Is that story journalism or advertising?: Sponsored content's blurry status

By Laura Davison

Journalists have plenty of new things to tackle these days: Facebook Graph, Quora’s new blogging platform and keeping their online presence looking as spiffy as the New Republic’s.

And the never-ending to do list keeps growing: what’s the deal with sponsored content? Or you might have heard it referred to as one of its many other names— content marketing, native advertising or paid content. As Mashable outlines, the jury’s still out on what term the industry will adopt.

No matter the name, the idea is brands, instead of placing display ads online, create multimedia content with the help of the an editorial member of a news organization. This content has the look and feel of the other content on the site, except for some designation marking it as sponsored. News organizations get paid to create this content and advertisers have a more dynamic platform to share their brand.

Financially, it looks like a win for both. The desire for native advertising is being driven by two forces: the need for additional sources of revenue and the way users interact with advertising online has changed greatly in the past decade. Online banner advertising had a click-through rate of 9 percent in 2000, according to Mashable. Last year it was 0.2 percent. Zero point two. When you’re getting paid by the click, that just doesn’t cut it.
A screenshot of the Scientology sponsored post in the Atlantic

It’s no surprise that news organizations have looked to sponsored content, which is more engaging and less advertisement-y, as a potential source of revenue. Big outlets like NBC Digital, Forbes, Buzzfeed and most recently, the Atlantic, are all among organizations experimenting with it.

But some journalists have ethical concerns about content that looks so similar to the journalism also on the site. Earlier this month, the Atlantic ran a sponsored post for the Church of Scientology. Readers were confused and upset by the content, which was a piece praising Scientology’s recent accomplishments. Users were allowed to comment and negative ads were suppressed. It’s since been taken down, but you can still see a pdf of the post. Only a small yellow tab at the beginning of the story noted that it was an advertorial. The Atlantic admitted that, “They screwed up.”

Mike Orren a former news publisher, blogs that sponsored content needs substance beyond a brand message to be effective. 

“The piece in The Atlantic was simply an advertorial, something that magazines have been running for eons,” Orren writes. “It’s what it sounds like: An advertising message thinly disguised as editorial content. … It’s a format that serves no one – readers tend to discount them as puffery and advertisers therefore at best get little value.… Content marketing, at least of the type we produce, is a very different animal from advertorial. My soundbite to describe content marketing to newbies is “advertorial without all the ‘me, me, me.’”

The goal of sponsored content? It’s not just about making a sale, but also provide useful information to people who might not be interested in buying the content and, as Orren states “be honest without hyperbole.”

“News organizations have different rules for ad content and editorial content,” Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman wrote, “and if advertisers want the advantage of playing in your content space, they ought to rise to meet the higher standards it demands.”

As more organizations experiment with this, there will be more flops like the Atlantic piece. There will also be successes.  And how to create those successes is a process advertisers and news organizations alike must learn to navigate.

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