How popular is sponsored content today? A three-week campaign with BuzzFeed, including a handful of sponsored posts written by its advertorial staff, will cost you a minimum of $50,000. Most BuzzFeed advertisers pay much more than that.
BuzzFeed is the headliner of a media zeitgeist that is all the rage these days for both media companies and marketers; more than $1.5 billion in content sponsorships is expected to be sold this year. This month, the Washington Post jumped on board with its BrandConnect offering, joining Forbes, The Huffington Post, and The Atlantic. Thousands of media outlets also collect revenues from organizations like Outbrain, a "PPC for content" vendor that sells links from media sites to corporate blogs.
But while sponsored content appears to be a much-needed boon for publishers and advertisers weary of the limitations of banner ads, sponsored content also is sending many traditional journalists into an ethical tizzy.
What's All the Fuss About?
The issue is transparency. Unlike advertorials of the past, much of this "paid" content is not clearly distinguishable from news content. As Jack Shafer of Reuters puts it:
BuzzFeed has created pages for Virgin Mobile, Pillsbury, Coca-Cola, Dell, the Nevada Commission on Tourism and General Electric that could pass for its standard pages as they use jokes to “subtly weave in the values of the brand” ... If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted.
News organizations have editorialized against the evils of sponsored content. Political blogger Andrew Sullivan and BuzzFeed's Ben Smith have engaged in sharp ethical debate. And The Atlantic gave itself and sponsored content a black eye with its ham-handed Scientology advertorial.
So, who will win this ethical debate---and what does it mean for marketers?
A (Very) Brief History of Sponsored Content
Let's start with a little history.
All this drama might give you the idea that sponsored content is something new. That's not the case at all.
Back when public relations agencies spent their days busily acquiring newspaper clippings for their clients, North American Precis Syndicate (NAPS) stepped into the fray to supplement traditional media placements (secured through phone pitches) with non-branded syndicated columns to make those piles of clippings a little taller.
In the early 90s, I ghostwrote a personal finance book and syndicated a NAPS newspaper column for an investment company's CEO. Yep, we did "thought leadership" back then, too. That book sold 10,000+ copies. (Full disclosure: We used some of the same tactics used by Dave Kerpen and decried by B.J. Mendelson; those aren't new either).
The column was a success for the CEO and his company, which he ultimately sold to one of the world's largest banks. The column increased his name recognition in small towns across America, where the company was recruiting financial advisors to sell mutual funds. NAPS was an effective way to reach the company's target audience, because its syndicated content mostly found a home in small-town weeklies with tiny staffs that were starved for content.
Twenty years later, it's not just third-tier publications that face staff shortages and news holes they struggle to fill. It's every major news organization in America.
Oh, and add in the fact that sponsored content pays the bills (and appears to be a more compelling form of advertising than banners) and you can see why everybody's buzzing about BuzzFeed.
Who Will Win the Sponsored Content Debate? Follow the Money... and the Audience
Journalists should have seen this development coming for a while now.
As the media has has gone through deregulation and fragmentation over the past 30 years, the traditional idea (once endorsed by the federal government) that news organizations should consider "serving the public interest" alongside the profit motive has faded. The two objectives are now deemed one and the same.
In other words, the audience---not the FCC or some journalistic committee---decides what's in its best interests.
This new model for journalistic ethics doesn't only apply to sponsored content. When Fox News emerged in 2002 as the No. 1 cable news channel, stunning the iconic CNN, the upstart competitor was attacked relentlessly by traditional journalists offended by the right-leaning network's "Fair and Balanced" pretense. Despite the criticism, Fox has continued to grow its audience for the past decade---and even won MSNBC over to its business model, as they slotted themselves into the role of Fox's left-leaning alternative. CNN, while claiming the journalistic high ground, has fallen to a distant third in the ratings.
If BuzzFeed continues to thrive, it will be because it has found a way to incorporate sponsored content that does not alienate its audiences, and, in fact, actually helps them to grow. And other media outlets will continue to copy BuzzFeed's success.
Ironically, a more influential arbiter than journalists on the "ethics" of sponsored content is Google. If Google determines that links to sponsor sites within sponsored content are "paid" links, both the publisher and the sponsor of the content can be severely penalized by the search giant. And that hits websites and advertisers where it counts: in the pocketbook.
So, worry about Google, marketers. But don't worry so much what Andrew Sullivan, Jack Shafer, or the Columbia Journalism Review think. Audiences rule.