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Advert? Editorial? Nobody cares – they never did.

Publishers of controlled-circulation, free trade magazines have always known something about their readers which they keep very quiet. It’s this: readers think the whole magazine is advertising.

It’s not surprising. The magazine arrives on their desk each month for free. Why would anything in the magazine not be advertising?

As a trade magazine editor throughout the 1990s, I decided to do something about this, as if I knew better than people who had been in the business for years. I introduced lots of features more commonly found in paid-for magazines, such as columnists with no commercial agenda. We also had market surveys with contributions from all the major players in the sector. This was clearly stuff which was being published because we thought it was interesting, not because someone had paid for it. We were quite proud of the publication.

The result? Readers didn’t change their attitude to the product-related content at all. They still thought that it must be advertising.

At this point, many publishers were – perhaps understandably – giving up on the idea of ‘advertising’ and ‘editorial’, and were starting to charge for everything. It was up to the advertiser whether they wanted to place a display advert or pay for some ‘editorial’.

Online publishing has not changed anything. Because it’s so easy to flick from website to website, few people make a distinction between a company site and that of an independent publisher. And to be honest, they don’t care. All that matters is finding out information. If you’re putting material on a third-party site, you want to be the most clearly useful information on the page. That could be within the ‘editorial text’, or it could be an advert alongside. The key is to provide something which might be what the reader is looking for.

If you’re designing an online advert, throw away any ideas about old-school distraction advertising. Your advert will be seen (and possibly discarded as irrelevant) in under 1 second, as the information-hungry reader scans the page. If the advert is a third of the way through a 5-image animated presentation, the chances are it won’t register as being useful. A single, clear, static image is all you want.

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