Working in the digital marketing industry has given me a sort of backstage pass to the 24-hour-a-day variety show that is online advertising. As the Internet displaces print, television and other traditional media outlets, businesses and marketing strategists are doing whatever they can to attract and keep ad dollars coming in. While some businesses manage to keep up with the ever-shifting online advertising landscape, others need more time and resources to get their act together.
And although the majority of digital marketing firms, online publications and large brands carefully craft creative and effective campaigns, digital marketing is still a relatively young industry — so it’s pretty much inevitable that some campaigns will hit a wrong note or bomb altogether. It looks like The Atlantic learned that the hard way this week with sponsored content from the Church of Scientology; after less than 12 hours on The Atlantic‘s website, the effusive and disturbingly salesy piece was taken down and an apology was tendered to readers.
Like most mainstream online publications, The Atlantic runs sponsored content on their sites to generate revenue. Choosing and publishing sponsored content is always a balancing act between the right content and the right target audience; and a digital marketing campaign that entices click-through with genuinely interesting and useful content is usually more successful than interruption marketing tactics like pop-ups or splash page videos. This kind of permission-based advertising is working out well; according to a study by the Content Marketing Institute, 55 percent of business-to-consumer marketers plan to increase their content marketing spend in 2013.
But the failure of sponsored content tends to reflect a misreading of a publication’s audience, which is demonstrated by the near-instant backlash heaped onto The Atlantic from all corners of the social media chattersphere, including several Atlantic staffers. There’s also a real discussion to be had about the ethics of sponsored content that masquerades as journalism. But just like the commercials that air between segments of your favorite TV show or the previews shown before a movie in a theater, consumers have the choice to skip or ignore them. And Internet users must accept that if publications provide their audiences with free content, advertising must be a part of the equation.
Whether an online publication is a startup or a venerable magazine, investing time and money into targeting its audience is imperative. Trading readers for ad dollars rarely ends well—and although The Atlantic is sure to weather this storm, other publications that make the same mistakes could end up committing social media suicide.