As online publications get creative with their advertising efforts, many are turning to sponsored content to get their advertisers' message quickly and directly to audiences.
Sponsored content is content paid for – or written – by brands to promote products and services, to increase their online presence and to find new ways to reach their consumer. Sponsored content is usually inserted into the editorial flow of the online publication but clearly marked as 'sponsored'.
As with all things new, missteps are bound to happen. The Atlantic recently had to apologize for a sponsored post by the Church of Scientology because it was selling the religion a little too hard. The best way to avoid backlash from inserting sponsored content into your editorial calendar is to offer content that fits in with the rest and that readers will enjoy. Below are five online publications doing sponsored content the right way.
Buzzfeed is really good at native advertising – so much so that it's pretty difficult to differentiate editorial and branded content if you ignore the byline. Take this post, Which Game of Thrones House Are You? and compare it to this post, Quiz: How Much Do You Know About the Nights Watch?. They're essentially exactly the same type of content that's created for fans of the show – but one is written by a Buzzfeed staffer and the other is a sponsored content post created by Game of Thrones, Buzzfeed partner.
All of Buzzfeed's sponsored content is produced by a creative team to ensure that each sponsored post fits into the editorial stream. President Jon Steinberg calls Buzzfeed's sponsored content unit 'in-stream social advertising' which pushes all branded content into its CMS like all of its editorial posts.
Online fashion publication Refinery29 has a brand integration team that works closely with editor-in-chief Christene Barberich to ensure that they're creating content that readers will enjoy. As a result, all branded content is produced by Refinery29 staff.
Refinery29 paired up with clothing retailer Guess to create a custom content program that boosted the brand's presence on social media and increased sales. At the time, Guess was celebrating the 30th anniversary of its iconic Marilyn Jean by releasing a line of pieces with modern updates.
Most of Refinery29's audience grew up with Guess so they decided to incorporate the heritage of the brand in a trends piece that featured 30 fashion influencers wearing iconic Guess clothing and sharing their memories of the brand and the 80s.
The Guess Generation program lasted a month and received over a million views.
I really like this example of sponsored content because it happened way back before 'sponsored' became the new buzzword. A few years ago, a New Jersey newspaper, owned by Gannet, changed the way that it covered it's NHL team, the New Jersey Devils. Instead of sending out a reporter to games and junkets, it started publishing articles written by a writer employed by the Devils.
The Devils came up with the idea as the writer, Eric Martin, was already writing content for the team's website. At the time, the team was getting a lot of coverage by the two biggest newspapers in the state, both in northern New Jersey, but it wanted more attention in the central part of the state, where Gannet-owned papers are number one.
The move rubbed a few people the wrong way because the coverage was being written by the subject being covered. Hollis Towns, executive editor of The Asbury Park Press (a Jersey paper owned by Gannet) told the New York Times, “As long as it served our readers and we told them where that content was coming from, the readers were fine with it. I think journalists get hung up on certain lines of what’s ethical more than the readers.”
Forbes is, arguably, the most successful old school publication to make the transition to online and to use the medium to its full advantage. It has also found a way to make sponsored content work for its partners and its readers. BrandVoice, newly re-christened from AdVoice, is a space for brands to post their own articles on Forbes.com.
Editors of the 'brand newsroom' work as part of the magazine's ad products team to support the blog network and help advertisers in choosing what kind of content to create, headline writing and with SEO. But the editors never actually write content. That's all left to the advertisers who use the same publishing platform that editors use. The final product isn't read or edited before its published. It's the brand's voice, after all.
Cheezeburger, a blog network infamous for it's scroll-worthy and time-wasting curation of cat photos, has editors on all of its sites that help brands create content that Cheezeburger's audience will love but that will also be beneficial to the brand. Cheezeburger is really good at finding ways to encourage branded user-generated content. A good example of this was its partnership with The Sims when it took a meme-based approach. Users were encouraged to enter a caption contest to create the internet's next best meme.
“The difference between us and (traditional publishers) is that new publishers realize a contributor doesn’t have to be on staff. If brand content is actually entertaining, then is it advertising or content? The users choose to engage with the content. We provide an environment for users to engage,” Todd Sawicki, chief revenue officer, told Digiday.