Good intentions, and a need to generate revenue, often lead to extraordinary measures taken by commercial Web sites to please advertisers in order to land campaigns.
While this cowboy approach in the Wild West environment of the Web may represent a short-term gain, it could have a serious long-term downside. The question is, can we be saved from ourselves?
Recent announcements of on-line store ventures by news sites speak to the immediate need for advertising standards with respect to editorial coverage. Selling advertising on the Web is a go-go business and has attracted some of the brightest and most entrepreneurial minds in the communications industry.
Put to the task of generating additional advertising revenue from an always increasing but still rather small piece of the advertising pie, these inventive minds create some truly unique and innovative solutions.
BEGINNING OF THE END
But if sites continue down the slippery slope of integrating or even disguising the advertisers' message in editorial content, it won't be long before users begin to doubt the value of what they're reading. When that day comes, it's the beginning of the end for serious marketers on the Web.
Without mentioning any specific sites as examples, so as not to offend any one or two sites when there are many offenders, most of us can think of steps taken in the world of Web advertising that are as yet completely unheard of in any traditional advertising environment.
It's becoming all too common for information from an advertiser to be positioned as news or editorial on content sites. In most magazines, this would be an advertorial and denoted as such. On the Web, it masquerades as news.
Almost as harmful is the sale of ordinary-looking search engine links that are paid-for positions. Certain commercial sites are willing to change the entire user experience to suit advertisers, even to the point of inconveniencing readers or submerging their own identities. Readers have often objected to rich-media ads though some sites have included them at the insistence of advertisers.
Why should we care how the old-line media conducted business? In a word--credibility.
The Web is a fabulous communications channel with the capability to disseminate news and information faster and better than ever before, reaching a potentially larger and clearly more diverse audience than many traditional ad campaigns permit.
VALUE IN QUESTION
But what's the value of that ability to communicate if the user discounts the very worthiness of the message? The point is that without credibility, we're sunk.
Last year it became clear that certain large advertisers were requesting and receiving advance notice when stories deemed likely to be offensive to their company or brand were going to run in certain magazines. Once the issue came to light, the Magazine Publishers of America quickly rallied and forced a public repudiation of that policy by the advertising community. A fight won, credibility maintained.
We need the same sort of watchdog on our side. Left to our own devices, we'll continue testing the waters of this free-wheeling, free-market environment where only the most intrusive or most integrated ideas can attract the revenue we all seek and need in order to grow and continue serving our users.
It's time we band together to draw up guidelines that will be enforced by our advocacy unit, the Internet Advertising Bureau. In the long run, doing so will benefit the consumer, the marketer, and us. Integrity and credibility are not only hard won, but difficult values to restore once lost.
Randy Kilgore is advertising director of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, a paid subscription news site.
Copyright November 1998, Crain Communications Inc.