In print, there is a long-standing tradition – even guidelines – of the boundary between what is often called church and state, or editorial and advertising. The point is to always make it clear to the reader what is editorial and what is paid content. Many – including me – believe that it’s this separation that builds the trust from readers that magazines are known for. And it doesn’t seem to be hurting the ad business – after all, readers are very responsive to magazine ads, not only because the magazine is a trusted source but also because unlike television ads, magazine ads are unintrusive: they don’t shout at you, they don’t interrupt what you’re reading (for the most part), and they can be skipped and returned to later.
There are some who believe that this ad/edit divide is more flexible online. I think this is something we all need to be very, very careful of.
Think about it: your brand is your brand. If you confuse or deceive a reader online, they will associate that event with your print product. If you annoy your online readers with invasive advertising, they will associate the annoyance with your entire brand, not just with your website.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be creative with online advertising: far from it. Being creative is the only way we’re going to make our websites profitable. But make sure not to betray the reader’s trust: don’t disguise advertorial as editorial, and hold your online editorial to the highest standards possible. It’s not worth making short-term sacrifices if they have a negative impact on your brand, across platforms, in the long run.