This guest post is part of a series from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications’ “Captivate”
Much of the digital content industry is lost today in discussions about the blurred line between publisher and advertiser — otherwise known as the divide between church and state. Questions revolve around concerns about consumers’ ability to distinguish editorial from advertising content, whether they understand an ad is not necessarily an editorial endorsement, and what happens if they lose faith in the content publishers work so hard to produce.
Though these are legitimate concerns, the line between media and marketer has already blurred as brands like Red Bull and Kraft excel in the art of creating media, while media outlets like the New York Times and Vox perfect the craft of brand content. In this new reality, it’s not the re-building of a crumbled wall between editor and publisher that’s needed but the raising of a new kind of wall, one which separates click-bait from bona fide content.
New media, new players
Whether they’re brands or publishers, what motivates content producers to go to great lengths to produce high-quality content day after day is the need to engage consumers in meaningful ways. Holding consumers’ attention, maximizing the amount of time they spend with the brand, and provoking the kind of emotion that spurs repeat visits which translate into brand loyalty require content producers to consistently offer substantive, smartly packaged ideas consumers can relate to and interact with.
But blended into the competitive mix is a host of shadier players who survive by capitalizing on the consumer trust which publishers and marketers so painstakingly build. For these “trust parasites” who have optimized themselves to a single purpose — the one-time click — the kind of authentic engagement (consumer time spent, attention gained and emotion aroused) which benefits both consumer and advertiser is wholly irrelevant. By combining endless tracking data with the ping of an advertising server, with no regard for the value of the consumer relationship, trust parasites are able to eat up a disproportionate share of the digital advertising pie.
Though purveyors of trust parasitism may claim their practice hurts no one (and some may even go out on a limb to say it offers some kind of benefit), in truth these kinds of practices threaten to undermine the bond between consumer and content that serves as the backbone of the marketing ecosystem. Fool consumers one too many times and their trust is broken, seriously damaging the credibility of both editorial and marketing content.
The real “church and state” question facing us today is not how we keep advertisers and publishers apart but how we keep quality and credibility quarantined from the damaging effects of parasitic click-chasers. We see this challenge play out almost every day in native advertising, where producers of high-quality content are unfairly associated with pernicious practices like camouflaging paid ads as recommendations (e.g. “You may also like…”) optimized not to provide benefit to the reader but for the sole purpose of garnering one more click.
It’s clear that the industry needs a framework to establish a new divide. Recent research, like DCN’s newly released study, shows that time-based metrics can provide a more accurate assessment of engagement by measuring the amount of time a consumer spends with a brand, as opposed to the number of clicks it gets. With 80 percent of digital publishers saying they are interested in buying and selling ads based on these metrics, this is an encouraging development.
Much like the wall between church and state, the new wall of quality content will have to be re-built every day as unique cases and circumstances arise. But unlike the old wall, this wall will need advertisers, publishers and consumers to cooperate in order to create and maintain it. Only this kind of mutual insistence on quality can ensure the industry continues to produce the energy source which keeps our proverbial lights on — the quality content people trust and value.
Jason Kint is the CEO of Digital Content Next, a trade association that exclusively serves the diverse needs of digital content companies that manage direct, trusted relationships with consumers and marketers. He has a deep passion for journalism and evolving content brands – established and new media alike – into their multi-platform digital future. A 20-year veteran of the digital media industry, he previously led the evolution of CBS Sports into a multi-platform brand offering premier broadcast, online and mobile sports content as SVP and General Manager of CBS Interactive’s Sports Division.