Sponsored content, native advertising, and advertising content are three terms used more or less interchangeably to generally refer to content paid for by a brand that’s included in a site’s regular content stream. It has to be labeled as paid content to meet FTC guidelines, but otherwise it looks very much like other content on a given site.
It’s also growing in popularity. A Solve Media survey found that 49 percent of media buyers planned to spend on this type of content in 2013, and 40 percent of media buyers surveyed said they’d allotted more than 10 percent of 2013 advertising budgets for native advertising. The survey found that buyers in major cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco plan to spend the most on native advertising.
Sponsored Content on The Washington Post
What The Washington Post is doing is slightly different. They’re adding advertising units in the comments sections on opinion pieces. These Sponsored Views, as they’re called, allow advertisers to spotlight their responses to opinion columns. They’re not quite what people think of when they think of native advertising, since they show up between articles and comments. They’re differentiated with a yellow background, and they allow advertisers to address the articles below which they appear. According to The Post, Sponsored Views are designed for advocacy on the part of advertisers who want their messages in front of important constituencies. Purchasers so far include:
Natural Resources Defense Council
Center for American Progress
CTIA: The Wireless Association
Sponsored Views are up to 600 characters long and cost from $500 to several thousand dollars.
Steps The Washington Post Takes to Avoid Potential Problems
Sponsored Views are subject to approval by The Washington Post‘s advertising staff before they’re published online. A single story can host up to three Sponsored Views. Sponsored Views aren’t the only sponsored content The Washington Post uses. In March, they launched their “Brand Connect” platform, which allows advertisers to place content of various types on the site alongside articles produced by The Post‘s news staff. Brand Connect articles do not allow comments. Brand Connect modules are boxed, and at the top they have a blue band with a “SPONSOR GENERATED CONTENT” label.
Cautionary Lessons About Sponsored Content
One reason The Post chose not to allow comments under Brand Connect pieces was the now infamous sponsored piece posted on The Atlantic website in January written by the Church of Scientology. In that case, The Atlantic apparently had no editorial input, and reader comments were scathing.
The lack of editorial input was one problem with the Scientology article debacle, but as the dust has settled, the overall opinion is that The Atlantic‘s biggest failure was that the content fell well outside the range of content usually published by the magazine. Shafqat Islam, co-founder of NewsCred, a content licensing and syndication platform, told Adweek, “Probably, mainstream viewers were confused [as] to what was going on, not because it was sponsored but because it was a bizarre article.”
The main challenge for brands who want to dip a toe into the sponsored content pool is that of creating compelling content that’s entertaining and informative. If that criterion isn’t satisfied, it won’t be effective no matter how much it looks like native site content. Sponsored content has to be clearly labeled as such, though it is usually included in a website’s ordinary content stream. The Washington Post, through Sponsored Views, Brand Connect content (and the ban on comments on Brand Connect pieces), as well as its paywall, launched June 12 and shows that respected journalistic outlets are willing to use sponsored content to help make up for shrinking ad revenues.
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