Consumers Want It Both Ways: Free Content With No Tracking

    by John Dick
    March 3, 2015
    Photo by Shannon Kringen on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    The following piece is a guest post. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

    Columbia University President Lee Bollinger told Bloomberg recently that he believes we need international standards on freedom of the press. He said that the U.S. is the most protective of expression and free speech of any nation. When “Freedom of the Press” was first espoused by America’s founding fathers and mothers, the intent was to ensure that media could operate independently and without intervention from government. Preserving those virtues, the founders believed, was essential to maintaining an informed public and a healthy democracy.

    "Is sponsored content an acceptable solution? If not, what sacrifices are readers willing to make for trusted reporting?"

    Clairvoyant as they were, it’s doubtful that the founders contemplated a time when a free press would be threatened more by commercial trappings than by political ones. But, as economics and business models have changed — brought on largely by the ubiquity of the Internet — the romantic notion of a truly free press seems to be in jeopardy. Even the most revered news publishers are struggling to find sustainable revenue models in the modern age. People who, for centuries, thought nothing of paying for a newspaper or magazine, now feel jilted when asked to pay for the same content in digital form. Online and mobile ad sales can’t support the robust professional newsrooms once funded by the proceeds of print subscribers, classifieds, and full-page ads. The economics simply don’t work.


    So, publishers have turned to creative revenue streams, none more controversial than so-called “sponsored content” or “native advertising”, which skirt the boundaries between news that is objective and news that is manufactured by the highest bidder. Where once a paid article in a newspaper was plastered with disclaimers of “ADVERTISEMENT,” the new iteration is often indiscernible from editorial content. Critics argue that this compromises the integrity of professional journalism. Sympathizers say it’s a necessary evil, if we are to preserve any semblance of a real newsroom.

    What do consumers think? Do they care if publishers mix paid articles with independent ones, so long as they can continue to read for free? Do they mind if their web browsing behavior and other data are used by publishers to sell more profitable ads? Are they even all that concerned about the future of professional journalism at all?

    I’m glad you asked.


    Do People Care About Preserving Objective Journalism?

    Just a few months ago, we used the CivicScience polling and data analysis platform to analyze how a representative sample of U.S. adults feel about the state of news journalism and how they believe its challenges should be solved. Let’s start by looking at how concerned people really are (see image below).


    Overall, 48 percent of respondents say they are “very concerned” about the issue of preserving objective journalism, with about 76 percent claiming to be at least somewhat concerned. Those more likely to rank themselves as most concerned are over age 45 and have higher educations, likely thanks to life experiences shaping their opinion. To give these numbers context, I queried our database to see how it lines up with a mix of other issues we track. Objective journalism and news reporting falls somewhere in the middle, between public education (in which 91 percent of U.S. adults voice concern) and the quality of public transportation (41 percent). It ranks somewhat higher than climate change and the environment (68 percent).

    So while it may not be one of the top issues of concern, the data show that at least people aren’t ambivalent about the future of journalism. Faith in humanity renewed. But what to do about it?

    When we ask consumers about sponsored content and its implications, we see that the reaction is decidedly negative, with 61 percent of U.S. adults believing it hurts credibility:

    question_2 (1)
    Those 61 percent overall look similar to the general population in terms of gender, age, and income, although they are slightly more likely to be better educated.

    If sponsored content isn’t an acceptable answer to publishers’ revenue challenges, then what is?


    Advertising is the overwhelming No. 1 answer in the eyes of consumers, selected by 47 percent of respondents among our four presented funding options. However, you could interpret this another way: Almost half of adults believe journalism should be funded in other ways, either by fees, taxes, or philanthropy. The challenges with the direct funding solutions, however, are daunting. Charitable giving fluctuates violently based on economic conditions. Government funding is anathema for taxpayers and threatens the strict interpretation of a “free press.” Finally, 15 percent of people who are willing to pay personally for news content can hardly sustain a robust news industry. That brings us back to advertising.

    The Tension Between Ad-Supported Content and Consumer Privacy

    In the competitive world of online advertising, publishers need to become increasingly sophisticated to ensure sustainable levels of profitability. More and more, publishers are shifting to “programmatic” models, whereby ads are personalized for site visitors based on their online behavior. For this to work, consumers need to consent, either explicitly or implicitly, to having their behavior monitored in this way.

    But, how can this data-sharing between publishers and users be reconciled with growing concerns over data privacy? We tried to gain some insight into that as well:


    The results paint a dreary picture for publishers and advertisers, with 55 percent of consumers saying they’re bothered greatly by the idea of behaviorally targeted online ads — and a total of 79 percent of consumers being at least a little bothered. Demographically, those respondents who are most bothered by this advertising approach look pretty close to the general population but have higher-than average concerns on data privacy issues in general.

    Consumers and Publishers Need to Get on the Same Page

    The harsh reality is this: Consumers can’t have it both ways. They can’t hope to ensure the future of objective professional journalism and free content, without some data-sharing concessions. So, what can publishers do to ease this tension?


    When it comes to web users sharing information online, the majority of adults, at 68 percent, are most concerned that they don’t know how that information is being used. While a lot of online companies, like Google and Blue Kai, allow web users to see the information being collected about them, these results suggest that the focus should be on explaining what exactly is being done with that information. The biggest culprit in the advertising/privacy conundrum is a lack of transparency, not the data itself.

    People have made two things crystal clear: They care about the future of objective professional journalism and the most desired (or at least tolerable) revenue model for content publishers to preserve it, quite simply, is advertising. For all of this to work, publishers and consumers need to find common ground and an open dialog like this:

    PUBLISHER: “We are deeply committed to delivering objective, trusted, and free content. But we can only continue to do that if you, the consumer, contribute something to the cause.”

    CONSUMER: “Shove products in our face. Hoodwink us into clicking your banner ad or ‘liking’ you on Facebook. Share our data with ad networks and data brokers. Just don’t make us pay to read your content. And be transparent about what you’re doing with our information. We’ll even read your ‘sponsored’ content, most likely. Just make sure we can tell the difference.”

    Let’s all have that conversation.

    John Dick is the Founder and CEO of CivicScience Inc., the leading platform for intelligent polling and real-time consumer insights. He is a serial entrepreneur and business development executive with experience launching and growing innovative companies in established markets. Prior to CivicScience, he was founder and President of GSP Corp, a government affairs consulting firm that was eventually sold in 2007. John began his career as a press aide in the U.S. Senate. He is a graduate of Rollins College and a frequent lecturer at academic and industry events.

    Tagged: funding journalism native ads privacy publishing sponsored content

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