Internet Advertising: New tech for web media ads spurs concerns for PR pros

Vibrant Media's new software that embeds paid ads in articles posted online is worrying some PR pros about the toll it could take on how they pitch stories.

Vibrant Media's new software that embeds paid ads in articles posted online is worrying some PR pros about the toll it could take on how they pitch stories.

Marketing as a discipline has never been afraid of controversy. As new techniques and technologies crop up, companies and the specialists who advise them push forth messages - some more cavalier than others - to reach consumers. While journalists and media pundits often grouse about the influence of advertising and advocate complete separation, the inevitable fact, which they know, is that advertising is what provides them with income. However, a new crop of online advertising is emerging that places linked ads in the body of stories, causing more than the usual share of consternation. Vibrant Media, the company on the forefront, has a technology called Intellitxt. It uses a process similar to Google's AdWords that analyzes words on the page and links to relevant ads. Vibrant boasts 150 publication clients. The one singled out, however, is Forbes.com, which has stated that its participation is on a trial basis. Jim Spanfeller, CEO and president of Forbes.com, told The New York Times that the company would walk away from the practice if readers "indicated confusion or disapproval of the ads within the editorial community." Considering the fact that Forbes.com still employs the technology, readers apparently haven't yet protested en masse. DM News, a direct-marketing trade, reported that the firm began using the technology in June. But that doesn't mean everyone likes it. "It's crossing a line that shouldn't be crossed" for objective news sites, Adam Penenberg, a media columnist at Wired News, told PRWeek. Penenberg wrote an August 18 column titled "This Headline Is Not for Sale," in which he stated his view regarding the separation of church and state - editorial and advertising. He has no problems with tower and banner ads, and freely admits that the media's acceptance of ads is what pays his salary. What irks him is the creeping of advertising into the actual content. Impact on PR While many in the editorial community - from newsweekly-magazine editors to those trying to build a blog empire - have assailed the technology for bleeding into its pages, the technology also raises the question of how this affects PR and the traditional media pitch. "There's always been an invisible wall between advertising and PR," says Wayne Schaffel, an account supervisor at Euro RSCG Magnet. The traditional media pitch - between writers and publicists - could be nearing a makeover. The major concern is whether or not media pitches that successfully get into publications will have ads from competitors in the content. Penenberg uses as a hypothetical example a publicist who pitches a client, a security software company, to a webzine that covers security issues. He wonders what would happen if that webzine uses Intellitxt ads and has a competitor as a client. Schaffel has the same concern. "If [my client] is in a roundup story with other like-minded companies, that's one thing," he says. "As a PR guy, I worry that my article is being submitted as a possible way for the publication to advertise the competitor." Giovanni Rodriquez, a VP at Eastwick Communications, Vibrant Media's PR agency of record, says that while competitors' ads would run in such articles occasionally, the publisher and writer are blind to the content. Debbie Weathers, director of communications for Forbes. com, echoes those sentiments. Put simply, companies can bid on a word, which would link to an ad for their service or product. However, they cannot bid for ads based on the subject of the story. If that bid-upon word shows up in a story about a competitor, it is possible that an ad to the company will be in that space. Rodriquez notes that Vibrant Media does not allow companies to "poach" their competitors' names. Reebok, for instance, could not bid for ads linked from the word "Nike." Despite the potential for a rival's ad showing up in a company's story, Rodriquez argues that good content pitched effectively by the PR firm will keep the reader interested and, therefore, mitigate the ad. In a Forbes.com article, "Monday Matchup: PlayStation 2 Vs. Xbox," accessed on August 20, a link on "PlayStation 2" popped up an ad for eBay. Hani Durzi, the senior manager of corporate communications for eBay, declined to comment because, he says, the company doesn't typically discuss its advertising placement. "We just work with the editorial staffs of the media outlets that either contact us or we target," he adds. "From a PR perspective, our focus is only on impacting editorial coverage." Durzi says that his media outreach wouldn't be affected if there was the potential that a publication might link to a competitor in a story about the company. "Does it impact our PR strategy or do we think about it? No," he says. "Just like we can't impact the banner ads that happen to pop up where people might get editorial coverage." With PR often jockeying for prestige and budgets in the marketing mix, such a scenario could throw a prime media placement into disarray. But Rodriquez says that services like Vibrant's only further validate the PR pro's role. "My strong bias is that this contextual-ad development just shows how important PR is because, in the end, the thing that matters to readers is the content." Asked if she felt using Vibrant Media could jeopardize Forbes.com's relationship with PR pros, Weathers, its communications director, wrote via e-mail, "Not that we're aware of at this point." But she echoes Spanfeller's comments to the Times by saying that if feedback indicates that there is a problem, it will make up part of the publisher's evaluation at the end of the summer. Possible negative effects Wired News' Penenberg does think the advertising format could tread on the toes of PR. "Why would I bother to hire a publicist on a retainer when I can pay [for Intellitxt advertising] on heavily trafficked websites?" he asks. "The advertising might provide more bang for my buck." Given the frequent grappling between advertising and PR in the wider area of marketing, it is possible that some clients may feel that a media pitch will only be effective if it is backed up by an ad spend. With a service like Vibrant Media, it is theoretically possible that a company pitching a story could also place an ad within the body of that story. But Schaffel wonders about the potential benefits of such an approach. "Even if I did both the advertising and PR for a client, I'm not sure why I would want to do it," Schaffel says. "Why I would want to embed an ad into my own story?" Rodriquez disagrees. "It's a particularly effective move to have both ads and content there," he says. But Schaffel worries that placing an advertisement in a story he pitched would tarnish the relationship with the reporter. That scenario differs greatly from an advertorial, which is clearly written as a promotional piece, he points out. He argues that if he were to get a client a feature story online and the client also embeds an ad in the story, the journalist might feel slighted and think that Schaffel had turned his story into an advertorial. A more innocuous way of using paid links, he suggests, is paying a nominal fee for a direct link to the company's website, rather than "a technology that can be used to help my competitors but it doesn't promote the editorial/PR relationship." Schaffel says he has a relative involved in interactive television who predicts that the future will provide the ability to order a pizza through the television when a Domino's commercial comes up. Schaffel wonders, "What if KFC had a pop-up ad [during the Domino's ad] saying, 'Don't buy pizza, buy chicken'?" This sort of thing directly affects the advertisers, who, he says, "would be screaming bloody murder." Therefore, Schaffel says, if any discipline brings an end to the trend of ads embedded in editorial content, it might not be PR or journalism, but advertising.

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