Eventually all publishers “will have no choice” but to try sponsored content, considering plummeting ad sales, paidContent noted. Newspaper advertising revenues fell over 9 percent in 2011, according to statistics from Newspaper Association of America. And, as Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote, “the vast majority of quality journalism has always relied, and probably will always rely, on advertising to be both high-quality and affordable to a massive audience.”
So from that perspective it’s good news that BrandConnect seems to have drawn on the merits and mistakes from other pioneers in advertorials such as BuzzFeed and The Atlantic, and hopefully the new system, too, will provide feedback that will help publishers create their own best practice models.
Native advertising is no new phenomenon, as MediaPost noted. But studies have proven customers find such disguised publicity misleading. Indeed, it is often difficult to distinguish sponsored content from the work of an editorial team: For instance, BuzzFeed’s headlines today mesh editorial pieces such as “The 15 Snobbiest Moms on The Internet” with disguised ads such as “‘10 Shocking Plastic Surgery Fails.” But that’s the point: We’ve been conditioned, Thompson remarked, to automatically ignore anything that might be an ad.
Blogger Andrew Sullivan argued that this increasingly grey area between advertisements and news content could pose a problem for journalism: “Aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?” he wrote.
But BuzzFeed readers, at least, have not expressed much distaste with the website’s abundant advertorials, said Scott Lamb, the site’s editorial director, even though such posts are distinguished only by a slightly darker background and the words “featured partner.” On the contrary, outraged Atlantic readers demanded the removal of a January article sponsored by The Church of Scientology. A main difference between the two strategies is that BuzzFeed’s marketing team helps companies write sharable posts similar to pieces the editorial team produces, whereas readers complained that The Atlantic’s overly complimentary Scientology article did not at all resemble a staffer’s work. “Sponsored content has to be as useful as the kind you produce, if not more so, and it has to be aligned with your brand, or it will fail — sometimes spectacularly,” paidContent noted.
While sponsored content is a viable source of cash, readers’ trust is priceless. So disclosure about the nature of an advertorial is essential, The Guardian wrote in response to The Atlantic’s blunder. The Post’s announcements of BrandConnect have put decided emphasis on the fact that their sponsored content will not be written by editors and will be clearly marked as advertisements.
CTIA - The Wireless Association is the first advertiser to use BrandConnect with planned weekly posts on The Post’s website.
Sponsored content is The Post’s latest attempt to combat crumbling profits. Last month the newspaper announced that revenue from print ads was down 14 percent for 2011 and that total newspaper revenue fell 7 percent, according to Poynter. Earlier this week the newspaper revealed it had axed its ombudsman post in further cost-cutting measures.
With all the recent critique of sponsored content, it’s important to remember why newspapers must try it, Thompson said.
“Advertising does a good thing in the world,” he wrote. “It pays great journalists to find and tell the truth. It's a tradition worth preserving through both experimentation and severe transparency.”