Sponsored content: Is it the new PR toy of 2014?

The Atlantic’s Sponsored Content disclaimer.So what’s new?

I actually asked myself that question during my holiday hiatus. It’s the one time of the year that I actually have the time to ask that question of myself.

And while it wasn’t a great epiphany, Richard Edelman, one of the leaders and giants in the PR industry answered my question.

Not directly.

He didn’t appear in a dream or anything. He landed in my Twitter stream in the form of a research report Edelman (the firm) released on the future of Sponsored Content.

What is Sponsored Content? It’s the growing intersection of news and information websites and portals with unlimited space (and the need to make money) and brands looking for ways to reach those websites’ audiences in ways that look more like news and less like a banner ad.

In a generalized nutshell, its advertorials for the 21st Century.

It may be the future of PR, or it may not. But at THP we’re going to spend some time trying to find out.

As an old-school media relations person it’s always hard for me to agree to take the “paid way out” since at some level it makes me think that I’m admitting defeat. On the other hand if media outlets from The New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to The Atlantic are devoting space to Sponsored Content, how can I ignore it? Also selfishly if we as an agency can be successful “placing” a client on these sites and also make money for creating the content, well, how can I ignore that too?

This Wall Street Journal article says spending on Sponsored Content is expected to increase by 24 percent this year. It also points out one of the major issues with the practice, the fact that some outlets aren’t letting their readers know in a big enough way that the content is sponsored so the reader thinks this is “earned” editorial space instead of “paid.”

Outlets like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed devote full channels on their site to this content. Let’s look at some of the positives and negatives for PR folks:

Positives:

  • Editorial control: You can write what you want (within reason) and ensure placement.
  • Ongoing engagement: You can change the content to have an ongoing conversation with the audience instead of hoping for regular pickup.
  • Links: You can include links to other client material and sites to drive traffic.
  • Client satisfaction: The story will run, which is more than you can say for every pitch you make.

Negatives:

  • Designated area: If it is labeled as Sponsored Content will people read it or ignore it?
  • Cost: This is a really big deal for agencies like Edelman because they have clients with big budgets who can afford this. How about smaller clients will smaller budgets—will they get shut out?
  • Believability: Always the difference between earned and paid media.

These are just some of the questions we’re going to explore. Our committee will be meeting in the next week or so. It seems like the next logical step as we continue to write, blog, post and create content for clients.

Is it? I’d love to hear some of your thoughts?

Jon Newman

In 2002 Jon cofounded The Hodges Partnership and has helped to grow it into one of the country’s largest public relations firms (based on O’Dwyer’s annual rankings). Jon has taught communications as an adjunct professor at VCU, speaks regularly at conferences and meetings and blogs and tweets about public relations and marketing issues.

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