Ads, especially the banner ads that have plagued the web for decades, can be intrusive. No reader wants to be interrupted with unnecessary or irrelevant marketing while they’re reading an article. Despite attempts at integrating alternative payment structures for editorial content, advertising appears to be a necessary evil to keep the industry afloat. If Internet marketers have their way, however, ads won’t be considered evil at all. From the data-driven, hyper-targeted ads on Facebook to user-response surveys during Hulu ads, companies are working to make advertisements more and more relevant to each individual user.
Research has shown that banner ads aren't just intrusive; they're ineffective. According to Solve Media, “you’re more likely to survive a plane crash than click on a banner ad.” For publishers and advertisers alike, sponsored editorial content offers a new, exciting alternative method of reaching consumers. Sponsored content typically appears next to regular articles or in the same feed as editorial content. The focus of most sponsored posts isn’t entirely on selling a particular product — it also aims to inform or entertain. Many posts can be just as well-written and informative as the rest of the articles published on a site. Sponsored content is, however, paid for by a company or brand.
Placing sponsored and editorial content side-by-side is an effective method of reaching consumers, but it presents a moral conundrum: Readers can lose trust in brands if they believe they’re being tricked into reading sponsored content. According to a 2014 study conducted by Contently, two-thirds of readers “felt deceived” after realizing that an article had been sponsored by a brand. The majority of respondents — 59 percent — claimed that a news site loses credibility if it runs articles sponsored by brands. Advertising in this form can be even more intrusive than banner ads, especially if the audience is forced to at least read the headline as they’re scrolling through a feed. Exposure is guaranteed, and click-through rates are higher, but there’s an element of deception involved.
When done right, however, sponsored content can be upfront and transparent. Many websites, such as the Huffington Post, clearly define a post as sponsored multiple times surrounding the article. Buzzfeed also lists brands and companies as authors on sponsored posts, which comprise the majority of the publication’s revenue. Buzzfeed’s sponsored posts also adhere to the same style and editorial guidelines as the rest of its articles — appearing in listicle form.
When sponsored content is marked properly and written to match the quality, tone, style and relevancy to the audience, it belongs in the feed with editorial articles in the section or category which most closely matches the topic. As long as readers are aware that they’re reading an advertisement, the relationship between the readers and brands can be a positive and effective one. A study conducted by Edelman Berland found that “business and entertainment news users are highly receptive to in-feed sponsored content if it is relevant, authoritative and trustworthy.” It also helps if both the brand and publisher are well-regarded and trustworthy.
If sponsored content abides by these moral guidelines, it can be more effective for brands and potentially more beneficial for consumers. The problem is that everyone runs sponsored content in different places, charges a different amount for sponsored advertisements, and differs in the ways they let readers know a post is sponsored. Sponsored content itself isn’t necessarily morally wrong, but there’s a fine line between relevancy and deception.
Although sponsored content is growing, it still comprises a small percentage of overall marketing plans. According to Digital Relevance’s “Content Promotion Manifesto,” brands spent an average of just 6.7 percent of digital content marketing budgets on sponsored content in 2013. Still, major media companies like the New York Times, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal have embraced the new method of advertising. According to a study by Hexagram and Spada, 62 percent of publishers had embraced sponsored articles by 2013. The trend is only expected to increase, so it’s important for publishers and brands alike to run sponsored content with the consumers' best interests in mind.
Note: A reporter was commissioned to write this in-depth article via News Innovations.
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