Publishers have had a rough time of late. Facebook’s algorithmic change prioritizing user-generated content over editorial content, aside from representing a damning indictment of publishing’s reliance on social media sites, has come at a time when ad blocking is on the rise on both desktop and mobile devices. Essentially, revenue streams are being choked left right and center, and publishers are having to generate new ones to stay afloat in a hyper-competitive, oversaturated market.
Ad blocker usage is set to hit 32% by 2017, and by 2020 CNBC claim it could cost publishers over $27 billion in lost ad revenue. And while some believe it’s advertising itself that needs a revamp - i.e., creating ads that customers won’t want to block - many are now considering native content, as it shapes up to be the future of publishing revenue. Native sponsored content can be irritating, though. Satirical news site The Onion once posted an incredibly sarcastic ‘report’ entitled ‘Sponsored Content Pretty F***ing Awesome,' in which it discussed the love for content that dupes readers into believing it’s editorial.
But there are ways of publishing sponsored content that benefit both the publisher and the audience. Some of the best and worst examples come from content designed to be fun - the Onion, despite its satirical jab, publishes some of the finest sponsored content out there. By mocking the medium, the site is open and often self-deprecating about the fact the content is branded, resulting in sharing numbers marketers would kill for.
The company’s in-house creative agency, Onion Labs, ensures the content is in keeping with the publication’s tone, and this is the key to successful sponsored offerings. ‘The Onion's sponsored stuff is satirical, like everything else it publishes,’ explained Sam Slaughter, VP of content at Contently. ‘If another publisher is about thoughtfulness and intelligence, its sponsored content needs to be thoughtfulness and intelligence. If it's a magazine about humor and gossip, that piece of content should follow that tone as well.’ Buzzfeed, on the other hand, all too often posts sponsored content that very much feels like it’s been written by a marketing team doing a Buzzfeed style piece - it often lacks the humor or curiosity that makes Buzzfeed so great for its audience.
Comedy isn’t the only medium that lends itself to sponsored work, though. Time Out is another fine example of seamless inclusion of branding, made effective by the very nature of the site’s readership. Time Out visitors are typically looking for (and are willing to part with cash for) experiences, the kind which brands are desperate to sell them. A Time Out sponsored post is essentially nothing more than a biased report on a location that might otherwise be overlooked; what’s important is that it’s in keeping with Time Out’s regular output. Some users will find the sponsored reports dishonest, but most will be comfortable with being suggested another option for their day or night out. It also runs campaigns in conjunction with brands like Booking.com, for example, in this case encouraging people to book a spontaneous trip with the bookings app and providing information on the cities they should or could visit. According to Time Out, third-party research found that ‘consumers’ intent to use Booking.com to plan their next trip increased 57% among users exposed to this campaign.
Problems mainly seem to arise when brands are encouraged to produce their own content, without any input from an editorial or creative agency in-house. City AM has gone down this path, foregoing a creative studio and encouraging brands to create as much content as they wish for a set fee - one 12-month deal is bringing in £120,000 ($160,000), according to Yardley, for unlimited online posts and one monthly feature piece in the print newspaper. The new, significant revenue stream is a clear boon for the paper, but without editorial input but for suggestions, City AM may find its site inundated with second-rate content, something bound to turn off both its readers and its sponsors.
Sponsored content may well be the future for an industry plagued by plummets in revenue. With publishers like The Onion and Time Out finding ways to include sponsored posts without affronting their readerships, the future looks viable for the revenue stream many hope could rescue journalism. Bad sponsored content is awful. Good sponsored content is, well, acceptable enough to be a success.