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What Are Advertisers Looking for from Sponsored Content?

Clicks, comments, shares — when it comes to sponsored content, any form of engagement is a positive. But as brands get more selective in deciding where to run their sponsored content, publishers are asking more questions about what their advertisers really want to see.

Sponsored content, branded content, and native advertising are all terms used to describe roughly the same thing. That is, advertisers paying for content that looks like traditional editorial content, but is actually being paid for as a way to drive traffic to the advertiser’s website.

How much traffic advertisers expect to generate from sponsored posts and videos depends on how large of an audience the publisher has and how much the advertiser is paying for the content. It can be difficult to track how much advertisers spend on sponsored content because of the way sponsored packages are sold, but it’s fair to say the practice is picking up steam.

According to a report from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, more than half (51%) of local online news sites now sell native advertising or sponsored content, as publishers across the board experiment with new advertising formats.

The controversy over sponsored content has dissipated, at least for the most part, as the practice has gone mainsanatream over the past decade. Well-known digital publishers like HuffPost, The Atlantic, and Business Insider have been running sponsored content for years. Smaller hyperlocal publications and regional publishers are finally adding sponsored content to their advertising packages, as fewer people click on banner ads and the revenue being generated by display advertising continues to decline.

What Advertisers Want from Sponsored Content

When advertisers decide where to run their sponsored content, they look at more than just the size of the publisher’s audience. Advertisers care about who the website’s visitors are, and how closely those visitors align with the targeted demographics they’re trying to reach.

Publishers who are hoping to sell advertisers on their sponsored content packages should be sure to track basic metrics, like the number of monthly website visitors, the number of times their content is “shared” each month, and the number of fans commenting on their social media posts.

Publisher should also conduct research, either via visitor surveys or using advanced analytics tools, to uncover demographic details about their audience. How old is the average visitor? Where do visitors live? Do they have pets? How much money do they make each year? Advertisers love knowing the answers to these questions, so publishers should make sure to have the data available or to publish the data publicly on their websites.

Once an advertiser decides that the publisher’s audience aligns with its own demographics, the next question is, what kind of sponsorship packages does the publisher sell?

Some smaller publishers run one-off sponsored articles, while others require a commitment of five or more articles, which get published at regular intervals for a pre-determined period of time.

Articles and blog posts aren’t the only form that sponsored content can take. At Business Insider, for example, brands can pay to sponsor slideshows that run alongside editorial content. Other publishers have found success with sponsored videos, email newsletters, and podcast episodes.

Some brands are looking to create sponsored content themselves, and others are looking for media partners who will handle the heavy lifting. Small and mid-size digital publishers will often hire freelancer writers to create sponsored content for advertisers. That sponsored content needs to be vetted by the advertiser before it goes live on the website. But that back-and-forth can sometimes gum up the process, and brand advertisers that run sponsored content on a regular basis often prefer to create articles and blog posts in-house.

Some brands have no interest in putting together their own content. These brands would rather sponsor editorial articles that involve certain themes, like technology or innovation. Rather than featuring a “Paid Post” header, these articles usually include a highlighted paragraph that lets readers know that the article is “presented” by a certain company. However, brand advertisers usually do not want to see the names of their competitors mentioned in these editorial articles.

How much latitude advertisers have when putting together their content depends on the publisher. Large publishers, like Forbes, have strict guidelines that prevent advertisers from making direct pitches to customers in their sponsored articles.

Unlike editorial content, which usually lives on a publisher’s website for eternity, sponsored content can be setup to disappear after a certain length of time. Whether that happens, or how long the content lives on the publisher’s website before it’s deleted, depends on the deal that’s struck between the brand advertiser and the publisher’s sales staff.

Here are three examples of sponsored content, to give you an idea of what’s possible when you sell sponsored content to advertisers:

BuzzFeed, “10 Lifechanging Ways To Make Your Day More Efficient”

Forbes, “Get Ahead Of Your Competition By Researching Them”

Mashable, “30 Overused Buzzwords in Digital Marketing”

Ad Blocking

How Digital Publishers Can Overcome Ad Blocking

Display advertising remains one of the most important revenue streams for digital publishers, but the growing use of ad blocking technology is threatening to upend traditional publishing models.

Ad blocking technology is not new. In fact, publishers have been warning us about the potential impact since at least 2016. The technology itself works by stopping ads from being served, which limits advertisers’ potential views. Because display ads are only paid for when they are served, publishers are bearing the brunt of the disruption.

In the years since ad blockers first started being used on a wide scale, publishers have made strides in diversifying their revenue streams, in an effort to decrease their reliance on display advertising. Despite those efforts, display advertising is still one of the most important channels for online publishers. According to a study by Reuters Institute, 38% of publishers rely heavily on display advertising. Take that revenue away, and you can expect publishers will start having trouble turning a profit in the coming years.

Around 200 million people now regularly use ad blocking software, with 18 to 29 year olds being the most frequent users of the technology. While the growth of ad blocking browser extensions has steadied on desktop, new research shows that blocked impressions are becoming a larger concern on mobile. Most non-gaming websites have mobile ad blocking rates of approximately 2%, but gaming sites—where ad blocking is particularly common—are now seeing ad blocking rates of 10% or more. The French news publisher La Monde is seeing desktop ad blocking rates at 25%, with mobile rates at 15%. Other digital publishers can expect to see similar figures in the coming years, if they don’t take the time now to start implementing strategies to combat the practice.

Here are four of the most successful strategies that digital publishers are using to fight back against the effects of ad blockers right now.

1) Creating effective ad blocking messages.

Publishers who rely on revenue from display advertising are increasingly serving pop up messages to users with ad blockers, asking them to turn their ad blockers off. Whether these pop ups are successful depends on how they are designed and written. Publishers are finding that the most successful ad block messages are those that offer readers multiple solutions, like whitelisting the website, becoming a member, viewing a video advertisement, or disabling the ad blocker. Pop ups also perform better when they are written by editorial staffers and designed in a way that mimics the website’s native content.

2) Using Google’s Funding Choices tool.

It’s been almost two years since Google launched its tool for publishers looking to fight back against ad blocking software. In that time, the company has expanded its Funding Choices tool to a number of markets in countries around the world. Funding Choices works by asking or requiring website visitors to turn off ad blockers after they’ve read a pre-determined number of articles. Publishers have the option to serve a dismissible message, a message that requires readers to pay after viewing a certain number of articles, or to block access until the user turns off his ad blocker. Publishers using the Funding Choices tool can also ask readers to pay for an ad-free experience through another Google program, called Google Contributor.

3) Selling more native advertising.

Native advertising, or sponsored content, is a type of advertising that looks like a publication’s editorial content, but is actually paid for by the business advertiser. As ad blockers cause display advertising revenue to dwindle, there’s a good chance publishers will start selling more native advertising opportunities to fill in the gaps. In city and regional magazines, native advertising usually looks like a typical article, but with a header at the top that says “Sponsored Content.” Native advertising may be created by the advertiser or by the publisher’s own staff. Because native advertising lives among a site’s regular editorial content, it can’t be filtered out by ad blockers.

4) Turning the focus to subscription revenue.

Fighting back against ad blockers may be a losing proposition. Rather than engaging in that battle, some digital publishers are putting more emphasis on their membership and subscription programs. Trying to get readers to turn off their ad blockers can end up taking more energy than it’s worth, especially when that energy could be better spent putting together marketing materials, such as email solicitations and social media posts, designed to promote the publication’s paid membership programs.

Sponsored Content for Publishers

Sponsored Content Guidelines for Publishers

Sponsored content plays an important role in the online publisher’s monetization strategy, particularly among those publishers looking to diversify their revenue streams and get out from underneath sinking CPMs.

Sponsored content is not an advertorial, which presents advertising as editorial content, just as it’s not the same thing as content marketing or press releases put out by an advertiser’s public relations firm. Sponsored content is a type of native advertising, in that both mimic the look and tone of a publication or platform. But unlike native advertising, which often links to outside websites, sponsored content lives solely on a publisher’s own site.

Spending on sponsored content is predicted to reach $3.1 billion by the end of this year, providing a new revenue stream for publishers looking outside the traditional world of banner advertising. At The Atlantic, three-quarters of digital ad revenue was expected to come from sponsored content last year.

Written in a way that’s engaging to the publisher’s audience, sponsored posts or articles are often produced by a media company’s staff writers. Having the content written in-house ensures a similar tone, and it lends an air of editorial authenticity that can be hard to replicate with other ad formats.

But balancing editorial authenticity with the need to be upfront with readers about what is and is not sponsored content can be tricky. Readers shouldn’t feel misled or tricked, so it’s important that publishers label their sponsored content sections accurately and make it clear which articles have been paid for by outside advertisers.

The following guidelines can be useful when putting together sponsored content.

1. Don’t Leave Readers Feeling Duped

Whether sponsored content is given its own section on a website or published alongside traditional editorial articles, it should be clearly labeled and defined. Every effort should be made to inform readers that the article they are reading has been paid for, so as to avoid breaking the trust that hyperlocal publications have earned from their readers.

Adding a label or subheading that reads “Sponsored Content” above the headline on a sponsored article is the most common way for publishers to announce this type of content. Other publications have gone as far as to place paid content within shaded boxes or include a line that reads, “This post is sponsored by” at the end of the article. Publishers should also include the name of the advertiser in the byline, where a writer’s name would traditionally be placed.

2. Find Ways to Make Paid Articles Interesting

Advertisers want their messaging to blend seamlessly into a publication’s editorial content, but they also want to ensure as many eyeballs see that messaging as possible. To help meet those requests, some publishers have gotten creative. In addition to straightforward articles, publishers can offer to create sponsored podcasts, videos, listicles, infographics, and photo galleries for brands.

Quartz charges advertisers for sponsored articles and infographics that run in between every four or five editorial posts. This is the most common placement for most local publishers, as well.

3. Consider Putting Sponsored Content in a Special Section

While media outlets like Quartz have found success publishing sponsored content in between editorial articles, other companies are carving out separate spaces within their sites for paid content.

Forbes created a separate place for sponsored content as a way to ensure that readers don’t feel duped by what they’re reading. For a monthly fee, brand advertisers can post content to Forbes’ Brand Voice platform. The amount of content and syndication of that content depends on the pricing level that the advertiser selects.

The Huffington Post has also created entirely new sections on its website based around brand sponsorships. For example, the company launched an Impact X section focusing on “where people, technology, and social converge” with original branded content for Cisco. Content for that section was curated by the Huffington Post’s social marketing team.

4. Offer to Produce Content for Advertisers

The Huffington Post isn’t the only organization that assigns its staffers to generate sponsored content. A number of media outlets, from the smallest hyperlocals to the largest news conglomerates, will produce sponsored content for brands — for a price.

Publishers walk a fine line when they assign editorial staff writers to create advertising content, however brands have been known to pay a premium for these services, and the content that results often fits in seamlessly with a publisher’s existing editorial tone.

For larger publishers, it may make more sense to employ a dedicated team of writers to produce creative content for advertisers. That separation between editorial and advertising is ideal, however it is not always possible for small hyperlocal sites. If editorial staffers are writing the sponsored content for advertisers, publishers should act as liaisons and limit contact between the two sides to protect the integrity of the newsroom.

5. Track and Report Successes

In order to charge a premium for sponsored content, local publishers need to be able to prove their value. Publishers should expect that advertisers will want to know the number of views, unique visitors, and time spent on each sponsored post.

Although impressions and engagement are often seen as the most important metrics when valuing sponsored content, publishers should also consider taking it a step further by tracking reader demographics, as well as article completion rates, and in some cases even the offline behaviors of visitors who’ve read sponsored articles.