16 tapirs who think your attitude to “sponsored content” sucks

If the traditional news industry wants to keep on earning a share of digital marketing spend, it needs to solve the conundrum of “sponsored content”, “advertorial” and “brand journalism” online.

No, I’m not actually going to litter this blog post with animated gifs of tapirs, but you know exactly the kind of article I am talking about. I’ve been giving a lot of thought over the last couple of weeks to “branded journalism” and “sponsored content” and “content marketing” and “advertorial” and all those words we use for “not the one true journalism”. Prompted by a couple of talks I saw at Confab by Ann Handley and Margot Bloomstein, and David Leigh at Hacks/Hackers London, I thought I’d jot my thoughts down

I guess the latest debate on the topic was kicked off by the furore surrounding the Atlantic’s advertorial for scientology. I think it is quite difficult to separate whether that was just a bad call, or a clue that something is rotten in the whole of the system. BuzzFeed’s business model, of publishing or hosting prominent content paid for by advertisers, which they have expanded out into a network, has also come under the spotlight.

Not “a new thing”, but a new design challenge

Let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve always done this in print. Slipped in an eight-page supplement about the joys of visiting Syldavia, paid for by the Syldavian Tourist Board, whilst arguing that our readers can see that it doesn’t in any way impinge on our reporting of the latest skirmish between Syldavia and Borduria.

What is new is trying to solve the design challenge. How do we signal these different types of content to the user in the digital context? I know how we do it now — I’ve designed a few of them. Little components with labels like “Advertorial”, “Sponsored content”, “Professional network”, “Here be dragons”, “Someone in sales said this was a good idea but please don’t click it.”

We label sponsored content with health warnings that reduce its effectiveness.

Advertisers don’t need us as much as we like to think

Direct access to the consumer on the web has been a game-changer for brands and service providers. Pestering journalists for a bit of coverage that might not prove to be favourable sounds a lot harder work these days than putting up your own social media campaign. And, in fact, if you do put up a decent social media campaign, the press will fall over themselves to write it up, without feeling any ethical qualms.

But one of our structural issues is that as print is losing ad dollars, digital isn’t picking them up in anything like the same numbers. Or the same proportion of ad spend. And if we are not picking up the new digital ad spend, it is at least in part because we are not selling the type of advertising that businesses want to buy.

Some people also seem to be suddenly waking up to how much the power of Google to drive traffic has inadvertently incentivised paid content creation. I get emails every single day from people offering to write content for this site, provided they can discretely include a text link to a partner that will be of interest to my readers. Every single day. So how much higher must that pressure be on higher profile blogs or sites?

And companies like BuzzFeed are innovating in this space, whether we like what they are doing or not. The US version of the site is currently running a GE campaign that lets user’s customise the types of stories they see. Called the “efficiency machine”, the skeuomorphic control panel apes the look of the engineering that the sponsor company is involved in, but there is no direct product promotion.

I can’t remember who said that the future economic model for these big old tankers of news brands was to jump overboard and lash together a life-raft made up of lots of smaller planks of revenue, but this kind of GE deal looks exactly like one of those planks — giving a sponsor the opportunity to pay for non-mission critical functionality.

Readers don’t need us as much as we like to think

As an industry, I worry that we have a tendency to over-value our worth. A lot of the chatter about the Telegraph’s new charging plans has a moral element to it — people ought to pay for good journalism, because it is good for them, because we say it is.

But take travel as an example. You have a glossy weekend supplement with a travel section, staffed by a couple of writers. They are good, professional journalists and you are paying them a reasonable wage. One week they cover white-water rafting, the next log cabins, the next family adventure parks, the next “the real Turkey”. It is great copy, objective and entertaining, and surrounded in print and online with some ads that have been targeted at you on nothing much more than the basis that “you read about travel so might want to book a holiday.” This is journalism.

Patagonia, on the other hand, the outdoor clothing company, have a blog about the environment. It is written by experts on the subject who are also enthusiasts for outdoor pursuits. It doesn’t carry any advertising. It never directly recommends or pushes individual products. In fact, although you are on an ecommerce website, there isn’t a single product on display. This is “brand journalism”.

Honestly, ask yourself, if you were a reader enthusiastic about outdoor pursuits, which information source is actually giving you the best content? The one-off piece by the inquisitive journalist, or the dedicated coverage by the expert that paradoxically carries less advertising at the point of consumption?

Obviously there are degrees here. I don’t know that I’d especially want all my BMW car reviews to be on a website paid for by BMW, but to be honest, if Coca-Cola want to pay for my cat gifs, who cares?

You could argue that this blog is “brand journalism”. Sure, it is my personal blog, but it is also the chief instrument I have of drawing attention to my work and the work of my company. Blog posts themselves don’t end with me shouting “Hire me”, but if you read the site for any length of time you’d get a pretty good idea of what you are going to get if you did decide you wanted to work with me. Does that make it tainted? Was my recent spate of Confab coverage not helpful or useful to the audience? Would this particular blog post be any better or worse if I’d pitched to journalism.co.uk or TheMediaBriefing or the Guardian Professional Media Network, all places I have written for previously, all with different business models?

Flexible thinking

The answer, I think, is for us as an industry to be more flexible in our thinking, about both the way we allow third parties to fund content, and how we design the presentation of that content. We can’t just sit around chanting “Banner ad-supported good. Sponsored content always bad.”

But equally, we can’t just take the advertorial model that served us in print and shovel it onto the web. If nothing else because we are not in the same ecosystem of competing in narrow verticals with only two or three rivals, who’ve broadly all agreed the same advertising models.

If, as an industry, our traditional players are sniffy about picking up cash in return for content, and presenting it in a way that makes it useful for the user, there are plenty of businesses around that won’t be.

And finally…

Oh, alright. Here are 16 very small tapirs.

16 Tapirs