Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Is it that thing real?

Q. When is an article not an article
A. When it's an ad!

For the past several weeks I've been on a tear about how the computer industry markets its products. First, I complained about the misuse of statistics. Then it was a general rant about ridiculous marketing. Now I want to turn my gaze toward the world of technical periodicals.

Don't get me wrong, technical magazines and websites are a great resource. They often have important news and, on occasion, thought provoking articles. I myself have written for some of the better technical publications that focus on data storage or open source software. Sometimes I'm even paid for these articles. Industry journals are important if you want to remain informed about the computer industry. They are also a legitimate component of a computer industry marketing campaign.

The problem is that too much content is not independent content. A lot of it is actually advertising disguised as independent content. This is different than ad supported content which is typical of news sites, newspapers, and most magazines. We expect to find ads on websites and in periodicals. It is also easy to tell what's an ad and what isn't. This is a good synergy. You read about something that interests you and there is an ad to help you get just that thing. Sure, the vendor wins but so does the consumer.

What I dislike is when the line between ads and content blurs, or worse, is trampled on. This happens in two ways. First, many of the articles in trade magazines and websites are provided by the vendors. This immediately makes them suspicious. However, that only means that you have to take them with a grain of salt. You need to remember that the article is there to get you interested in buying something. Since periodicals invariably tell you who wrote the article and what company they are with, you can tell pretty easily when something is vendor supplied. Most editors also clamp down on articles that are just sales pitches. There is something of an art to writing an article that gets your company's message across while not appearing like a sell sheet. As long as you keep in mind that they didn't write the article just to be nice, it can have a lot of value.

As an aside, my experience has been that buying ads doesn't get you coverage. The sales folks might get the editorial staff to meet with you but they rarely have much influence beyond that. The editors really don't like to print garbage or sales pitches. That's important to the sales force too. They know darn well that readership will decline if bad articles are printed, especially ones that are blatant sales devices. That, in turn, will drive their audited circulation and impressions numbers down, diminishing what they can charge for an ad. It's stupid to overtly cross the line.

Still, some magazines and websites are so heavily laden with vendor articles that they may as well be sales brochures. Although it seems like a win-win (the magazine gets content and the vendor get exposure) it makes the audience wary, maybe even jaded.

Even articles by analysts need to be viewed with a skeptical eye. While myself and my brethren analysts try very hard to remain independent of vendors, the pressure to promote their point of view and products is enormous. More than that, there is a natural hesitation to criticize clients and potential clients or their technology. Complete honesty may be valued in society by not in business. We tend to live by the old rule “if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” Everyone has their biases and ours are shaped, in part, by our clients.

To avoid the obvious negative consequences of too many vendor articles many periodicals and websites will create advertisements that look like articles. When these first appeared over ten years ago, it was obvious that they were paid placement. Not only was the word “advertisement” prominent but the ad was set using different fonts and graphics. Over time, the “advertisement” notice has gotten smaller and in some cases disappeared altogether. Worse, the articles are being designed to look just like the rest of the journal or site. I ran across one of these recently. It seemed like a normal article yet was so unabashedly promoting a vendor that I couldn't imagine a journalist writing it. The lack of a byline (something few authors would tolerate) was a giveaway. Then, at the bottom, in the type of fine print usually reserved for ripoff contracts, were the words “Paid Advertisement”. I actually had to get a magnifying glass to read it. Otherwise, it was indistinguishable from the rest of the magazine. Mind you, this happens in mainline business press, not just techie publications. It's positively endemic.

There are some obvious ethical questions about this type of infotisement. Even infomercials have a massive disclaimer at the beginning and end of the “program”. The style and content of informercials make it obvious that this is not a normal TV program. Paid magazine articles, on the other hand, can almost seem like they designed to deceive. They give the impression of journalism to a sales pitch. Like I said, I have nothing against advertisements, as long as they look like advertisements. Obviously look like advertisements.

Why care? Simple, deception destroys the relationship between the information source and the consumer. Ultimately is sours the relationship with the advertiser. That can't be good for anyone. As consumers we should expect more. I don't expect vendor articles to go away, nor should they. Paid advertisements masquerading as legitimate, independent, content should be expunged.

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