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New Survey Shows Readers Don’t Trust “Sponsored Content”

Posted on Mon, Jul 28, 2014

I’ll admit upfront that sponsored content has always smacked of deception to me and it’s been a pet peeve long before it became the online darling of marketers.  sponsored content

For those unfamiliar with the term, sponsored content is an article, video, or any other type of communication paid for by an advertiser and placed in the media along with regular content produced by journalists. It is intended to look as if it were just another story published by the media outlet. The purpose of this type of advertising, which used to be called advertorials and is referred to by some as “native advertising,” is to promote a company and/or its products or services in a story that is hard to distinguish from other content in the same media outlet. The sponsor’s goal is to gain more credibility than an actual ad would provide.

This month the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) reported the results of a new survey about “sponsored content” in its news publication “Tactics.”  The survey was conducted by Contently, a startup that connects companies with writers who create sponsored content for them. Slightly over half of those who responded to the Contently survey said they don’t trust sponsored content. Almost 60 percent said that a news site that runs this type of advertising loses credibility. 

The big problem with sponsored content is the other 40-50 percent of the survey respondents who do trust sponsored content. The Contently survey results indicate that many people are confused by the “sponsored content” label and don’t really know what it means. “Half think it denotes that a sponsor paid for and influenced the article, while one-fifth believe that an editorial team produces the content but ‘a sponsor’s money allowed it to happen.’ Eighteen percent think the sponsor paid to have its name appear next to the article, and 13 percent think it means that the sponsor itself wrote the article,” according to the PRSA Tactics article.

In order for sponsored content to work, it has to appear to be just like the media outlet’s other content. Advertisers argue that if the content is entertaining, helpful or interesting to the reader, it shouldn’t matter that whether it’s sponsored or not. But although it’s meant to look like real journalism, it isn't. Writers of sponsored content are being paid for positive reviews and comments, while journalists are expected to be independent, impartial sources of information. Journalists may make negative comments about a company. Sponsored content writers never would. So its very nature, posing as journalism, is deceitful.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the media industry over the years about bloggers, and whether they should be considered journalists. My own opinion: the answer depends on the blogger. Bloggers who research topics thoroughly before they write, are as objective as possible and communicate well are behaving the way good journalists do. However, there are a lot of bloggers who make a living by charging companies to give positive reviews of their products. Some of them rarely blog about something unless they are paid to do so. I’ve heard from colleagues that some bloggers charge as little as $50 for a blog post, while some charge as much as $5,000. The more popular the blogger, the higher he or she can command for producing these so-called “sponsored posts.” Unquestionably, paid bloggers are not journalists.

The online buzz from successful bloggers is that they are approached often by advertisers who want to pay them for sponsored content. I recently read a social media exchange between two bloggers, one of whom said that he received six inquiries a week from advertisers inquiring about sponsoring content on his blog. The other blogger replied that (s)he received several each day.  

The FTC has requirements governing disclosure of sponsored content online. It’s supposed to be “clear and conspicuous” to the site visitor: clear that the content is sponsored, and conspicuously placed where the reader won’t miss it. 

The compliance with this regulation seems spotty at best. Bloggers who have written about sponsored content say they are often asked by the advertisers NOT to reveal the fact that the content was sponsored.

A Wall Street Journal article a couple of months ago gave an example of vaguely labeled sponsored content on website Buzzfeed. The site used to label sponsored content as “presented by,” followed by the logo of the advertiser. Recently Buzzfeed has changed this labelling to either “promoted by” or “brand sponsor” above the advertiser’s logo. I’m sure many readers will not understand what “brand sponsor” means in connection with an article on Buzzfeed.

On some sites, the disclosure isn’t provided until the end of an article, or the sponsor is referred to obliquely by the writer in the copy. An example of this was a beauty blog I visited that identified a sponsor only by noting that the company had sent her sets of lipsticks to give to the women she wanted to invite to be bridesmaids at her wedding. She had accepted something of value and gave a plug to the cosmetics company in exchange - that makes for sponsored content.

Sponsored content is a big trend right now. It works well for two main reasons:

  • The advertiser pays the media outlet or blogger to use it and they want it to blend right in with other content.

  • Many people don’t understand that it was paid for and as a result are influenced by it.

I predict that the lack of trust and disapproval of sponsored content by consumers will eventually lead to its downfall. I’m not sure whether this will happen because of increased government regulation of it or because consumers will shun bloggers and online media that use it. Maybe this is wishful thinking. What’s your take on this subject?

Lucy Siegel

Tags: marketing strategies, native advertising, communications trends, communications strategy

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