Balancing sponsorships and authenticity
I was reading a small, relatively unknown blog the other day while looking for some pointers on setting up eBay accounts. Within a minute or so of reading, I realized that the entire point of this blog’s existence was for link bait, referral links, and cross-promotion. I clicked through a few more articles just to make sure that I wasn’t missing something, and I came to a post where the author was endorsing a product. There was a badge on the post that read something to the effect of `sponsored post, real opinion’. Many other posts were just thinly veiled attempts at dropping a sponsored link, many of which were affiliate links.
I realize that for-profit blogs need to make money somehow, but some sites seem to manage it better than others. Blogs that have a strong editorial opinion seem to make sponsorship more believable. Blogs that are neutral or that seem to waffle on opinions are easy to discredit when mentally evaluating a post’s authenticity.
Some say that we are entering an attention economy. I support this view, as we are seeing that attention really is a zero-sum game, and where there is scarcity, there is the potential for an economy. However, in addition to attention, authenticity is a requirement to get a potential customer’s permission. Permission marketing is a concept pioneered by author / speaker Seth Godin in which a seller earns the privilege of delivering his message to the consumer.
Without rambling on much longer, I’d like to present as a case study the periodical Tape Op. Tape Op is a magazine that serves the sound recording engineering community. What makes it so unique is that it is a free publication that is entirely supported by advertisements. Not only that, it is a free print publication, issued six times a year. Despite the large number of sponsors and advertisements that appear in the magazine, the articles remain extremely neutral and unbiased. In the audio world, where everything is subjective and endorsements can make or break a company, this is no small feat.
How does Tape Op manage to keep its level of credibility so high despite the massive commercial interests required to keep it running? I don’t know exactly, since I’m not affiliated in any way other than as a subscriber, but I’ll venture to guess. It probably starts with editor Larry Crane. Larry is the owner of Jackpot! recording studio in Portland Oregon, which is a highly regarded recording studio for independent music. Larry brings a lot of recording `street cred’ to the table, and has attracted people of similar credibility as collaborators and contributors. As a result, the community that has grown around the magazine has placed a lot of trust in the magazine.
On the flip side, advertisers are very attracted to this dedicated community of readers. I have noticed that Tape Op tends to attract very impressive advertising clients. Most of the ads run are for high-end gear by companies that also run ads in much bigger magazines such as EQ and Sound On Sound.
Wrapping things up, I won’t name the blog that I used as the negative case study, but I really think that Tape Op represents a really amazing match-up of advertisers and the target audience. There is a ton of advertising in the pages of the magazine, but all of the products are genuine and the articles aren’t affected. I get a free magazine with great articles, and the advertisers get to reach me without offending me. Everyone wins.