When it’s all pay for play

October 1, 2009

PR is widely recognized as more cost effective alternative to a massive and expensive ad campaign.  The main difference between advertising and PR is the value add inherent in a monthly PR retainer versus the one time cost = one time exposure nature of advertising.  I’m certainly not knocking advertising, for many clients we advocate a hybrid program to maximize coverage and brand awareness.  But it goes without saying that a little PR can go a long way and articles and feature story tends to hold more worth with readers than the ads next to them.

That said, there is a bit of a disturbing trend happening within both mainstream and niche industry publications.  It’s a trend I saw from the moment I set foot in the PR world but one I would argue was instigated by the recession.   The idea of advertorials is certainly a familiar one – pay money for a more editorial type feature in a magazine or publication.   Simple – you know you’re paying for it and the reality is, most advertorials look like, well….advertorials.  They’re easy to spot and although maybe more informative to read than a regular advertisement, still a pay for play scenario.  But there seems to be a severe blurring of the lines lately, due in large part (no doubt) to the extreme budget constraints publishing houses are facing today.  My colleagues and I regularly get emails about award submissions, previously free to enter, now with a hefty fee attached to them – or holiday gift guides and/or buyers guides previously free, now a pay per product deal.

There was even a rumor of a publication making companies pay to have their product reviewed.  That’s the one that really got me.

Here’s the thing – I get it, the financial crisis they’re all facing, I do.  But it’s a dangerous line to walk and it seems the line is getting smaller and smaller.  I see two main problems with the selling as many features of our publication as we can strategy.  One is more obvious – it devalues the actual coverage and editorial you do include.  If the book is 60% or more paid for by the manufacturers covered, it really becomes nothing more than a big book of ads.  And who wants to read that?  The second problem may be less obvious but is probably just as real.  If I advertise in book XYZ, spending $50k or more a year on a regular advertising program and that publication starts offering $3,000 for a product review – why wouldn’t I just pull my regular ads and buy 6 or 7 reviews for the year?  The reviews will probably have more impact on my sales then the ads themselves and I’ll spend around $36k instead of $50k and up.  The publication has just lost $14k of business as opposed to gaining another few thousand in revenue.

I think ultimately, publications have to decide how much they value their audience and what type of media outlet they’re really trying to be.  It’s certainly a delicate balance – staying in business and maintaining integrity but ultimately, I believe that the two have to coexist or the very thing you’re trying to prevent (going out of business) is inevitable anyway.

Posted by: Ashley / follow me on Twitter