March 17, 2017 Last Updated 10:40 am

The fine line between sponsored content and advertising

Guest column: Rich Routman, president of Minute Media, a sports media and technology company, says ‘its essential to establish guidelines as the commercial category of paid content continues to grow and evolve’

The rise of sponsored content has been in the news a lot lately, with big brands like Unilever and Goldman Sachs announcing the creation of their own in-house content studios. Marketers are understanding that the way people interact with advertising has changed, especially in a world where the use of ad blocking technology continues to rise, and that consumers are more apt to proactively seek out interesting content than to click on irrelevant advertising.

Most sponsored content is masking pure advertising as editorial or even worse, using editorial, in-stream positioning to deliver off-message advertising. The fine line between the editorial stream, advertising click bait and advertorial content will continue to evolve as publishers experience CPM attrition across the more standard media placements. However, when done right and when contextual, sponsored content and even native content can be the most impactful advertising on the page. So how do we maintain the trust of our audience as publishers, but also create new unchartered ground, to deliver un-blockable and relevant, in-feed brand messaging?

To be blunt, the responsibility to getting this right does not fall on the commercial teams at most publishing operations, but should be owned by editorial. Journalists hold the responsibility of delivering content that their audience wants to read, consume and share – whether sponsored content or editorial. In order for sponsored content to work and be successful, the content needs to be entertaining, useful and resonate with the audience, weaving brand messages into content in an authentic manner — something that only those in charge of content on the page can truly own. Sponsored content should be viewed by the content creator as additional contribution or additive insight, the sharing of differentiated expertise on a topic as a way to engage the audience beyond the article. After all, interesting content is interesting content whether created for a brand or purely for editorial purposes.

Taking sponsored content one step further, there is potential for better interactive formats that enable engagement, all while empowering consumer interaction. Social, interactive, formats can often times provide an even more authentic brand experience, creating the opportunity for more of a dialogue than pure sponsored content. While it may not deliver traffic to the brand marketer’s site, interactive content such as polls, trivia and even voting widgets can still embody brand messaging, and actually resonate more with consumers and deliver brand health metrics without enticing an unwarranted click.

We’ve come a long way from the old school advertorial, but its essential to establish guidelines as the commercial category of paid content continues to grow and evolve. Maintaining user trust must still be the most important takeaway when developing content, whether paid or editorial. While the monetization opportunity is clear, it should not come at the expense of user experience, or even worse, the sacrifice of editorial credibility.

Rich Routman is president of Minute Media, a sports media and technology company, and owner of 90min, 12up and DBLTAP. A seasoned digital and sports media executive, he most recently served as Chief Revenue Officer at Perform Media, the world’s largest digital sports content and media group and owner of Sporting News.

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