Offer, Don’t Ask: The Mindset That Earns Audience Trust
Publishers and advertisers have an inherently intertwined relationship. So much so, they sometimes mirror each other. But publishers need to remember that although they rely on and have shared goals with advertisers, they are not advertisers.
If publishers lose sight of this, they also lose (or never develop) the trust of the audiences they need to support their own operations, as well as the interests of the advertisers they promote. The job of the publisher is to engage audiences — the more successful they are at this, the more successful they will be on all fronts.
In many ways, publishers are metaphysical beings. They have values, identities, areas of interest, and points of view. They leverage these qualities to relate to audiences in much the same way that two people relate to one another, whether the dynamic be friendly, professional, inspirational, or otherwise.
A publisher’s relationship with its audience needs to be regular and ongoing, especially when compared to intermittent, transaction-oriented advertisers. As with any relationship, asking too much, too often will erode interest and hurt the development of trust. This is the conundrum for publishers who don’t yet have a strong enough relationship with their audiences to ask them for something — like a paid subscription.
Any Meaningful Relationship Requires Work
Consider the industry trend toward the ‘premium’ subscription model. Users specifically pay to avoid commercials, advertising, and other forms of marketing. Netflix, HBO, Spotify, and other popular media services offer access to a 100% pure content experience (read: ad free). The subscription model has many upsides for publishers, but few have established a deep enough relationship with their audience to ask them to pay for content, with the exception of esteemed legacy news providers.
As generations who have never known life before the internet assume greater spending power (or have sway over people who do), they are becoming increasingly perceptive of thinly veiled marketing ploys disguised as articles, search results, or social posts. And when they see one, they won't click on it.
This poses a challenge for publishers, already up against squeezed margins and audiences whose digital attention and behavior are a moving target. It’s understandable that when publishers find a source of revenue, they go all in to nurture and develop it — even if that means resorting to more...let’s call them ‘proactive’...measures. But it’s a tightrope walk, one that’s easy to lose balance on. If the audience catches wind of this shift, they’ll disengage.
It’s comparable to when someone gets into a relationship and starts neglecting friends. Sure, the newfound companion might be giving this person things their friends couldn’t, but their friends helped make them who they are and, in many ways, facilitated events that lead this person to that new relationship in the first place. If this person constantly flakes on friends to be with their new partner, or only thinks about their friends when they want something, eventually, their friends will stop reaching out.
Translation for publishers: Your audience is your crew, and if you don’t show up for them, they’ll stop (or never start) showing up for you. That’ll put a lot of pressure on your relationship with advertisers and other partners...and not in a good way.
It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
Publishers have two masters, and it’s on them to nurture both relationships. In the struggle to please both advertisers and audiences, it’s common for lines to get blurry. We see that loss of identity on the regular.
For example, it isn’t uncommon to see a publisher promoting an article on social media or elsewhere with a call to action (e.g., “read the full story,” “link in bio”). Calls to action are a hallmark from the world of advertising (with the end goal being a conversion), but aren’t necessary in every interaction between publisher and reader.
Consider this ad campaign promoting History 101’s Facebook page. All variables are controlled for: The image and audience targeting are exactly the same. The only difference is the ad copy — one directly asks the audience for a page follow, and the other doesn't.
Direct Call to Action:
No Call to Action:
We can see in the results that the post with a direct call to action cost 50% more per result than the one that simply presented what the page had to offer.
We also see that the conversion rate (in this case, page likes) fared better on the post that simply stated what the page had to offer.
But many publishers, taking point from advertisers, lose sight of this when trying to attract readers. Every post wants something from the reader. Click here for this, read this for that. On some level, many would-be readers are put off, because it is reminiscent of marketers — those very ones they pay every month to avoid.
Language is a powerful tool in this differentiation. For example, instead of commanding language, such as “read more,” in an email newsletter, “full story” asks nothing of the reader. Instead, it offers them something, despite having the same end goal as the ‘Read more’ call to action. It’s more like, “I’m just going to leave this here…”
But what about when publishers really are directly marketing, such as in affiliate content? This is tricky, but the answer is to find a way to make it feel like offer content. Offer an opinion, a joke, or an insight on the product, like you’re an outsider looking in.
Buzzfeed is masterful at this. They maintain the voice of a friend’s social media post, even when the entire article is a list of products they are promoting. To ensure their content feels personal and objective, they do something rather brilliant: They include a real, personal and objective review! It’s so simple, it just might work. The colloquial style of the writer, coupled with the authentic voice of the reviewer, makes the CTA feel like an afterthought. The overall feel of the content is more like a friend’s product recommendation, even though the publisher and affiliate are directly in cahoots. Buzzfeed has this down to both an art and a science. That’s why they dominate ecommerce content, a direct test in balancing the needs of the audience against that of advertisers.
Offer often, and be mindful of how you position your asks. Yes, publishers need advertisers to be happy — bills don’t pay themselves. But if they don't convincingly position themselves as trustworthy friends or experts with something worthwhile to bring to the audience relationship, everyone — readers, publishers, and advertisers alike — will come away empty handed.
Tanja Fjiałkowski is a Bay Area native, creative-analytical hybrid with the mindset of an entrepreneur and the spirit of an artist. After earning her B.A. in Literature and Writing at UCSD, she worked at Printers Row Publishing Group and finessed a dynamic editorial skill set. She transitioned from print to digital media when she joined the 101 Network, where she successfully established the first of the 101 Network’s sites. She served as the network’s Managing Editor before accepting the company’s first-ever Senior Program Manager of Innovations role. Her favorite literary character is Randle McMurphy for his unwavering commitment to original and creative thought.