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Someone Finally Told The New York Times About Sponsored Content

We know it’s something of a stereotype that traditional and especially print media tend to take their time in arriving at/commenting on a hot story. Such is the case with The New York Times, which made waves this weekend by reporting on a phenomenon that PR and marketing folk already know quite well: paid or sponsored content.

We’re not saying that the many talented reporters at the Times have ignored the trend until now; this Media Decoder post regarding The Atlantic‘s Scientology advertorial scandal mentions the fact that BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and other top web publishers already maintain sponsored content sections. But the weekend’s article does seem to be the first time the Times has deemed such content worthy of comment in print.

The main example of paid posts used by reporter Tanzina Vega is the Mashable series “What’s Inside“, a regular tech product review that clearly states “supported by Snapdragon” (a company that makes smartphone processors) on its category page. Therein lies the “paid” element of this feature — and it’s also where things get a little confusing. We can understand why many readers fail to identify posts like this one about 3D printing as paid content, because they’re written by Mashable staffers and do not include “sponsored by” alerts on individual posts apart from the inclusion of “Snapdragon” in the tags section.

Mashable editor in chief Lance Ulanoff defends the practice by stating that “These are pure editorial” because the sponsor has no say in what the bloggers actually write. In the article, however, Vega seems to lump branded, sponsored and native advertising together.

While it’s true that all these forms of content resemble editorial, we feel like the divide between content that is sponsored by a client and content that is written by a client is significant — and in some ways it’s the most important element of a paid campaign. Why? Because people who read articles about a product without knowing that they were written by the producers of said product would understandably feel a little betrayed.

For example, we recently wrote a post on “native advertising” using The Awl as a quickie case study. None of the paid content on that site bears the bylines of Awl authors, and the same is true of BuzzFeed posts like this one, which clearly bear the name of their respective sponsors in place of a byline. There’s a clear distinction between posts like this one, which was written by someone working for sponsor brand Samsung, and this one, written by Mashable tech editor Pete Pachal. The latter seems in some ways like a love letter to Google Glass, but it’s part of a series sponsored by Snapdragon that Pachal chose to write himself.

We think most people can agree on a few basic principles when it comes to sponsored content:

  • Writers must avoid the “hard sell” at all costs. Forbes Media president Michael Perlis makes this case clear when he tells Vega that “brands are never allowed to make a direct pitch to consumers in their articles.”
  • Content must fit naturally in its given environment, because otherwise it would look like plain old advertising (and nobody likes that anymore).
  • If content is “sponsored” but not created by a brand, that brand’s name must be mentioned in some way.
  • If content is actually written or editorially “directed” by a brand’s team, every single post should clearly reflect this fact to the reader.

The one dissenting voice at the end of the Times piece is former Daily Beast reporter Andrew Sullivan, who proclaims that “the average reader…[doesn't] realize they are being fed corporate propaganda.”

This may be true in some cases, but what about when sponsors pay to associate themselves with certain topics by sponsoring content chosen and written by a site’s editorial team like Mashable’s “What’s Inside”? What if they pay to place clearly marked “native ads” on sites like The Awl? The average reader may not particularly care for such material, but it’s not like the sites in question are hiding the fact that some of their content is sponsored. This is how they make money.

What do we think? Can we think of examples of “good” (clearly credited) and “bad” sponsored content?

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