Sponsored Content: The New King in Town

By Karen Addis, APR

We’ve all heard that content is king. But nowadays, sponsored content — also known as native advertising ― is the new, reigning king. What is this trend that is popping up everywhere and gaining increasing traction?

While terminology varies depending on who you talk to, sponsored content is generally defined as content an organization writes and pays to have placed in key outlets, outlets with which their audience engage. Think of an advertisement in the form of content versus a display ad.

But unlike advertorials of the past, today’s sponsored content tends to be more factual, with less of a marketing or sales bent. Sponsored content may serve to bring awareness to an issue or a cause, or inform or educate the public about a topic. It differs from true journalism because it tells the story from one side, the content creator’s viewpoint.

Sponsored content is everywhere. It appears in national news publications, such as The Washington Post; it appears on internet content platforms, such as Outbrain or Taboola; and it appears on internet portals, such as Yahoo.

From left: Kelly Andresen, Washington Post; Matt Bennett, moderator; Joan McGrath, Atlantic Media Strategies; Jonathan Rick, the Jonathan Rick Group; and Jeff Pyatt, Outbrain.

From left: Kelly Andresen, Washington Post; Matt Bennett, moderator; Joan McGrath, Atlantic Media Strategies; Jonathan Rick, the Jonathan Rick Group; and Jeff Pyatt, Outbrain.

When done well, sponsored content can be a highly effective way for organizations to engage with their audiences, according to a panel of speakers at the April 22 PRSA-NCC workshop, “Going Native: How Sponsored Content is Shaping Advertising, News and Messaging.” The 70+ attendees heard from leading experts about why sponsored content is here to stay and how major news organizations, such as The Washington Post and The Atlantic, have jumped into the fray, many of them launching in-house agencies created specifically to capitalize on this trend.

WP BrandConnect, for example, was launched by The Washington Post two years and has seen enormous growth in popularity, said Kelly Andresen, director of ad innovations and product strategy. “We are looking at how to best integrate content across all of our various platforms,” she said.

Joan McGrath, who oversees The Atlantic magazine’s in house agency, Atlantic Media Strategies, said nowadays it’s all about building digital strategies that engage readers.

Jeff Pyatt, head of global PR, direct response and local initiatives for Outbrain agrees, observing that sponsored content has overtaken banner ads in terms of how organizations are communicating with their audiences because people are suffering from “banner fatigue” and view sponsored content as “more authentic and engaging.”

But sponsored content is not cheap. The minimum buy for BuzzFeed, a highly popular content publishing company, is $100,000, according to Jonathan Rick, president of The Jonathan Rick Group, a local firm that specializes in content strategy.

However, there are less expensive ways to produce sponsored content. Both Andresen and McGrath said their organizations work with clients, such as associations and nonprofits, that have more limited budgets.

But before an organization jumps into sponsored content, panelists offered some parting advice.

“Content creation is really hard,” said Andresen. “There’s a reason The Post has 600+ journalists in the newsroom.”

“The quality of the content is critical,” said McGrath, who noted that The Atlantic does not accept all sponsored content that is submitted.

“Balancing between advertising and journalism – it’s a tricky thing to balance,” said Rick.

But, noted McGrath, quality sponsored content goes back to the fundamentals of good writing, something all panelists agree serves only to strengthen and solidify the need for PR professionals in the future.

Karen Addis, APR, is senior vice president at Van Eperen & Company, a full-service public relations and marketing communications agency in the Washington, DC, area.

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