McGuire on Media

Three words per story are for sale now on AZ Central.com

Ford Motor Company owns football. American Express owns Texas. Pitney-Bowes owns business.  If you didn’t know that you haven’t been reading the Arizona Republic’s AZ Central.com this week.

Without fanfare AzCentral has started to put two green lines under words in stories on the Money section and the Sports section. It appears stories in news and local sections are immune, but the web site has ways around that.  It also appears that the underlines can change from minute to minute. If you look closely at the ads on AzCentral you can figure out the service is supplied by Vibrant Media which offers “Vibrant In-Text Advertising.” A call to their New York offices late Friday afternoon got only a voicemail. From the web site you can glean that it is an international company.

A quick check revealed that The Atlanta Journal Constitution and the  Reno Gazette Journal  and the Indianapolis Star are also using Vibrant Media. The Wall Street Journal reported on the AJC’s use of the service in November of 2006. At the time the journal quoted Poynter Ethics guru Bob Steele criticizing the practice, but it certainly has stayed below my radar until this morning. My distinct impression was that AZ Central just started the practice in the last few days. A student brought it up to me on Tuesday, and I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about.

Michael Coleman, Vice-President of Digital Media for AzCentral, told me late Friday that the site has been using Vibrant Media for “two or three weeks.” Coleman described the relationship as a test and said this is not a “Gannett roll-out” of the concept even though some Gannet papers are using the system. “We’ve got a pretty non-committal contract with them, Coleman said. “The publisher made the call, and we decided to try it and see what happened.” Coleman said the experimental aspect of the deal explains why nobody has announced this deal.

Coleman also explained that the relationship is only a “distribution deal.” Az Central cannot sell advertising into the site at this time. The process is entirely automated, and Vibrant Media’s computer constantly scans the text and conceptually matches words.  There is a limit of three words per story. As Coleman said, ” 20 words in a story would confuse readers.” Az Central is matching stories in Sports, Business, Entertainment, Travel and Home. Stories in the news sections are not being contextually matched.  “We’re not using news stories because this is an experiment,” Coleman said. “We want to test the waters on other stories before we do anything to embarrass ourselves or cause integrity problems.”Coleman offered his own example when he said he’d hate to see a local news story on a murder in which a gun manufacturer was advertised.

I spent some time on AzCentral this morning trying to figure out how this works. Let’s walk through some examples.

A story on a Surprise, Az. coffeeshop with a name of questionable taste could be found Friday in the web’s business section called Money. In the version I saw “business” was underlined.  If your cursor merely goes over the word a little box advertising Pitney Bowes  flashes on the screen.  If you click on that box it will take you to a more complete advertisement for the company. I found the word “office” was owned by Microsoft. An ad for American Express came up when your cursor crossed “Salt Lake City.”The very same story on the Surprise coffee shop is on the top of the news section  of AZ Central. When I clicked on it I realized it wasn’t exactly the same story.  The underlined words and adjoining ads were missing from that version.  

In another story headlined “Don’t have to go far for BBQ” a fascinating issue appeared.  In a reference to Travel+Leisure magazine the title of the magazine was parsed and the word “Travel” was purchased by American Express. In that story “Texas” was owned by American Express, but there was another curious issue.  The first time I saw the word “travel” that ad for American Express appeared, but later when I looked at the story an ad for Samsung popped up. Obviously there is some sort of rotation in place.

Practically every story I clicked on revealed more interesting issues.  A story headlined “Scottsdale stores ready for time in spotlight”  used the name “Neiman Marcus,” and as you might expect, an ad for the venerable department store appeared.  It raised the obvious question: What happens if Wal-Mart buys the words Neiman-Marcus? It’s not hard to imagine the chaos that would ensue.  Another curiosity appeared in this story. The words “general manager” were underlined. My natural question was what advertiser would want those words? When you clicked on them you got a web search list for several items including general managers in sports. Several times I clicked on words and got similar web search lists. 

Coleman explained to me that Vibrant Media has a deal with Microsoft Live Search which is trying to promote their search engine. Coleman speculated that works like a remnant ad deal would work in a newspaper.  If advertisers have not purchased the three words in a story, Vibrant Media uses the Microsoft Live search link.

Most of us read the sports section for fun, and some real fun began when I started looking at those stories. I admit by this time the ethical issues that had appalled me were being challenged by my sense of this pursuit as a game. Who owns “football” was a compelling question for me, and when I looked at a story headlined “Small school rivalries still heated” I found that Ford had won that one.  Owning football is a pretty big deal which makes me wonder if some search terms cost more than others. Coleman indicated he didn’t know any thing about a price list, but he did say AzCentral gets paid a certain amount no matter if a reader’s cursor hovers over a word or if the reader clicks through.

I was headed for more humor though. The story later referred to a specific athletic director and “athletic” was underlined. A deodorant had bought the word athletic. In another article I found that the same deodorant owned “tennis” too. Later in the small school rivalry story it became pretty obvious this function is being handled by a computer when I found the term East Region referring to an area of Arizona schoolboy football.  “East Region” was underlined, and when I clicked I found a list of web search sites for weather in the Eastern region of the United States!

The humor stopped on my very next search of the story “Hingis denies use of drugs.” The word “doping” was underlined. My click took me to a web search list of performance enhancing drug sites. Some of the sites featured articles about performance enhancing drugs, but others took me to sites selling products and conditioning. I will not judge the nature of those sites, but I will say my son and I would have had a talk if I saw him shopping on such sites. When I mentioned that unsettling opinion to Coleman he replied “that’s the exact reason we wanted to try this before making a commitment.”

Coleman says there has been a lot of negative reaction to this concept internally, but “I have not seen or heard a single reaction from an external reader.” When I commented that this move has really flown under the radar, Coleman related a story about how Forbes.com tried something like this a few years ago and got creamed by the industry.

Conceding that this technology is much better than before Coleman also mused, “I guess I wonder if people in the industry are becoming more accepting as revenues have declined so rapidly.”

We’ll see. 

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