• June 30, 2015

With Sponsored Content, Know the Rules of the Road

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In April, BuzzFeed got itself into a bind when it admitted to pulling a staff member's article because it presented opinions that were critical of an advertiser. It was revealed afterward that the article wasn't the first to be killed, either. The editor in chief admitted to spiking a post that mocked the speed of Internet Explorer, and another that suggested Monopoly is not worth playing. Not coincidentally, both companies (Microsoft and Hasbro) are advertisers on the site.

BuzzFeed isn't the only media outlet that has run into trouble with sponsorship issues. Last summer, The New York Times ran a piece of promotional content whose connection to its sponsor was not clear enough. The article took an inside look at female prisons in the United States, but its affiliation with Netflix, the sponsor who was at the time trying to raise interest in its new show Orange Is the New Black, was not sufficiently emphasized, some complained.

In 1976, venerated author E.B. White wrote a letter to the editor of Esquire that convinced the editor to pull an article that was sponsored by Xerox. Today Esquire publishes sponsored content, and Web sites such as Slate, The Economist, and The Washington Post are also including branded articles. Because these forms of promotion are fairly novel and still being defined by the mainstream, it helps if companies know what they are getting themselves into before they sign up.

The benefits of publishing sponsored content are pretty clear. "For companies, the opportunity to present branded content is valuable, since it gives them space to unfold a more detailed story that can't quite fit into an ad or tweet," Bruce Clark, a professor at Northeastern University's D'Amore-McKim School of Business, says. Likewise, readers are likely to take the content seriously if it appears in a publication of repute. The advantage of publishing the articles is that the "audience is obvious," he says. "You're reaching whoever goes to that Web site, just as you would [with] a banner ad."

Drawing the line between the sponsored content and journalism, however, remains important, even as more media outlets are taking to the idea.

"For both the publisher and the brand, the key element is developing and maintaining trust," says John Miller, who worked for 15 years as a broadcast journalist and is now president of Scribewise, a content marketing firm. He maintains that the content presented by advertisers should be open to the same "journalistic scrutiny" and criticism as the articles published by staff.

To avoid blunders, editors and stakeholders should be very clear from the start about their goals, expectations, and rules regarding sponsored content. Likewise, publishers should make sure advertisers understand the terms.

"B2B News Network attempts to deal with blurring the lines between objective editorial and sponsored stories—what some content marketing gurus have come to call native advertising—by clearly labeling the material that has paid placement, even in the tweets that editors send out," Derek Handova, a reporter for B2B News Network, wrote in an email to CRM magazine.

"Each publisher has [its] own specific guidelines on sponsored content," Andy Nathan, founder of social networking consultancy Smart at the Start, says. "If those rules do not fit in with your company's guidelines, you might want to consider going elsewhere to promote your services." —Oren Smilansky

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