Should publications try to fool the reader?
The obvious answer is no, but perhaps a more nuanced view should rule the day. Maybe it’s OK — dare I say helpful — to fool the reader, if by doing so, the publication serves up information that the reader cares about.
I raise the issue after stumbling across sponsored content on UC Davis’ approach to water management put together by T Brand Studio, the paid content arm of The New York Times. I view T Brand Studio as the gold standard when it comes to paid content. Communicators can learn from the way they bring together storytelling, imagery and an immersive experience into a single package.
The paid content for UC Davis ticks all these boxes (although the programming stays conventional).
So far so good.
The closing graph of the paid content hammers home the UC Davis premise one last time:
“Such collaborative efforts around water and climate change help humans responsibly use natural landscapes. These partnerships hold hope for the management of critical water issues not only in California, but around the world, serving as a blueprint for protecting precious resources.”
But here’s where things get interesting. T Brand Studio has hand-curated three stories from The New York Times that encourage the reader to springboard from paid content to journalism.
After the reader finishes the narrative, do the recommended articles from The New York Times create a halo effect, that it’s all journalism as perceived by the reader?
I don’t know the answer to this question. While T Brand Studio identifies the content as paid by UC Davis, the disclaimer doesn’t exactly scream off the page.
It seems possible that the reader might interpret the related articles as a cue that the main attraction is journalism as well.
One more twist to the plot surfaces when digging into the recommended reading. The NYT story “California Today, Is the Draught Over?” taps two experts for commentary, and one happens to be Jay Lund, the director for the Center for Watershed Sciences — drum roll please — at UC Davis.
I wonder if that was a “sweetener” to close the deal with UC Davis. The NYT doesn’t incur extra cost or work, but UC Davis essentially gets a form of Outbrain for free (and with a CTR that probably puts Outbrain to shame).
Which brings us back to fooling the reader.
As I’ve shared before, I used to believe that the publications trying to fool the reader were putting their brands at risk, that if readers discovered the ruse, they would think less of the publication. Now, I’m not so sure.
It could be that if the content serves the reader — educates and/or offers fresh insights and/or entertains — the reader doesn’t care about the source. No doubt that’s how The New York Times rationalizes the runway afforded T Brand Studio.
The skyrocketing dollars going into paid content seem to support this.
Paid content will tip $20B next year, so readers clearly value this type of content. It stands to reason that publishers are going to milk this revenue stream as they continue to experiment with economic models that can sustain the business of journalism long-term.
Every shekel counts.
Still, it will be interesting to watch how this plays out and if Tier 1 publications like The New York Times eventually experience brand erosion from their treatment of sponsored content.