The Problem with Sponsored Content

This post comes almost one year after I attended Mesh Marketing Conference and sat in on a presentation to learn about Native Advertising. I gave myself some time to think about this 'new form' of advertising, and while it's becoming wildly popular, there are many kinks to be worked out. 

John Oliver shared his opinion on Native Advertising a few weeks ago. If you haven't seen it yet, please take the time to watch it.

Being in PR, I've written advertorials and News Canada stories for clients - and this is a form of Native Advertising. However Sponsored Content in media outlets is now becoming extremely popular. 

For example:

Yesterday I read a really interesting article in Canadian BusinessDear Canadian businesses: time to get it together on Internet commerce. The article states facts from a recent white paper by the Internet Association: "3 per cent of our retail economy takes place online-less than half of the US and 1/8 the level in the UK. Between 2004 and 2009, the Internet contributed 10% to the country's GDP growth, far lower than the average of 21% across other industrialized countries."

I sent it to my partner over at Vordik, a digital company that develops ecommerce sites, and they confirmed: "Yes, this has been an ongoing issue - while Canadians are among the most active online shoppers, Canadian businesses have always been behind the global curve in leveraging eCommerce."

About an hour later, Vordik sent me this article which appeared in the Financial Post on the same day stating: Canadian retailers staying ahead of the ecommerce curve. The Vordik team thought Canadian Business and Financial Post should get their stories straight! Which of the two conflicting headlines were accurate?

After a quick investigation of the Financial Post article, I saw the following disclaimer at the end of the piece:

"This story was produced by Postmedia’s advertising department on behalf of Canada Post for commercial purposes. Postmedia’s editorial departments had no involvement in the creation of this content."

So, that makes sense. The Canadian Business article is based on hard facts from a white paper and the Financial Post article is based on Canada Post's agenda. However we can't hold Postmedia's editorial team responsible for the misleading headline because they have no involvement with the article. Which makes you wonder, who is fact-checking these articles to ensure accuracy?

Now I don't think the Canada Post article is factually incorrect, although how can you know for sure? When you read the full article, it comes across as very 'RAH RAH Canada Post, you're mastering this ecommerce thing - good for you!' It doesn't read like a news article, but instead sounds like a case study for Canada Post. Does a case study about Canada Post's success belong on the Financial Post new site?

Contently did a study this summer investigating trust levels of Sponsored Content. They found:

  • Two-thirds of readers have felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored by a brand.
  • 54 percent of readers don’t trust sponsored content.
  • 59 percent of readers believe a news site loses credibility if it runs articles sponsored by a brand.
  • As education level increases, so does mistrust of sponsored content.

Most people aren't even sure what Sponsored Content means - I believe it varies depending on the publication. In Financial Post's instance, they take no editorial responsibility for the article. Again, I find this troubling.

Read Contently's full article about their study here.

My job as a PR pro is to help my clients make the news and I always aim to do this by being part of the news cycle and allowing the editorial teams to create the story using facts and spokespeople expertise. This way the news remains credible and it gains readers' trust.

I know media outlets are scrambling to make money from advertisers. I'm afraid, however, that this kind of Sponsored Content could ruin a publication's reputation as a credible, unbiased news source (that is the reputation the media still keeps, right)? And for brands - is this kind of content delivering the results they're hoping for?

It's a hot topic and being navigated by many marketers. I welcome and want your opinions!