Sunday, November 6, 2011

How to sell advertising without selling your soul

(Versión en español aquí.)

Fayerwayer is one of the most popular blogs in the Spanish speaking world because of its frank and conversational commentaries about the latest gadgets and software. 

Its founder, Leo Prieto, of Santiago, Chile, tells an instructive story about how the blog's first advertiser created controversy among his collaborators and the blog's loyal followers. (photo from

Prieto started Fayerwayer (a phonetic spelling of "firewire" in Spanish) in 2005 because he was dissatisfied with what he saw as a lazy, mindless rehash of press releases in most technology blogs and print publications. 

He decided he would actually try out the products and services and see if they were as described by the public relations and marketing specialists. 

Hands-on product testing

So when he wanted to compare three broadband services available in Chile, he did not just list their technical specifications and comparative costs. He signed up for each and compared the responsiveness and quality of service of each.

He bought products, tried them out and then recovered some of the purchase price by selling them on eBay.

Enter Microsoft

In short order, the blog caught on not just in Chile but all over the Spanish speaking world. Part of the reason might have been that Prieto and some of his collaborators regularly compared Microsoft products unfavorably to Apple Computers and Linux software. 

Within two years, this blog, which was a hobby for Prieto and his friends, had reached 1 million visitors a month.  Today it attracts 2.6 million monthly.

Given its growing popularity, Fayerwayer attracted the attention of an ad agency, which decided to book three days of ad exposure on the site for its client, the much maligned Microsoft.

The purchase order touched off a big internal debate among Prieto and his collaborators. Should they accept ads from the evil empire? Despite some disagreement, Prieto decided yes, for practical and idealistic reasons. After all, didn't they believe in freedom of expression?

Now it was the audience's turn to question Prieto's judgment. They suggested Fayerwayer had sold out to the enemy. The outcry became so great  that Prieto felt he had to write an explanation in a letter to the readers. In it he defended the right of Microsoft to publish its own message, although he also repeated some of the criticisms of the company's products.
Exit, then re-enter

The letter may have helped with reader reaction but it angered Microsoft, which pulled its campaign. It appeared that the strange and unexpected relationship with the software giant had come to an end. 
However, a few months later, Microsoft decided to advertise again in Fayerwayer. For Prieto, the story shows that a publication does not have to sell its soul and editorial independence to capture a big client.
When a news publication has gained the respect of readers, advertisers know they need to have a presence in it, next to the editorial conversation about their industry. Advertisers need to have their story told to the influential audience of readers, even if their own viewpoint is not always reflected in the editorial copy. 
Prieto's experience reflects my own as an editor and publisher of business newspapers. At times a news article will provoke an advertiser to pull its campaign. However, some publications and their audiences are so important to advertisers that they realize getting an occasional slap in the editorial columns is part of the deal. 

You cannot and should not roll over to an advertiser. Some advertisers understand that need for the news organization to maintain integrity and they understand that ultimately the integrity and credibility rubs off on their own brand. Other advertisers do not understand. Let them go and move on. 
Note: Prieto told this story during Mediafabric, a digital journalism conference held recently in Prague.

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