Oh, sponsored content. So many opportunities to get your name out there, yet so many opportunities to get it wrong in the process. For all the industry buzz surrounding the term, readers are getting skeptical about sponsored content's true intentions -- for justifiable reasons. Too often, sponsored content favors trickery over quality, but it doesn't have to be that way.
But first, a word on definitions, since the lines between sponsored content and native advertising are often blurry. Native advertising's goal is to prompt viewers to act on an ad while blending seamlessly into the platform where it's published -- found most often on our social media feeds in the form of paid tweets or Facebook posts. Sponsored content exists on third-party sites and channels (i.e., Nationwide Insurance sponsoring the sixth season of AMC's "Mad Men") and focuses more on brand recognition than immediate action. Ideally, it also does so without masking the fact that someone paid to put it there.
From choosing an outlet to writing and promoting, sponsored content isn't a "one-size-fits-all" strategy. It takes careful consideration and a healthy dose of respect for the reader to get things right. Paying to have your brand attached to something that appears on a third-party site is only the first step, and if your strategy stops there, you're not going to achieve much at all. Here are the things that need to happen if brands want to keep readers coming back for more, instead of driving them away with sponsored content mistakes.
Choose your channel wisely
No one knows your brand better than you do. And with that knowledge should come a keen understanding of the outlets that will make your brand stick out like a sore thumb and the ones that seem like the perfect fit. You need to build trust with the sponsored content you create.
When considering channels, ask yourself if the audience is one you want to attract. Are they engaged in their content consumption -- whether it's sponsored or organic -- or are they passive skimmers? Does the site publish more sponsored posts than non-promotional ones -- an obvious red flag? If the stars don't align, abandon ship and seek out alternate channels.
Another important consideration is the publisher's method of identifying whether content is sponsored or organic. There are few faster ways to alienate a reader than having them fully engaged in a post, only to discover a tiny, almost-unnoticeable marker at the end of your article and realize they've been fooled. Even if a piece of sponsored content fits with your brand's values and style and is completely factual, it's dishonest to not label it properly and try to pass it off as a bonafide news article. Readers have the potential to be your greatest supporters. Don't treat them as if they aren't smart enough to know the difference.
And when you're playing matchmaker to find the right outlet for your content, you might also find that your own site is the perfect home. That's okay. If you can't be authentic elsewhere, be yourself on your own site. It's easy to get caught up in the high traffic numbers of a high-profile publication, but you're not helping anyone if that traffic doesn't care about what you have to say. In the end, whether you're publishing on someone else's site or your own, credibility is everything. Once it's gone, it's difficult to earn back.
Don't just let it sit there
You've written a quality piece of sponsored content and published it in a place that's true to your brand's message. If this is where your strategy ends, you're missing out on a huge opportunity.
Once your sponsored content goes live, social media is a brand's best friend. You may have only paid for an article on a website, but you have the power to move that article around the web, gathering more readers and credibility in the process. Plan a social strategy that maximizes reach, and keep it relevant -- understand your audience on each social platform and know what will make them like or retweet and what will have them scrolling on.
Remember: sponsored content, especially when mixed with social media, can do more harm than good if your frequent posting becomes more nagging than informative. It's easy to post daily content about your brand. It's far more difficult to publish content that people finish reading and ask for more. Don't settle for the former.
Striking the right balance
There is no go-to method for deciding where to publish and what to publish -- all the more reason to approach your strategy as if your brand depends on it. For helpful guidance, look for examples of efforts that are leading the pack.
One of the more fascinating case studies of thoughtfully approached sponsored content exists on the publishing platform Medium. When Medium entered the sponsored content world in the summer of 2014, it did so with the purpose of partnering with BMW to tell authentic stories that readers would find interesting -- with or without "presented by BMW" clearly displayed before each article. The six-month partnership that ran on the "Re:form" channel got something else right, too: balance. Out of 100 articles, the partnership only had a single monthly story specifically about BMW. In addition to being clearly marked, those pieces connected directly to the car company's own page on the platform. Medium also had its own editor oversee the process to ensure authenticity and consistency of voice.
The result? A collaborative process that didn't scream "brand manipulation" and instead told compelling stories that readers wanted to engage with. Even those few posts about BMW didn't feel overly promotional.
Ultimately, sponsored content can be an incredibly valuable asset or your brand's greatest downfall, and no amount of money or clicks is worth damaging your reputation. If you don't take your approach seriously and publish with authenticity, your most dedicated brand followers will know it, and their loyalty will be the cost. Should you choose to dive into the world of sponsored content, do so carefully and with a strong sense of who your brand is, who your readers are, and how to publish stories that are true to both of those audiences.
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