Sponsored content has become the go-to paid media tactic for many brands, and for good reason — it can be incredibly effective.
The problem, however, is sponsored content comes with a bit of a learning curve. Old as the tactic is, its execution and benefits aren’t quite as intuitive as, say, billboard advertising.
So, let’s unpack some of the more confusing and controversial aspects of sponsored content marketing, then explore how you can harness its power.
What Is the Difference Between Sponsored Content and Native Advertising?
Plenty of companies stumble right out of the gate with their sponsored content marketing efforts simply because they don’t have clear definitions of the strategies — and this affects their expectations of what it can do for them.
Contently Editor-in-Chief Joe Lazauskas does a great job of clearing up any confusion. He defines native advertising as “an umbrella term for ads that mirror the environment they appear in.” So, in-feed Instagram ads would be considered native advertising, for example.
Sponsored content, he writes, is one type of native advertising; it’s promotional content designed to look like editorial content on a publisher’s site. Newspapers and magazines have run sponsored content for generations under the name “advertorials.” The richness of modern media, however, creates new opportunities for sponsors.
The type of content is limited only by the platform and your imagination. You could sponsor a 500-word article on a news site, or you could sponsor a feature-length film or super-interactive piece of content to live on a major publisher’s site.
The key, regardless of format type, is that the content must look like something that would natively live on the publisher’s page. This bit of camouflage is what makes sponsored content work.
(It’s also what makes it controversial. More on that in a moment.)
What Can Companies Achieve By Sponsoring Content?
Because sponsored content must mimic the style, tone and quality of a publisher’s own work, it must go through several quality control filters. This cauldron of scrutiny immediately elevates sponsored content’s quality above most forms of interruptive advertising the site might feature, whether those are pop-up ads or banners.
“Most publishers who do sponsored content and exclude other native formats aren’t trying to protect advertising revenue — they’re protecting subscription revenue,” writes AdExchange Senior Editor Sarah Sluis.
“Publishers whose content is good enough to make people pay for it also have enough cachet to build out exclusive native advertising programs. They include The New York Times, The Economist and the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.”
Subscription-based publishers owe it to their readers to ensure sponsored content is engaging, and advertisers benefit as a result. Even at publications that don’t rely on subscriptions, sponsored content must meet their audiences’ expectations of quality. This forces advertisers to tailor their messages to those audiences, which only strengthens advertisers’ branding efforts.
“The client and agency are actively interested in engaging readers with content we have but that is interesting to the readers,”Jane Grenier, executive director of client services at Quartz, tells MediaShift. “We are creating a subtle halo around the brand rather than directly lighting up brand features.”
Here are two examples of how agencies have turned that halo effect into real results:
GE’s Sharing Healthy Ideas
Beeby Clark+Meyler put together an interactive campaign called Sharing Healthy Ideas to reposition GE in the consumer healthcare world. The campaign created a social share bar on major news sites for any health-related pieces. When readers shared the content, the description copy would be pre-populated with GE messaging.
The campaign was a runaway success: It reached more than 5 million readers, 8 percent of whom clicked through to GE landing pages. The agency also says GE reported 200 percent-plus increases in favorability and message association metrics — exactly what you would want to measure in a brand repositioning campaign.
Amazon’s How to Solve a Murder
To promote the release of Season 2 of its own streaming serial drama Bosch, Amazon hired the sponsored content team at The Guardian U.S. to put together a multi-part true crime reporting series called How to Solve a Murder, which ran on the news portal’s site. The series featured little more than an Amazon logo in the corner as branding.
Rachael Post, brand content director at The Guardian, told NiemanLab’s Laura Hazard Owen the How to Solve a Murder campaign “exceeded all the metrics we’d set for it,” but declined to go into detail.
Nevertheless, The Guardian was happy enough with the results that it intends to invest further resources into branded content as a way to tell “more authentic stories that come about almost in ‘natural’ ways and don’t simply consist of a media company promoting something that the brand is talking about on other channels,” Owen writes.
The Nature of Sponsored Content Can Invite Suspicion
Those branded stories that are designed to tell more authentic stories are a double-edged sword, however, because some audience members might feel duped to learn that a piece they enjoyed was actually sponsored by a company.
In fact, many people have trouble distinguishing editorial content from sponsored content. Ginny Marvin at Marketing Land reported on a study in which groups of people — 509 participants in total — were a piece of content: Either an article on Whole Foods that ran in Fortune; or a brand-sponsored piece that ran in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Onion, BuzzFeed or Forbes.
“In four out of the six groups shown a native advertisement, a strong majority said they thought the ad was an article,” she reported.
Controversy began to snowball:
- Just months after that report came out, a now-classic South Park episode lampooned sponsored content’s capacity for deception.
- A month after that episode ran, the FTC released guidelines for sponsored content to help ensure transparency for readers.
The concern among marketers now is whether audiences will grow weary or become suspicious of sponsored content, as they’ve done with most forms of interruptive advertising.
The solution? Create content that can stand on its own merits, and be transparent about what is sponsored and what is editorial content. “We all need to do our part to ensure a great future for native advertising,” writes Danny Wong, marketer and co-founder of menswear startup Blank Label. “Otherwise native ads will become less effective than banner ads are today, and who knows what new form of advertising may swoop in after that.”
How to Succeed With Sponsored Content
The primary challenges of sponsored content, then, are two-fold: How do you tell a story that gives your brand or your company that nice halo effect Grenier at Quartz mentioned, and how do you honor audience expectations by making it clear that the content is sponsored and recognizable as such?
Here are five tips:
Mimic the Editorial Team’s Standards, But Don’t Disguise Your Content
Step one, Annie Teh writes at Tech in Asia, is to ensure your content is relevant to the publisher’s audience, authoritative and trustworthy.
“Hiding the fact that an article is sponsored can make things worse for publishers and brands,” Teh writes. “Never underestimate your consumers and their ability to unmask promotional content in a faux-editorial. A large part of content marketing is emotional, and if your consumers realize that your brand paid money for a disguised article (and they are a very discerning bunch), they will be disappointed and betrayed. The bad vibes will rub off on your brand.”
Branded content consultant Melanie Deziel says trying to shoehorn in a sales pitch into an otherwise objective piece of content — even if it’s just a sign-off at the end of the piece — reduces its credibility by 29 percent.
Instead of selling, focus on helping the reader by leveraging your company’s industry expertise. “If [a] brand produces cake mix, for example, the obvious choice for content creation is recipes, and consumers will want and need that,” Deziel says.
“But what if you went a bit deeper and thought about why someone would be making a cake in the first place? Chances are, they’re looking to create a holiday experience with a personal touch, so you might also be able to deliver DIY instructions for party decorations or a guide for what to write in greeting cards for every occasion.”
No, Really: Focus Everything on the Reader
Baron Manett, founder of Per Se Brand Experience, says that much of his work focuses on empathy for customers. “A lot of times we still talk about marketing challenges through the eyes of a brand in a very self-serving and selfish manner,” he tells Joe Lazauskas at Contently.
“You know what we want to do next year? We want to grow market share by 50 percent. OK, that’s what we want? What does our customer want? What does our customer care about? And how can we be relevant in their cares? I don’t think enough people are having those conversations.”
“People spend time with a good story,” writes Doug Zanger, North America editor at large for The Drum. “On average, consumers spent almost two and a half minutes with each branded story, the same amount as editorial content, according to internal Mode Media research, and eight times more than with traditional rich media advertising.”
Use It to Build Deeper Relationships with Your Brand
Here is the key to getting the most brand lift from a sponsored content campaign: According to a study by IAB and Edelman Berland, sponsored content is most useful for enhancing, deepening or repositioning a brand. It falls flat, however, for generating brand awareness.
Therefore, you’ll want to get in front of audiences already familiar with what you do. The IAB / Edelman Berland study found the most receptive audiences are business and entertainment news users.
So, here’s the model for success:
- Identify and connect with a credible site reporting on those topics.
- Ensure your branding fits with that site.
- Tell a story that resonates with those readers’ needs.