“Of course you’ll do a story on us,” replied a customer when discussing advertising. My reply was not what he wanted to hear. “ Well, we believe we should do anything and everything we can do to help our customers build their business… but we do not link a quid-pro-quo to advertising.”

Selling editorial is the second oldest profession and is right up there with the oldest profession. It’s a natural for people to want coverage and those of us in the publishing business are usually willing to offer it if there is reason for a legitimate story. However tying it to advertising has a downside…. Readers always know.

In fact I avoid anything that smacks of selling editorial. I remember being impressed with Schiller & Bodo and decided to have our editorial people write a profile on the gallery. In turn they suggested they buy an ad in that issue. “Absolutely not,” I suggested. “I don’t want to make my readers think you bought that story. If you want to advertise, that’s fine but do it in any issue other than the one featuring your story.” I believe Lisa Schiller was appreciative that we would protect their integrity as well as ours.

I once started a magazine called STREAMING. I was convinced by the man I hired to run the publication that we should offer coverage in the magazine in exchange for advertising. My gut instinct was to not do it, but I decided it would be worth considering since I had never done it. The magazine was a run-away success. We got loads of advertising and did loads of stories on our advertisers. This was destined to be one of the great ad successes of the magazine world. We were fat with ads and fat with stories about our advertisers. Our advertisers loved it…. Until they stopped loving it.

It turns out that our readers realized that advertisers had paid for their stories (or received them as a payback for an advertising commitment) and over time it started to backfire on the advertisers and especially on us. Advertisers were telling us that readers were complaining that our entire editorial content was bought. We had two great years… and then it all came crashing down once the readers stopped reading it. The story has a mixed blessing. We made a lot of money in those two years and then in year three we had to close the magazine. Short term success, long term failure.

The ultimate compliment is when a reader decides to pay money to purchase your magazine and when they agree to choose to spend their valuable time reading your content. They feel betrayed when they learn the content is driven by advertisers. Readers will  respond until they start to see patterns and realize that stories on advertisers relate to the same people advertising. It’s been going on for decades and in most cases the same thing happens….readers go away. This is why publishers who have long term goals of credibility avoid short term gains which kill their credibility.

Don’t misread this. All smart publishers will seek opportunities to help the people who support them, but there is a fine line between helping an advertiser and an advertising agreement which is tied to editorial. Readers feel betrayed by the publication and by the advertiser. Though there may be short term gain there can be long term reputation damage, which is difficult to repair. It’s easy to be seduced by print coverage but would you read a magazine if you knew every story was paid? Probably not.