertising agencies are normally paying a lot of money to reach as many people as possible. Traditionally, advertising dollars are spent trying to reach the most number of people at the lowest per-person cost. While advertising on your blog is far cheaper than any other form of media buy my client might have, your total audience is a rounding error in what they normally reach. The PR outreach includes you because A) bloggers are often looking for good material, especially the exclusive kind, and it might be an easy sell to place our product information in front of your audience and B) bloggers often serve as clearinghouses for material for larger audiences and influencers, even traditional journalists. Your blog is niche, but influential. We wouldn’t spend dollars on your blog because you don’t have quantity in audience. We’ll gladly spend some nominal time and dollars with a PR effort, however, because we think you have a higher quality audience.

Second, you don’t make it easy for us. For a blog to put itself into serious contention for advertising dollars, the buyer needs to know your traffic, your demographics and your reach. Unless your site is big enough to be measured regularly by ComScore or you’ve added the Quantcast code to produce some analytics of your audience, we don’t know who your readers are. I can’t convince a brand manager to spend $500, $1,000 or $10,000 on a blog ad buy if I can’t reasonably say the audience includes the target demographic we’re trying to reach. And I’m sorry, “Well, we write about cars, so our audience is dudes,” doesn’t cut it. Most bloggers don’t want to share their traffic numbers. They either are ashamed they have a small audience, jealous of those with bigger audiences or just don’t realize if they did they might get more advertisers. You have to help us before we can reasonably help you.

Last, online advertising is much less effective than online editorial coverage. Think about it. When’s the last time you clicked on a banner ad? When’s the last time you even looked at one long enough to recognize the product, the message and consider clicking? Now tell me what product or service Chris Brogan wrote about in his controversial Dad-O-Matic post from Dec. 2? I read the post. I remember the product, learned something I didn’t know about it and perhaps even brought it back into my consideration set. (Not really. I don’t shop. But still.)

Gladly, this small group of bloggers was delighted I was so honest with them. I’m sure a few of them ran out and signed up to have Quantcast measure them or at least reconsidered how they package and approach sponsors. Despite the reasons listed, though, I pursued an advertising buy on behalf of the client. While due diligence went a long way in forging a better relationship with the bloggers, ultimately the plan didn’t work out. They still warmly received the product and wrote about it on launch.

The combination of my experience working through advertising issues with bloggers, the prevailing wisdom that traditional advertising is broken – at least to the point that its performance is being questioned now more than ever – and the hullabaloo over Brogan’s paid post got me thinking about the future of advertising again. I’ve said before I think a new way of advertising to customers is coming. From, “The Demise Of Online Advertising Is Upon Us,” on Sept. 8:

We have to come up with something better.

By we, I mean some combination of advertising professionals, marketers and media outlets. Whomever cracks the code first will have a leg up on redefining an entire industry. What’s intriguing is that the answer is going to be a blend of advertising, content and engagement which makes me think social media thinking will have something to do with it.

Pay-per-click and cost-per-thousand are becoming tired for chief marketing officers because they under-perform expectations which, in and of themselves, are all out of whack because of the bullshit Nielsen, Arbitron and others have been feeding them for decades. So smart marketers are looking toward engagement and content – elements of social media – to reach their audiences. Some, like Izea, are pushing the boundaries and experimenting with sponsored posts, which are more effective in delivering messaging so long as they’re read. What this proves is marketers are looking for more effective ways to deliver their messages to consumers.

Was Izea wrong to lure influencer bloggers into a $500 gift card in exchange for a post scheme? No. Was Chris Brogan wrong for accepting the offer and blogging about K-Mart? Not unless Chris Heuer was, too, which he wasn’t.

In my opinion the sponsored post will find a nice living space in social media because most blog readers and mainstream consumers either A) Don’t notice it’s sponsored or B) Don’t care as long as the content is relevant to their need in reading said blog. I browse the posts at Uncrate.com fairly regularly. If one of their posts was sponsored it wouldn’t bother me so long as the product fell into the category of stuff guys would love. If it was for Nice-N-Easy hair coloring for women, it might bother me. Let’s hope Uncrate’s editors aren’t that dumb. Darren Rowse’s blog is chock full-o-ads. Doesn’t bother me in the least because I get value from his insights and the man has mouths to feed. Brogan caught heat for his sponsored post for one reason: To date he has epitomized the core tenants of social media philosophy – sharing, transparency and a near void of consumerism. On ChrisBrogan.com, that post would have been highly inappropriate. It was on DadOMatic.com where it was exceptionally well received, by the way.

What has been lost in this whole debate is that all Izea did was offer up a tried and true PR tactic. They provide access to the product for a media outlet to write about it. While I’m personally not a fan of the play or no pay approach, you can’t find a PR firm out there that hasn’t shipped free products, paid for media junkets or offered gratuitous perks to media outlets to fan the flames of a pitch. Crossing the line to insist on coverage in exchange for the perks does make it advertising and is less credible as such.

So what happens now? The Izea experiment has shown that A) Sponsored posts do get the word out there but that B) In some circles they’re not well received. Developing what advertising will look like in our new, social connectivity-dominated web was nothing more than trial-and-error in what will eventually become the greatest communications invention of our time: the effective and engaging online advertisement.

But what the experiment also tells us is that whatever the future of advertising is, it will be centered on content and engagement which is what good public relations has been doing for years.

Right? Wrong? The comments are yours.

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About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).