Sponsored Content: Done Right (or Wrong)

June 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Reading the News - offline and online

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I am a fan of online business-to-business publication The Business of Fashion (BoF).  I receive their daily email and devour their wide-ranging news coverage of an industry in flux.  So my interest was most definitely piqued when, earlier this week, I scrolled through my Twitter feed to an @BoF tweet promoting a new post to their Fashion 2.0 channel: “Amidst a Profusion of Fashion E-Commerce Models, What’s Working?”  This is something I wanted to know.  Click. I began reading:

In recent years, we’ve seen a veritable renaissance in online fashion retail, with venture money pouring into fashion e-commerce companies with a wide range of models. In the first of a series of articles on the current state of fashion e-commerce, sponsored by e-commerce software and platform solutions company Magento, BoF examines some of the models getting the most traction.

I stopped.  My immediate reaction was disappointment.  I was looking forward to reading it and then I wasn’t.  I get the concept of “sponsored content” and that it’s the latest rage in marketing, but something was off.  I needed to learn more: to find out what and why.

I started thinking about the difference between content sponsored by a company and advertising that appears on the same page; with the ad, I am fully aware that I am being sold something.  I then compared this to television – yes, there’s advertising, and it doesn’t affect my thoughts about what I’m watching.  Even programming sponsored by one company enabling it to be shown “with minimal interruption,” Ford’s sponsored airing of “Schindler’s List” comes to mind, does not in any way lessen the impact of the experience.  I began to think that the answer lies in the way we think about the content.  Is it entertainment or is it news?  Is it supposed to be informative in a way that I actually learn something?  And, if yes, is it unbiased (or at least minimally biased on a scale of 1 to 10)?

What caught me off-guard with “What’s Working” is that The Business of Fashion gets it right so much of the time.  Even when content has been written by an interested party (read: a business owner with a bias and a desire to make you aware of their product or service), it’s been done in a way that is straight-up.  You know exactly what you’re getting.  There was the highly informative 18-part series of start-up lessons, Finding Your M.O., written by Moda Operandi co-founder and former CEO, Aslaug Magnusdottir.  Even the title of the series was a nod to the source and bias, but this in no way lessened the authenticity and message of the series, in fact in probably reinforced it.  And just this week, there was an insightful Op-Ed piece, “Going Net Native,” discussing the transformational power of new business models developed expressly for the Web, versus creating solutions that simply move the offline world online, written by Chris Morton, founder and CEO of e-commerce site Lyst.  Of course, Mr. Morton mentions his company, but he manages to be balanced in his coverage, citing Net-a-Porter, Refinery29 and Farfetch as a positive examples of the net native approach.

I don’t know if Lyst or Farfetch are Magento customers, but both are mentioned in the “What’s Working” piece and it made me wonder: Of the “over two thousand” fashion sites currently seeking an audience, were those featured Magento customers?  In the case of Warby Parker, the answer is yes.  As for the other companies cited as examples, Net-a-Porter,  Rent-the-Runway, I’m not sure.  Their logos were not included on the Company Showcase page nor were they featured as case studies, and, unlike “Intel Inside,” there is no “powered by Magento” tagline inserted on their sites.

But something else got me: why did it matter?

Then, coincidence stepped in.  I found the answer to my question on Poptip’s just-launched online publication Popditto, courtesy of marketing professional and writer Steve Hall.  Mr. Hall had posted an article, “News Versus Sponsored Content: The Importance of Keeping ‘Church and State’ Separate.“, in which he provided his take on “sponsored Content, or as some prefer to call it, Native Advertising.”  In the piece, Mr. Hall laid out a compelling case for doing sponsored content well, citing HubSpot as an example of a company who gets it (some of the time).  He also provided “a few tips brands must adhere to if they are considering the use of sponsored content in their marketing efforts.”  I read through his list to see if I could home in on what was bothering me about the BoF piece.

  • Content must align with a publication’s editorial focus – check.
  • Content should be clearly marked as sponsored – check.
  • Content should not be written by editorial news staff – FULL STOP.
  • Content should not read like an ad – check.

This was source of my dismay.  The BoF article was written by a fashion journalist who has previously written editorial content for BoF (content for which she was clearly attributed as the author and as a fashion journalist at the end of the piece).  One assumes that she, or another editorial freelance, will write subsequent articles in the sponsored series.  This is what left me disoriented, my confidence undermined.  It caused me to not trust what I read.  Mr Hall put it this way:

[I]n order for readers to trust the news they read (as opposed to sponsored content), they have to trust that the person who wrote the news is doing so in an unbiased manner. If writers of the news are also writing sponsored content and the focus of the content is similar, the burden is on the reader to determine bias. This should not be the case. Readers should have a clear understanding of the genesis of each piece of content they consume; is it straight news, or is a brand trying to sell them something.

Amen.  I want to be a fan again.

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