Monday, October 26, 2015

Ethical Aesthetics: Defining Sponsored Content

Kaylee Powers

Whether you like to call it sponsored content, branded content, native advertising, storytelling ads or advertorials there’s no denying that this up-and-coming media revenue source is making news media professionals weary and excited. The idea of creating content that follows every guideline and standard and even voice of a publication, but is paid for by marketers and subtly weaved into regular news, makes some eyes light up because it could be the answer to the woes of a revenue-starved landscape riddled with ineffectual ads getting a 0.1% click rate. But it makes other hearts sink into stomachs as bygone days of traditional print news and its staunch separation of ads and content flash before the eyes of an editor who can’t stand to see the words “Sponsored Content” appear below the pieces on his site that are getting the most shares on social media while his star reporter’s hard-hitting investigative pieces sit to the wayside.

In a New York Times piece on native advertising Joe McCambley, the inventor of the web banner ad, said “You are gambling with the contract you have with your readers…how do I know who made the content I am looking at and what the value of the information is?” The Public Relations Society of America holds that disclosure and clear labels are key to maintaining that trust. These get right to the point: good sponsored content is honest and transparent.

But how do we as journalists and marketers go about this? Even if something is written to perfectly align with the idea that good branded content is actually useful for readers, setting it apart can be a line that gets toed far too closely. Taking some tips from your creative team and keeping in mind the following aesthetic indicators can help media be sure to delineate their content fairly to maintain consumer trust.

Label Location
Some less-ethical publications may be tempted to cry “But look! We DID tell them that piece was sponsored!”… in 8pt italicized and grayed-out type made to look like an editor’s note at the bottom of the page after the article. Others begrudgingly slap a giant [SPONSORED] right in their headline, cringing when they see that it appears loud and proud when the article is shared on social media.

For the best benefit to journalists, marketers and readers a best practice has developed of placing the Sponsored Content label where a byline would normally be, with more visual emphasis than a typical byline that many people gloss over. One example of this is the giant that is setting the standards for sponsored content: Buzzfeed.

This is how a normal, Buzzfeed-written article appears on the home page. The byline is small and light gray, with a pictogram of a person to indicate that the following name is the author.

This is how a sponsored post appears, with a giant and yellow-highlighted "promoted by" label which includes the company's logo for easy recognition. This method of delineation makes it clear even before a user clicks that this piece is by a brand and not a Buzzfeed editorial staff member.

Branded Content Branding
The American Society for Magazine Editors has created guidelines saying that native advertising
"should not use type fonts and graphics resembling those used for editorial content.” While I’m not advocating for entirely ditching the style of your publication whenever a post is sponsored because it could be unpleasantly jarring to readers and, quite frankly- really ugly, there does need to be a visual brand set aside for sponsored content. This is pretty open-ended and can include aspects like:

Color- If, say, your typical pieces use gray for bylines, notes, and links consider using a brighter alternative so that those familiar with the site will understand that this article is sponsored

Logos- Consider inserting the logo of the sponsor when a branded post is made. This is a visual cue for readers that gets the “sponsored” point across immediately- as they say, “A picture is worth 1,00 words.”

Type- Make sure the type weight is heavier when you announce sponsorship and that you give it at least a slightly different treatment than any other common character styles on the site

Graphics- If the graphics accompanying the story are supplied by the sponsor make sure to attribute these clearly, consistently and transparently. Don’t think that tossing a tool tip on the picture that only shows who provided it when the user actively scrolls over it is enough.

Creating a consistent brand for when something is sponsored creates a level of trust with the user and can also work to your benefit. If people have come to accept that the color purple in your byline means the post was sponsored by someone, they’ll start to simply absorb the information at the beginning without being shaken into noticing that something is amiss every time. Create a new pattern for them to understand rather than relying on shocking them into understanding by disrupting their old patterns in a different way each time.

Providing the information that content is sponsored advertising early on gives the reader the choice to continue or not once they know it’s sponsored- and if the content was created right and is actually useful they will. This prevents that feeling of invasiveness and being “swindled” when someone reads a whole article and gets to the end only to realize they were being sold to the entire time.

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