Sponsored content is a hot topic right now. 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 advertising to spread questionable products and news stories, sponsored content has developed a bit of a trust problem. Since other brands slap-dash efforts might affect opinions of sponsored content, your brand will need to work a little harder to earn and keep the reader’s trust.

Some brands have a clear path to offering valuable information for their readers. For example, HKT has placed several items of sponsored content into South China Morning Post, promoting HKT’s smart home by making their potential value clear, and by offering advice on smart living. There are good things happening with these articles. First, the host publication, South China Morning Post, has them clearly marked as in collaboration with HKT and has taken it a step further by making their sponsored content searchable. This presents the content in context – important for trust building. Second, the pieces are simple blog posts – very attainable on a tight budget for most companies – and offer information that the reader can use. While the idea is to inspire the reader to reach out to HKT for more information, the approach is “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 consulting or marketing, write a sponsored post on a site like Marketing Interactive 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 going to be your most cost-effective way to get into sponsored content.

Some well-known examples of sponsored video content come from big brands like Budweiser, but small to medium sized business aren’t priced out. Thanks to social media platforms like Facebook offering an in to sponsored content, you can get content like a sponsored video published in new places on 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?

1. Understand your target market. 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 users of tools like Instagram, Imgur, and Facebook are also open to appropriate ads as long as they aren’t 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.

2. Assess multiple potential venues. Social media platforms and news sites are usually the first to come to mind when brands think of doing sponsored content, but much of the business world is still stuck using email, for example. Partnering with a great email newsletter to reach their audience should not be overlooked. Other potential contenders include popular podcasts, where you can create audio content that fits their market.

3. 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 ad blocker and audio blocker plug-ins and extensions. Take a good look at the future host of your content to understand what their audience wants to see, then work hard to fit in.

4. Do a thorough assessment of cost and audience before partnering with an influencer for sponsored content. Influencer marketing is popular right now, and Instagram and Snapchat certainly have their share of influencers creating sponsored content with brands. However, 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.

5. Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure. Governing bodies around the world are 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 PR strategy, do your due diligence while setting up your communication plan.

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