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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.


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, 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

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

  1. Seriously?

    That news media from paper to online is splashing around to try to recapture money from advertisers after being savaged in the classifieds business by Craigslist, Auto Dealers and Department Stores opening up their own websites, and the credibility problem in the race to post, is destroying any pretense of a Chinese wall separating advertising from reportage.

    Bad Idea…

    If they aare going to continue they should make the background color a bright yellow to separate Journalism from Stenography

  2. Chris W.

    A sad day for the Post. Sponsored content is an unpleasant eyesore, and makes one question the editorial decisions being made behind the rest of the content.

    I’d much rather just see a targeted ad for a useful product/service.

  3. Just as there is a “code of ethics” for journalists, there should be some kind of code of ethics for sponsored content. As long as it is agreed upon by publishers and advertisers and adhered to when sponsored content is created, I don’t think there would be any problems with it.

  4. This comment doesn’t touch on the main point of the thread, but it might be telling in its own way.

    Note the spelling of “Sponsor Generated Content.” Shouldn’t it be “Sponsor-Generated Content?”

  5. Nick Cadwallender

    How is this so different from the paid advertising section the Post runs in print and online called China Watch? Both print and online it is supported by paid advertising directing readers to the section.

  6. The Honest Dood

    If you’re enjoying their content for free and the publisher has clearly labeled what content is sponsored and what is organic, this should be a fair relationship. Do Google’s Sponsored Links piss you off too?

    Speaking of Google, does anyone know how sponsored content affects SEO? Google’s algorithm has punished websites for paid links in the past, but I’m wondering where the line is drawn.

    • I only “know:” from my own anecdotal experience. Sample of one, but here goes…

      Late January I read an article here about VIRURL. I try it five or six times – $20 a pop to get a link to my blog content to “go viral.” Works like magic. A million billion clicks seconds after two or three people with large followings post my link on Twitter. All clicks tagged with a URL clearly identifed as sponsored (“.spnr” or something like that).

      Within two minutes, clicks stop. Check Google Analytics for my blog. Absolutely zero time on site. Zero clicks to other pages. Go back and check the original Tweeters and see that their “followers” are all fake. (Up to this point of my story is an article worth pursuing by paidcontent…)

      Finally, to your question re:Google & SEO. Coincedentally or not (maybe there’s another Panda underway), but ever since that time my blog has not been indexed daily as it was prior. It is indexed every 7 to 14 days on main search, and once a month on Google Blog Search (not that more than 5% of users use that anyway, thank God).

      Long story short, I believe Google absolutely punishes sites that get spikes in traffic from clearly marked sponsored clicks. This is obviously unconfirmable, as Google and VIRURL aren’t talking, and search “experts” have no idea what I’m talking about…

  7. Greg Golebiewski

    It is not only the sponsored content but also “sponsored access,” where advertisers sponsor individual causal readers’ access to paid content in exchange for their attention or data, that work very well — the reader earns “free” access, and the publisher earns money from the advertiser or marketer for each such access, while the advertiser/marketer gains the sought after exposure/attention or data. .

    In a sense this approach brings a solution to the old dilemma: information wants to be free, and it wants to be expensive.

      • Greg Golebiewski

        “Interesting” is an understatement. In our system (, we process nine advertiser-sponsored access transactions for each access transaction paid directly by the user. Imagine the NYT increasing its paid-for traffic 9 times (or so)!

        And, the model works with classified as well, can be used by trade and/or hyper-local publications…

  8. NewsWhip

    The ethical questions, in my opinion, are largely moot. Even in the “good old days”, newspapers were largely subsidised by corporate interests – just because the new adverts more closely approximate original content, doesn’t mean that advertisers have more control over the paper’s editorial line. So long as there’s no confusion between which content is the outlet’s own and which is paid for, there’s no ethical issue.

    Indeed, I’d argue that the sponsored content format more closely aligns the interests of readers and publishers – they both want interesting content that will provide value to the consumer, rather than brand ads that are only there to look pretty and get a simple idea into your head. In any case, if it’s a choice between sponsored content and no content at all, I know which I would pick. Would be interested to hear any alternative views on it all the same.

    Tom @ NewsWhip

  9. If it’s done the way the Washington Post seems to be doing it, with the sponsored content taking up a small area on the page, okay. If it’s done the way GigaOm is doing it (or was, very recently) with the sponsored content taking up most of the page, NO!!! Is that clear enough?