A Hybrid Media Future

December 20, 2011

In the same week that a leading journalism school predicted the death of most print newspapers within five years, the sale of a blog pointed the way to the likely future of popular media.

ReadWriteWeb, a blog focused on technology issues, was sold for $5 million to a company called SAY Media. A $5 million deal doesn’t sound like much, but this one is significant – because ReadWriteWeb is another piece in a network that SAY Media has been assembling for several years now.

SAY Media owns several dozen niche blogs and websites. Among them are very popular titles like Remodelista, Serious Eats, Dogster, Catster and Fashionista. These sites all mix “real” content, written by web journalists, with sponsored content produced by advertisers that pay to have it run on the site.

There’s nothing shady about it; the sponsored content is clearly labeled as such. But it’s mixed in with the rest of the articles on the site, so it becomes just another choice for the reader.

The theory is that if an item is interesting and on topic for the blog, then the readers won’t care whether it was written by an independent journalist or by a marketing person. If you’re moved to click on “8 Things Your Dog Shouldn’t Eat,” you probably don’t care that the author might be an ex-journalist now working for Purina’s PR firm.

We’ve placed sponsored content on several blogs for our clients. I’ve written some of the items. And they’ve been very successful at drawing traffic for our clients, providing a good return on investment.

In the era now passing, advertisers paid big bucks to promote their products in print and broadcast ads. The newspapers and TV stations, in turn, used those advertising dollars to hire professional journalists to create the content that filled the news pages and airwaves.

In the coming years, you’ll see much more of the hybrid model, with sponsored content mixed in with the independently produced items. Here’s how SAY Media promotes their sites to advertisers: “Our custom marketing programs provide simple and accountable ways for brands to engage passionate audiences at scale.”

Translation: “We’ve created a website that fans of cats – or dogs, or fashion, or computers, or interior design – will enjoy visiting. For a price, we’ll put your content in front of that audience.”

Journalism purists will be aghast. But as long as sponsored content is identified – and, more importantly, as long as it’s something people are actually interested in – I don’t see anything wrong with it.

What’s more, this change is already rapidly taking place. And it’s going to continue, no matter what you or I think of it.

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for MinnPost.com.