A new CNET advertising product seeks to monetize its popular consumer technology reviews, in the media industry’s latest foray into native advertising.
CNET Replay, first reported by Digiday’s Brian Morrissey, allows technology companies like Samsung and Microsoft to pay CNET to repost on its homepage a positive review CNET has written previously about one of its products.
The old review then appears on the CNET homepage in a shaded highlight box between other editorial content. The link is presented alongside a blurb from the review and a small orange banner labeled “CNET REPLAY."
Only after users click on the link, assuming they don’t just read the blurb and move on, is it stated that an advertiser paid CNET to promote it again on the homepage. Even then, Samsung is not explicitly named as the party that paid for the story to be re-shared, and the language used is a bit convoluted: "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."
Though a reader scrolling through the site could fail to realize that the link was paid for by an advertiser, CBS Interactive, CNET’s parent company, said the text inside Replay homepage blurbs is identical to what accompanies the stories when they are originally published.
“I think it’s ethically dubious,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school that tracks industry trends and best practices. “I know sponsored content and native advertising is all the rage, and my own view is that it’s okay as long as it’s clearly labeled as advertising. I think CNET Replay flunks that test.”
Edmonds pointed to Forbes’ BrandVoice content, which allows marketers to communicate directly with their audiences, as an example of how to delineate sponsored content from the rest of editorial.
The rub, though, is that while a CNET Replay link is paid for by an advertiser, the content it links to is itself purely a product of CNET’s editorial department, unchanged from what was originally written months before the promotion was purchased.
“We think this is a good program for our readers and for our advertisers. Replay allows our advertisers to re-share reviews that were previously written by our editorial team,” CBS Interactive executive vice president Eric Johnson told Business Insider in a statement. “The content of the review remains unchanged from when it was originally published."
More Money, More Reviews?
Whether or not it is clearly marked, CNET Replay begs the question of whether the direct monetization of its comprehensive reviews, a field in which CNET has made a name for itself among tech consumers, will incentivize the site to publish more positive reviews on behalf of its more frequent advertisers.
The company told Digiday that its editorial staffers would not be pressured in any way to view advertisers’ products more favorably, adding that the company went through a six-month process in which it consulted both editorial and commercial employees before it rolled out the Replay product several months ago.
Whether CBS Interactive can maintain this wall between the commercial and editorial sides as the Replay product expands and generates more revenue remains to be seen. Already, it has discussed bringing Replay to GameSpot, a site that reviews video games.
We asked CBSi whether it would limit the number of Replays it would sell to prevent an increased dependence on the product, but the company declined to answer on the record.
Al DiGuido, a marketing industry veteran and former associate publisher of PC Magazine, said re-promoting an editorial review is akin to the age-old practice of publications selling advertisements that highlight positive reviews or awards they’d given.
DiGuido praised CNET for its innovative approach to servicing its advertisers but said that in order for it to work, the company would have to take proactive measures to ensure that any paid promotion was done in a way that was both obvious and accurate.
DiGuido said that when he was at PC Magazine, the company would only put together advertising packages touting products that had received its Best Buy award for a designated time after the award was issued. This way, DiGuido said, the reviews of the products remained accurate relative to competing products.
In order for CNET to similarly steer clear of confusing its readers, DiGuido recommends the company make clear on the main page that the content’s reappearance was sponsored by the company that paid for it to be there.
This article previously appeared on Business Insider.