What’s in a name? Plenty for news outlets

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 by 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 Harvard professor, and Alexsander Rosinski, a former 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, whose algorithms can promote content-farm stories ahead of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations. But it turns out that, to readers, provenance still matters a lot.

The researchers took a story about Greek public finances that appeared on The Huffington Post and showed it to 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.

This rose’s scent turned out to depend very much on its name. When they believed they were reading an Economist story, the respondents rated its quality at 6.9 on a scale of 10; when the same piece was attributed to The Huffington Post, readers gave it a score of 6.1; and when it had no label at all, it scored just 5.4.

That is slightly depressing news for any writer who likes to think the response to her work is due solely to its quality, and not to the halo effect of her publisher’s brand. But it is a terrific finding for the beleaguered mainstream media, which may not be quite as dead in the water as many thought

Equally surprising is the strong showing for The Huffington Post. The Economist has been published since 1843, The Huffington Post since 2005. But, at least according to this quick study, HuffPo has already built nearly half the brand value of the venerable Economist.

The findings about the relationship between advertising and perceptions of quality are equally intriguing. The conventional wisdom is that advertising is a mild annoyance for readers — some websites offer advertising-free versions as a perk for paying subscribers. To investigate this, Anand and Rosinski placed two different types of ads alongside the story: ones they describe on their slides as cheap and ones they describe as good.

The biggest surprise was that “good” ads had almost as powerful an impact on perception of quality as a rising publishing brand. When the article was viewed beside ads for Jaguar and Credit Suisse, but without a brand, readers rated it a 6, nearly as 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 once the article was published 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 part of the story may not be quite so uplifting for legacy media companies. It is bad enough that even classy ads slightly depress the value 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 from that finding is that owners of ‘good’ brands may be able to cut out the publisher altogether and produce their own content. And, sure enough, that is one of the emerging trends on the Internet.

Retail sites like Groupon in America and Citydeal in Ireland publish their own editorial content. One reason it works is that it is good. Groupon’s writing is smarter and sharper than that of many pure publishers.

The great virtue of Anand and 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 more big issues I would like to see them tackle in the same way:

First, how do personal brands stack up against institutional ones? This week brought news that the conservative Fox News presenter Glenn Beck may be about to start his own TV channel, following the example of Oprah Winfrey.

I, along with every media owner on the planet, would like to know when personal brands like Beck’s become powerful enough to break out on their own and when they still need that halo effect that the research shows bigger brands can confer.

Second, what is the impact of our social networks? The research has shown that brands can increase our perceptions of quality. In the age of Facebook, it would be useful to learn whether personal recommendations have the same power.

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