Does sponsored content work?

William Stolerman NewsHub_0Content marketing can take many forms, and sponsored content is one of the most popular and controversial. In its simplest form, it involves a partnership between a publisher (like the Guardian) and a brand (like Adidas). Together they create a piece of content which sits natively on the publisher’s website. The article is written in the same tone as the publisher’s standard editorial, but it promotes the brand and is labelled as “Sponsored” in some form or other.

Take Cocaineomics, for example, an incredible sponsored content campaign created by the Wall Street Journal in partnership with Netflix. The series took an in-depth look at various aspects of the underground cocaine industry and was as high-quality and engaging as any Wall Street Journal project. Without mentioning the Netflix show Narcos, it got readers interested in the topic and the ads surrounding the piece did the job of driving readers to the site. It follows similar partnerships such as the New York Times piece on women in prison to promote Orange is the New Black and a look at first couples in The Atlantic off the back of House of Cards. It’s a tried-and-tested method that is clearly delivering.

Despite its effectiveness, people remain sceptical about sponsored content. This is mainly down to two reasons: it’s often not delivered properly, and it’s hard to work out how to measure success.

Online consumers do not want to read what looks like editorial, but is actually an advert. However, a study conducted by advertising network Adyoulike showed that 57% of people under 34 will happily visit paid-for content if it provides what they’re looking for. And this is the key: we’re increasingly willing to accept brands sponsoring content we want to read, watch or listen to, and our perception of that brand will be positive assuming they’ve brought us something we enjoy, rather than deceptively trying to sell to us. This is the difference between Ford sponsoring an article about the amazing features in its latest car versus a piece on the history of road trips in popular culture.

As for the metrics, this is where it can become tricky – depending on the publisher and the campaign. Back in the days when digital advertising was a hard sell and the pop-up was considered a good thing, these ads were sold to clients on the basis of how many people would see them, or sometimes how many people would click on them. These stats are easy to understand and monetise, but it’s generally a mistake to try and apply them to sponsored content which should be measured by effect rather than eyeballs (although ‘reach’ clearly plays a role). Relevant metrics for sponsored content campaigns might include sales, downloads, subscribers, traffic, leads or return on investment.

However, if you’re working with a historic publisher like the New York Times, they’re probably not going to push out sponsored content with a clear commercial intent (such as increasing revenue) because they don’t want to damage their editorial integrity. Instead, their campaigns are more likely to subtly change perceptions than behaviour – which is much more difficult to measure.

The key with this type of campaign, and frankly any marketing campaign, is to agree on sensible objectives and metrics in advance – along with an appropriate way to measure the results. There isn’t one metric to rule them all; it’s about finding the right tools for the job.

Sponsored content has got bigger, better and more relevant over the past few years, but it certainly hasn’t peaked. If brands and publishers start to understand the power of native advertising and are willing to pay reasonable rates for great content which is measured correctly, we’ll see sponsored content overtake digital display advertising and provide the answer to the industry’s struggles.

William Stolerman is founder of innovative online and social news channel The News Hub.

About The News Hub

The News Hub is an open journalism platform which launched in 2014 and now has nearly 2,000 contributors in over 60 countries. It provides an impartial space for journalists, bloggers and media organisations around the world to have their say on current affairs. Their journalism attracts an audience of millennials who are tired of old media and enjoy reading news and opinion that they don’t find elsewhere. The News Hub makes money by helping brands communicate through PR and content marketing campaigns.