Sponsored Content Experts Talk Definitions, Standards, Pitfalls and More

  • By Stephen M. Zorio

    When it comes to sponsored content, it can often seem there are more questions than answers.
    With that in mind, ScribbleLive pulled together experts from The New York Times, the American Press Institute, Ebyline and Hammock Inc. to shed light on a sometimes still-opaque world.

    The first word that Google suggests when doing a search on sponsored content is "definition." 

    Q: How do you define sponsored content? (The answers suggest Google's auto-fill is tapped into the zeitgeist on this particular topic.)

    We've found that there's no single form of sponsored contentIt's better to define sponsored content by what it does than by what it looks like. Two of our main criteria: 1) It is generally understood to be content that takes the same form and qualities of a publisher’s original content and 2) it usually serves useful or entertaining information as a way of favorably influencing the perception of the sponsor brand. -- Millie Tran, American Press Institute

    Sponsored content to us @NYT is very broad, but identified by the box it lives in. To explain further, as long as the content is identified as advertiser content paid and posted by a brand, then we have a wide array of different types of content we can create -- Kaylee King-Balentine, The New York Times

    Q: If sponsored content is more of a category than a specific sub-genre, what does that mean for terms like branded entertainment and native advertising? Are they interchangeable?

    I wish that there were universal understandings of what all those different terms ... what is and isn't sponsored/native...but those are terms that still haven't been accepted universally. I'm reminded of the Homer Simpson quote, "Boy, those Germans have a word for everything." Marketers tend to have terms that MEAN everything. -- Rex Hammock, Hammock Inc.

    We tend to just refer to it all as content marketing. There are really two common macro-trends we see.  1.) Gratuitous promotion - i.e., traditionally known as advertorial. 2) Everything else.  Brands tell us their research shows that if you can educate and inform consumers with quality information that they will return the favor with brand loyalty over time. -- Bill Momary, Ebyline

    When we had our summit on sponsored content back in the fall, we were getting really hung up on this question of naming and eventually decided that it wasn't worth debating over it and instead find some similar qualities. -- Millie Tran

    I think at the end of the day, if your focus is on telling powerful stories, what the content is technically called doesn't matter. As long as it is identified as advertiser funded in some way. -- Kaylee King-Balentine

    Q: How do you ensure readers have a clear understanding of which content is editorial versus content that has a sponsor behind it?

    We have a specific "paid post" frame you will see on all of our sponsored content pages. It has a distinct color to it and also includes the advertiser's logo. We also include the following language: This page was produced by the Advertising Department of The New York Times in collaboration with XYZ brand. The news and editorial staffs of The New York Times had no role in its preparation. -- Kaylee King-Balentine

    As someone who has created content for brands, associations, companies for 3 decades, the quality of information is enhanced when full disclosure exists. Great content works no matter what the label. Hype fails no matter where it appears. -- Rex Hammock

    The American Society of Magazine Editors recently released new editorial guidelines that include rules for sponsored content, based in part on the Atlantic and the New Yorker as models. Its basic overall principles are:

    • Every reader is entitled to fair and accurate news and information
    • The value of magazines to advertisers depends on reader trust
    • The difference between editorial content and marketing messages must be transparent
    • Editorial integrity must not be compromised by advertiser influence

    -- Millie Tran
    • Every reader is entitled to fair and accurate news and information
    • The value of magazines to advertisers depends on reader trust
    • The difference between editorial content and marketing messages must be transparent
    • Editorial integrity must not be compromised by advertiser influence

    Q: What are the essential parts of a sponsored content team?

    Our office looks remarkably like any creative, editorial, design team you'd see in a traditional media. Same work-flow. Same equipment. Same titles. It's merely a different business model. Our content is developed for companies, associations, etc., who have a business model other than the media-business business model. -- Rex Hammock

    Ad Age took a look at the sponsored content teams at four different publications, including BuzzFeed, where a "a creative-services department of 40 ... produce content for advertisers and consult on how to write stories in the BuzzFeed vein."  

    I think it's incredibly important to have an editorial director. An editorial director drives the conversation in each project. I also think it's incredibly important to have someone who came up through journalism. They are our gut-check to make sure projects are storytelling driven. -- Kaylee King-Balentine

    Our goal is to bring Big 'J' journalism to the masses because we believe there is only one way to produce content - the right way.  I agree that an experienced point person on the buy-side of the content marketing experience is as important as a CMO is to a marketing team. -- Bill Momary

    You can't product effective content unless you understand the marketing objectives of the client. There is the need for someone to be able to serve as bridge with editorial needs of the reader viewer / and expectation / project manager needs of the client. -- Rex Hammock

    Q: What are the advantages to hiring former journalists?

    We believe that people who have covered a beat and worked in a newsroom environment can move up and down the content spectrum with a rigor and approach to the craft that often times SME's [subject-matter experts] are unable to manage. That's not to suggest SME's aren't valuable resources in the content marketing equation. But rather, we have seen first hand how journalists are able to easily navigate the dynamic demands of the content marketing arena. In our view, it's makes a big difference. -- Bill Momary

    Journalists (or former journalists) have a real sense of what a good story is. They can take a brand's objectives and turn them into something driven by human interest. -- Kaylee King-Balentine

    Q: What are some of the common pitfalls associated with sponsored content?

    I wouldn't call these pitfalls, but ... reader impact is still a big challenge. What are readers' tolerance for and reaction to sponsored content? There was one study out today about credibility, but more research is definitely needed. -- Millie Tran

    Does having native advertising make a news site less credible? This study, at least, suggests no

    Nieman Journalism LabTwo researchers at Cal Poly published a study that looks at how older people consume and perceive native advertising compared to younger readers.

    Building an in-house content marketing team isn't easy. You need to really have a leader with newsroom management experience to be successful. The common pitfalls we see are: inability to foster ideation, challenges with management of assignment and pitch flow and the ability to hire and pay quality journalists to produce these assets. -- Bill Momary  You need to really have a leader with newsroom management experience to be successful.. But rather, we have seen first hand how journalists are able to easily navigate the dynamic demands of the content marketing arena.

    Q: Finally, what are some of your projects that stand out to you?  How do you see the sponsored content world evolving?

    Those initiatives where you're working with marketers who understand the opportunities and limitations of this big-tent thing we're talking about will all be rewarding. When there is a clear idea of the outcome the marketer is seeking, and what you develop is great content...and it delivers the desired outcome. Those are the best. -- Rex Hammock

    My favorite project I've worked on so far was with United Airlines. We created two videos and three data visualizations all around the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. -- Kaylee King-Balentine

    Take the Journey with Team USA (Paid Post by United from NYTimes.com)

    Take the Journey with Team USA. For over 30 years, United has supported Team USA athletes throughout their Olympic Journey. How many Olympic Athletes are from your state? Explore the map to find out.

    I think we are going to see a more mature content marketing space one that is committed to creating relevant, valuable, deep and inspiring work that weaves stories into consumer experiences. It will quickly become about producing Context not Keywords. -- Bill Momary

    I think the next ten years will continue to be a challenge to traditional media companies as more and more companies develop the means to create media that connects them directly to their customers -- and not through new or traditional media brands. Without a doubt, the industry of branded content will follow wherever the customers of the brands go. And that's an exciting place for those who create quality, helpful, entraining, insightful, etc. content, no matter who the check is being written to. -- Rex Hammock

    I'm so excited about the future world of sponsored content. I think brands are moving forward in a way that lets us as content creators tell stories and engage users without hitting everyone on the head with hard brand messaging/slogans. -- Kaylee King-Balentine

    Difficult to make predictions, but I wonder about the effectiveness -- with more research, data; the pricing structures; and scaling. But agreed with Kaylee, it's exciting and an innovative place to play and experiment in. -- Millie Tran

    To learn what the various business models for sponsored content look like, and why they present an opportunity for newsrooms, check out the chat in its entirety. Learn more about how ScribbleLive can help your brand tell compelling stories in your own voice.

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