Sponsored content: tug-of-war between credibility and revenue

Sponsored content has long been a subject of debate among editorial teams, with discussions revolving around whether it is a kind of selling out on the part of journalists and editors.

Alicia Walker, editor at Foodie Magazine, said there is no problem with sponsored content as long as it is clearly demarcated from editorial content.

"Disguised sponsored content runs the risk of readers getting halfway through an article and then saying to themselves, 'Hey, is this paid-for content?' and then having a bitter taste in their mouth about both the brand as well as the publication that published it," Walker said.

"We have never had an advertiser object to having their article labeled as a promotion as I don't believe they want to dupe their potential customers any more than we want to dupe our readers."

She believes clearly signposting content as sponsored is sufficient for maintaining the distinction between editorial and sponsored content as it allows readers to choose whether or not to read content based on how interested they are in the topic at hand, just like for editorial content.

The danger of losing credibility lies in media organisations blurring the lines between editorial and sponsored content.

"More and more media organisations are beginning to blur the lines by craftily mixing together editorial and advertising, thus putting themselves in danger of losing their credibility and becoming ad agencies dressed up as media," Walker said.

She added when publications put advertisers at the forefront, they are hurting their ability to help brands reach target customers.

Giving more credence to online performance metrics may be a way bridge the gap between preserving credibility and sustaining sponsored content as a revenue stream.

"We are now in a technologically capable age that allows us to measure our audience engagement. If brands are tuned in and appreciate the value of this engagement then the advertising relationship between the publication and the audience will thrive and it will be lucrative," Walker said.

"We need to constantly adapt our strategies with our online presence, apps and social media sites but these must also be consistent with our transparent ethos to maintain the trust we have built with our readership."

Meanwhile, for Byron Perry, founder and managing director at Coconuts Media, sponsored content offers new avenues for creativity because unlike advertorials, the content does not have to focus solely on the client.

"Advertorials are usually straightforward and all about the product - there’s little originality about the way sponsorship is presented, whether it's written or visual," Perry said.

"There is a sponsor, a brand that has some association with sponsored content, but it isn't just about the product or brand.  Those who are doing it well are creating something that a sophisticated customer wants to watch or read even though the content is denoted as 'sponsored'.

"When the content is not about the brand, it can be associated with something cool."

He agrees with Walker that being deceptive about content being sponsored is the only time this type of content creates ethical problems for a media organisation, such as by tricking audiences into viewing content or when readers only find out the content was paid for only after they have consumed the content.

Branding can be introduced upfront by saying it was presented by the client at the top of the page or in the date line of a story.

However, some clients prefer sponsored content to be presented as editorial content.

"It's because they think no one wants to read something that says 'sponsored'.  The hard part about doing sponsored content is pleasing a sophisticated audience who knows it's paid for but who are not turned off by that," Perry said.

"If it's sponsored in the wrong way, there will be a forced connection between the brand and the publisher.  We tend to find that bigger clients are more open to content that isn't hard-sell."

The type of platform where sponsored content is broadcast can affect the ease with which it is digested by the audience.

Perry said, "It's easier to do sponsored content with video and TV.  It feels a lot more natural because we are used to sponsorship on these platforms, such as viewing a brief blurb about the advertiser before watching a TV programme.

"You should be able to do the same for written articles."