I found the Press Gazette’s recent article about “pay-to-play editorial” fascinating. Paying to get coverage is not uncommon in B2B media, and money is not a good way for journalists to select the stories they cover. On the other hand, paid editorial keeps some publications afloat, and without it, we’d see fewer titles in many B2B technology sectors. So, does the good outweigh the bad?

The Good

There are several arguments for publications accepting payment for editorial. In particular I think these are valid reasons that could justify payment for coverage.

Income for Publications

Without doubt, the income from small payments to get editorial coverage can be significant, amounting to thousands of pounds per month. Publishing is a tough business, and we’ve seen many go out of business. I’m pretty sure that,  without the income from these placement charges, some publications would disappear. A broader range of publications had to be a genuine public good, providing competition between different media, and increasing the range of information available to potential customers in the market. There have always been agencies that suggest to clients they eliminate advertising and move their budget to PR, which is dramatically more profitable for the agency. This does nothing to help publications survive, but maybe it’s a reasonable thing to do if it works for clients. (FWIW, at Napier we recommend both advertising and PR, and believe in most cases both are needed for a campaign to be most effective).

Sharing the Financial Burden

Typically only a few organisations are paying for display advertising that is the traditional primary source of income for B2B trade pubs. Is it fair that your adverts fund a publication’s ability to cover your (non-contributing) competitors? Generally publications will ensure they give a “fair” share of coverage to advertisers, but isn’t it even fairer if all companies featured in publications contribute?

Providing Access to Smaller Companies

What if the alternative to paid editorial was that advertisers secured the lion’s share of editorial in a publication? Generally speaking it’s much less than 50% for most B2B publications that don’t have a hard link between coverage and advertising spend, but you could see some publications cutting back on the coverage of non advertisers if they lose payments for coverage. Wouldn’t this be a worse situation, where only the biggest companies who can afford display campaigns have access to editorial? This would not only reduce the diversity of coverage in any one publication, it would potentially reduce access for companies with smaller marketing budgets.

It’s the Future, Boomer!

Paid editorial, or native advertising as the trendy websites call it, is growing rapidly. Maybe this is inevitable, and it’s only the older people in the industry hoping for a continuation of what they knew from the start of their career. Why not embrace the change and accept that it’s going to happen? There is a young audience that are much less worried about it than you old-timers.

It Works for Other Countries

Israel is doing pretty well as a technology hotspot, yet publications directly link paid media spend to editorial coverage, more than any other European country. If it works in Israel, what’s the problem?

The Bad

Paying for editorial coverage is something most journalists dislike. There are some good reasons why it’s wrong.

The Value of 3rd Party Endorsement Disappears

One of the great things about PR is that editorial coverage is seen as being much more convincing than advertising: studies show an article written by a journalist is four or more times as effective as a similarly-sized advert. This is because an advert is from the company trying to sell a product, whereas the journalist is seen as an independent 3rd party, and their view means something. If they are told what to write based on who is paying, then any element of 3rd party endorsement disappears, and PR will be less effective.

Publications Don’t Cover the Best Products or Companies

If editorial is paid-for, the content of any publication will no longer be the best products and leading companies. We’ll be reading about those with the deepest pockets and a willingness to pay for editorial coverage. Ultimately this is going to make publications less valuable, with readers leaving when they don’t find the information they need. Ultimately this will lead to the titles being dumped by the companies that were once willing to pay for editorial, killing the business model and probably killing the publication. It’s also going to be incredibly frustrating for journalists, who won’t be able to chase a story, as they will become a content team for the organisations with the budget to pay for it.

It’s Not Allowed

Perhaps the most compelling argument against paid editorial is that you’re simply not allowed to do it. The article in the PRess Gazette highlights the The Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008, although they are less explicit than the equivalient consumer legislation (The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008) regarding disclosure of payment for coverage. It’s clear, however, that passing off advertising as editorial would be a breach of the Advertising Standard Authority guidelines. These are referred to as the CAP Code (the full name is The UK Code of Non-Broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing). Although the ASA is more limited in sanctions, it can prevent advertising from running if it doesn’t meet the code.

What’s the Solution?

It’s hard to know how this will play out, not least because it has been going on for so long. I suspect paid editorial is here to stay, and we need to hope that it keeps more publications in business, but readers also recognise the higher-quality publications that don’t engage in the practice, and therefore can be trusted far more than the titles whos content is driven by payments. Perhaps this is optimistic, although generally we find clients have a good handle on which publications are driven by money and which are driven by the desire to publish the best content. So maybe readers also know this too.

I’d be really interested in your views – -please add a comment or email me at mike@napierb2b.com.



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