Creating Sponsored Content People Want to See

February 2020

sponsored content post-it

Source: Getty Images

In early January, content posted on Teen Vogue’s website began trending on social media, which should have delighted the magazine’s editorial team. The article focused on how Facebook planned to tackle politically-driven misinformation campaigns on its platform.

But the article itself was misleading. Though appearing as editorial content, it actually was a paid piece from Facebook. Teen Vogue initially added an editor’s note labeling it as sponsored content. When the controversy failed to die down, staff pulled the piece and said there had been a content management system mix-up.

What is sponsored content?

Sponsored content is now common on just about every mainstream media site. These brand-sponsored pieces are based on agreements between the editorial and sales sides of a media outlet. Print publications have ASME guidelines that includes treatments for all native advertising, including sponsored content. Bloggers and vloggers also may run content actually produced by or for an affiliate or sponsor. Regardless of the medium, it must be clear to a reader or viewer that it is paid placement directly on the content.

Just because it is advertising doesn’t mean sponsored content is worthless to a reader. When done well and by professionals who understand this form of content marketing, it can actually build brand awareness—which is usually the goal. And it can do so without degrading the integrity of the partnering publication or blog.

How to create appealing (not appalling) sponsored content

Our Twirling Tiger Media team has years of experience in this area. Brands come to us for editorial and design assistance after they’ve received ad placement as part of a sponsorship package or awards program. They want as many clicks and views, as well as a warm reception on social networks, and they know their own sales and marketing teams may not be able to make the leap between selling and telling.

Here is some advice from those of us who’ve created sponsored editorial content for many years.

Be transparent.

First and foremost, make sure the content is clearly labeled as sponsored with an editor’s note or text insert on an image or video that clearing states “Sponsored Content.” As mentioned above, it should get a different style treatment while integrating with other content in the same location through a similar voice, tone and topic selection. Do not go heavy on hyperlinks to your site; let your logo, subject matter experts and website address fulfill that function. If it is tied to a white paper or ebook, include a link to those works too.

Be educational.

Have something of value to provide. Talk about issues your company can resolve and provide quick examples of success stories. Focus on a common pain point for your target audience, rather than pitching a particular product or service as the main focus.

Your staff and customers are experts in their respective fields. Leverage that experience and include them in pieces, with permission, that outline tips and tactics to solve particular issues. Clearly identify each person, including their title at the company. Do not camouflage sources with vague references. If the material is relevant and useful and truthful, readers or viewers should trust where it came from.

Be creative but not deceptive.

Pay attention to not just what you want to say, but how you say it. By focusing on “news you can use” you will veer away from pieces internally praised but publicly panned. Here is where the right image and headline can make all the difference in what gets clicks and positive comments. Maybe you have a top 10 list that works well in a slide gallery format. Or, rather than just list your award-winners in a paid advertisement, showcase a piece of advice from each winner to highlight their excellence. You could also do either of these options in an Instagram story or Facebook Live post.

Balance in the copy is important, too. If your company’s been embroiled in widely publicized controversy, mention those criticisms and then focus on lessons learned or proving those critics wrong. (The tipoff for Teen Vogue readers was the flattering tone of the Facebook article at a time when it was under heavy fire for major privacy lapses and questionable posting policies.) The best brands acknowledge honest mistakes and take ownership to attract new customers and build brand loyalty. It also goes without saying, do not trash your competitors by name.

Avoid self-promotion.

This may appear hard to do, given sponsored content is essentially an advertisement to promote your brand, products and services. Today’s online consumers are savvy and won’t hesitate to abandon your article if they perceive more benefit for you than them. This also means leaving the marketing to a minimum—no blatant calls to action at the end (Call us now to set up your demo!). Avoid exclamation marks, boldface, and all caps. The partnership publication will remove them anyway if they want to save their own credibility. Instead, let your wisdom do the talking and end with your logo, a brief descriptor and hyperlink to where they can learn more.

If you have a stellar corporate communications department, tap someone to craft the sponsored content. They know how to be educational, creative and quietly promotional. And if you don’t have anyone on staff to handle these tasks, consider partnering with a content marketing team that does.

Thank you for reading this,

Anne