Yes, online media brands do matter
Shakespeare was wrong. He assured us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. One reason that is such a beloved line is its comforting message that intrinsic quality, rather than external labels, is what really counts. But recent research from a Harvard Business School professor suggests that, at least when it comes to the written word, labels matter quite a lot.
That is one of the conclusions of not-yet-published work by Bharat Anand, the professor at Harvard, and Alexsander Rosinski, a former visiting researcher there. The two wanted to figure out two things: whether brands influence our perceptions of quality, and whether adjacent advertising does.
It has become conventional wisdom to believe that information has been commodified. Google is the great leveller, with algorithms that can promote content-farm stories ahead of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations. But it turns out that, to readers, provenance still matters a lot.
The two researchers took a story about Greek public finances that appeared online on the Huffington Post and showed it to a test group of 700 readers in three forms: as an unlabeled piece published online, as an online piece published by the Huffington Post and as an online piece published by The Economist.
The scent of this rose depended very much on its name: When respondents believed they were reading an Economist story, they rated its quality at 6.9 on a scale of 10; when the same piece was attributed to the Huffington Post, it drew a score of 6.1; and when it had no label, it scored just 5.4.
This is a terrific finding for the beleaguered mainstream media, which may not be quite so lame after all in the eyes of their readers.
The researchers’ findings about the relationship between ads and perceptions of quality were equally intriguing. Conventional wisdom is that advertising is a mild annoyance for readers (some websites offer ad-free versions as a perk for paying subscribers). To investigate this, the researchers placed two types of ads alongside the article about Greece, ones they describe as “cheap” and “good.”
The biggest surprise was that “good” ads had almost as powerful an impact on perception of quality as an editorial brand. When the article was viewed beside ads for Jaguar and Credit Suisse, but without a brand, readers rated it a 6, nearly high as the 6.1 it received as an ad-free Huffington Post piece. Even the “cheap” ads (for online card games and astrology) earned a slightly higher rating of 5.6 for the no-brand story.
But if the article appeared under an editorial brand, readers saw advertising as a negative. The impact was greatest for the most lustrous masthead. The “cheap” ads reduced the perceived quality of the Economist story to 6.2, nearly the ranking it earned as a Huffington Post story with no advertising. Even the “good” ads made readers a little more critical.
This finding may not be quite so uplifting for legacy media companies. It is bad enough that even classy ads slightly depress the value that readers see in their content. More worrying, if you are a publisher, is the apparent power of “good” consumer brands to confer a quality halo on editorial content.
The obvious conclusion to draw is that owners of “good” brands may be able to cut out the publisher altogether and produce their own content. Sure enough, that is one of the emerging trends on the Internet. Retail sites such as Groupon, Gilt Groupe and Net-a-Porter publish their own editorial material. One reason it works is that it is good; Groupon’s writing is smarter and sharper than that of many pure publishers. But the Harvard researchers’ findings suggest we may also like the stories on these sites partly because of the borrowed luster of the branded goods sold on them.
The great virtue of Prof. Anand and Mr. Rosinski’s work is that they produced some empirical answers to questions – the value of brand, the impact of advertising – that we often talk about in abstract and emotional terms.
Here are two other big issues I would like to see them tackle in the same way. First, how do personal brands (think Oprah Winfrey) stack up against institutional ones? And second, what is the impact of social networks, such as Facebook? If brands can increase our perceptions of quality, it would be useful to learn whether personal recommendations have the same power.