Commentary

Sponsored Content And Editorial Integrity

A few days ago I was looking for content for my personal website about race and gender equality, when I ran across an article that featured brief profiles of 17 women in technology. I have been reading a lot of material about race and gender in the professional world, and found this to be one of the best, most informative articles I had seen. Who knew that Sandra Kurtzig was the first woman to take a Silicon Valley technology company public in 1972? Who knew that Sister Mary Kenneth Keller was the first U.S. woman to receive a Ph.D. in computer science — in 1965?

When I reached the bottom of the post, I noticed a banner indicating that the story was created in a collaboration between the publisher’s “branded content team” and the footwear manufacturer Cole Haan. Intrigued, I scrolled back to the top of the article and noticed that, indeed, the article header also mentioned that this was sponsored content.

The growing use of content marketing has generated substantial discussion in the industry about the ethics of mixing editorial with sponsored content. Media outlets have gone out of their way to decry potentially misleading content, fearing that readers would be upset if they found that their trust had been violated. Industry organizations have developed detailed guidelines. Esteemed publications have written self-flagellating mea culpas for publishing sponsored content that might have been mistaken as editorial content.

With a few egregious exceptions that clearly should be denounced, I find the majority of these concerns to be misguided and, in some cases, hypocritical.

First, worrying that sponsored content will erode reader trust is as if Captain Edward John Smith of the Titanic had run around on the upper deck worrying about open portholes, after an iceberg had ripped open the side of his sinking ship.

Several recent studies have confirmed what most of us already understand intuitively: Consumer trust in editorial content is roughly on par with trust in advertising — which is to say, not very high. But I don’t think that the rise of sponsored content is at the root of this low level of trust.

Second, it is ironic that many of the same individuals and organizations that express such concern with user trust, have no qualms about littering their publications with annoying, intrusive ads that disrupt the reading experience — nor about handing reader data to advertisers so that they can be stalked all over the Internet. To expand on the naval analogy, worrying about portholes would be not only misguided, but actually hypocritical, if Captain Smith had hit that iceberg on purpose.

And the concern with violating reader trust is not limited to advertising. For example, most publications strongly discourage columnists – even unpaid contributors – from writing about the companies for which they work. But how do most publications find the material for stories that they cover? In many, if not most cases, stories are pitched by PR people, who are paid by companies that want their stories to be told. In other words, it’s not OK for someone to write about her own company in her own column, but it would be fine if she paid a PR agency to convince someone to write about it.

As a reader, I don’t care that the story about women in technology was written by a brand. Kudos to Cole Haan for showing that the company cares about this topic, and for clearly putting a significant effort into creating a high-quality piece of content.

Yes, some readers will complain about these sorts of things, but then again, there will always be readers who will complain about something.

Ultimately, trust is holistic in its nature: if you violate readers’ trust with one set of behaviors, you cannot expect them to continue to trust you just because you are not violating it in other ways.

In other words, if you torpedo the readers’ experience with your advertising, don’t be surprised if they jump on ad-blocking lifeboats to get away from your sinking ship.

1 comment about "Sponsored Content And Editorial Integrity".
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  1. Al Chen from Cooperatize, December 10, 2015 at 4:19 p.m.

    Carried to the extreme, your point about PR companies pitching story ideas to columnists means that all stories/content are "paid" for in some shape or form. Dan Ariely details this concept in his book "Irrational Behavior," that is--I'm paraphrasing here--cash makes things weird. When a company sponsors a post, there is cash exchanging hands and thus a transaction taking place. Expectations about performance, due dates, etc. are pretty clear if not written in a contract. When a PR company pitches a story idea, no cash is exchanged. Rather, comped tickets to events and gifts are meant to influence the writer/contributor to cover the story.

    Your experience with the story from Cole Haan goes against some of today's current research stating that readers feel duped when they come across a story that is branded or paid for. However, it sounds like the story was useful nonetheless, so did you really care if it was sponsored or not? My hunch is no.

    Full disclosure: I work for a native ad company.

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