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What's the problem with sponsored content?

World News Publishing Focus

World News Publishing Focus
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What's the problem with sponsored content?

It would appear, though, that the notion of sponsored content is riddled with a number problems, and is not as straightforward as it sounds. Firstly, there is a degree of ethical concern over the potentially negative impact of “sponsored content” on the news industry. Speaking at the World Editors Forum earlier this month in Bangkok, Siddarth Varadarajan, editor of The Hindu highlighted the “dark side” of native advertising, arguing that print advertorials such as those due to appear on The Washington Post’s online opinion pages (see WAN-IFRA blog post on the launch of the Post’s “Sponsored Views” initiative) are sometimes malevolent in their impact, since their camouflage-like, “native” appearance can blur the line between editorial and advertising.

“A good advertorial will provide information that readers might well find useful, but too often, the intention is to fool the reader,” Varadarajan believes, suggesting that if sponsored content is to be used, disclaimers should be more prominently displayed so that readers are not tricked into believing that the piece of advertising they are reading is genuine editorial.

In response to such concerns, Steve Hills, president and general manager of The Washington Post claimed that website’s new “Sponsored Views’ premium placement enables participants to provide their perspectives with unparalleled contextual relevance, while still keeping the lines between news and sponsored messages crystal clear.” The visual presentation of sponsored content on the Post’s website will ensure that there is limited confusion over what is advertising and what is editorial – Sponsored Views will appear in a separate text box with a different coloured background, accompanied by an identifier in capital letters. 

Other publishers, however, are less “obvious” in their integration of sponsored content, presenting advertising material in a more ambiguous manner. The Times were recently criticised for their recent “subsidised splash story” – a form of sponsored content – claiming that, on the basis of DNA analysis, Prince William “will be Britain’s first king to have proven Indian ancestry.” The front-page story, run across three pages, was based on research by a private company called BritainsDNA. The Times then ran a special readers’ offer in company with none other than BritainsDNA, offering Times+ readers "a free upgrade package worth £65 when they order a DNA test from BritainsDNA." As Roy Greenslade pointed out in his Guardian blog, many reader comments revealed widespread disappointment in The Times for allowing this commercial operation to occupy the front page with a story that was hardly broadsheet headline material. As commenter Mrs D. Kennett wrote: "I find it of some concern that The Times is running such an extensive advertorial to coincide with the launch of the new BritainsDNA test."

Aside from the ethical concerns, sponsored content is an expensive process. Digiday have suggested that, even if it is a more effective manner of advertising than old-fashioned banner ads, “it is at risk of being just not worth the effort,” since publishers are pricing too high, and the process of running sponsored content is “too convoluted, adding in even more costs.” “It’s expensive,” said Adam Broitman, VP of global digital marketing at Mastercard, but “I can’t say it’s not worth it. There’s added value in the credibility of being in the center column, as opposed to having a banner on the right or left.”

In addition to cost, Digiday have pointed out that sponsored content is harder to implement than standard banner ads. “With sponsored content, since it’s custom, the template for process and workflow is tedious,” explains Giselle Abramovich. “Unless you have a formal engine for content distribution, which most brands do not, then sponsored content is more difficult because it involves more people on the brand, publisher and agency side. All the different layers make it a challenge to navigate each company.”

So taking into account all of the problems associated with sponsored content – namely, its ethically dubious nature and its high costs and complications – is it really worth it in the end? A large number of news publishers certainly think so. The Washington Post, for one, has embarked on it as an attempt to combat crumbling profit figures, having recently announced a 14 percent drop in print advertising revenue in 2012. According to Virgin Mobile’s CMO Ron Faris, “sponsored content is preferred to the banner because it’s a more authentic and rich voice.” If there is one thing that sponsored content can do, it is to provide an innovative way for brands to promote themselves in a manner that is more targeted and relevant.

There will be a branded journalism conference in Amsterdam on 3 July 2013 run by the ‘Stimuleringsfonds voor de Pers’ (Dutch Incentive Fund for the Press) to discuss the opportunities and risks associated with sponsored content. 



2013-06-18 12:21

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The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (, launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.

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