Why the Washington Post is smart to try sponsored content, and why others should too

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Like virtually every other traditional media outlet, the Washington Post has been squeezed hard by the decline in print advertising revenue and the inability of digital ad revenue to fill that gap. Unlike almost every other outlet, however, the Post has resisted putting up a paywall (for now at least) and instead has been experimenting with other methods of monetization. Its latest venture is sponsored content — something that is controversial, but deserves to be tried by anyone interested in figuring out how digital content works now.

As noted by my paidContent colleague Laura Owen and by Digiday, the Post has launched a program called BrandConnect, which gives advertisers the ability to create content — either by themselves or by working with the paper’s staff — that is then highlighted in a special section of the newspaper’s online front page. The content states pretty clearly that it is sponsored (although that doesn’t seem to have mollified some of the company’s critics so far).

In all of the important ways, this doesn’t seem all that different from what newspapers have traditionally done with what they refer to as “advertorial” — that is, special sections or articles that are written like newspaper stories but paid for by brands. According to Digiday, no editorial staff are involved in creating the content, and the sponsored headlines appear in a small box that looks different from the rest of the page, much like Techmeme’s sponsored posts.

WaPobrandconnect

Critics like Andrew Sullivan — who recently left the Daily Beast to start a reader-funded site — argue that sponsored content is ethically dubious, and have raised concerns about the way that BuzzFeed handles such content. As Laura notes, The Atlantic has also come under fire for the way it has done some sponsored features, including one about Scientology (we’ll be talking about this more with Sullivan and BuzzFeed’s Jon Steinberg at paidContent Live on April 17).

While there are debates around how and when to publish sponsored content, and what kinds of content are appropriate for which media outlets, there are some good reasons why other newspapers and traditional media players might want to experiment with this new format as well:

  • It’s an additional source of revenue: At this point in their evolution, newspapers and other traditional outlets can’t really afford to turn a blind eye to any potential addition to their revenue base, however distasteful it might appear at first glance.
  • It’s something advertisers seem interested in: Rates for traditional display advertising are dropping because advertisers simply don’t see them as valuable enough any more — and arguably neither do readers.
  • It doesn’t have to be ethically compromised: Like any kind of advertising or commercial relationship, sponsored content or “native advertising” can be handled well or it can be handled badly. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done in an ethically responsible way.
  • It can be a valuable service for readers: If advertiser-created content provides something useful that readers are interested in, it’s a win-win for the editorial outlet, since they get paid and readers are satisfied.

Readers should be the judge of what is useful

The last point in this list might be the most important one of all: if it is handled properly, sponsored content can serve much the same purpose as unsponsored content — in other words, it can be informative and useful for readers. Isn’t that the ultimate purpose of much of what we call journalism? Media insiders might flinch at the phrase “brand journalism” or “native advertising,” but if content produced by an advertiser is helpful to a reader, is that such a bad thing?

In an interview with Beet.tv, MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin points out that while many journalists may not like it, users often find advertising-related content almost as useful and memorable as traditional editorial content. This was the breakthrough that Google has taken advantage of to build a multimillion-dollar business via AdWords: to many users, those ads aren’t just clutter, but are actually useful content worth clicking on.

The approach taken by some publications such as Forbes — which has a BrandVoice platform that is similar to what the Washington Post is launching — is that marketing or advertising-driven content from brands is given more or less equal prominence to that created by editorial staff, with the appropriate disclaimers. Corporate bloggers at Forbes have the exact same platform that a staff blogger does, with all the same tools.

In that environment, it is up to the reader to decide whether something is useful or not useful, interesting or not interesting, valuable or not valuable. Whether it is “advertising” is largely irrelevant. In a sense, it has always been this way — perhaps it is just becoming more obvious now.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Eldorado3D and Poynter

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