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We All Lose by Supporting Fee-Based Publications*

*This blog is not referring to paid-for opportunities with professionally-audited, credible industry publications. There are many valuable targeted advertising and sponsorship opportunities that can be an important part of your content marketing strategy.

How many of you marketing professionals have received a call from C-level management with a request to follow-up on a possible editorial lead? It’s an unusual request coming from a corporate executive because most experienced reporters will find a marketing contact on the website or the PR agency contact to ensure they get fast attention. But because management has forwarded what they believe may be a hot editorial lead, you push on to learn more. After investing your team’s time, you find out that these “research editors” have so kindly selected your company/executive to be profiled in their trade publication in a multi-page article. They offer to conduct an interview with an executive, take photographs of your facility, executives, products, etc., or maybe even produce a video—all at “no cost to you”.  After doing your due diligence you find out that there is indeed no cost to you, but they do in fact want something. That something may be a list of all of your corporate partners so that they can reach out to them to offer advertising next to the placement of your article. Or, they will give you a full spread but reprint rights and photos require a fee. I’ve heard those requests and many others—there’s always a catch.

The sales person will intentionally bypass the marketing organization because they know we will ask the right questions and quickly decline the “pay-for-play” offer. By going directly to the CEO, CFO, COO or other unsuspecting (read: busy) executive, they may be able to muster some kind of initial interest. If they are really lucky, they get all the way through their “editorial” process before divulging the hidden quid pro quo. According to Brian Krause, Vice President of marketing and communications at global electronics provider, Molex:

“We receive these calls or emails once a week. After vetting a number of these requests over the years we are pretty good at spotting them early, but there have been times when they come through a different path, perhaps offering something new or reaching a new Molex contact. We then go through the time-consuming vetting process to come to the very same conclusion. The answer is always ‘no’.  The latest offering to date came indirectly from a customer. One of these publications tells us that they are working on a 100th Year Anniversary edition in which Molex was offered a full page in the publication highlighting Molex and said customer. In reality these ‘pay for play’ opportunities offer little if any value to Molex or the target company.”

As we have learned over the years, these are not credible editorial-based publications. Rather, they are marketing firms looking to generate revenue by selling promotional content for a fee or other commitment. These organizations are creating paid-for-opportunities to place content. So, why is this wrong?

Because these publications are not credible. They are fee-based media companies that produce sponsored magazines usually boasting a slick design and numerous long-form articles on companies in the industry. However, since their subscriber list is typically not professionally accredited, you do not know if your message is reaching the right audience or any subscribers for that matter. The articles placed are blatantly promotional in nature (e.g., a glowing profile of a company), which further reduces their credibility as an industry resource. And the way in which they secure content sponsorship often lacks both transparency and journalistic integrity.

These fee-based magazines are typically presented as being industry and business focused – highlighting anything from manufacturing to sustainability to the executive suite. Here are just a few ways to spot one of these companies:

  • They do not have BPA or similar credible subscriber audit information available, because none exists.
  • The sales person (“researcher”) will generously offer a multi-page article without any real insight into the company.
  • One way they get paid is by asking for a list of your suppliers or customers. Not unlike a pyramid scam, their intent is to reach out to those partners and ask each to pay for an advertisement in the print location where your company article will be placed.
  • They may describe themselves as “customized” media companies versus a credible resource for industry news, trends, insights, etc.

If you are presented with such an opportunity that perhaps sounds too good to be true, I don’t recommend you engage in these pay-for-play schemes. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Your partners or customers will not appreciate being strong armed to advertise. I have been on the receiving end of this call. This request puts both the customer and sponsoring company in an awkward position (i.e. How do we diplomatically say “no” to a customer?).
  2. As mentioned, they are not accredited publications. You may not find a BPA statement or other credible accreditation on their website or in their media kits.
  3. They are not professional editors. Almost every time I have called to check on one of these requests, I am not greeted with a “Hello, this is John Doe with XYZ Magazine.” Instead, I typically just hear someone say “Hello”. Why? Because they are sales people who do not want you to know they are not editors. I have had many fruitless conversations where I am often struggling to ascertain their role and understand the value of their publication, how they secure subscribers, and ultimately getting them to share how they make money.
  4. Lastly, after all the effort, you really won’t reach your targeted audience. That’s the crux of the problem of supporting fee-based publications.

These companies are more than just annoying, they undermine legitimate industry experts and editors representing solid trade and business publications. Here are a few more reasons why participating is not a good idea:

  1. They waste your executive’s time, potentially his/her staff’s time and you or your team’s time.
  2. They discredit your role in the organization or agency. For example, if you are doing your job correctly, why would an editor go directly to the CEO?
  3. You may be required to respond to your executive’s request to research the opportunity (“can you find out more?”), which means even more time wasted.
  4. You will have to explain, yet again, that these opportunities are of low value and not part of your integrated marketing communications efforts.

The bottom line is do what you do well by continually engaging with trusted editors who are dedicated to reaching and educating your target audiences. They know the landscape and will help you get your message to qualified customers and prospects.

Note: I wrote this blog after receiving yet another request to research one of these pay-for-play publications. If we all are aware and don’t play the game, maybe they will cease to exist?

Have you run across any of these types of pay-for-play opportunities? How did you handle it? Let me know at @cccarroll or www.linkedin.com/in/christacarroll88

christa_colorAuthor: Christa is a Senior Vice President and Industrial and Technology Practice Leader at Outlook Marketing Services.

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