Advertising Schmadvertising. I’m Talking About Content.

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Even though it’s been around for nearly a decade, advertising on the Internet is still a new medium that’s changing and evolving. It’s not TV. It’s not print. It’s something different. Little by little, the conceptual border between advertising and content is breaking down.

Traditional banner ads are becoming delivery systems for content and promotional material. Click-to-play video ads can turn an ad banner into a video channel. Click-to-call ads can turn an ad banner into a sales or support center by putting a person in voice communication with a sales rep or support person almost instantaneously. And there are interactive banners that serve as miniature Web applications like the ones from Chitika that turn ad space into mini online retail platforms, complete with product descriptions, reviews, search, and comparison shopping.

It’s a mistake to ignore the blurring lines. Ad creators who stick strictly with traditional banners, even if those banners are finely targeted by contextual or behavioral systems, will be left in the dust by those who innovate. I suppose it’s natural to fixate on an advertising mechanism that works in the here and now. And I suppose we’ll always have banners, but creative advertisers, publishers, and marketers won’t be able to avoid the eventual merging of what we take to be advertising with what we take to be content.

Take the new PayPerPost service. Some would consider it sleazy or spammish for advertisers to pay bloggers for editorial content, but that’s beside the point here. Are PayPerPost blog posts something you could consider content? You could, but PayPerPost content is written to specifically promote a product or service. So is it marketing? You’d think so, but you pay for a blogger to write a specific post in the same way you would hire a creative agency to create an advertisement. It’s also organized like an advertising network. So is it advertising? Maybe.

Sooner or later, someone’s going to come along with a great new idea and create a revolution that results in a new way of selling ideas and brand images online. After all, advertising isn’t about selling products. It’s about selling ideas. And while it’s great that we have new ways of tracking and targeting advertisements through click, impressions, timeshares, and whatnot, in the end, the customer doesn’t care. The customer cares about the customer. They want to know, “Will that product or service you’re hawking make my life easier/better/safer?” And if it won’t, then “You’d better not spam me again, spammer!” Customers don’t care if you’re being paid per-click, per-impression, or per-diem.

On the one hand, it’s dishonest to pass off advertising as content. Besides, website visitors are usually smart enough to tell the difference between honest content and stuff that’s been polished-up and oversold by a PR person. That’s cheesy. The blending of content and advertising I’m talking about is much more subtle. In the future, customers may visit a site for the advertising. It’s like corporate blogging. I like cars, and I occasionally read GM’s Fastlane blog. I go there for the content. But that content is about GM cars, and will invariably promote GM products.

There are two problems that the creative online ad revolutionist has to overcome. The first is the network. A unique one-shot ad campaign may make a splash, but it will never start a revolution unless it’s connected to a system that will let advertisers and publishers collaborate on similar campaigns ad infinitum. If there is a network structure in place, not only can the methodology of this (currently) fictitious future ad platform spread to many different advertisers and publishers, but it will also prove that such a platform can regularly generate income for publishers and ROI for advertisers.

The second problem is one of disclosure. One of the most distinctive things that makes advertising advertising is the fact that an ad is easily identified as such. When advertising and content are blended together, a website visitor needs to be able to tell the difference between promotional content and journalistic content. It’s all about trust.

A reader needs to know if there is a conflict of interest when they read or view something online. Usually it’s obvious, as with PR-style writing or blatant product placement. But when the smooth convergence between advertising and content happens, people will become confused if there is no way to tell one from another, and ultimately develop mistrust for all sites that use such a system.

However it happens, ad and content convergence will be something that people have never seen before. Not on TV. Not in print. It’s a shame that a lot of advertisers and publishers still refer to ads as if they were just another static object to place on a Web page. The question most advertisers and publishers need to be asking themselves is if they are prepared for when convergence comes.

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