For almost half of my life I’ve been involved with public relations and have seen it change wildly over that time. That constant change is one of the things that has kept PR fresh and interesting. A new development is afoot: the growing role of paid media and sponsored content that bears serious consideration.
I’m not talking about traditional advertising but the hybrid that is emerging that allows longer-form editorial content to be placed in legitimate publications for a price. What used to be called advertorials have now been recast as native advertising or sponsored content. A few PR traditionalists may eschew this type of thing but pragmatists recognize this approach is a valuable one for their brands or clients.
One of the reasons for this new approach is that advertising and editorial are merging. For consumers, the lines have become blurred with all content (particularly online) being lumped into a single big bucket. Sure, when Kantar Media asked 5,000 people earlier this year “what counts as advertising,” 64% said paid social and sponsored content were ads. Unfortunately, there are differences between theory and practice: a recent study conducted by Stanford University found that 80% of middle school students (digital natives one and all) believed that native advertising placements — even when described as sponsored content — were legitimate news stories.
So now everyone with a story to share is competing in the same marketplace of ideas whether they like it or not. This model is old hat for advertising people. They’ve been buying access to people’s attention forever and these new models just mean more attention is up for grabs. Many PR people resist this new world. Some agency people I talk to aren’t sure when or how to consider the possibilities but that’s starting to change.
Smart PR people are all over this approach. They already write on behalf of clients and so know their voice and style and the key messages that need to be communicated. As long as it’s earned media, everyone seems comfortable with this. As soon as there’s a dollar sign attached — and truth be told, they can be some big dollar signs — things become less clear. But does that make sense? No, not really.
If you were to write a piece for a client and dutifully shop it around likely media targets but get no love, what would you do? Sure, you can post it to a client’s blog or on LinkedIn or Medium, that all makes good sense but none of them have the reach or legitimacy of an honest-to-goodness publication.
There are lots of times when paying for a placement is a great idea. You may want to have a story timed to coincide with an executive speaking at an event. There may be a product launch on the horizon and a story or two that frames the problem the product solves could be helpful. You may have a longer-term campaign that would benefit from from different slices of the story appearing at different times in different types of outlets. Can all of these things be accomplished with earned media? In an ideal world, sure; but we don’t operate in an ideal world and the idea of control — both in terms of message and timing — is very appealing. It’s also one that more and more people are recognizing and taking advantage of.
In the current media mix — where advertising and editorial are blurring in people’s mind, where getting into people’s social streams is key — the paid approach is an important tool. Forward-thinking PR people are actively putting this model to use. Are you?