Pay for play is becoming more and more common in public relations and the lines that once differentiated PR from advertising, marketing, and journalism are increasingly blurring.
What once set PRs apart from all other communications professionals was their ability to generate free publicity, placement, or earned media coverage for clients. Paying for editorial coverage was a considered an unethical concept. Remember the 1999 ‘cash for comment’ scandal? For those who don’t recall, it involved live to air reads on talkback radio that sounded just like editorial commentary from the announcers. Only they’d been paid to read from a script.
Fast forward 20 years to the era of sponsored posts, ‘special reports’ and social media influencers being paid vast amounts to spruik products and services, the brouhaha ‘cash for comment’ caused at the time seems quaint. Like sending out media releases via fax machine (which this writer is old enough to recall doing).How does ‘pay for play’ work?
Today the lines between news and advertising have not just blurred, they’ve just about been erased. It’s getting increasingly harder to score an article in a big glossy national magazine, on high profile blog or a segment on popular TV show simply for being newsworthy or remarkable.
If you want to get on that national lifestyle program or in that industry special report, you’re going to have to pay to reach those eyeballs. Lifestyle supplements, travel lift outs, colour magazines, special reports are all pay for play, or what used to be called advertorials. In newspapers, advertorials have been rebranded as Special Reports, Editorial Features, Special Promotions, etc. Online, it’s called sponsored content or native advertising; basically, a paid for spot made to look like it is a genuine news story. Sometimes it’s hard to spot the difference. The hint that you’re reading an advertorial is that the graphics and lay-out are different from the rest of the paper or the website.
The other aspect of ‘pay for play’ is advertiser preference. Technically you are not paying for the editorial space, but preference is given to advertisers for those precious column centimetres. This is most common in real estate and property publications where there are still a lot of advertising dollars being spent.
Is pay for play worth it?
If the website, newspaper special report, TV show or magazine reaches your target audience and the platform can demonstrate reach, then pay for play can work. In many cases you may not have any alternative. Paying for a segment on a popular TV show – think having your building products feature on a home renovation show – is the only way you’re very going to be featured.
You only need to look at what has happened to social media. According to HubSpot, in 2012, brands could expect, on average, approximately 16 percent of their fans / followers to see their updates. Today, that ‘organic’ reach has plummeted. In a classic bait and switch play, social media platforms got businesses to build audiences with content those businesses generated. Then once those audiences were established, access was cut off and the only way to reach them was via sponsored posts, boosted posts and social media ads. There are serious question marks over the metrics some social media channels provide, but that is a subject for another blog.
Pay for play is here to stay
Either way, PR agencies and their clients need to get used to the fact that they may have to start paying to place articles, blogs or appear on TV. That’s not to say that generating ‘unpaid’ coverage is now impossible. There are still opportunities for businesses that have a unique product or service, are willing to debate controversial industry issues, or already have established reputation for providing interesting and unbiased content. Many may ask, ‘if I have to pay for a spot, why not just engage an advertiser?”
PR agencies are best placed to work with clients to consider these paid options for promoting PR content. Years of vying for the attention of editors inundated with story pitches and articles means PRs are natural storytellers and highly-skilled at tailoring messages for a target audience. Which means the sponsored content is more likely to resonate with the reader and generate an inquiry or a sale.
Talk to the Elevate team about how pay for play can work for your next communications campaign.