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You’re Doing It Wrong: 5 Ways to Do Sponsored Content Right

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h1 Our readers aren't dumb, we're going to be straight-up about sponsored posts.

Annie, xoVain

Sponsored content (or native advertising if you prefer) has been the Holy Grail of integrated marketing - the ability to tuck a brand message into the editorial experience in a seamless and responsible way is every brand manager's dream. But then The Atlantic forced a Scientology advertorial on their site and suddenly sponsored content is getting a bad rap.

While The Atlantic did label the pro-Scientology advertorial as “sponsored content” it looked no different than other stories on the magazine’s website despite having no connection to their editorial mission. The whole flap has forced the industry to look in the mirror - again. Haven't we learned anything from the pay-per-post days?

Despite missteps like these - and there will be more, count on it - content is still the leading marketing priority for 2013. So how do you make sure your publishing partner doesn’t put you in a position of having your name attached to a We Screwed Up apology?

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At Say Media, we learn from collaborating with our editors, some of the most talented content creators in the business. Their approach to the digital medium leveraging high quality visuals, beautiful rich environments and a strong editorial voice, sets the stage for an amazing reader experience.

Done right, sponsored content is just great content. Here’s how we get there:

Find influencers that lead not follow. There are thousands of bloggers and digital properties that don’t start the conversation, they follow it. They line up their Google alerts and Twitter stream and monitor the top influencers - then put their spin on things. Working with followers means you're always reacting to the conversation, not starting it. You want to work with people that start the conversation (like Jane Pratt or Shayla Pierce), not just people who amplify it. They will guide you towards connecting with their readers.

Create an experience. The NY Times wowed the world with Snow Fall which delivered millions of page views for the paper and continues to generate buzz. It wasn't just the content (which was excellent) it was the whole experience of the piece with video, music, HTML 5 and the novel parallax effects. Google and Arcade Fire wowed us with Wilderness Downtown in 2010. We're now seeing glimpses that these experiences will emerge as one format for features on leading sites– like the approach that Gear Patrol in Saxon Snow is taking blending well crafted edit, stunning images, immersive video with text overlay and innovative design to create a magical digital experience. Just turn up the volume, watch the video and scroll. Suddenly it’s hard not to get pulled in and feel something - in a whole new way.

Don’t compromise quality. Great digital media brands are successful because they know how to engage their readers and they have a conservative ratio of content to advertising. They resist the urge to clutter their pages with too many ads. Instead, they focus on the best way to grow their audience - by finding new ways to delight their readers that in turn drive more page views. And smart brand managers understand and respect that. After all, sponsorship is another word for patronage – and a patron by definition is someone who supports, champions and protects. Doesn’t your brand equity get damaged by sponsoring lame content?

Work with partners that understand point-of-view. The most powerful content has a point-of-view. It’s immersive, visceral or deeply informative. Love it or hate it, it takes a stand, pulls you in, captivates you and makes you feel something. It sparks discussion. People are still talking about the Marissa Mayer work-from-home ban or Lena Dunham posing nude for Playboy.

Be transparent - and have fun with it. Embrace the partnership and tell a great story. In some cases that means sponsored content will be as forthright as what xoVain did with this spot, or more subtle like this or this. If it’s a great experience for the reader, everybody wins.

David Tokheim is SVP of Media Solutions at Say Media.

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