Even the advertising industry seems to acknowledge online ads haven’t evolved since the 1990s. Banner ads still exist and CPMs are still the metric for who gets paid. In the end, an advertiser simply wants to reach the right people with the right message and the current model is not sufficient.
There were a lot of small events during the Tilt Life that significantly influenced my thinking. One was related to something called Tilt Populi, which was to be some sort of community-based discussion forum where our readers could post their thoughts. The original goal was to leverage the idea that “our readers are as smart as us”. We were building a professional audience and we operated under the assumption that our readers had valuable things to say about the markets our journalists covered.
The goal of having the finance-types who read us post original content exclusively for Tilt was a nice thought, but we should’ve remembered that a professional audience is an inherently busy one. Writing a post to spur discussion was something they might be interested in, but it wasn’t the highest priority on their to-do list. Where could we take this?
The light bulb moment was when I was speaking with the publisher of an EM-focused newsletter. He approached us about posting through Tilt Populi and we met over a beer near Southwark Bridge. He asked how much we would pay to publish his newsletter. It wasn’t an odd request because that’s what the conventional syndication model tells us to do. We weren’t going to pay for additional content, but it was obvious he had a vested business interest in publishing through us. He was shocked when I indicated he would have to pay for publishing rights and we’d maintain editorial control over the material.
It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was the first time the business potential of Populi screamed out. We could provide a new marketing channel where our readers could publish their own quality writing alongside our own professional work. It was the beginning of some spirited editorial/commercial debate over how we made sure to protect the integrity of our brand, what made business sense, or even what was executable. It was a work in progress but we certainly learned some things.
Content is Marketing
The idea that advertising can only be an obtrusive banner is outdated. Populi showed an opportunity for taking marketing beyond clicks and display ads. Anyone who published through Populi knew they were being read by some high caliber folks, we had that brand courtesy of 123 years of the FT being the FT. They knew any business value derived from posting boiled down to: is this post good? A fund manager sitting in Vietnam or financial consultant in DC knew they were being judged and representing their business based on their writing and ideas. Every newsletter a fund manager sends out to their investors is marketing, and this was allowing those ideas to reach a broader, yet relevant, audience.
What does this mean for a media company?
Allow businesses to promote themselves with sponsored content: In the end, you’re selling audience to someone with a business interest in accessing them. It’s an alternative revenue stream that has the added benefits of making your customers even more engaged and increasing your content base.
Maintain end editorial control: It’s a tough balance because all you have is your reputation, and sullying it with crap will only serve to undermine your own brand. There was never any debate over whether to publish press releases (no chance). Also, being from the FT, we never had problems maintaining editorial control as people seemed to enjoy having their work critiqued by professional journalists. This is the most difficult area to control but I genuinely believe can be done.
Make sure anything sponsored is clearly delineated from everything else: With Populi, a business-generated post would appear in your regular newsfeed, right next to original journalistic work. However, you have to tell people what is coming from where. I’m of the school believing transparency is even more important than objectivity in news and this is it’s manifestation. If I see a clear label next to a newsletter from a fund, I know their end goal is getting me to invest. Even after learning this, if the ideas they publish are worthwhile, I’m still calling them. I still do love McKinsey Global Institute research.
I mentioned before that The Answer contains elements from all over the online universe. There are two places that are already proving the lessons I learned from Tilt Populi.
People have feared Twitter’s ability to turn engagement into revenue, but we engaged with a relatively new form of marketing they’ve introduced: Sponsored Tweets. It works under a similar premise as Populi did: allow brands to post sponsored content that is clearly delineated in a timeline / newsfeed and allow users to engage if they believe it’s quality material. Twitter’s program was a bit different as brands can already publish like anyone else, but the sponsored element comes from them paying for more prominent positioning in your timeline (via an auction process).
It’s an ambiguous area, as a Twitter users timeline is their lifeblood and if there is the perception it’s being devalued they’ll leave. However, Twitter still realizes that if you clearly mark something as sponsored, let the users judge for themselves. If it’s funny / insightful / witty / educational it will be the best marketing possible.
Funny or Die
I said The Answer will come from everywhere and at a conference recently I saw Dick Glover, CEO of Funny or Die, speak. He showed an amazing Halo commercial featuring LL Cool J, Snoop, and Wayne Newton. It was shown alongside a few other Funny or Die original clips (like the classic Will Ferrell The Landlord) and was pretty damn funny. He then mentioned that it was produced by Microsoft and was effectively an advertisement.
This doesn’t follow the rule of clear delineation as sponsored, but does demonstrate the need for maintaining end editorial control. Funny or Die doesn’t just let any corporation pay to post something on their site. The video is hilarious, but also allows Microsoft to show the shared experience of online gaming and a media site to pocket some revenue….and me to see Wayne Newton deliver an amazing line at it’s conclusion.