Done Right, Sponsored Content Should Bring in Revenue AND Engage

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In summarizing SIIA's recent webinar on native advertising for another audience, I focused on positives such as:

  • A better mobile experience than ads. You can control it more.
  • Helpful content. Sponsored content should benefit your audience.
  • It can take any form. Text, infographic, white paper, case study, video.
  • Virability. Engagement on referral traffic is 62% higher than the norm. People like to share...content, at least.
  • And, of course, another source of revenue.

donnajBut in speaking yesterday with Donna Jefferson, CEO of Jefferson Communications, I learned another important one: It can be like paid testing to find other topics your audience is interested in. "One local school expanded and had a new campus," she said. So they wrote about it. "That's not really what sponsored content should be. It was pretty self-serving. But a lot of people read it... So you never know. I never know sometimes."

The Chesapeake Family site has three spots for "sponsored editorial" about 2/3 the way down the home page. The current headlines are:

  • Healthy Tips: Cold vs. Influenza (Annapolis Pediatrics)
  • In Crisis? Oasis Mental Health Offers Walk-in Hours (Oasis: The Center for Mental Health)
  • Sleep: How to Help Your Family Be Well-Rested (Annapolis Pediatrics)

Annapolis Pediatrics gets it, Jefferson said. They write about getting benefits. "Some are good at it and write really informative; some people want to write about themselves. But we're not at the point where we can turn people away yet."

SIIA's webinar speaker Tony Vlismas, marketing strategy expert for Polar, said data suggests that B2B is a very ripe place for native advertising—it has a higher CTR (click-thru rate) than other verticals. He wants publishers to "set up a program that puts your reader first not the brand... Having a native ad strategy is not just about having native ads. It's about creating great content as well."

(The video playback of that webinar is posted here, the presentation deck here.)

He explained that when done right, native advertising should be a major positive for you and your audience. Good content is good content. Both Vlismas and Jefferson are adamant that your audience be made totally clear that content is sponsored. Data shows that people are more comfortable when it's labeled properly. "We smack it on all over," Jefferson said.

"As a publisher you know your audience best," Vlismas said. "You should be writing the headlines. That will keep a better, more consistent voice between sponsored content and editorial. Be very obvious that something is sponsored—maybe have shading in the background [that's what Chesapeake Family does], a border, a badge."

Another point Vlismas made is that native works well with display. It can actually help drive it. "Publishers can charge more of a premium for a companion display, a display ad that's sold as part of a native ad component," he said. "Display ads have higher CTR so it's more of a premium. Content creation is a big component to native ads. Don't just give that content away for free."

He also urged that you should be charging for social distribution. "Who knows how to do better distribution than a publisher?" he asked.

And SEO. Jefferson said they edit all of the sponsored editorial that comes in—especially the first paragraph. That's so it reads well, but also, she emphasized, to make it SEO friendly. "That's important. We want stuff to have a long life; we'll keep it on our website forever. But we only promote it for the first month. After that it needs good SEO to give it legs."

Jefferson said there has been no negative feedback from her audience. She did get a comment from a woman who was having trouble getting an appointment with Oasis and relayed that to them.

"The biggest problem is trying to explain to the advertiser that it should not to be self-promotional," she said. "They should be informative. 'By helping readers establish yourself as an expert, they will remember that and come to you when they are in need.'"

Chesapeake Family offers to write the sponsored article for an extra fee. "So far we haven't written any although we have done some serious editing but with the advertisers' agreement," Jefferson said. Her pricing for sponsored editorial is similar to an ad, and she said most of those advertisers take a bundle of print (Chesapeake Family magazine) and digital.

For Vlismas, native advertising is the overarching term—"the all-encompassing program"—and then sponsored content falls under that. An advertorial is something different; it may be a brand your audience doesn't like.

Finally, Vlismas believes sponsored content can help you be a thought leader and drive loyalty. "Native is great for brand awareness. You can dive in and get more data from a native ad, especially around mobile native. And you can wrap it around contextually relevant content."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…