One of the big social media trends affecting PR and traditional advertising is one that we digital marketers adopted back in the day when getting users and traffic (as opposed to revenue) was the way to get funding, and that is: give it away for free, and they will come. And so, we marketers inadvertently trained online consumers early on to expect both content and functionalities for free. Flash forward to an age wherein that early social media trend is the norm and people are now consuming news online, and we come to the fundamental problem for traditional publishing houses: people don’t want to pay to read the news, but they do want to read it online. What to do?

What is Sponsored Content?

There has been a lot of talk in the past 8 years about what the future holds for publishing, from discussions of citizen journalists and editors to direct integration of e-commerce.  As content marketing has risen as the hot new marketing buzzword, one of the most interesting social media trends hitting traditional publishing and affecting PR is sponsored content, or what some folks call “native advertising.”

Sponsored content is brand storytelling that’s integrated into the format of the outlet on which it lives.  If you want more examples of that, and you want them from a really funny British guy who raises extremely interesting questions about the ethical conundrums that sponsored content raises for traditional publishers, go ahead and take 11 minutes to watch John Oliver explore the topic.  Come on, it’s work-related:

Now, John Oliver’s job is to make people laugh, and to get people to think, and to be bitingly sarcastic (he being fantastically British and all), and so he waits until the very end of this video to point out what I obliquely referenced in my introduction: it’s not actually free to report the news, and if consumers aren’t going to pay for it, well, that pretty much leaves corporations to fund the effort.  Edward Snowden, in his SXSW 2014 talk about privacy the NSA and Big Data, made a similar point: we consumers will get to a point where we will have to choose between “free” online service providers who are, in point of fact, funded by advertising (like Gmail and Facebook) and our privacy.

Nope, there isn’t such a thing as a free lunch.

Good Sponsored Content is Transparent but Engaging Brand Storytelling

From an ethics perspective, I don’t have a problem with sponsored content as a marketer or as a consumer.  I do have a problem with badly conceived sponsored content, and more to the point I have a problem with content that’s either misleading or inappropriate for the audience.  That being said, I’ll voice the opinion that there is good sponsored content out there to be created, and that this content can actually augment a consumer’s experience – and that is a social media trend worth trending.  Hey, even Oliver concedes this in his bit with a nod to “Orange is the New Black,” and rightly so, because Netflix has emerged as the single most forward-thinking media outlet yet when it comes to content marketing by adhering to one simple, critical principle:

Give people what they want when they want it.

In the case of Netflix (which, it’s worth noting, we pay for – hence the lack of ads for anything but their own products), they simply decided that producing original content (OITNB and “House of Cards” being the current standouts) and letting people binge-watch it as they wished was a really great way to spur engagement.

That same basic principle applies to sponsored content: if your brand’s story is naturally aligned to a publication or story, and you can actually provide something interesting, useful or entertaining for the consumer, then you are in perfect position to develop a relationship with that consumer via a quality, well-conceived piece of content.  Content marketing is a relationship marketing discipline, not a direct one: being patient and taking the time to strategically create, curate and publish your marketing pieces is part of what makes this field of marketing both challenging and rewarding.

Sponsored Content is a Natural Fit for Publishers

Those of us who keep up on digital marketing and social media trends all know that banners and traditional flat advertisements have lost effectiveness: abysmal click-through rates are the norm.  That being the case, it was inevitable that publishers would need to find a way to increase revenues by giving away real estate to someone willing to pay for it – and that someone is going to want to see a net positive result.  The great thing about good sponsored content, like social media, is that the potential for earned media is exponential: unlike a traditional banner ad meant to convert a consumer on the spot, sponsored content – when done well – is something to be enjoyed and, ideally, shared by the people consuming it.

Traditional publishing is, in and of itself, a content marketing discipline: the editorial staff are content marketers themselves.  That being the case, it makes a lot of sense that advertising on those outlets should adapt to the same principles they’re using to engage their readers in the first place.  As marketers, it’s our job to make sure that the content we create is engaging enough that consumers want to consume it, and transparent enough that we’re not “pulling one over” on them.

This is a line that will continue to be discussed as publishing struggles to keep up not only with the new online economy, but with social media trends in PR leading to the creating of sites like Thrillist and Medium, the latter of which is positioned to turn publishing on its ear by empowering citizen journalists and editors to become personal media outlets.  In the meantime, making sure that our own sponsored content marketing efforts adhere to basic community and content marketing principles is the best way to make sure that we’re staying on the kosher side of the ethical debate.