Sponsored content now dominates many of the major social media apps including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. So, how does a savvy PR pro know when it’s best to use paid content, and when to avoid it? First, it’s important to understand that sponsored content is a subset of native advertising. Unlike native advertising – actual ads that are designed to look like the places in which they appear – sponsored content is intended to bring value to the person reading or viewing it, in addition to being a type of long-form ad for a service or product. However, the “ad” aspect should take second fiddle to the “value” aspect of good sponsored content.
Why the stress on adding value? Thanks to over-use of native ads to spread questionable products and news stories, sponsored content has developed a bit of an audience trust problem. Since other marketer's slap-dash efforts might affect opinions of sponsored content, your brand will need to work a little harder to earn and keep the consumer’s trust.
Some brands have a clear path to offering valuable information for their readers. For example, Consumer’s Credit Union placed several items of sponsored content into the Daily Herald, promoting credit unions by making their potential value clear, and by offering advice on common financial problems, such as the impact on your taxes of a home assessment. Good things happened with these articles. First, the host publication, the Daily Herald, made them clearly marked as sponsored content and took it a step further by making their sponsored content searchable. This presented the content in context – important for trust-building. Second, the pieces were simple blog posts – very attainable on a tight budget for most companies – and offer information that the reader could use. While the idea is to inspire the reader to reach out to the credit union for more information, the approach was “helpful first, sales second.”
What if you sell a service and not a product? Sponsored content works for that also. It’s not uncommon to see a business that offers a service, like a consulting, advertising or marketing agency, write a sponsored post on a site like Marketing Land to get in front of their readers. In keeping with our previous example, sticking to text and submitting long-form articles or blog posts with plenty of visuals is the most cost-effective way to get into sponsored content.
Some well-known examples of sponsored video marketing come from big brands like Budweiser, but small to medium-sized business aren’t priced out. The big Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are now the publishers of sponsored content, and you can get content like a sponsored video published in new places with a tight budget. In fact, it’s probably going to cost you more to have a good video made (unless you have a video wiz on your team) than it will to have it placed. However, our assessment is that words on a page with good images are still your best bet.
What are some guidelines for sponsored content?
- Understand your target audience: For example, a recent study of global executives showed a surprising result: 84% of those surveyed are open to high-quality, clearly marked, helpful advertising from brands. Younger audiences and users of tools like Instagram, Imgur, and Facebook are also open to appropriate advertising as long as it's not pandering in tone, and readers of blogs like Buzzfeed and Bustle have come to expect sponsored content, making them more open to it (as long as it is well done – if it is not, they will let you know!). Great PR analytics can help you find where your audience is and if the sites and platforms are open to your content marketing or hosting sponsored posts.
- Assess multiple potential venues: Social media and news sites are usually the first to come to mind when marketers and PR's think of doing sponsored content, but much of the business world is still stuck using email marketing, for example. Partnering with a great email newsletter to reach their audience should not be overlooked. Other potential contenders include popular marketing podcasts, where you can create audio content that fits their consumer interests.
- Make sure your content is in a format that is welcome: Auto-play video and audio are seen as incredibly intrusive and are one of the top reasons people use adblocker and audio blocker plug-ins and extensions. Take a good look at the future host of your content to understand what their consumers want to see, then work hard to fit in.
- Utilising Influencer Marketing: As Marketer's and PR's, you should do a thorough assessment of cost and audience before partnering with an influencer for sponsored content. Influencer marketing is thriving right now. Instagram and Snapchat certainly have their share of influencers creating sponsored content but they are now required to clearly disclose if a post is an ad. There are few industry standards when it comes to compensation and contract, so you’ll have to set your own guardrails here, and work with your PR firm to evaluate fit before reaching out.
- Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure: The FTC is setting clear rules about disclosures these days, so make sure you understand them and comply. Being creative with images and hashtags can help with disclose requirements on sites that are tight for space, like Twitter. If you’re not comfortable disclosing that your ad is sponsored, an old school guest post swap might be a better way to go for your brand.
If you’re wondering if sponsored content is right for your Marketing/PR strategy, do your due diligence while setting up your communication plan.