Protecting the ‘Content’ In ‘Sponsored Content’

3In his column today, NPR’s Bob Garfield suggests that publishers are only shooting themselves in the foot with sponsored content. Why? In their haste to make a buck, even the most prestigious media companies are throwing up spammy third-party links on their pages and labeling them “sponsored content,” when in fact they should be labeled as anything but content. The more publishers dirty their hands and sully their brands with this form of sponsored content, the more audiences lose faith in them. Bob’s right. Ads and otherwise devious marketing camouflaged as editorial make the publisher look bad and is in no way a sustainable business. But not all sponsored content is guilty of this crime, and merely changing the label on the sketchy stuff to something more descriptive wouldn’t solve the perception — and long-term economic — problem for publishers. Getting rid of those suspect links and advertorials altogether would be a more significant step in the right direction. Authentic, interesting content is the only scalable way to create trust with users. Sponsored content does not have to be synonymous with advertorials, or clever, duplicitous product pitches embedded within a fake piece of journalism. At Outbrain, we promote great content on behalf of brands every day – sometimes penned by the brand itself, often by their publishing partners. No sales pitches, no outrageous claims. Just interesting, engaging, entertaining content. Brands like American Express, Red Bull and L’Oreal have produced credible hubs of content that educate or delight consumers as much as other publisher sites. It seems unfair to group them with the advertisers who churn out product-hawking advertorial. Maintaining authenticity is not easy, as there are huge budgets fueling the businesses behind selling continuous subscriptions – and leveraging content discovery tactics to do so. We ran afoul of this issue last year, in which direct marketers masquerading as content marketers were leveraging the trusted real estate of Outbrain’s content modules to peddle their products. Rather than disclose these offers as “sponsored,” continuity offers should not even be allowed to run in content recommendation modules, because, well, they simply are not content. They are click-bait ads trying to pile enough users into the top of their conversion funnel. We made a proactive decision to cull this black hat content marketing from our index, which was right for users and the long-term sustainability of our offering. Many Outbrain clones feature these ads heavily in their recommendations, pursuing the easy money, short-term thinking approach. We have built our business on trust – with users and publishers. This trust has allowed us to be the leader in content discovery, driving the best combination of revenue and user engagement. It is our position that users will begin to ignore content recommendations if the standards are not kept high, just as they largely ignore disruptive, sales-y banner ads today. Disclosure is great. Authenticity is better.