Scroll through the pages of industry trade sites or attend any of the numerous conferences throughout the year, and you'll no doubt notice the increase in both brands and publishers calling for more authenticity in sponsored content.
The problem of course is that the concept of "authentic" is subjective. Much like native advertising, there is no standard definition or set of guidelines for how a brand should be authentic. It's a term we use in our industry that has so many meanings that we risk making the word itself meaningless.
Despite the best of intentions, brands can't control whether or not readers will view sponsored content as authentic, and they can't control whether or not readers will share content with friends. What brands can control, though, is strengthening the fundamentals that put them in a better position to produce compelling sponsored content and increase their chances for an authentic outcome. Here are some tips on how a brand can achieve that result.
Choose to participate in conversations that are true to your brand
Create content based on a point of view that's valuable and relevant to a reader without straying from the ideals of the brand. While there are several types of conversations that might be applicable to a brand, it should only participate in those that matter the most. Sports drink brands surely recognize that their product is not only popular among athletes, but also among those suffering from hangovers, but they have been wise to focus only on the audience that aligns with who they are as brands instead of trying to be all things to all people.
Create content that meets the expectations of the platform
The challenge of digital advertising is creating something interesting enough to consume when it's just as easy to ignore or scroll right past it. A brand is then typically faced with two options -- it can decide to enhance an experience or it can stand in the way of it.
A brand looking to publish content needs to seriously consider whether or not its posts are not only relevant, but also match the expectations of the platform on which it appears. If the content doesn't exactly match reader expectations, the post will get no more than a cursory glance, and it is highly unlikely that the reader will share it. Brands should strive to add value by being seen as an invited guest, not a party crasher.
Drop the hard sell
Another hurdle for brands to overcome is the desire to connect with their audience "authentically," but attempt to sell a product at the same time. Good content marketing enables a brand to participate in conversations that are important and relevant to its audience, without the need to be so heavy handed in the posts. An international airline creating a guide to meeting etiquette for business travelers is informative and provides a valuable service. Recommending the use of the airline within the body of the post is a straight up ad.
The brands that have a track record of producing great content typically publish with these pillars in mind. American Express and Patagonia are great examples of brands that speak with an established voice and point of view, and their content is created with more of a focus on relevancy and service to their respective audiences than it is about selling them products.
Authenticity (much like "viral") may be a desired outcome, but it's not a strategy. While opinions will vary by reader, brands have a better chance of being perceived as authentic if they develop strategies around quality, value, and transparency, resulting in content that is beneficial to both the values of the brand and the interests of their audience.