Blog Post

The Washington Post’s new “sponsored views” offering is actually pretty smart

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

There was a predictable amount of gasping and hand-waving about the Washington Post‘s launch on Wednesday of what it calls Sponsored Views, a feature that offers advertisers the ability to post ads next to specific editorial content that is about the same topic. Like most of the other experiments involving “native” advertising or “sponsored content,” it seems to have triggered some of the usual journalistic concerns about how native ads cross some kind of ethical barrier — but in many ways, what the Post is doing makes a certain amount of sense. Whether it works or not remains to be seen.

In a nutshell, the product allows advertisers to target their ads to specific pieces of commentary that appear on the Post‘s opinion pages (what newspapers used to refer to in the old print days as the “op-ed” page, because it was opposite the newspaper’s editorial page). So brands or commercial entities sign up for an account, and then have the ability to post up to 600 words of commentary that appear just below the official Post opinion piece, right before the comments.

Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 7.04.51 PM

One of the issues that gets brought up about sponsored content is the confusion that it allegedly produces in readers when they can’t determine what is advertising and what isn’t — but as Peter Kafka points out at All Things Digital, no one with anything close to 20-20 vision is going to be fooled by the Post‘s “sponsored views.” They appear in a box, which has a different-colored background, and there’s an (admittedly rather small) identifier that says “sponsored views.” It’s pretty obvious that they are something separate.

A worthwhile experiment

Kafka is sceptical about whether these ads will be effective or not — since they are so clearly advertising and not content — but what I think is smart about the idea is that it gives advertisers one of the things they want so badly from content (and get so infrequently from newspapers), and that is targeting. In some ways, it’s a little like what the New York Times started to do by offering ads on stories that are trending on social networks, but even better because it is targeted by topic.

One of the trends we talk about a lot at paidContent is the idea that advertisers have effectively become their own media companies, with the ability to publish their own content and reach their own audiences. In order to appeal to advertisers, publishers like the Post have to try harder — and one way to do that is to offer them the ability to reach readers about a topic that they have some kind of agenda on (the Post also offers something called BrandConnect).

As for how much the Post might make from this kind of venture, that’s unclear. The pricing depends on “timing and other factors” — which is also smart, since it allows the newspaper to theoretically charge more for issues that have blown up in a viral way, or charge more for the ability to target something within minutes of it being posted. None of that is going to change the newspaper’s overall financial picture much, but it’s not stupid.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Getty / Chris Jackson

8 Responses to “The Washington Post’s new “sponsored views” offering is actually pretty smart”

  1. Patrick L. Burns

    Good article. Washington Post has to innovate in order to compete with BuzzFeed. Will be interesting to see if advertisers will see a good ROI for these ads and what the viewership and CTR for these ads will be.

  2. I like the idea very much, especially that Znak it! offers a similar service :))) , which we call “Earn Fee Access.”

    One big difference between the WoPo and Znak it! is that our “ad-sponsored view” option has been built from the user’s perspective — it is platform agnostic, or in other words, it is available to many publishers, large and small, also internationally.

    This, in turn, allows the advertisers to target specific audiences “by subject” or to match their ads with the selected articles, but also geographically, by the demographic profile or reputation of a given publication or a group of publishes etc, etc.; just like it is in the traditional “google-like” model, only on the direct-to-user level, with full, real-time ad performance monitoring and with 100% CTR!

    Our Earn Free Access optoin also allows for interactive ads and market polls. For example, the ad can contain yes/no radio buttons or a data entry field; user provides the data (say, a phone number or email address) or actions (clicks on “yes” I like the new Ford model) in exchange for “free” one-time access to desired content behind the paywall.

    But anyway, it is good that more and more publishers want to experiment with different monetization and paid access technologies and models. Too bad that the process is so slow and in some cases leads to unnecessary duplication or costs.

  3. McClane

    The Financial Times has been doing the same thing with their FT SmartMatch product. Seems to me that this is the evolution that traditional publisher’s need if they are to compete with the likes of Google and Facebook in the digital space.

  4. Gillis

    I think it’s kind of analogous to sponsored radio drama in the mid twentieth. Op-ed ain’t drama but as long as there is a clearly defined border (i.e. alternate font, type size, text colour of ‘articles’ and disclaimers) between content and advertising it appears to be logical and even appropriate. Why is editorial news deemed to be sacrosanct regarding cant and favour? We are inundated with sponsored children’s programming, broadcast news and embedded advertising in drama and cinema. Just let the audience know what category the content falls into.

  5. Mike Donatello

    Sorry, but I don’t understand the objection(s). These could not be more transparent in identifying a commercial link. If you don’t want to see any advertising whatsoever, choose a title that doesn’t rely on an ad-based revenue model.

  6. OK…I’m liking these sponsored views. They are exactly the kind of targeting that I think people will accept. They are targeted in that they are relevant to an article which users have chosen to read. That’s good targeting to me.

    But getting targeted ads that are based on search history or tracking come across as creepy (served up by the NSA maybe?) and may have no relevance to my real interests. They simply cannot distinguish when I am doing a work project on my home PC, or maybe I was looking up something for my elderly mother….so what comes across as targeted from tracking on search history may actually be highly irrelevant.

    Kudos to the Post for trying something new that is not intrusive, but actually provides advertising which may actually be useful to me.