Sponsored content is a hot topic in the communications industry, causing headaches for public relations professionals and journalists alike. According to a definition from the American Press Institute, sponsored content "is generally understood to be content that takes the same form and qualities of a publisher’s original content," and "usually serves useful or entertaining information as a way of favorably influencing the perception of the sponsor brand." This can be a great tool for advertisers and PR specialists to engage with and provide an informative treat to readers. As an individual with a knowledge of and respect for both strategic communication and news and information journalism, I see no reason to panic about the future of content marketing, as long as it is practiced ethically. The foundations of journalism are strong enough to withhold the changes that the industry is seeing with the evolution of media. However, it is in our hands as the communications professionals of the future to ensure that the lines between news and native advertising are never blurred.
Sponsored content does not need to be deceptive to be effective. For the rest of this post, I will give examples of some effective and ethical uses of sponsored content on the Web. I will also take a look at some examples that are not quite so great, mainly due to the fact that they are carelessly constructed and misleading to their readers.
Many examples of effective sponsored content can be found on Buzzfeed. The concept seems to work very well for them. They are already viewed as an entertaining, dynamic, and interactive source of information (as opposed to a traditional news outlet), so that may help their case to begin with. But I think their success with sponsored content goes deeper than that and to the core of acting responsibly and ethically.
Check out this Buzzfeed list sponsored by Harper Collins Publishing.
|Screenshot courtesy of http://www.buzzfeed.com/harpercollins/17-problems-only-book-lovers-will-understand-9npd#.qoBgVx039|
It's a humorous look at what it's like to be a lover of reading. It makes people remember why they are bookworms and feel connected to others with similar interests, and it's quite effective. I actually stumbled across this very post over the summer, thought it was hilarious and shared the link on my Facebook wall. I knew I was sharing sponsored content, but it was so relevant and well-structured that I didn't even mind. So kudos to Harper Collins for the fun and engaging post, and thanks to Buzzfeed for getting the information out in an upstanding manner.
Now let's take a look at the other side of the aisle, because for every acceptable instance of sponsored content, there are countless examples of murkier decision-making on the part of advertisers and editors.
The Huffington Post is a trusted news source for many people, and should be held to high standards accordingly. But in this 2013 infographic and article, the distinction between sponsored and not sponsored isn't strong enough for my liking.
|Screenshot courtesy of http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/30/cyber-security-paranoia_n_3659635.html|
My biggest problem with the entire package is the lack of source identification. There is a small, nondescript, tag saying "Presented by 'Paranoia' the movie," but it would be easy to miss, as everything else about the page looks exactly like any other Huff Post Entertainment article.
The information given is relevant and useful to readers, but should we trust it? What were the motivating factors in choosing the statistics for this infographic? Did the movie's wishes for content trump material that should actually be distributed from a journalistic viewpoint? These are tough questions that may not have concrete answers, but the fact that we are asking them is enough to doubt the Huffington Post's judgement in this case.
Sponsored content can be effective. It can be engaging, impactful, and honest. It can also be deceptive, unclear, and downright unethical. It's also pretty safe to say that it isn't going anywhere soon. As journalists and PR strategists, we can preserve the integrity of the profession by remaining transparent about the sources of sponsored content and holding our ground against those who promote unethical decision making.