The relationship between advertising and content on the web – part 1

The TED talks are one of my favourite things on the internet. They’re intelligent and engaging in a way that most current TV simply isn’t. And I’m not the only person who likes them, some of the individual talks now have millions of views on YouTube (which is only one of the channels on which they’re available).

Compelling content aside, one of the most interesting things about the TED talks is the relationship between the advertising and the content. The TED talks are sponsored by BMW, though their presence is pretty much limited to some branding at the beginning and the end of each of the talks. Superficially at least, BMW’s relationship with TED Talks is very similar to, say, Cadbury’s relationship with Coronation Street; it’s a relationship which differs little from the pre-digital model.

In the ‘old’ model adverts ‘interrupt’ or ‘bookend’ content which has been commissioned by broadcasters. And while there are some subtle and not-so-subtle feedback loops in the system, content producers and advertisers are independent, even though, in the case of the commercial channels, advertisers are indirectly funding huge amounts of content each year. Broadcasters were in control because they owned the networks, and there were huge financial and legal barriers to entry.

But that’s no longer the case – individuals, charities, brands… everyone has access to the Internet, which is, amongst other things, a massive, open content distribution platform. The one key difference between TED talks and Coronation Street is that there’s no broadcaster involved. And I think this is pretty important, because in the past though I may have loved Coronation Street, I never really thought that Cadbury did anything much to bring it to me: my positive associations were all towards the network or the production company. With TED talks I do actually feel pretty good about BMW – they helped bring the series to the web in a much more direct way than Cadbury did with Coronation Street.

It’s a now commonly held belief in the world of digital advertising that advertisers must engage in a dialogue with potential customers rather than interrupting them as they did in the past. And I’m not disputing that, however, I certainly feel a lot more positive about BMW than I do about the developers of all those horrible Facebook apps.  The ones who tried to engage me in a ‘conversation’.

So maybe there are aspects of the new digital world that don’t look so different than the old one. Maybe one of the key differences is that there are no broadcasters involved taking a cut of the money and the ‘credit’.

I’m not suggesting that charities, brands or agencies should rush out and commission soap operas, nor am I saying the new orthodoxy is wrong – end user participation is key, connnections between organisations and their end-users/customers will be increasingly two-way, but I do believe that agencies and organisations which connect their target audience with quality content (and in most cases that doesn’t mean Flash product demos) will stand to benefit in much the same way BMW has from it’s involvement with TED talks.

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