Everything You Need to Know About Sponsored Content

Brands advertise; publishers make money. It’s a relationship that’s been around since the first newspaper was printed, but with the advent of online advertising, this traditional brand-publisher relationship has become an antiquated one. Case in point: Google alone has decimated traditional advertising. Putting newspapers and magazines online has done nothing to make them profitable. So, if brands must rely on Google Ads and on (what’s becoming increasingly pay-to-play) social content to advertise, while readers are simultaneously becoming more hostile toward aggressive advertising tactics, what can brands do to remain part of the conversation? And beyond that, what can brands do to connect with their target audience in a unique, non-intrusive way?

Behold sponsored content! (Also called native advertising.) It’s the tried-and-true relationship with a twist: Publishers are back to making money; brands advertise with compelling content packaged in a seamless, streamlined user experience. That is, if it’s done right.

Here two guidelines to create sponsored content, followed by two case studies of what to do and what not to do.

1. Be 110% clear that the content is paid

The quickest way to alienate and anger readers – from both a brand and publisher perspective – is by obscuring the fact that the content is paid. Readers already have a negative bias toward sponsored content: a recent survey conducted by Contently found that 54% of readers don’t trust sponsored content, and 59% of readers believe a news site loses credibility by running it.

So, the very act of publishing or sponsoring content begets an uphill battle for positive sentiment, which is not to say it should be avoided. On the contrary, leading publications – Buzzfeed, Gawker, and The Onion, to name a few– are betting big that sponsored content is the future of online advertising. Mark Thompson, CEO of the New York Times, agrees. He was recently quoted in Digiday saying, “Display has real value, but it feels transitional, specifically when you’re talking about a smartphone-centric world. Advertisements are going to have to be in-stream and intrinsically attractive enough to engage readers.”

Indeed, sponsored content will only be successful if it’s engaging enough to readers (as is the case with all content), but if it’s not immediately clear that the content is sponsored, the reader will feel deceived and lose trust in both the brand and the publication.

2. Create exceptional content that fits the publication

Sponsored content’s value proposition is clear: the publisher makes money, the brand advertises in a unobtrusive way, and the reader gets value from the content delivered. That last element is the most important: the reader must get value from the content, or the entire equation falls apart.

All that to say, publishers and brands should bring their A-game when producing sponsored content. Don't post something decidedly subpar; the easiest way to look awesome is to create something exceptional.

Let’s take a look at two examples of sponsored content for lessons of what to do and what not to do:

The Good: New York Times and Grit & Grace

The New York Times' advertising unit, T Brand Studio, recently collaborated with the fashion label Cole Haan to produce an exceptional piece of content called Grit and Grace. To promote its new collection of ballet flats, Cole Haan commissioned T Brand Studio to produce a multimedia, interactive feature on three dancers from the New York City Ballet. It’s a brilliant feature that melds the best of both partners: the interactive, multimedia journalism the Times is known for, and the class and elegance of the Cole Haan brand.


  • It’s clear this is sponsored content. “Paid Post” is the first thing the reader sees when they land on this page. “Paid Post” is even part of the URL:
  • It fits within the culture of the publication. Readers of the Times would expect nothing less than the highest quality from the publication, and this feature does not disappoint. It’s beautifully designed– three short videos, full-bleed images, illustrations – and beautifully written.
  • It’s not overtly advertorial. Cole Haan isn’t selling their collection of ballet flats in this piece; the brand itself is never mentioned. Instead, Cole Haan sponsored a piece of content that would add value to any reader who was interested in ballet.

The Bad: The Atlantic and Scientology

Back in January 2013, The Atlantic published a tone deaf “advertorial” extolling Scientology and its founder. (Forgive the blurry image; you can no longer access this article because following an enraged public outcry, The Atlantic pulled it.) It’s a classic example of how badly publications and brands can mess up sponsored content.


  • While the publication denotes from the very start that this is sponsored content, the article itself – the headline, subhead and copy – reads like an advertisement. It feels disingenuous, which angers and annoys readers (hence the subsequent public outcry). Remember our equation: sponsored content adds value to the reader; it’s not a blatant piece of advertising disguised as an editorial .
  • This does not fit into the culture of the publication or the expectations of its readership. The Atlantic is a left-leaning newsmagazine. Its readership is not one to receive well the extolling of a divisive, secretive organization like Scientology. Rather, its readership expects content rooted in fact. Both the Church of Scientology and The Atlantic should have known their respective audiences well enough to know this would fall flat.

Sponsored content remains a fairly divisive subject. Many are skeptical, and rightfully so.

When executed badly, it reads like blatant advertising crudely disguised as something else,  leaving the reader/consumer with a bad taste in their mouth.

But, when executed well, it reads like a quality piece of content that offers value to the reader, leaving all parties involved a little richer.