Master Native Advertising With Sponsored Content

Liz Millikin on Advertising

Social Media Your banner ads aren’t working.

Your Facebook brand page’s organic reach takes a nose dive every time Zuckerberg releases an update to the News Feed algorithm.

And yet, traditional advertising platforms like TV and print are faring even worse.

What is a marketer to do?

To catch your audience’s eye and keep them engaged with your brand, content is really is king. But writing articles on your owned blog and sharing behind the scenes photos on Instagram are not going to significantly increase your reach.

This is where sponsored content comes in, and it might just be the tool that will pull your brand out of marketing mediocrity.

In this post, I discuss:

  • What sponsored content is
  • What it isn’t
  • How other brands are knocking it out of the park
  • How you can leverage sponsored content for your brand
  • And how to avoid the legal concerns that come with paying for coverage

What is Sponsored Content?

Once upon a time, newspapers and magazines ran ads that didn’t look like ads. These were the first advertorials, product-focused pieces written to look like editorial or objective articles.

They were written to blend seamlessly into the reader’s experience; many times, a reader wouldn’t even know they were being marketed to.

Traditional advertorials have, to a certain extent, fallen out of favor with the digital age, but they have not disappeared completely.

Enter sponsored content.

The advertorial of the digital age, sponsored content is the next evolution of the paid product feature.

Goals of Using Sponsored Content

Sponsored content is at the top of the sales funnel. The ultimate goal of really great sponsored content is to entertain and inform its readership, not necessarily sell them on your particular product or service.

But, of course, you are getting your brand name out there and building name recognition.

The best-sponsored content blends in with its surroundings. It feels like a genuine piece of content and provides value for readers.

And it goes beyond blog posts and Buzzfeed listicles.

Sponsored content can be Instagram posts, curated Snapchat Memories, YouTube playtests, and more.

Making Sponsored Content Seem at Home

Really, any content that your audience is consuming is content that could be leveraged for your paid marketing strategy. Creatively, the sky’s the limit.

The key is to make sure that sponsored content truly belongs in its native location.

A piece of sponsored YouTube content, for example, should feel native to YouTube, integrating perfectly with the feed and host’s video library. Sponsored content is not a traditional ad. But it is a marketing gold mine that can help you establish brand recognition, trust, and authenticity.

Yes – sponsored content can be authentic. Read on to find out how major brands are doing it.

How to Get the Most From Your Sponsored Content Campaigns

Before I dive into examples, I want to make sure I hammer one point home.

The purpose of sponsored content is to be a top-of-funnel, multi-use piece of content that informs and entertains the consumer. That means it’s no place for you to push a hard sell and bold call-to-action.

Instead, add value, add value, add value.

I can’t emphasize this point enough, and it’s not just me saying it.

Gary Vaynerchuk, entrepreneur and marketing leader, shares this:

Provide value to consumers by creating helpful videos or new recipes or funny cartoons. Give them something they actually want because that content builds up the relationship that then allows you to ask for the sale.

Jab, jab, jab, right hook. Provide value, provide value, provide value, ask for the

Your sponsored content campaign is the jab that adds value and sets you up for a future sale.

Got it? Okay. Let’s see how to make sponsored content work for you.

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Blog and Beyond: Sponsored Content Across the Web

Because sponsored content is made to be truly native and is not noticeably sales-centric, it can sometimes be difficult for readers to know what content is sponsored and what is “genuine” or impartial journalism.

I guarantee that you have consumed sponsored content without realizing it.

From now on, keep an eye out for it. You may be surprised how prevalent it is.

In this section, I cover just a few examples of truly native sponsored content and one example of how sponsored content can be used to drive a multi-platform campaign.

Sponsored Content on Blogs and Listicles

Love them or hate them, Buzzfeed is the undisputed king of sponsored content, serving up engaging, enticing, gotta-click headlines.

Part of their magic recipe for content success is working with brands to create sponsored content.

Major brands partner with Buzzfeed’s professional editorial team, and together they develop a story. Sometimes, the story will include a product plug for the sponsoring company. But most of the time, no such plug exists.

Take this listicle, 25 Places That Look Not Normal But Are Actually Real. The photos are stunning. None of them look like they could possibly exist in real life. And yet they are real places. This is genuinely amazing content.

Look at the screenshot below. Notice anything?

This content is sponsored by… MINI USA, the makers of the MINI Cooper family of cars.

If this example seems strange, just think of the granddaddy of all content marketing efforts, the Michelin Guides.

In 1900, the Michelin brothers needed a way to sell more tires. Instead of putting their money towards ads trumpeting the quality of their tires, they turned to content marketing. They developed a guidebook of the best hotels and restaurants in France, gave it away for free, and waited.

The gamble, which probably seemed crazy at the time, paid off.

This is exactly what MINI is doing today. By sponsoring adventure-focused content, they are positioning themselves as the car of choice for people who want to visit places as remarkable and varied as Zhangye, Chand Baori, Gullfoss, and the Grand Prismatic Spring.

Double Tap if You’re Hungry: Sponsored Content on Instagram

When planning your next sponsored content push, do not overlook microblogging and photo-first platforms like Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Instagram alone has 500 million users, 300 million of which are reported to log in every single day (Instagram). That’s a huge audience that is ready to consume and react to content.

Partnering with influential blogs and influencers can greatly increase awareness for your brand – if the microblogging content adds value.

By adding value, I mean to say that your sponsored content needs to go above and beyond having an Instagram celebrity post a picture with “I love my Frogskins #yolo” in the caption.

In the image below, Driscoll’s Berry partnered with FeedFeed to create an eye-catching, drool-worthy recipe which FeedFeed shared in a series of gorgeous Instagram photos.

What dairy lover wouldn’t double tap on that picture? It’s sponsored content done right.

Snapchat: How New Features Are Making Sponsored Content Easier

As social media platforms mature, they develop new features that are meant to increase their user base, increase platform loyalty, and, increasingly, help big users monetize their influence.

Snapchat’s time in the sun (as a hub for influencers) has come. While they built their following on the “now you see it, now you don’t” sharing of images and video, Snapchat has now expanded to include a way to save and curate video into custom streams or stories called Memories.

That Snapchat chose to announce Memories with the help of two influencers says a lot about who this really benefits.

Expect influencers and brands alike to jump into Snapchat Memories.

The sleek new design and ability to upload edited images and videos will make it easier for people to create and share native advertising and sponsored content.

Check out Snapchat’s feature announcement video, which features Alexis Ren and Jay Alvarrez, two of the most popular Snapchat influencers on the platform.

Cross-Platform Campaigns from Sponsored Content

It’s been a few paragraphs since I last said it, so here it is again: the best use of sponsored content is not to make a sale, but to add value. Focus on entertaining and informing your audience, not hitting them over the head with transactional calls to action.

Some of my favorite examples of sponsored or co-branded content come from the outdoor industry. Interest groups make it easy to target content toward a particular audience, and no one is more passionate and community-minded than the people who love the outdoors.

Companies partner with non-profits and activity-specific interest groups to create campaigns that speak directly to a targeted group.

When done well, the result is authentic, meaningful, memorable stories.

Case in point:

The American Alpine Club (AAC), a non-profit organization of climbers, partnered with Petzl, a manufacturer of climbing gear, and Rock and Ice, a climbing publication, to promote the use of helmets by athletes climbing outdoors.

Head injuries from falling rocks, falling equipment, or falling climbers are a serious danger, but as with bicycles, helmets are not always the popular choice.

To promote the use of helmets within the climbing community, the AAC, Petzl, and Rock and Ice worked together to curate Helmets Matter. These stories come from real athletes who avoided serious injury and even death by wearing their helmets at the crag.

The stories, presented as blog posts, are combined with an Instagram campaign to generate buzz and additional user-generated content that continues to promote wearing helmets.

You’ll notice that while Petzl’s logo is featured on the page, the equipment shown in stories is not necessarily Petzl brand. They display photos of their competitors’ gear just as prominently as their own.

Why? Because this is top-of-funnel content. This is honest, authentic storytelling that reinforces the brand stories of all three sponsors. And each sponsor benefitted in their own way:

  • The American Alpine Club was seen as spreading the word about an important problem and solution within their community.
  • Petzl highlighted the need for a product, raising awareness in a subtle way for their line of helmets.
  • Rock and Ice supported their role as a spokesperson for the climbing industry (and pulled in impressions for their own lines).

Wait, How is Sponsored Content Different From User Generated Content?

An aside here to address a point. While I chose Helmets Matter as an example of how sponsored content can be part of a larger, multi-platform campaign, it’s actually very likely that this campaign was developed and run completely sponsored content-free.

If that is the case, AAC and Petzl have been able to create and execute this using user-generated content alone.

So, what’s the difference?

Sponsored content is any piece of content, whether it’s a blog post, video, or photo, that you as a brand paid for.

For example, you want influential climber Sammy Carabiner to write about how her helmet prevented her from being injured in a climbing accident. So, you pay Sammy, either with product or money, to share her story.

User-generated content, on the other hand, is content that a person creates and gives permission to a brand to use without payment.

User-generated content can be used to enter a contest. For example, Morgan follows AAC on social media and sees the Helmets Matter campaign. He wants to enter to win a new helmet, so he posts an Instagram photo with the campaign hashtag.

The AAC can now display that Instagram on the Helmets Matter site. However, the AAC did not pay for the post directly and Morgan may not win the helmet.

The benefit of sponsored content over user-generated content is that the former tends to be much higher quality than what a regular user would produce.

Some brands may use sponsored content to get a campaign like Helmets Matter started and to help promote it across multiple channels, but it’s not necessary. Sometimes the users are enough.

Legal Considerations for Sponsored Content

Now that the fun stuff is out of the way, it’s time to get serious.

There are legal considerations to keep in mind when working with other brands and individual influencers in this way.

The most important by far is that sponsored content, whether it’s a blog post or Instagram photo or 140 character tweet, must be clearly identified as sponsored.

The definition of “clearly” in this case is vague, because the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn’t quite know how to regulate these kinds of marketing tactics.

But, they are not afraid to slap the wrists of big brands that pushing the definition of making their sponsorship known.

Examples of Sponsored Content Troubles

Just this year, the FTC reprimanded Warner Bros. for engaging in a deceptive campaign in the run-up to the release of their Lord of the Rings-inspired video game, The Shadow of Mordor.

According to the FTC’s findings, influencers (including PewDiePie, one of the biggest game reviewers on YouTube) were given a strict contract to follow, which included not referencing any glitches or bugs, but did not include directions to include a strong, prominent note that the content had been paid for by Warner Bros.

Lord & Taylor, a clothing retailer, received a similar scolding from the FTC for their #designLab campaign, in which fifty Instagram influencers were given the same dress to wear and post about on social media (Recode).

When working with sponsored content, play it safe.

According to the FTC’s Native Advertisement: A Guide for Businesses, “The watchword is transparency. An advertisement or promotional message shouldn’t suggest or imply to consumers that it’s anything other than an ad.”

Does Sponsored Content Fit With Your Brand?

Sponsored content is a broad category that spans platforms, which means there is no reason your brand can’t harness its power.

By connecting with content creators, you will be able to extend your reach and share a part of your story with more people than ever before… all while circumventing social the algorithms that are cutting your brand’s organic reach.

The key to success is to always add value.

Are you currently using sponsored content or have questions about how to reach qualified content creators? Leave a note in the comments. Let’s get the conversation going.