Why sponsored content can offend the clients you’re trying to reach

Advertising ain't what it used to be. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Advertising ain’t what it used to be. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The audience for traditional journalism has never been greater. The business model underpinning it, however, has never been weaker.

Enter ‘native’ advertising or sponsored content.

On a superficial level, it makes some sense. A company can directly influence the content – even explicitly control it – with the tacit endorsement of an independent masthead. This content is largely indistinguishable from the editorial: in fact, it usually has the exact same appearance barring a small disclosure (although there are no industry-wide standards in place).

For these reasons, many journalists view it with some disdain. But more importantly for the companies buying sponsored content, so do readers.

“Readers of online news sites care deeply about trust, truth, and accuracy, which is why strong emotions are roused when they feel they are being ‘deceived’ by advertising masquerading as content,” according to the recently-released Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2015 Digital News Report.

Its survey of US and UK readers found:

• A third or more felt disappointed or deceived after reading an article they later found had been sponsored.
• Half said they didn’t like sponsored content but accepted that it partly funded ‘free’ news.
• Over a quarter felt less positively about the news brand as a result of sponsored content/native advertising.

Only 14 per cent of respondents in the UK and 22 per cent in the US said sponsored content was an interesting way to receive relevant information. However, younger consumers were more likely to find sponsored content interesting, partially reflecting the success of entertainment-focused, viral-content masters such as Buzzfeed.

The report did find some positive news for companies pursuing the sponsored content approach via independent publishers: the reader negativity surrounding native advertising was generally directed at the news brand rather than the advertiser.

Reuters - sponsored content impact

So what is the answer, given the impact of online advertising is diminishing?

I suggest at least two alternatives:

• Offer well-written opinion articles (authored by the appropriate company executive) to those same media outlets. It places the company as a trusted partner and supplements the role of traditional marketing and advertising activities.
• Build your own distribution network and content platform. It is a more powerful and transparent path where content is never divorced from the brand.

Read the full Reuters report here.