Why journalists shouldn't be afraid of advertisers

Are you afraid of being labeled a shill for advertisers if you get involved in soliciting income for your news website? Don’t be. If there are themes to my writing here on OJR, one of them must be that you can control your own future as a journalist. You need not leave your fate in the hands of others. If you don’t want to be a shill for advertisers, you won’t be.

You don’t have to be afraid of advertisers

In my experience, most advertisers are business people who want to be associated with reputable means for communicating with their customers and potential customers. If they’re going to spend their money advertising with you, they become invested in your success as a journalist and publisher.

People who don’t care about you and your success are not people you want to be doing business with, either as an employee or as an entrepreneur.

Advertising is part of the content of a publication

That’s why advertising works, when it does. Readers come to the publication looking for the advertising information within it, as well as for its editorial content. Don’t buy into the idea that advertising is a necessary evil. It’s simply additional content on the site – content that’s selected not by your editors, but paid for by sponsors whose support helps you pay the expenses of providing your editorial content.

If people don’t see or pay attention to the advertising in your publication, then it is not effective and you won’t be able to earn income from advertising for very long.

You can, and should, develop standards for your advertisers

Just because advertising is paid content in your publication doesn’t mean that you can’t have a say in what it includes and who gets to place it. Every publication should have an explicit standards policy for advertisers. Are there businesses, industries or causes to whom will you not sell ads? Is there anything that must be in an ad placed in your publication? Is there anything you will not allow?

On our violin website, part of our advertising policy states that we will not sell ads to organizations that are on the American Federation of Musicians’ International Unfair List. That’s because my wife is a union musician and she has no desire to do business with or help promote any organization that in a dispute with the union.

Again, you control your business. Advertising contracts should provide mutual benefit. Sure, they get eyeballs and you get cash. But if you feel that an association with a specific advertiser (or type of advertiser) is hurting your reputation, then you’re not getting benefit from that deal. Turn down the business and don’t take the ad. That’s why part of your policy should state that you have the right to refuse an ad placement.

Be respectful of potential sponsor’s time, though. Think about, and state upfront what your criteria for accepting advertisers and creative are, so that other business people don’t waste their time, and yours, developing campaigns that you won’t accept.

You can, and should, develop standards for yourself in selling advertising

If you don’t want to give advertisers control over your editorial content, then don’t. If you don’t want to work on sponsorship issues while you’re working on reporting, writing and editing, then come up with a schedule that divvies up your day or week. Develop procedures for selling sponsorships on your website, then follow them. (Trust me, that makes your life so much easier than simply making things up as you go along.)

Worried about perceptions? Fight them by disclosing your standards. Tell people how you work. Tell people what you do, and what you won’t.

You can, and should, include reader feedback in developing and enforcing your standards

As Dan Gillmor is fond of saying, our readers are smarter than we are. Let their knowledge and experience help you as a publisher. Encourage them to tell you about their experiences with your sponsors. If a sponsor turns out to be the type of business you don’t want to bring to your readers’ attention, then stop selling ads to that sponsor. At the same time, readers can be a great source of leads for landing new sponsors, too. Listen to them.

Never allow information to flow just one-way, from you to your readers. Encourage them to send information back to you, which you can use to clarify your disclosures, change your policies and tweak your sponsorship line-ups, as needed.

You should work to help make your advertiser’s efforts to reach your audience more effective

Remember that, ultimately, you’re not simply selling ad space to sponsors. You’re selling them a solution to one of their problems. Encourage advertisers to place multiple versions of creatives with you, then look at your analytics to learn what works, and doesn’t, in connecting with your audience. If certain ad positions and formats don’t elicit responses, drop them. Experiment with new products, and disclose what you are doing, both to your readers and to your sponsors. Listen to feedback. Learn, and share your knowledge.

What you learn in trying to help your advertisers likely will teach you a few things about how your readers process information on your website in general, too. So you might be able to apply some of these lessons to the design and execution of editorial content on your site, as well.

If you are honest and faithful about developing and disclosing consistent policies toward advertising, your participation in raising money for your website won’t hurt your ability to report the news, and might actually help it, as it brings you in closer communication with your readers and with the business community on your beat.

Don’t be afraid of advertising. Or of advertisers. Take control of your career and your publication. Develop standards. Disclose them. Then invite feedback. Use this opportunity to enhance your reputation as someone whom readers and business people in your community can approach, work with and trust.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.