Is Sponsored Content the Future of Independent Online Publishing?

Is sponsored content the future of independent online publishing or propagandists at the gates?

In a world of shrinking online ad budgets, social media disaggregation and real-time bid optimizers that shave off every last cent of ad buys, online publishers are faced with the same tough questions that befell their print counterparts at the start of the Internet age, namely: how to intelligently add or recover the revenues necessary to keep their now-virtual presses running without losing their editorial voice.

One of the main ways being put forward today is called Sponsored Content. Sponsored Content, or native advertising, is content that appears in the flow of content of a site, where you would expect regular content to be.  Indeed it looks just like regular content, except with a “warning label” denoting it as outside of the regular editorial process. Typically the label will say, “Sponsored Content,” hence the name. 

The pros put forward are many, including better audience experience versus jarring ads (banners being called the bumper stickers of the Internet), more control over their story for advertisers, and more control over what appears on their site for publishers. The ability to consume content without disruptive fly-overs, flashing ads and the like is appealing to informed readers.

Publishers are only too happy to get off those same ads and create a better experience for their readers. And in the age of Content Marketing, marketers know the importance of telling their story and value the opportunity to speak to an audience when they are already tuned for information intake by virtue of being on a publishing site. 

But not everyone sees this as such a rosy picture. Detractors see this as a way for marketers to slip their message into audience minds nearly unseen and at the same time undermine the independence of the media. This is another battle line drawn in the long-standing divide/union between content and commerce.

But if not Sponsored Content, then what revenue options do independent media have? People are tuning out advertisements. User behavior online and disaggregation of content consumption is driving ad revenues for publishers through the floor. What’s left?

Some publishers are trying pay walls or making you pay to consume all or premium parts of the content, but this only seems to work for the large non-independent media brands, and even then not that much in most cases.

Ask yourself if are you ready to pay for consuming online content. If not, then ask yourself how you propose that publishers generate revenue.

What’s clear is that there are some publishers who have tried Sponsored Content and been very successful at it. Forbes, which was one of the first on the scene with its BrandVoice product, now is expected to generate 25% of total revenues from that product alone. A recent NY Times article lists Mashable, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Buzzfeed, and the Atlantic as all proponents.

Correct execution is important however. The Atlantic got in hot water at the start of the year over sponsored content from the Church of Scientology. What that affair demonstrated though is that people can distinguish between sponsored content and editorial and will call it out when it’s not done right or in-line with the voice of the publication.

In the end the quality of the overall effort and how well the Sponsored Content matches the publication comes down to the discretion and value of the editorial voice. This is what make great publications great anyway, meaning sponsored content and its appropriate execution could actually add to the independence of your media, not take it away.

Whether you like it or not, independent media needs to experiment with ways to work with sponsors or advertisers in a way that benefits both, while improving the overall audience experience. One such way is the controlled sponsor content review process, the way Forbes has done.

That’s why we are pleased to announce a pilot project between Marketing.AI and Techvibes to offer sponsors a way to submit content for review. Interested sponsors can submit sponsored stories on the pilot intake page. Submitting a story does not guarantee inclusion, but it does guarantee a call-back to discuss. And if you are an independent publisher looking to add your site to the pilot, you can contact Marketing.AI here to get more information.

We don’t profess to have all the answers to this problem, but one thing is clear: this is a problem that independent media is going to need to solve if it is to stand a chance of maintaining its independent voice going forward. If anyone can solve for this, using pilot programs such as the one we have initiated, it has large implications on how independent your media options will be going forward.