This isn’t a story about newspapers’ dilemma about whether or not to produce sponsored content. It’s not a story about the industry’s need for journalistic resolve; nor is it a debate about the separation of Church (editorial) and State (advertising). Those debates have been had, and the dilemma is mostly resolved.
Sponsored content—also known as native advertising, an odd little nickname that confused more than defined—isn’t about a choice between journalistic integrity and fiscal favor. Rather, it’s about blending the very best of both. It’s nothing more than a publisher or publication leveraging its best assets—reporting, storytelling—and maintaining one of its core value propositions as an advertising partner.
The newly-formed relationship doesn’t have to shoulder reporters with writing ad copy. Let’s face it: Journalists have enough on their plates, and asking them to become copywriters—and being transparent to readers about it—will not inspire confidence.
To work well, sponsored-content roles have to be a separate arm of the publishing organization, though there may be some synergy and more frequent communication with the newsroom team. This doesn’t mean that a publisher must become a full-service advertising agency, though some have and may go down that path.
Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Press has been producing sponsored content for 90 days (at press time). It wasn’t at the behest of advertisers. It was purely an internal initiative, designed to energize ad revenues, obviously, but there was also a content-related motivation: to abolish the “abomination” known as advertorials, according to Mike Patrick, managing editor.
“That content is often so poor and so poorly received by readers. We simply wanted to take control of it ourselves, and do a professional job that would resonate with both advertisers and readers. It didn’t matter to us whether that was in the digital space or in print,” Patrick said.
Marc Stewart is the newspaper’s director of sponsored content. He wrote about his perspective on sponsored content in an editorial published last November called “Sponsored Content: A New Frontier for Newspapers.” In it, Stewart spoke about his reverence for journalism, a profession quite literally in his blood. His parents were journalists. He spent a number of years as a reporter, and more years in marketing. Today, his role at the newspaper blends the best skills he acquired in both disciplines.
He distinguished advertorials and sponsored content in this way: “Sponsored content is fundamentally different because sponsored content pieces are written like a news story told by a marketing professional instead of the advertiser.”
Stewart hasn’t reluctantly waded into this new role. He’s bullish on sponsored content. “I wouldn’t be here if the Press and I didn’t believe it works. We’re following industry leaders like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, who have committed considerable resources to creating sponsored content,” he wrote in his editorial.
The publisher in this case has total buy-in from the top down.
Not only has there been no reluctance from the newspaper’s team, including the editorial staff, there’s been absolutely no pushback from readers, according to Patrick and Stewart. Advertisers have thus far been enthusiastic about the possibilities of creating richer reading experiences. Turns out, few of them saw the merits of those advertorials.
“When I’ve talked to advertisers, they don’t want to produce advertorials,” Stewart said. “They want someone who understands marketing and communications, who is able to get out their message in a way that isn’t like an advertorial…In fact, I’m working on a project right now with an advertiser who was concerned that perhaps he’d been quoted too soon in the story. To me, that’s a sign that the attitudes are changing out there.”
To date, the advertisers who have partnered with the newspaper in this way have wanted both print and digital distribution. They appreciate the aesthetic of print, as well as the expediency of a digital link that can be shared, especially in social media circles. In the digital space, tracking analytics can affirm the effectiveness of the information. In print, it’s a less tangible, but so far, the feedback from advertisers has been stellar.
The newspaper retains the rights to the content. It may only be reproduced by the publisher and with the agreement of the advertiser. Most of the content is evergreen rather than timely, so it can be repurposed and republished in other forms—for example, in a supplement or insert. Every relationship and project is unique, Patrick and Stewart concurred, and should an advertiser wish to republish it in a non-competing publication, an agreement can be made to reprint it.
Currently, the sponsored content function is managed by a staff of one, and that salary is split between the advertising and editorial budget.
“We feel that, yes, it’s a revenue position at the newspaper, but we also feel like the content has value beyond a regular newspaper ad, so I feel good about splitting it 50/50,” Patrick explained. The colleagues are hopeful that the program will be so wildly successful and lucrative that the staff and budget will grow.
“Marc and I are already fantasizing about a couple of years down the road, when we have maybe a three- or four-person staff. Maybe they do everything—sales, all of the ad fulfillment work, for example. I can see a separate branch of Coeur d’Alene Press being devoted entirely to sponsored content,” Patrick said.
He added, “One of the things that we’re really excited about is that we’re now starting to get clients who are signing, say, a one-year contract for a monthly article. We can see clients down the road wanting weekly articles.”
The benefits for the publisher and the advertiser in these relationships are obvious. Notably, the newspaper is now engaging advertisers that it hadn’t successfully courted in the past. These are new relationships, new revenue.
But what’s in it for the reader?
A recent sponsored-content article provided practical advice for divorcing couples. It was paid for by a local law firm. Another article complemented the newspaper’s youth sports coverage with a cautionary tale of how expensive it can be for parents when their children play organized sports outside of the school system. It included a true tale of a mother who’d had to take on a part-time job just to support her child’s volleyball and softball obligations. After the piece published, parents called and commented about how much they appreciated her insight.
“The bottom line is that we have readers who tell us that this information is helpful to them, and that’s really what newspapers are all about,” Patrick said. He later added in an email, “I don’t think the newspaper business needs to be ‘saved,’ or that its survival is threatened, but we do need to use all the tools at our disposal to create valuable products for our customers.”
“The benefit is that it’s compelling content,” Stewart said. “It has to be interesting, of value…If you put interesting stuff out there that’s relevant to people, they’ll read it.”
Creative ad content
BrandForge is the sponsored-content arm of Deseret Media. It works with both advertisers and publishers seeking to create these new relationships. To date, the company boasts that it’s worked with hundreds of advertisers and media executives from 26 countries, and it’s published a handy infographic called “9 Keys to Stronger Native Advertising.” One of those tenets is to “Take the lead in the creative process,” and this is what makes sponsored content notably different than those ho-hum advertorials. The publisher helps tell the advertiser’s story in a way that pleases the advertiser, certainly, but the publisher controls the content—and the content must never diminish the news brand.
Tim Marken has the daunting role as chief growth officer at the Boston Globe. He recently commented through a press release about the news organization’s sponsored-content and event hosting partnership with Massachusetts-based Rockland Trust Co., a commercial bank: “The Boston Globe continues to innovate and develop new marketing and sponsorship products and solutions that deliver value to our advertising partners. By blending traditional print advertising, outdoor, and events with new sponsored content and digital advertising programs, Rockland Trust is able to leverage the full capabilities of the Globe’s platform and initiate meaningful dialogue with local small and medium-sized business owners, to help them achieve their goals.”
The operative word here is “meaningful.”
The newspaper’s and bank’s goals aren’t just to promote the advertiser’s brand or to sign up new banking customers—though that may surely be a byproduct of this stewardship—but to offer something of tangible value to the readers. Together, the partners forged an 18-month-long multi-platform agreement to produce both events and sponsored content “designed to educate businesses on how to successfully run, grown, and overcome the challenges that arise as they expand.” The content is instructional, informative, and locally focused.
The digital culture shift
Digital advertising is still very much in its infancy, still learning to find its balance and how to walk with confidence. Enough time has passed, though, to glean a few things about what’s working and what’s not. Banner ads and ad serves may have been a quick fix at the start, but they don’t offer a rich experience for the newspaper subscriber; nor do they produce the kind of click-thrus that advertisers may expect for their buck.
At the same time, ad-blocking is starting to take hold, especially on mobile devices, where readership is on the rise. It’s all causing publishers to think about how to offer more engaging ads that captivates readers and helps them retain their relationships with local and national advertisers.
Jeremy Mims is one of the co-founders of OwnLocal, an Austin, Texas-based developer that works with more than 2,500 newspapers in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Mims recalled the genesis of OwnLocal: “What we saw was a large disconnect. When newspapers were monopolies, they had great relationships with small businesses in their markets. They also served as watchdogs, making sure government officials and anybody in the public eye was being watched.”
As the relationships between publisher and advertiser began to deteriorate, especially in the classified realm, large brands were able to still leverage display ads and also had the resources to explore new megaphones in the digital space. Smaller, local advertisers didn’t have such luxury.
“Newspapers are losing parts of their market to companies like Google, Facebook, to all of these emerging technologies. They were missing out because they didn’t have a way to sell (digital ads0. They didn’t have a way to incorporate it into their business model. They were so good at selling print for so long,” Mims said. “In 2010, we started OwnLocal with the intention of helping to rebuild the bridge between a local media outlet, which has a really important civic function, and the small business that pays for it all. We started building our products to help newspapers incorporate the idea of the digital ad agency, and over time, that concept has evolved.”
Working with so many publishers across the globe affords Mims perspective about what’s really working in newspaper advertising. The good news, he said, is that it all works—to a certain degree.
“This is the thing that people don’t quite realize, and this is part of the challenge. All advertising works to some degree. Print advertising still works. All forms of digital advertising still works…search-engine optimization still works. I even love email marketing, even though it’s less sexy, but it has the advantage that you can own that relationship with your brand and an email address direct to the customer,” Sims said.
He also suggested that while ad-blocking is growing, it may have limited adoption rates, popular among only “some segments of the population.”
“One of the things that I don’t like about ad-free or ad-blocked solutions is that you’re allowing your best customers, your best demographics of customers—people who have more money than time—to opt out of seeing your advertisements,” he explained.
Though Mims sees sponsored content as being on the rise, it’s far from ubiquitous.
“I can tell you that their level of effort to create content marketing relationships is fairly limited…Newspapers have suffered for a long time from ‘Do you want to run the same thing again next week syndrome?’ And part of that is because their resources are constrained, but part of it is that it’s the easiest path to a sale,” he said. “The consultative sales approach is not something that’s natural in a typical newspaper sales process, though we do see some newspapers adding that back in.”
Ads are optional
The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah has developed a digital membership model that’s tiered: $4.99 a month provides subscribers with full digital access to the site, plus invitations the special events the publisher now hosts regularly. The other option is to pay $9.99 each month for an ad-free reading experience. More than 700 readers have signed on, the vast majority who have opted for digital reading unencumbered by advertising interruption.
The newspaper has reached that level of buy-in with nearly no publicity, though Terry Orme, publisher and editor, revealed that the first promo was preparing to publish the week after E&P spoke with him.
“The reader we’re going after is the frequent visitor to SLTrib.com—the person who reads at least five stories a day, but who isn’t already a print subscriber,” Orme said. “A window pops up for them and basically says, ‘You seem to be somebody who really values the content of the Salt Lake Tribune, and what we do takes resources. It takes money. So please consider becoming a member and supporting our efforts.’ Then we offer them two levels of membership.”
Though the ad-free option tends to be the most popular, Orme cautions being presumptuous about what that means. Sure, some of it reflects that readers want an easy, unimpeded read, but some of it has to do with the fallout from Digital First Media’s joint operating agreement with The Deseret News.
“That move has been very controversial in Salt Lake City and among our readers, so people are very open to the idea of supporting the Salt Lake Tribune because of that development,” Orme said. “It’s critical to know that context. It’s not that they’re clamoring for an ad-free website, as much as they’re supporting us.”
While the newspaper explores the tiered digital membership model, it’s also starting to produce sponsored content. Orme is ambivalent about it.
“I have a love-hate relationship with sponsored content,” he said. “The old-school journalist in me does not like it. I feel that it can be misleading. In fact, I think a lot of times, it’s designed to be misleading, and I don’t like that about it. The journalist and editor in me resists that.
“Now, the publisher in me,” Orme continued, “and the person who wants journalism to survive and thrive, has to acknowledge that it’s attractive to advertisers. In fact, some advertisers will tell you that they want it—that it’s the product they want to get from you. I can see that. I can appreciate that. So I have very mixed feelings about sponsored content; however, as long as it’s clearly labeled, and it’s not produced by the journalists in my newsroom, I’m okay with it. I support it under those two caveats.”
What about the future of sponsored content? “Our advertising team will tell you that they believe it’s a big piece of the future,” Orme said. “Advertisers want a more contextual storytelling look and feel.”