The Newest in Native: Editorial Reviews Reborn as Ads

This past April, CNET senior editor Jessica Dolcourt reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone. Under the headline “The everything phone for (almost) everyone,” the CNET veteran journalist gave the device 4.5/5 stars in a detailed, mostly positive review. She did have reservations about the Galaxy S4’s dim screen and “cheaper look” compared to rivals like the iPhone.

Fast forward eight months: Dolcourt’s review is now part of a new advertising product CNET sold to Samsung, which purchased the right to promote the editorial review through “CNET Replay.” Visitors to CNET yesterday saw a paid promotion of the review on the homepage, in the midst of the site’s “river” of editorial pieces, called out in a shaded box with a “CNET Replay” label on the thumbnail photo. Clicking on the advertising link takes users to the original review.

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Welcome to the brave new world of native advertising, where publishers are trying to come up with twists that go beyond standard ads and that carry the whiff of editorial credibility. For an advertiser like Samsung, the (mostly) positive CNET review is probably worth more than a display ad bought on the site. CNET Replay has enabled Samsung, Intel, Microsoft and Lenovo to promote positive reviews for their products long after they were published.

“More and more, consumers are seeking guidance from trusted third parties,” Kevin Berman, director of North American marketing for Lenovo, said in a statement. “Some look for what other consumers are saying, while many rely on well-respected industry experts for their help.”

This isn’t new, of course. Lenovo and other manufacturers regularly tout snippets of positive reviews in TV and Internet display ads. Those snippets can sometimes be misleading, since they don’t include the full context of the review, especially the reviewer’s reservations. Some brands are using content promotion networks like Outbrain to promote positive editorial stories about their products. And there’s an ad network, InPowered, that distributes links to product reviews on behalf of brands.

The sticking point of such a product from a publisher, as opposed to a third-party network, is that it’s clearly another mark in the blurring line of where editorial ends and advertising begins. CNET, which is part of CBS Interactive, is careful to explain that it had its editors involved in the creation of the product, making sure a reviewer weren’t compensated when his review became an ad or even knew about it beforehand. Advertisers are unable to change headlines, edit the review in any way or take out user comments. Each Replay ad carries the review on a fresh page, without any display ads of any kind,  and with this disclaimer at the top: “This content was previously written independently and objectively by the CNET staff as a part of our regular coverage. The author holds no interest in the sponsor company, which has chosen to re-share the content in paid promotional units.”

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The company tested the unit with 2,800 users, with the overriding goal being to gauge whether editorial-turned-ad would injure the credibility of the publication and the author. That study, according to the company, found Replay did not “significantly affect” perceptions. According to CNET executives, it was a six-month process that allowed both the commercial and editorial sides to arrive at the conclusion that Replay would provide value to advertisers while not impugning editorial.

“We worked with editorial to get their confidence in it,” said Katie Kulik, head of global ad sales at CNET. “We are nothing if we don’t have the editorial integrity.”

So far, the unit appears to work well for the commercial side. The publisher’s internal metrics estimate Replay ads drive purchase intent by 500 percent. Lenovo and Sony are in line to use the unit in the near future. CNET is extending Replay to Gamespot in the fall to allow video game manufacturers to promote positive reviews. It is also rolling out a new large format ad unit that will pull in Replay reviews, other CNET content as well as advertiser content in a graphical unit. On the editorial side, there has been no objections, according to CNET.

Still, the Replay effort raises the question of whether editors could ever be so subtly nudged into giving more positive reviews. CNET scoffs at the notion, claiming its ratio of positive-to-negative reviews remains unchanged. “We wanted to make sure there weren’t trust issues,” Kulik said.

The approach isn’t for everyone. Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media, which operates CNET rival The Verge, said he didn’t know of the unit, but based on the description, he doubts his company would consider such an approach.

The trend of sponsored content isn’t going away. Agencies are pressuring publishers to bring something new to the table. You can imagine this appeals greatly, ticking off the paid and earned media boxes. For many publishers, that means their content, which is increasingly licensed to brands for their own use. Still, there’s potential for even stickier situations. For instance, what about a brand commissioning an editorial review? (CNET says no.) You can imagine many possibilities for revenue-strapped newspapers that still hold immense authority. Publishers could promote glowing book reviews, restaurants could pay to highlight positive dining columns, etc. That would inevitably risk pressuring editorial into adopting a Panglossian view of the world.

Another possibility is to open the ad unit up to “conquesting,” allowing a company to promote a negative editorial review of a rival’s product. CNET said there are no plans for that right now. The way the Replay unit is presented now, it wouldn’t be clear which company was paying for the promotion. The disclaimer uses the generic “sponsor company” rather than say explicitly who is paying.

In the end, each publisher will need to figure out just how far it is willing to go.

Image by Carlos Lorenzo via Flickr