[UPDATE 4 Sept: I have updated this post to the original draft, which includes specific and strong recommendations to publishers and marketers. They had been redacted, but a colleague asked "What would you DO about this?" so I saw fit to reinclude them. These are my answers; there are no easy solutions, but these are a step towards guidelines. Updates at the end of the piece, in bold.]

Publishers Are Engaged In Self-Harm, With Marketers As An Accessory

You remember when the email spam problem maxed out almost a decade ago? Or when content farms threatened to turn Google search results into useless piles of keyword-slurry? Or peak belly fat?

There should be a word for the moments when the mechanisms that aim to keep our electronic information corridors running well fail.

It’s shaping up to be one of those moments for the content distribution space (and particularly its subdiscipline native advertising, or sponsored content).

You can pity the reader who arrives at an article on many publishers’ websites today; I’m talking about you, Guardian and Forbes, but also you, New York Times and Washington Post. How is the reader to know if the article they’ve come to read is the product of a straightforward pay-to-publish play, an informal “link exchange” relationship, an “influencer” play, an independent opinion piece, or a piece of pure editorial? They can’t.

For the record: The “clear labeling” commandment is a fig leaf. By the time a reader has gotten so far through the article that they’re wondering why it keeps promoting a particular mindset, product, or opinion and started searching for cruft around the article, the trust in the information, the source, and the medium is lost.

Recent studies from both Contently and Edelman/IAB highlight the trust issue and encourage publishers and marketers to pay attention to it. They recognize that this is an educational and cultural process, one that will take both publishers and marketers a while to master. And they’re trying to help, which is good.

What they’re not taking into account is the current situation, which is a hot mess. Currently readers/consumers are coming out big losers. And – all wishes and hopes for future improvement aside – that is a catastrophe for anyone who engages in publishing on the Internet.

Another for the record: Source is a big f’ing deal. And publishers are treating it as if it weren’t. Either they are, on one hand, saying readers are savvy enough to figure out who is behind a piece of content, or they are, on the other, saying it doesn’t even matter. No. Both beliefs are failures of responsibility.

When branded content appears promoted in a Facebook feed, readers get it. They’re accustomed to encountering multiple sources there, and – while it’s a UX minus – they understand where the information is from and why it’s there.

Most online publishers are not Facebook. They don’t clearly present feeds from many sources, some of which are clearly paying for the privilege.

People want to see where their content is from and why it’s there. And any confusion on that front is not acceptable. Publishers are opening the doors to the kinds of lead-generating hordes who have made email, comments and search results horrible in the past.

Here is what would happen at a media brand that cares about its future:

  1. Brand-influenced feeds need to be separated from the masthead. Putting a fat disclaimer across the top of sponsored content does not allow you to pipe that content anywhere. Give brands help with content creation and distribution, but keep it well away from your own media brand.
  2. Sourcing and disclaimers need to go right into the first sentences of the body content, not the wrapper/pagecruft. That includes references to casual “influencer”-style relationships.
  3. And, until further notice, media brands should even consider proactively stating that articles are not the subject of paid sponsorship deals when they are not. That is, readers will assume content is sponsored until they are told differently, explicitly.

And if you’re a marketer, as an accessory, the most important contribution you can make (aside from stipulating the above) is to:

  • Resist establishing specific targets for content distribution performance. The moment performance gets a benchmark, it pretty much absolves any employee, supplier or partner of the need for scruples downstream (“We had a target to hit. Full stop.”)

This might sound draconian, but it’s actually necessary. Content distribution is in an ugly place right now, it threatens to get uglier, and the fallout could be very bad. We can almost live with not knowing how or why a creepily targeted banner ad appeared on a page; we cannot live with not knowing how or why the information we seek from media sites got there.