News organizations that publish sponsored content say it’s important to meet reader expectations for relevance and craft standards to be effective. For most, that meant creating their own in-house content teams separate from the newsroom.
Most of the organizations in a new study said they sought also to produce sponsored content that was a good fit with their publications — adopting the voice and tone of their overall editorial report and, for the most part, avoiding content that was primarily promotional.
So a reader of the New York Times or Forbes might expect a sophisticated interactive, while a local reader of a small publication might be more open to a simple post with tips from a local expert such as a banker or insurance broker.
Sponsored content “works for us because we know our audience, we know our voice, we know our mission. It will not go in front of our users unless we are confident it is something they are going to enjoy,” said Todd Handy, VP Advertising Strategy & Products, which operates the largest local television station in the country as well as a newspaper in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Sponsored content comes from a different sources. Some news organizations produce their own in-house while others publish content created by brands or by content marketing companies on behalf of brands.
The Benefits of In-house Creation
In “The Rise of Native Ads in News Publications,” a study I produced for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, 11 of 14 publishers use an in-house team or staff member to produce content, either exclusively or in collaboration with the sponsor.
According to Steve Rubel, chief content strategist at Edelman, a global marketing firm, news organizations formed their own audience-centric teams to guard against overly promotional native ads that might come from more brand-centric content marketers.
“If you do something that’s overtly branded or overtly promotional, people are going to tune it out,” Rubel said. “Media companies are frustrated by it because they can’t get the fit right and they don’t deliver the traffic the media buyers are paying for.’’
Many of the organizations studied publish content from outside sources, including the sponsors. But some have found it less effective than content they might produce in-house.
Smaller organizations with more limited capacity face challenges to achieve fit and focus. Richland Source, an online news start up in Ohio, for example, does not devote significant reporting resources to sponsored content, which is edited on the business side.
“Typically, copy comes from the client,” Richland Source publisher Jay Allred said. Allred added that quality and a promotional tone, are ongoing concerns. “Client-delivered content can be weak and require a lot of work. At times clients will want to deliver a direct call-to-action or sales pitch, which is against our policies. That can get tricky,” Allred said.
To meet this challenge, Richland Source has developed guidelines that say: “The content should not mention the author’s business, make any commercial offers, or attempt to directly sell anything to the reader.”
Quality+Relevance = Reader Engagement
The goal of maintaining craft quality and relevance is to assure reader engagement and sharing, and some publishers can point to examples where sponsored content performed well.
The New York Times T Brand Studio and Chartbeat produced a study that showed “most Paid Post content produced by T Brand Studio during the research period proved to be significantly more engaging than the content supplied by third parties. The study looked at unique visitors, active time on page and social media and search referrals.
“In every category, Paid Posts created by T Brand Studio outperformed Paid Posts produced by the advertiser. Specifically, T Brand Studio-produced content generated 361% more unique visitors and 526% more time spent than advertiser-produced content,” the study concluded.
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Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem, whether it is online news start ups working to become sustainable or traditional news organizations that are trying to shape their new role in the digital world. In addition to being the senior program consultant for Knight Digital Media Center, Michele has served as a Knight Community Information Challenge Circuit Rider who advises community foundations that are supporting news and information projects in their areas. She founded the Block by Block Community News Summit for independent online community publishers and she created and publishes Michele’s List, a database of promising local news start ups, in collaboration with the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism.