Is sponsored content a dirty word?
Updated: Jun 2
We've been dancing between the worlds of "church and state," the "good and evil sides of the business" and the difference between "Big-J journalism" and what makes up "Little-J journalism" for decades. Some local media scholars and industry thought leaders are calling for the end of sponsored content after the recent Last Week Tonight: Sponsored Content segment showing trouble spots for broadcast news stations.
However, we shouldn't throw all sponsored and branded segments in the same bucket as what John Oliver highlighted. There are transparent and proven ways to build revenue streams while helping businesses tell their story and share their message. So what is safe sponsored content?
For a little advice on avoiding sponsored pitfalls, we asked Julia Campbell, general manager for The Branded Content Project, a few questions about sponsored content and its close cousins: native advertising, advertorial, pay-to-play segments and branded content.
Is it time for the local media industry to ask if sponsored content is a dirty word?
Yes, it's time we have this talk. But not to eliminate sponsored content as an option; instead, to improve the transparency, the disclosures, the content and the opportunity surrounding this type of advertising. In a time where local media business models are challenged, it's important to re-examine how we partner with advertisers in order to increase revenue while sharing information for your audiences.
You mentioned partnerships, isn't that just another word for an advertiser?
I did say partner for a reason. If you are extending your local brand, history and media company to local or national clients, you need to think of those advertisers as long-term partners. If potential partners are not a trusted sources of INFORMATION, EDUCATION, or EXPERT ADVICE, they shouldn't be trusted with your brand. This creates even greater opportunities for those you do trust and increases the revenue potential for your company. Your audience and your brand have enormous value. Make sure you share your audiences and brand only with businesses that are aligned with your goals and mission. And most importantly, make sure you are charging a premium for that access.
There seems to be a lot of confusion in this space. How can local outlets protect their audiences and organizations while bringing in significant revenue?
First, let's remember that sponsored content isn't new. Sponsored content, advertorial, paid segments and other buckets of content marketing for advertisers have been around for a very long time.
Check out this History of Branded Content to remember where sponsored content came from.
These types of advertising have been around for such a long time because they are effective for advertising partners and engaging and informative for audiences.
But just because we've "always done these things" does not mean we shouldn't re-examine our rules and requirements on sponsored content. We must constantly review if we as an industry are doing enough to remain transparent and relevant to our audiences and truthful about our advertisers.
What advice do you have for media outlets exploring or growing sponsorships and content marketing?
Let's take a look at our Top Nine Ways to Succeed with Sponsored Content:
Talk to legal - It's time for everyone to review your current plan and procedures with your legal team. Take a tour through recommendations from the FTC Endorsement Guides that apply to everyone and the FCC Sponsorship Identification Rules for broadcasters, and determine your disclosure and transparency rules in coordination with your company's legal guidance.
Get EVERYONE on the same bus - Book a meeting with news, sales, marketing and production teams now so you’re on the same page, same bus and going the same direction. Put a process in place for disclosure requirements, determine what clients and content you WON'T take, and decide where your comfort level is for talent participation. Our recommendation will always be to use non-news/journalism staff or outside talent and freelance writers for sponsorship segments and content. Create a framework for what you will and won't accept and draw clear lines in the sand. Maybe your organization won't take in health products or pharmaceutical clients, maybe your team steers clear of financial advice. Make sure every employee understands the rules and has access to them in written form. Think about creating a public transparency statement that lives on your website that explains your relationship with sponsored advertisers.
Focus on Audience Benefit - always - If you focus every sponsored or branded segment, article or post on what's in it for the reader, viewer or listener, you will successfully provide audience benefit. Make your paid disclosures clear and make sure there is advice, education and information in every piece of sponsored content created.
Talk to legal again - We know it's not fun but it is necessary. Legal advice now is cheaper than massive fines later.
Do your homework and think twice about live - Losing your audience's trust is a very expensive mistake to make. Do your homework on your advertisers, their products and their claims. If it feels funny, don't be afraid to walk away or fire clients. And be absolutely sure you trust your client's message before you talk about their product or service on a livestream or live newscast. There is no way to re-do a live segment. Once it's out there, it's out there for good.
Build sustainable sponsorship models - What newsrooms do for their communities is vitally important. Emergency information, investigative reporting, second by second weather updates and stories about the communities we live in must be maintained and increased in every market. But journalism isn't cheap. Finding and securing the right partnerships, models, initiatives and solutions around sponsorship will allow the important work you do every day to continue. When created responsibly, brand partnerships and sponsorships can sustain local journalism, not erode it.
Create a sponsored content playbook - Write it down! Create a playbook that can travel to every employee and department. This playbook should cover paid placement, sponsorship and even earned media. Make sure everyone is aware of the rules and what types of sponsored and brand content are approved BEFORE money changes hands. It is a lot easier to say no before a contract is in place or a check is in the mail.
Eliminate desperation - Make sure you are creating an environment that doesn't create desperate decisions to bring in sponsorship money or content, and by desperation, we mean revenue and resources. We worry about financial decisions but also resource decisions. Anyone who has had to stack an early morning weekend show knows the desperation of "filling holes." Sometimes earned media segments can be as troublesome as paid. Take the pressure off your teams and make sure they feel comfortable turning away money or filler content knowing you will back up their decisions.
Follow the leaders - We've seen amazing examples of sponsored partnerships and incredible initiatives created in partnership with brands and advertisers. Quality sponsored content and branded content is achievable by every media type in every market. We've seen it work across the industry at The Branded Content Project and it can work for you if you put proper guardrails in place.
If sponsored content isn't a dirty word, what do we do now?
It is important to get help when you need it and discover advice, resources, best practices and great examples we have at The Branded Content Project. We've been working with 125+ media companies, studying what works and what doesn't from across the industry and learning from 50+ experts in the space. We were built to help you and your team when and where you need it. Find us and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll help shine a light on the best path forward for your team and your unique market.
The Branded Content Project is designed through a strategic partnership between the Local Media Association, the Local Media Consortium, and the Facebook Journalism Project to help facilitate additional growth, engagement, and revenue success for more publishers of all shapes and sizes.