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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The future of content is sponsored – but maybe not in the ways you think

June 17, 2019 | By Leah Bjornson, Manager, Content Studio– Pressboard @LeahBjornson

Brands have long supported the creation of content, whether through traditional advertising or by more direct means such as brand tie-ins, product placements, and brought-to-you-by sponsorships.

But moving forward, their support may be more critical than ever.

With Facebook and Google cannibalizing publishers’ ad dollars over the last 10 years, myriad new revenue streams have emerged to help publishers sustain their businesses. Among them we find banner ads, e-commerce, and sponsored content.

Sponsored by

Sponsored content is defined as any material in an online publication (written, video, etc.) that resembles the site’s editorial content but is paid for by an advertiser. The content is often intended to promote the advertiser’s product or values. In contrast, editorial is independently created by a publication and posted on their site, with the goal of educating, informing, or entertaining their audience.

Letting brands fund the creation of sponsored content is an arrangement that benefits both parties. This kind of content allows brands to leverage the reach and influence of publishers. At the same time, publishers earn the revenue necessary to continue both their editorial and advertising programs.

Marrying the two can produce outstanding (and better funded) results, but many worry about the slippery slope. While editorial and sponsored stories often exist in their own worlds, opportunities for overlap are everywhere. Beyond simply producing thinly-veiled content that ties into a brand message, these days brands are working with premium publishers to create quality content that might not otherwise make it to the market. In fact, the success of sponsored content has supported the growth of a new model: brand-supported editorial.

Devil and angel, church and state

Let’s step back for a second.

Although sponsored content as we understand it is a relatively new phenomenon, journalists and content creators have been disagreeing about the ethics behind it for decades. As far back as 1975, American essayist E.B. White expressed outrage when the Xerox Corporation announced that they had commissioned Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Harrison Salisbury to write a piece for Esquire Magazine.

He remarked, “Sponsorship in the press is an invitation to corruption and abuse. Wherever money changes hands, something goes along with it — an intangible something that varies with circumstances.”

There have been other problematic instances of sponsored content in the past. In 2013, The Atlantic published (and quickly removed) a piece of sponsored content titled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” The article extolled the virtues and accomplishments of Scientology’s venerable leader. Blowback was immediate, with industry leaders criticizing the publication for publishing content antithetical to its journalistic principles.

The problems aren’t siloed to sponsored, either. We’ve seen how the relationship between advertisers and publishers can affect editorial content, too. Some sites will promise advertisers an editorial story promoting their business if they buy a real ad; others will refuse to cover stories if they don’t. While the pervasiveness of this practice is still up for debate, it raises real questions about the durability of the line between church and state, sponsored and editorial.

Sent from above

It’s not all bad news, however. There’s also been a lot of social good brought about by sponsored content.

One of the best examples comes from Variety’s campaign “Abilities Unlimited,” made in partnership with Easterseals. The collaboration provided illuminating research on just how underrepresented people with disabilities are in the entertainment industry. Featuring interviews with high profile actors, directors, and writers, the pieces offered tangible advice to members of the industry for how to ensure their projects are more inclusive.

Original journalism like this can be incredibly expensive. For example, ProPublica’s 2013 to 2015 “Overdose” series, which exposed the FDA’s inaction regarding a dangerous ingredient in Tylenol, cost an estimated $750,000 to produce. This is content that could save lives. But with shrinking budgets and newsrooms, publishers may lose the ability to create it.

Sponsored content can also give the public access to information they otherwise would never have seen. Last year, Siemens brought their full technological capabilities to the table in a campaign with The Economist, which visualized the relationship between fan enthusiasm and team performance.

There’s no doubt these programs have helped people, whether through information or entertainment. So how do we make sure we can have our cake and eat it too?

The future of editorial and sponsored

Even as publishers investigate subscription models and e-commerce solutions, it’s clear that branded content remains one of the most critical sources of revenue for publishers. Our research suggests that branded content will continue to grow over the next years, with 90% of publisher survey respondents saying that they expect branded content revenue to increase moving into 2020. But if this is the future, how can we ensure that it’s ethical and sustainable?

First, if we want to retain the value of sponsored content, editorial content must be prioritized. Sponsored content works due to its association with a publisher’s journalistic standards and high-quality content. It’s a matter of pattern recognition. When we see a brand partnering with a reputable publisher, our brains take that as a signal that the company shares the same values and reputation. Keeping a ratio of content that prioritizes editorial over sponsored content, not just on-site but also on social feeds, will help maintain that authority, benefiting both advertiser and publisher in the long term.

Second, we need to embrace brand support in the newsroom. This doesn’t mean letting Coca Cola write your next feature or interviewing BP as an expert on oil spill mitigation. It also doesn’t mean deciding what stories to pursue based on an external party’s agenda (or conversely, ad budget). But it does involve partnering with companies to fund important stories — including those couldn’t be told otherwise.

Third, publishers need to say no — as frustrating as that is for advertisers. Say no to partners that don’t share your values, no to ad dollars tied up with editorial promises and no to content that doesn’t benefit your readers. Otherwise, you risk losing your readers’ respect, which translates to less traffic and fewer ad dollars.

And fourth, we need to constantly question what stories we’re telling, why we’re telling them, and who we’re telling them for. The line between sponsored and editorial is such a polarizing and emotional topic, so it’s important to unravel it — no matter how many knots we find along the way.

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