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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Editorial and sponsored: Has branded content blurred the divide?

September 24, 2019 | By Leah Bjornson, Manager, Content Studio– Pressboard @LeahBjornson

With such a large appetite for content in the digital landscape, sponsored content has become a key source of revenue for the publishing industry. But with branded content leveraging the tone and style of a publication, should the editorial team exercise oversight, ensuring the sponsored pieces meet their high standards? Or should they focus on continuing to build trust with their readers in a space where paid and earned content look increasingly similar?

As sponsored content has transitioned into a common advertising practice, publishers can see the financial benefits of producing branded content for their audience. The more divisive question is how — if at all — should an editorial team be involved in its creation?

To better understand how the two sides of the digital publishing industry — sponsored and editorial — work together, Pressboard conducted a survey of 32 industry professionals. The results show that the industry is divided on whether the two teams should collaborate on sponsored content creation. More than half of the respondents reported that their editors are not involved. On the other hand, 46% reported some degree of editorial involvement in creating sponsored content.

Among the respondents who indicated that their editorial teams were involved in creating sponsored content, the level of involvement varied. Some divulged that they were very involved, while others only somewhat. The relationship is evidently a complicated one, especially as audiences grow more accepting of branded content.

“The more I see branded content online and in print the more accepting I find readers have been,” stated Joel Vosburg, Advertising Account Manager for Gripped Publishing. “The primary concern for their audience isn’t whether or not the content has paid sponsorship, it’s the transparency of the advertiser’s involvement.”

Does branded content influence editorial?

The question of whether editorial content should be free from influence is an important one. However, those in the industry understand that it is not always cut and dry. While 33% of respondents shared that the brands that they partner with have some effect on editorial content, 13% said their editorial is very affected. Publishers in the product review space were vocal about how the editorial content they can create depends on the brands they work with. Vosburg explained that it’s “tough to provide editorial coverage when the brands do not work with [you]”.

However, the separation between editorial and sponsored content teams is much more substantial when it comes to news coverage. In fact, some publishers have strict policies in place that forbid brands from influencing editorial content.

Striking a balance between sponsored and editorial

As we delve further into the data, it becomes more apparent what approach publishers are currently taking with sponsored content, as well as how the industry may evolve going forward.

A strong majority of respondents feel that editorial pieces should be at the forefront of a publication’s site, with only a small number indicating that they feel their site should be evenly split between editorial and branded content. However, respondents were somewhat less rigid when the question involved a lifestyle site as opposed to a news site.

“You need to be keenly aware of what your readership wants and does not want,” stated Nikki Csek, CEO at Csek Creative (which supports NowMedia). When asked exactly how much sponsored content is ideal for your site, Csek noted, “As much as your readership is interested in engaging with. Sponsored content can be as interesting and sometimes more interesting than day-to-day editorial content.”

The tone, look, and feel of your website should be cohesive including the sponsored content it hosts. This question garnered the strongest agreement amongst respondents, with 84% agreeing (strongly or somewhat) that sponsored content should look and read similarly to a site’s editorial content.

Mindy Claggett of COX Inc. said this concept had a key role in defining her position. Though she is the Associate Editor of Branded Content, her role reports directly to the editorial team.

“[They] decided that my role should report through editorial primarily because I would be creating content, so they felt I needed to be on the content team. Additionally, they wanted to ensure that even paid content was consistent with the brand standards for our publications and sites, and that the content would fit the brand voice.”

Half of all respondents affirmed that audiences do care whether content has been sponsored by a brand. Readers — especially millennials — generally don’t like ads. However, 58% of millennials will watch ads if their favorite digital personalities are involved. Therefore, presenting high quality information and entertaining content is still imperative.

Maintaining trust

When a brand is connected to a publication it benefits from the same level of trust and credibility, which is important to readers. The relevance and pairing of the brand and the publication must be believable for your audience to want to engage with the content produced. Partnering with brands your audience cares about has proven successful for several of the publishers who responded.

It is important to note that when it comes to branded content, audiences are sympathetic to the economics of the publishing industry. According to Vosburg, “Readers understand the troubles some publishers find themselves in these days and know that financial support through content is a way to help this.” 

It’s clear that publishers and brands will continue to collaborate in creating content. But for now, the question of whether editorial teams should be involved remains unanswered. On one hand, the emphasis placed on maintaining the impartiality of editorial content suggests that there should be a strict divide between editorial and sponsored teams. On the other hand, the need for sponsored content to look and feel similar to editorial suggests that there needs to be some degree of editorial involvement. And it’s likely this relationship will remain complicated in the near future as sponsored content becomes an increasing source of revenue for publishers. It appears that only one thing is certain: Sponsored content is here to stay.

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