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Blurring The Line Between Online Ads And News Content

France has joined the hunt for the perfect formula for using editorial content to draw readers to commercial brand websites.

Royal Monceau hotel produces a website that reports on cultural happenings around Paris

PARIS - Net-a-porter.com paved the way early on in France when it began sprinkling the advice of stylists on its e-commerce fashion website. The expansion of the Internet, mobile technology and social media buzz has accelerated the phenomenon as commercial brands increasingly try to double as media companies, offering text, video and audio content to be consumed as news and information.

Sebastien Genty, of the Paris-based DDB corporate communications firm, says the forces driving this growing marketing trend are irreversible. "For starters, it's about the dilution of advertising audience," he says. "It's better to create your own audience with your own content then depend on paid-for marketing, which reaches a less captive audience."

Genty says our relationship to brands has changed. "Traditional advertising of products is dying. Companies know that marketing is now about bringing more service, knowledge and entertainment," he says. Since 2008, one of Heineken's campaign slogans is precisely: "Made to entertain!"

"Content brings better referencing on Google and in return generates traffic on merchant websites," says Yan Claeyssen digital head of the ETO marketing group. Just like net-a-porter, websites increasingly mix content and sales. Etam, a French lingerie firm, made it possible for web users to buy lingerie directly from its January 24 fashion show. Meanwhile, French Connection created a "Youtique" series on Youtube that allows consumers to click through to buy clothes shown in mini-videos.

This practice of course isn't completely new. The first soap operas broadcast on the radio in the 1930s were produced by Procter & Gamble, all the way up to 2006 when French hardware outlet Leroy Merlin created its own TV channel "Telemaison."

Today, the Internet, smart phones and social networks "make it easier to reach consumers directly, without having to go through traditional media or advertising," says Claeyssen. In the US, 80% of new mothers turn to Johnson & Johnson's babycenter.com. The website is seen as the go-to stop for anything baby-related. Planet Verbaudet is trying a variation on this approach in France with its parent forums, blogs, advice and other expert analysis.

"Multibrand generalist portals like toutvousdire.com and enviedeplus.com are facing direct competition from information sites like aufeminin.com or elle.com," says Catherine Lautier, DDB's director of business research. The latest Internet ratings by Mediatmetrie-NetRatings in November ranked Facebook third (with 27.27 million unique visitors,) just behind Google and Microsoft. But it also ranked the websites of French bank group Credit Agricole (23rd), aufeminin.com (24th) and the Le Figaro Group's site (27th).

Less advertising, more content

On its website "on ose", La Redoute, a clothing firm, posts the French news agency AFP's entertainment feed. Even more ambitious, French bank Societe Generale launched the Re-View in January. This iPad application is not just another account management tool, but "a medium for information and analysis." There is an audio press review on financial news, stock quotes, the group's latest news, monthly economic analysis and even quarterly reports produced by the bank's experts.

In a very different field, the "Art for Breakfast" blog of the Royal Monceau hotel, not only provides the user with hotel events, but also writes about the Parisian art scene in general. Swide.com, Dolce & Gabbana's multimedia magazine, covers everything its clients could be interested in like travel, champagne and luxury cars.

Created by L'Agence de Contenu, the new website launched this week for the French affiliate of the Walt Disney Company, doesn't directly focus on new Disney movies or products, but everything surrounding the releases. There is no article on the release of "Tron," for example, but rather a detailed post on 3D technology and how kids perceive these images. The opening of the movie "Tangled" is handled with an article on the role of princesses in little girls' imagination. "There are no limits to what we can write about. Childhood, nutrition, environment, all are endless resources especially since Disney is trusted by parents," says Nathalie Dray, from Disney.

The true online marketing innovation is ‘brand journalism." Begun in the US by reporters looking for new jobs, this trend is now arriving in Europe. On his "A de C's' blog, David Henderson, an expert on the subject, explains that in order to be effective, brand journalism must differentiate itself from traditional PR, advertising and marketing. "It focuses on constantly retaining the public's attention with stories somehow linked to the brand and its environment, by offering in-depth articles, information and images, especially videos posted on Youtube and other websites." Daily updates, real journalistic ethics, and most of all: no press releases. For Ava Eschwege, A de C founder, a former mainstream media reporter, says that the real test "is when a brand is willing to talk about its competition."

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