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March 4, 2009, 8:31 a.m.

Einstein proves advertising and content are not necessarily opposites

einstein1The current newspaper business revenue crisis has led to some old ideas being dusted off and presented as new (Paid content! Micropayments! Preservation of print circulation!), and who knows? Maybe some of the experiments rumored and foreshadowed in Long Island and Seattle and across the Hearst Empire will net some needed dollars for the ongoing operations.

But what about advertising, which remains a huge part of any revenue strategy? Surely the banner ad isn’t the sum total of our creativity in commerce? Google couldn’t have managed to build the most perfect form of commercial speech on their first try, could they? Where is the creativity in commercials? How can local newspaper companies — with their deep ties into their communities, their newsrooms full of subject-matter experts, and their platoons of sales people — have managed to not move the needle more than a few notches in 15 years of building and selling ads online?

I was wondering this last week as found my mind drifting away from the evening clot of sheet metal and tires inching northwards toward the ‘burbs and thinking about the life of Albert Einstein. My Einstein reverie wasn’t out of the blue; it was prompted by an equal parts funny and entertaining riff by The Chicago Sun-Times’s tech columnist Andy Ihnatko, who was recommending — at length — an audio book about the atomic genius.

And here’s the point: it was an ad. It’s part of a weekly feature on the popular podcasts from Leo Laporte’s TWiT network in which journalist panelists on the showstep ever-so-slightly out of their traditional roles to talk about a book that they love that happens to be available for download as part of an Audible.com subscription.

Listen below as Ihnatko and Laporte talk about Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson.

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Forget TiVo-proof 30-second spots, that’s a 12-minute ad! Or, to be more precise, it’s 10 minutes of interesting and entertaining content that happens to also be the largest part of an ad.

“I love talking about books,” Ihnatko explained in email. “And I love talking about what I’ve been reading. I don’t feel like we’re doing an ad and ‘selling a book’ is the very furthest thing on my mind; I’d be just as happy if they bought the hardcover or the Kindle edition. I’m just here to talk about a cool book for about five minutes.”

And they work. So much so that Audible (owned by Amazon.com), recently re-upped its campaign with TWiT. Dane Golden, TWiT’s president, isn’t sharing specific numbers, but he told me via Skype that the advertiser has been extremely pleased with the results generated by the long-form ads. “People don’t realize what a loyal audience we have,” Golden said. “We were just at Macworld recently and did a live show and asked for a show of hands of how many people subscribed to Audible and I would say about 75% of the audience rasied their hands.”

How many newspapers can say that they’ve helped their local or national advertisers build such a dedicated fan base for an advertiser?

In newspapers, traditionally, we respect The Wall Between Church and State. As we should. But I love how the Audible ads acknowledge the wall by explicitly pointing out that the show is now veering into commercial territory, but that acknowledgement does not cause the journalists in the room to roll up like pill-bugs and refuse to participate. In fact, it’s their journalistic skills which make the ads better.

And it’s that wall, in fact, that gives journalists like Ihnatko the ability to participate in sponsored content without feeling like he’s crossing the line — or even getting close to it. “The fact that it’s someone else entirely approaching the sponsor and making that relationship gives me extra insulation, but on the whole, I don’t see a problem with it,” wrote Ihnatko.

But what if, I wondered, Andy was a book critic, instead of a tech reporter? Would that make the line too close for comfort?

“If I’d built my reputation as a book critic,” Ihnatko continued, “I’d still have no problem with the Audible content; neither would I have a problem (in this scenario) if Barnes & Noble were the sponsor. I’m still recommending books, y’see. Even if Random House were the sponsor, it wouldn’t _necessarily_ be a dealbreaker. Remember that Siskel & Ebert were syndicated by a Disney company, and no movie show had as much integrity and credibility. It can be done, so long as the ads are what pay for the content and not the content itself.”

Ultimately, the success of long-form advertising comes down to the content: Can you engage and entertain the audience long enough to sell that book, that car, those kitchen knives or that Snuggie? The experience of TWiT is just one possible path, but what other opportunities does is suggest for local markets trying to build new and effective ad vehicles online to keep the core business going? Here are a few:

  • A local, weekly review of bicycling routes, sponsored by and hosted by the gearhead bike shop owner.
  • A real-time 20-minute meals weekly video podcast hosted by rotating chefs from local restaurants and sponsored by a newspaper-run discount-dining coupon program.
  • A weekly review of the best used cars to buy in a tough economy, sponsored by Carmax or another super-dealer.
  • The $100 make-over blog, written by staff, participated in by readers, sponsored by Macy’s, and made possible by $100 gift cards that are part of the sponsorship package, duly disclosed.

The point isn’t what products to launch. The point it to stop thinking of advertisements as necessary annoyances, and start thinking of ways that advertising and good, relevant content (not advertorial, which dies at the first twitching of the visitor’s BS meter) can live together in ways that benefit both the consumer and the advertiser. Then you’ve got something that can’t be bid down in the cutthroat CPM marketplace.

TWiT’s Golden again: “Audible isn’t just a service to Leo. It’s education, it’s information, it’s entertainment and it can be woven into almost any conversation because there is a book on there for everyone.”

Which begs the questions: Are there any advertisers in your local market that might have some products that your audience could connect with passionately? Do you think you can make money introducing them to each other? Can you do it and keep your journalistic credibility?

POSTED     March 4, 2009, 8:31 a.m.
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