Editors Should Examine a New Way of Working with Advertisers

By Jim Romeo

We have all seen better days.

But could a new way of doing business in the trade press be a latent win-win? Could the bylined feature article, contributed Q-and-A article, or other contributed feature article be an unexploited pathway for advertisers, editors, publishers and freelance writers?

Freelancers are scraping. So are advertisers. And so are many editors. So is there anything that can be done besides sit and brood and hope that this dip in the road doesn't last forever?

Perhaps a new paradigm could emerge: contributed content by the would-be advertiser who hires a freelance writer to write it. Here's how it works. A firm that is tightening its belt just can't afford the same advertising budget until its orders improve and the overall economy improves. But it still wants to market its goods and services. So the firm pitches editors in the trade press, offering to author a feature article about a particular topic which may fit an editorial calendar or trending theme for the publication. The editor bites and says okay, but no sales puffery.

The firm hires the freelance writer at a fraction of the advertising page rate. The freelancer is happy, as even a fraction of the page rate is a decent rate — somewhere in the $1.25-to-$1.50-per-word rate. The writer researches and interviews the firm to create a feature that informs while providing the company a byline in a trade magazine for its industry.

The firm is happy. After all, it got two to three pages of space; even got photos of its business leader or product or service in action. The freelancer is happy, as they got a fatter check than the publication would have paid.

Now is the editor happy? While it's true the publication didn't get the advertising dollars, they did get free content and they didn't have to write it, or do much in the way of art direction for it. Readers get the benefit of the article right from the perspective of the firm that solved a problem, or managed some notable task that readers like to read about.

The above scenario is played out all the time. What I described, I have been a part of many times. It seems like it takes something away from true-blue editorial, but I'm sorry, it works.

Some editors might say "Hey, it's fine, as long as they don't puff it up and make it an advertorial." That can be easily done. A case study, or exposé of the product or service in action, sells itself without much sales puffery. The byline or bio at the end of the article is all that's needed. As for the foregone advertising dollars — well, that firm now has a relationship with the magazine. A new, very lucrative possibility has been created. The soil is well cultivated for the ad sales staff to court that firm for years down the road as a result of that article. The firm that touts the article that they placed and produced, for not that much money, is a good candidate to buy advertising in the future, or buy other media such as a webinar or podcast that can be used to build its brand, which was initially built in that contributed article. This is real value for the publication as well.

And let's not forget the reader. That reader gets to hear a case study. They get to read about somebody else's problems for a change. Everyone loves to read about how someone had this major undertaking and read in 1,500 words, how a firm built a team, and implemented the latest and greatest solution that looked so daunting. The reader gets first-hand information that can drive their own business model.

All of the above is not as clockwork as I may describe, but in tough times, there must be ways to make lemons out of lemonade, and this just may be worth a closer look. Contributed content via the bylined feature article, such as a case study or even a Q and A on a hot topic, adds value — to the firm, the freelancer, the publication, and, of course, the reader.

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, Virginia. He is a mechanical engineer with and MBA and writes about business and technology. His new leaf in 2010 is to network more and start calling himself a technology evangelist because it sounds cool! www.JimRomeo.net, freelancewriting@yahoo.com.

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Hi Jim:

It sounds like you are talking about content marketing, which some people believe will be all the rage one day.

Actually, this has been happening in reverse for years under the "advertorial" banner.

In this latter scenario, an sales/editorial team presents a prototype wherein the editorial content is totally based on advertiser input. The recommended rules are much the same as what you are suggesting. The content is high-value, how-to information, and is mostly no puffery. The difference is that somewhere in the advertorial, the sponsor gets to discuss product developments and services and to be as objective as possible about them.

One reason the advertorial appeals is because there is stronger visibility within the issue facilitated by the length of the section (usually anywhere from four to sixteen pages,occasionally longer than that).

Usually in all cases, an experienced free-lancer is hired to deliver the content as per the prototype plan . . . and to also be capable of weighing in on design considerations.

While you say you have had considerable success with the approach you describe (which obviously is less ambitious than the advertorial pitch), I can't believe you've had smooth sailing on every project.

There are always going to be cases where a client insists on getting in his/her commercial pitch all over the place. Your customer being the client, you'd have to discourage puff overload. If that's not possible, the incident clearly would create a rift between your client and the publication in question.

Many times, when an advertorial is involved, the client backs out at the last moment or stalls the information for clearance purposes (or politics). If that occurred under your scenario, it would have been better if client and magazine had been dealing directly from the start.

One more thought (there probably are others but just to keep it short): Marketing/wise, a bad precedent is being set. The idea that running a supplied article might lead to advertising is an angle that has been pitched in the past by client to publication salesperson (as opposed to dealing with the editor directly).

If a publication bought into your theory of provided content, and advertising did materialize, then the publication is setting a bad precedent insofar as securing advertising from other prospects is concerned.

From an ethical standpoint, if a freelancer does land a gig where he or she is developing content for a sponsor, whose side do you take in terms of representing the validity of that content?

This latter point was raised just a few days ago during a conversation I had with a pretty knowledgeable B2B guy!

Anyway, your thoughts do deserve further conversations. Hopefully, other folks will weigh in on your blog.

Howard Rauch, ASBPE ethics committee chair

President, Editorial Solutions,Inc.
# posted by Blogger howard rauch : January 25, 2010 at 3:15 PM
I can't help thinking that this type of arrangement might discourage potential advertisers from buying ad space. If they can get a presence in the magazine more cheaply, why pay premium rates?
# posted by Blogger Martha Spizziri : January 26, 2010 at 5:32 PM
It's been happening at association publications for a while, too. I was an editor of an association publication to which vendors contributed most of the articles. We would have preferred our members write the articles, but the reality is that it's hard for someone who is not a writer - and has a full-time job - to turn in a decent article on deadline.

The vendor, on the other hand, hires a writer to create the article. Unfortunately, it's usually a PR firm. Granted, it's nice for the PR firm to get the money, and maybe the PR firm hires an actual writer to do the story, but in the end it's a different product.

An adept PR firm will deliver an actual, useful article that provides real value to the reader and moves the conversation forward. But this is rare. Usually I was left with a thinly veiled advertorial that required severe editing and lots of back-and-forth with the PR/vendor to wrestle final approval.

We allowed them to be part of the approval process so we wouldn't burn the bridge with a future advertiser. Hmmm. Kind of an awkward position for an editor to be in.

So as an editor who's worked with this kind of content before, I would say... it's a pain. I'd rather hire a professional writer to put the story together. It put the bulk of the workload on me to make it worth reading and to tiptoe around the vendor/contributor. And with multiple and concurrent publications going on, I can't always say I turned out the best content for our readers.

I like the idea, too. It can work in moderation. But I also think vendors do indeed see this as an alternative to - not a step toward - advertising. And it creates a huge burden on the editor to not only turn the story into something useful but to "foster" the relationship with the advertiser.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous : February 19, 2010 at 11:07 AM
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