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The new advertising: Sponsored content

Back in 2004 when I was a journalism grad student at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, my professors ran long panels on journalism ethics. Many points still stick with me today, but two tenets were ingrained into my journalistic conscience: plagiarism and fabrication were the mortal sins of the journalism world and allowing advertorials to deface your publication was to be avoided.

Of course, this was right before the digital revolution went full-throttle. While some might argue that plagiarism and fabrication are more rampant than ever today, it’s possible these journalists are just getting caught more as a result of the rapidly expanding digital landscape. The practice of using advertorials to garner ad revenue, however, is becoming an increasingly acceptable trend. But instead of calling these ads “advertorials,” the concept has evolved into what is being branded as sponsored content or “native advertising.”

Time Out Chicago president and editor-in-chief Frank Sennett explained in a post on how sponsored content is different from advertorials. Instead of “passively receiving and publishing advertorial copy from ad agencies, media outlets are more often partnering with brands to create custom-content ‘native advertising’ campaigns that resonate with readers who fit the publication’s demographic profile.”

The Washington Post became the first metro daily to announce it would start using sponsored content earlier this month. There are various ways to host sponsored content. According to, BrandConnect, as it has been dubbed, will allow marketers the option to create content throughout the Post’s site.

To the Post’s credit, BrandConnect is clearly labeled as sponsored content, which may cut back on the controversial discussions that are bound to happen as a result of this upcoming trend. The Atlantic ran into trouble when it recently published a sponsored ad from the Church of Scientology touting the church leader’s accomplishments. Readers were not impressed and the magazine was forced to pull down the ad.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed, which also employs the use of sponsored content, has been accused of being copyright violators in the past. According to, the site regularly takes photos from blogs and sites for sponsored ad content, without necessarily crediting the source.

More than two years ago, Forbes integrated sponsored content onto its website and called it AdVoice and then more recently renamed it BrandVoice. Like the Washington Post, Forbes’ ad content is also clearly marked as such.

The Post and Forbes also have a similar setup, giving advertisers access to the same publishing platform as the publications’ editors, while keeping it in the brand’s voice. But sponsored content can take other forms as well. For instance, the Huffington Post features blogs written by brand leaders and in this way connects advertisers with their audience.

Although Andrew Sullivan, blogger and founder of The Dish, noted recently that he understood the need to innovate, his skepticism about sponsored content is apparent. He recently cited one specific article of sponsored content that appeared on Buzzfeed, which he felt was almost indiscernible from an article written by a Buzzfeed staff writer on the same topic. “But if advertorials become effectively indistinguishable from editorial, aren’t we in danger of destroying the village in order to save it?” he wrote.

Sennett, however, believes that as long as there are solid guidelines set for the practice of using sponsored content, alternative revenue models are needed as print and broadcast advertising dwindles and loses value.

There is sure to be controversy surrounded around this relatively new way of bringing in revenue, but PaidContent’s Matthew Ingram put it into perspective in a recent post: “Like any kind of advertising or commercial relationship, sponsored content or ‘native advertising’ can be handled well or it can be handled badly. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done in an ethically responsible way.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera


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