20 December 2006
Articles as Advertising
Josh Wilson is the general editor for USSRCNE, Alinga Consulting Group, and The School of Russian and Asian Studies as well as Editor-in-Chief for Vestnik, The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies, an academic journal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Articles as Advertising
by Josh Wilson
USRCCNE General Editor
Like the printing press before it, the Internet has caused revolutionary changes in publishing. It has greatly reduced the cost and effort required to publish and has thus greatly increased the number and diversity of publications.
So what does this mean for advertising and marketing? A great deal, actually.
At the organizations I work for, we have had an extremely positive response utilizing what may be the most revolutionary form of marketing made widely available by the publishing explosion: articles as advertising. The concept generally defies most people's expectations of what advertising should look like but it is advertising that is ideally suited to the Internet.
To detail the subject from start to finish would require a book complete with chapters on the Internet's inner-workings, delivery means, and writing styles Ц among other things. For brevity, this article will provide a brief introduction, using examples from my own experience, to explain where this phenomenon has come from and it can be tapped as an inexpensive and effective marketing technique for a range of businesses including educational services, business consulting, and financial investment.
The Internet Hates Advertising
People use the Internet because it is a convenient source of information. As such most Internet users are turned off by advertising, which distracts from their purpose for being online.
Imagine if you had to push billboards out of the way while you were driving. This is the nature of "spam" advertising. While it is effective Ц otherwise, why would companies continue to invest in it and invest in new ways around spam filters Ц it is largely resented by those that receive it. Those of us who regularly use email regularly regularly invest in ways to block spam and can delete spam with near super-human speed based on unconscious glimpses of sender names, subjects, or even the usual formats, colors, and images.
Spam is not a means to develop healthy, long-term trust relationships with clients Ц it's a way to make a quick buck.
If you have ever wondered how Google became the king of search engines Ц just look at their site. It's clean, simple, and contains only a handful of unobtrusive, annotated, text-based ads along one side. Then take a look at some of their competitors. Likewise, news sites like CNN.com and BBC.com are some of the most heavily trafficked. They provide massive amounts of information with relatively unobtrusive advertising. Now consider that these sites make money by doing this Ц otherwise, these sites would not still be in business. The Internet is money-driven, but it is also primarily information-driven.
So, the most successful Internet advertising is the most subtle and informative advertising.
What can this mean for companies offering not just information (like Google and CNN.com), but selling products and services? Let's start with one that bridges the two fields.
My longest-running Internet promotions are with The School of Russian and Asian Studies (SRAS) Ц a private American firm that helps educational institutions in the FSU develop programs for foreigners and then assists foreigners in getting to those programs. In 2004, we began promoting an underperforming program in Kyrgyzstan, an optional variant of standard RSL programs, which offered not only Russian and Kyrgyz study, but a range of subjects of interest to anthropology and political science students. At the time, the program was averaging less than one attendee per year, but we knew it could perform better with increased exposure.
Our promotion was quite simple: we began publishing a range of articles on Kyrgyz culture, history, and politics. We developed a talking online English-Kyrgyz phrasebook. We made all of this available for free on the SRAS website and self-published it as part of a monthly newsletter sent to a pre-existing (and growing) database of students, professors, and other potentially interested parties. We've had four graduates in 2006 alone and have potential clients for 2007. The numbers are still small, but the improvement is immense.
Exposure, Education, and Trust
This campaign works for three main reasons. First, by placing articles online about subjects related to our product, we drew a greater number of potential customers to our site when they ran searches (on sites like Google) for information about Kyrgyzstan. Each article has a text-based link at the bottom to our Kyrgyz program. Furthermore, when information is free and online it can easily replicate; if you manage to impress the reader with an informative and interesting article he/she is likely to share his/her "find" with friends and colleagues through blogs, email lists, and/or online forums. This increases your article's readership and, hence, your company's exposure through the least expensive and most trusted channels.
Second, articles can answer consumer concerns about a product. The greatest deterrent to study abroad in the FSU is that the Western media tends to portray the region as dangerous and/or very poor. While the claims are not entirely untrue, the reality of the situation is infinitely more complex Ц as anyone who has on-the-ground experience in these countries can tell you. In fact, many of our articles are written by former students who are eager to share their experiences and encourage others to experience them first-hand as well. By providing information about contemporary life and the people of these countries Ц without, of course, denying the difficulties or risks involved with visiting them Ц we allow the consumer to make a more informed decision.
Third, and most importantly, by accomplishing the first two, we also establish ourselves as a knowledgeable and trustworthy company, one that has experience on-the-ground and can answer questions and concerns. Thus, students feel safer traveling with us and are more likely to travel with us.
I chose to focus on the Kyrgyz program as my example because it's one of the most interesting campaigns I've run. However, SRAS also has a range of programs across the FSU that have experienced across-the-board improvements from these campaigns for similar reasons.
Articles as advertising works for study abroad programs, but the applications can be much wider. Businesses who operate in emerging markets like the FSU can encounter similar concerns when negotiating business partnerships or seeking new investors. This is, in fact, one of the reasons my newest promotion, the USRCCNE website, was launched. By providing impartial, informative, and interesting articles about the region and markets, we hope to not only provide more communication and networking between businesses that already have interests in Russia (the purpose of the organization), but also to help these businesses alleviate investor and partner concerns and overcome resistance.
Articles as advertising also works for businesses providing outsourced services. Consumers are understandably cautious about selecting a provider-company because a mistake made by an accounting or PR firm can cost not only additional financial resources, but reputation as well. Proving that you know and can explain your field to potential clients builds trust with them. Alinga Consulting Group, the editorship of whose "Market Update" I took over in early 2006, has also received positive feedback publishing articles written by its own professionals on topics related to the accounting, audit, legal, payroll, and HR services they provide. The articles are published in both English and Russian to reach both Russian and international businesses.
The most important thing to remember is that articles used as advertising should not resemble advertising. Advertising traditionally focuses on presenting the advantages of a particular product or service. Articles should present objective information about issues surrounding the product or service. The advantages of patronizing a particular company or brand is left as an implicit statement of the interesting and well-written article; they will come to you because you are informed and well-expressed.
Other issues to remember in writing articles include:
Brevity is the Soul of Wit
For some basic help on writing style, just type "writing style" into Google and choose a site that ends in ".edu." Nearly all will tell you that brevity is important - say what you have to say, but realize that readers have other things to do. Use varied, but always clear sentence structure. Avoid repetition; an assertion made in one paragraph need not be repeated later. Of course, adhering to the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation will also make your article clearer and more authoritative.
Know Thy Audience
If you are looking to attract the business of industry professionals, discussing high-level concepts with technical jargon is a wise decision. It allows you to present new, interesting and valuable information and shows that you "speak the language." However, to attract and educate a more diversified clientele, explaining your services in simple language will go much further. Other factors to consider include the age, language, culture, and education of your audience.
Two Sides of the Coin
One of the great things about an article is that it can more directly address arguments against utilizing your products or services. Know these arguments and be prepared to answer them in a calm and reasoned manner.
Leave 'em WantingЕ Just a Little
Articles should not give away trade secrets or take the place of the services or products you provide. Rather, the article should peak the interest of the potential client and lead him/her to make the initial contact with you via a question or comment. Try to include your contact details at the end of every article and, if possible, links to your relevant products and services.
Get a Good Editor
While articles should be written by professionals within your organization, not everyone can write well. Finding a good editor who can advise on how to approach a subject, organize a text, and express difficult concepts can be invaluable. An editor can also proofread an article for spelling and grammar. This greatly increases your ability to publish articles, should you wish, in outside magazines, journals, and websites. A good editor should also be able to advise you on approaching these outside publications or how to structure and issue your own electronic publication. An editor can be brought on staff, or the responsibility can be outsourced to a freelance professional or editing company.
People want the most direct access to information. Google's search engine actually calculates the amount of traffic flowing into sites, the number of links that are created to sites on other Internet sites, and several other factors that will indicate you have a useful article online. As such, a poorly written article gradually falls out of the first several pages of search results, if it ever got placed there in the first place. A good article gradually climbs in ranking as more and more people link to it and "click-through" from search engines.
Articles can be an effective marketing tool, building consumer trust and company image at the same time. They can engage the consumer directly and lead the consumer to make the initial contact with you. However, to work effectively, they must be well-written and interesting which can be the most challenging part to making the concept work.