January 18, 2013

Advertisers want to be let out of the box.

They want to break out of the constrained 300-pixel display ad box that everyone’s eyes have learned to ignore, and leap into the stream of engaging content that readers actually pay attention to.

Welcome to the brave new world of sponsored content.

Some call it “native advertising” or “content marketing,” but by whatever name it’s here to stay and growing in 2013.

“It’s entering the mainstream,” said Jonah Peretti, co-founder of BuzzFeed, a sponsored-content pioneer that relies on that model for its revenue. “It’s going to be real money and real scale, and so people are paying closer attention to it, trying to understand it.”

This movement got a bit of a black eye this week when The Atlantic published, then removed, a much-criticized sponsored post singing whitewashed praises of the Church of Scientology and its leader. “We are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand,” it said in a later apology, “…We got ahead of ourselves.”

The incident may leave you wondering if your news organization can let advertisers out of the display-ad box without opening Pandora’s box.

Uphold content standards

Sponsored content, done well, has the potential to be much more effective than display ads.

“Going beyond banners and having a full page gives you a bigger canvas and allows an advertiser to tell a story,” Peretti told me. “And that’s what good advertising was in the Mad Men era of advertising — really thinking about a brand and what stories should it tell.”

But news organizations have different rules for ad content and editorial content, and if advertisers want the advantage of playing in your content space, they ought to rise to meet the higher standards it demands.

That means sponsored content has to fulfill most of the same principles as regular content.

For example, the tone and quality should reflect your publication’s values. Whatever your publication is known for — entertainment, utility, intellectual analysis, etc. — your sponsored content should “fit in.”

BuzzFeed may be the best example of this in action. Sarah Lacy of Pando Daily explains (emphasis mine):

There’s something smart in the way BuzzFeed has done sponsored content. … They encourage advertisers not to write about themselves and to post content in the style of a fun, grabby BuzzFeed list — the kind of stuff people are coming to the site for anyway. Check out this list of the 19 most ridiculous text fails, sponsored by Virgin Mobile. Yes, it’s about something that happens on a phone. But there’s not a word about Virgin in the actual, edgy, funny content.

It’s important that sponsored content still primarily serve the reader. That can be easier said than done; when sponsors are paying for the content, they want it to promote their interests.

But a sponsor is unlikely to benefit by trying to make a “hard sell” of products and services. Nobody likes to sit through aggressive sales pitches. They’ll stop reading an article that feels like one, and they certainly won’t be sharing it with their friends.

Peretti told me the BuzzFeed staff consults closely with sponsors to shape content that will be successful:

Every day there’s a conversation with brands. A brand will sometimes have an idea: “This is what I want to do…,” and our creative team will say, “I get what you’re trying to do, but I think that it will backfire,” or “it’s not speaking in an authentic voice,” or “it’s not speaking the language of the Internet,” or “it’s not the right way to do it for BuzzFeed’s audience.”

And then we work with them and suggest alternative ideas that are better for the brand and better for our audience. That happens almost every campaign.

Mike Orren — a former news publisher who is now president of a company called Speakeasy that helps businesses market through content creation — explained in a recent blog post why that Scientology piece in the Atlantic fell so short:

The piece in The Atlantic was simply an advertorial, something that magazines have been running for eons. It’s what it sounds like: An advertising message thinly disguised as editorial content. … It’s a format that serves no one – readers tend to discount them as puffery and advertisers therefore at best get little value.

… Content marketing, at least of the type we produce, is a very different animal from advertorial. My soundbite to describe content marketing to newbies is “advertorial without all the ‘me, me, me.'”

Effective content marketing, Orren says, “should be useful even to someone not interested in buying,” “is not disguised,” “provides value to the reader” and “is honest and without hyperbole.”

The one principle you might not maintain in sponsored content is independence. The sponsor may have helped produce the content, or at least reviewed it in advance. Or the content may have been produced by advertising or marketing staff instead of your journalists.

How do you account for that to your readers? Transparency.

It seems pretty obvious that sponsored content should be labeled in some way — every publisher seems to do that. But that might not be enough.

The reader deserves to know not only that this is sponsored content, but what role the sponsors played in shaping the content. Did the sponsors write it themselves? Did you write it but they reviewed it before publishing? Or did they have no control and just want to associate their brand with the content?

It would be ideal if every piece of sponsored content incorporated or linked to such a disclosure.

What else?

There are a few specific considerations to keep in mind as you decide how to proceed with sponsored content.

Who creates it? Peretti described a church-and-state segregation of sponsored content production at BuzzFeed. There is a separate creative team of more than a dozen people who handle all the sponsored content generation. They include former BuzzFeed editors, ad agency creative staff and Web culture bloggers led by former Facebook and Madison Avenue executive Jeff Greenspan.

Who reviews it? “Then the challenge is,” Peretti continued, “if you have totally different teams, how do you make sure that the content on the ad side is good for your audience and has integrity?”

Who in your organization will independently review sponsored content before publishing and have the authority to kill a bad piece? Who decides whether a piece lives up to the editorial standards described above?

This is a tricky one. You may not want news editors involved in this kind of material, to preserve their independence. But someone who at least thinks like an editor and can stand up for credibility and audience interests needs to be involved. That’s the kind of person who might have pushed the “kill” button on the Scientology post before it was published.

Can the audience engage with sponsored content? The Atlantic also got hammered for blocking critical reader comments from the Scientology piece and allowing supportive comments.

That’s always a bad idea. You might decide to remove comments altogether from a sponsored post, but if you’re going to have them, they should follow the same moderation standards as other content. Otherwise you are misleading and disrespecting your audience.

One important question

If you need just one rule of thumb to help you decide whether a piece of sponsored content is appropriate, try this one:

Would I consider running this content if it wasn’t sponsored?

If the answer is yes, great. You’ve found a way to serve your audience, within your core mission, while also creating value for the sponsor.

If the answer is no, that’s a sign you may have compromised your normal values because someone paid you to. And in the long run, that probably costs you more in credibility than it gains you in cash.

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Jeff Sonderman (jsonderman@poynter.org) is the Digital Media Fellow at The Poynter Institute. He focuses on innovations and strategies for mobile platforms and social media in…
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