'Corrosive' online editorial ad stream is trialled in UK

UK publishers are experimenting with a new revenue stream that activates pop-up advertisements when a reader rolls a mouse over sponsored words within editorial content.

Journalists at US titles Wired and The New York Times have raised questions about the ethics of using the pop-ups and according to Bob Steele, who writes on ethics for the US-based Poynter Institute, they could be ‘potentially quite corrosive of journalistic quality and credibility”.

The ads are already being used in the UK by companies including Sky Sports, Dennis Publishing and the Daily Mirror. And the Daily Telegraph and Incisive Media have confirmed they are experimenting with the service.

The Guardian looked at using the pop-ups in 2004 and 2005, but decided against it. Guardian head of digital media development Tom Turcan said: ‘Even the commercial people hate the user experience. As well as the user experience being affected it is combining commercial and editorial too closely for people here.

‘There is a suggestion that there might be certain circumstances, when you already know you are in a commercial context and definitely not editorial, that it could be useful, though we are not currently looking into using this.’

Incisive Media began a three-month trial across many of its IT Pro sites and Accountancy Age titles in October, and will publish a user survey to determine whether to use the system permanently.

Managing director of Incisive Media’s digital division John Barnes disputes that the service, provided by Vibrant Media, blurs the lines between editorial and advertising.

He said: ‘Vibrant is saying to companies like IBM, ‘if you want to target this type of campaign to these kinds of people then we would recommend these sites and these types of words’.

‘That way there is no danger of compromising the editorial. We are not getting our editors to write stories with certain words in; we are writing stories and Vibrant is matching them with their campaigns.

‘It’s a new revenue stream which is much more like a classified revenue stream. Classified should be accounting for 10 to 20 per cent of your revenue, so if it works this product will be accounting for 10 to 20 per cent of my total revenue.

‘The thing people would want to look out for is sponsoring words such as ‘honesty’, ‘integrity’, ‘guaranteed’ which could be deemed misleading in the way advertising standards might operate.”

Responding to criticisms about the user experience being affected, Barnes said the new pop-ups were less intrusive than flashing ads, roll-overs and pop-ups that currently exist online, and that no more than two links were being used per story on his sites.

Vibrant Media’s editorial team works with advertisers to develop a list of words and phrases relevant to their campaigns. The group then monitors each campaign to ensure the words are directly relevant to the content.

A Vibrant spokesman said: ‘With all campaign words we ensure that there is a relevant link between the word choice and the advertiser’s campaign. For this reason we recommend that brand terms are mentioned in the advertising copy to ensure that users understand the connection.”

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