The Washington Post‘s website joined the sponsored-content stampede early this week with the introduction of its BrandConnect Web product, making it the first major U.S. newspaper to embrace sponsored content, according to Digiday. Other high-profile Web publishers selling sponsored content include Gawker, Huffington Post, Business Insider, Forbes, BuzzFeed, Slate, Cheezburger, Techmeme and The Atlantic. Meanwhile, Fortune magazine is creating Fortune-branded content “for marketers to distribute on their own platforms,” AdWeek reports.
Also known as native advertising, the current wave of sponsored content on the Web can resemble the advertorial sections you’re familiar with — the ponderous Russia Beyond the Headlines Today and China Daily pages in the print editions of the Post and the New York Times, which nobody reads, and those sections in glossy magazines you automatically skip. Or, it can look remarkably like the content the site already produces. BuzzFeed has created pages for Virgin Mobile, Pillsbury, Coca-Cola, Dell, the Nevada Commission on Tourism and General Electric that could pass for its standard pages as they use jokes to “subtly weave in the values of the brand,” as the Wall Street Journal reported last October. BuzzFeed sponsored content costs about $20,000 for five or six “articles,” reports Digiday.
If, as George Orwell once put it, “The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,” then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted. The average sponsored-content page pits the advertiser against the publisher; the former attempts to make his copy and art look as much like conventional news or feature copy as powerfully as the latter pushes back as hard as he can to preserve “editorial integrity” without forfeiting the maximum fee. It’s common for both sides to come away from the transaction feeling soiled and swindled, but, hey, that’s the nature of most advertising.
The Wall Street Journal reports that an estimated $1.56 billion worth of BuzzFeed-style sponsorships will be sold this year, so the rush to created sponsored content is not a fool’s errand. But after stuffing myself with every example of sponsored content I could find this morning, I found myself nodding in agreement with All Things D reporter Peter Kafka, who recently wrote a column titled ” ‘Sponsor Content’ Doesn’t Fool Anyone Except Advertisers.” The first example of BrandConnect in the Post — “Mobile Revving Up Rural Economies” — couldn’t possibly have hoodwinked the client, wireless trade association CTIA or anybody else. You’d have to be an idiot to mistake it for a Post story, or for something you need to read. Unlike the BuzzFeed sponsored content, the CTIA sponsored content contains no sugar. It’s a heaping helping of salt that’s been salt-cured.
You can smell the desperation when nosing about in sponsored content. Publishers know that banner advertising doesn’t work for their clients — as the Journal notes, banner-ads’ share of Web advertising is shrinking — and they must devise new advertising forms to attract ad revenue.