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Posted on 06.23.2015

Sponsored content leaving a bad taste? Not if it’s done well.

Ever find yourself reading an article online or in a magazine only to realize it’s “sponsored content”? Does it bother you?

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released a report earlier this month on the changing news industry and among the topics covered were sponsored content and “native advertising.” Lovingly referred to as “advertorials” during my journalism days, these are articles that are penned and paid for by an advertising company, not the publication’s editorial team, but largely made to look like the publication’s regular content.

In their study, Reuters said “a third or more” of readers in the United States and United Kingdom “have felt disappointed or deceived after reading an article they later found had been sponsored.”


Before we all scrap our sponsored content plans because we’re worried about reader backlash, let’s take a deep breath and consider two key points. First, there are (at least) two sides to every statistic. Two thirds of participants in the study have not felt disappointed or deceived by sponsored content. Not too shabby.

Second, the study doesn’t control for the quality of the content. Maybe the study participants were remembering the one or two bad articles that were thinly veiled attempts to sell a product or that didn’t consider their audience.

The moral of the story here should be: If you’re planning to develop sponsored content, make sure it’s good content.

To that end, here are a few things to consider:

  • Inform, don’t sell. This is the most difficult and most important part of creating good sponsored content. Readers want whatever it is they’ve come to expect from the media outlet they’re reading – most often information or analysis that is relevant to their life or business. Err on the side of creating content that delivers what readers want, even if it means you’re not covering every point of your company’s value proposition. If a reader feels informed and enlightened after reading your content, they’ll check the byline or sponsoring company’s name and may be more likely to reach out to you, purchase your product, or just feel good about your brand. Overt selling tends to have the opposite effect.
  • Keep your audience in mind. Writing for a magazine that has a broad and general audience? Skip the ten-dollar words. For a CEO audience? Make sure you use the proper level of sophistication. Don’t assume that you can develop one piece of content and repurpose it across media outlets. Every outlet has a slightly different audience and should be communicated to in the way that’s most appropriate for them.
  • Be true to tone and style. You want your article to feel like it belongs in the media outlet that’s running it. Not to “deceive” the reader, but to deliver what they’re looking for when they open that magazine or website. Read, read, read the publication that will run your content and do your best to be consistent with its general tone and style.
  • Be transparent. The content wasn’t created by the media outlet’s editorial team, and it’s important to be transparent about that. Each outlet is likely to have a way they prefer to handle that disclosure. Make sure your piece is properly labeled. Again, nobody wants to be accused of deception, and you want to capture whatever in-bound business may result from the placement.

In an era of ad-blocking software and growing fatigue around online ads and pop-up banners, sponsored content is a way for advertisers to get their brand in front of a relevant audience and for publications to continue to bring in needed revenue. This kind of content isn’t going away any time soon, and you can capitalize on it by creating good, strong content.


Erin George is a Senior Account Supervisor at Lovell Communications. Connect with Erin at erin@lovell.com or @ErinLawley.

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