This past summer entertainment magazine Mental Floss took an online survey of their readers, asking for their opinions about a “How To” series that they were putting together and wondering what kind of tricks are skills that their readers would like to learn so that they could be included in the series.
Once they had those ideas, they turned them into “posts” on their online site with display ads on each page that were paid for by Dos Equis, the beer manufacture, and included references to their product. This so-called “native advertising” is making the rounds of some venerable publications as well, including the New Yorker, Forbes and The Atlantic. Mental Floss, a more entertainment oriented and less straight news, was well prepared for this new advertising that tends to blur the lines between editorial content and sales content.
While Mental Plus doesn’t print much more than 160,000 magazines every run, they actually saw just over 2 million unique visitors on their website in August. Their native advertising program with Dos Equis will feature 20 ad pieces created by the actual editors of the website on behalf of the Dos Equis brand.
With names like ”How To Send Smoke Signals” and “How To Open Champagne With a Saber” the native advertisements have been highly successful in terms of driving online web traffic. In fact all 3 of their first videos had over 100,000 views.
In the minds of some critics, however, Mental Floss may have gone too far by erasing what little was left of the distinction between its editorial content and its advertising content.
That doesn’t seem to be a concern for Will Pearson, president of Mental Floss. The Dos Equis’ branded content, as far as he sees it, is material that their publication would’ve posted anyway and thus not advertising. Advertising clients are better served, in Pearson’s opinion, when people in the editorial department are the ones creating content In Pearson’s opinion the editorial department knows the audience better than the marketing department anyway and thus are better equipped to create content that will appeal to them.
The way he sees it, by producing content that reflects the advertisers message, their advertising is more of an infomercial than a true ad. “We wrote this content; we have editorial control over this content. It just aligns with their messaging.” Pearson explained.
Meant Floss, as an added bonus for creating that “alignment”, is suddenly richer for it to the tune of six figures.
Of course Mental Floss is no The Atlantic. In fact, as a web property, it’s more like a BuzzFeed, who ran a native ad recently called “10 Haircuts Every Man Wants to Forget” that was sponsored by Target. BuzzFeed (and thus Mental Floss) can actually get away with something like this whereas with The Atlantic there was more backlash when they ran off brand sponsored articles that were written by the Church of Scientology.
In the end his goal is simply to give people something fun and interesting to read. “I recognize we’re a knowledge brand, but were also an entertainment brand.” said Pearson.
But Andrew Sullivan isn’t buying it. A prominent blogger and emerging media figure, he believes that native advertising is going a step too far. In a recent op-ed piece he wrote that ”Business models that treat journalism as a tool primarily for advertisers will kill journalism in the end,”.
John McCarus, senior vice president of brand content for Digitas, is one guy who’s not wringing his hands just yet. “There has to be a way for readers to understand what they’re getting” he says. As far as McCarus is concerned, reader response will determine if they care (and if they don’t) about this new advertising trend.
Joe McCambley believes that Mental Floss is pushing the envelope, but the founder of The WonderFactory isn’t convinced that it’s actually a bad thing. In his opinion, it’s actually an envelope that needs to be pushed. The way he sees it, if advertisers want content that looks like editorial, they have to start thinking like a publisher.
His only caution is that publishers may open up their CMS too far to brands and agencies, a step he believes will have a detrimental effect on advertising overall. The way he sees it, in advertising, everything has a tendency to average out to “mediocre”.
“Once you start ceding editorial product to agencies, you’re on a train to mediocre.”