Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

How to make sponsored content work online

Published in Nov-Dec 2015

Brands need to stop obsessing over control if they want their sponsored content to work online.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

Will sponsored content (aka native advertising) revolutionise the way brands engage with audiences? Will it save the print industry by creating a new revenue stream through their online platforms? Is it a fad or will it become a permanent part of cyberspace? Most of these questions can only be answered with ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’ or ‘it’s too soon to tell’.

However, there is one question that can be answered right away and it is one that may determine the fate of the rest: how does one produce great sponsored content?

The answer to this does not lie with brands. It is actually in the hands of online editorial teams, and can be expressed in a very simple way. Just ignore the word ‘sponsored’ and focus on ‘content’ to ensure success. Editorial teams will understand this instinctively, but brand managers and admen can (and do) find themselves fixated on the selling aspect of this tool, and this is where failure becomes imminent.

Hopefully the guide below will help in clearing up some basic misconceptions, and make the addition of online sponsored content into the marketing mix a meaningful exercise, not just a poorly thought out add-on because “it’s hip right now”.

Here are four concepts to abandon:

1) If we pay for it, we should produce it
Almost all sponsored content in Pakistan is currently produced by the brands or their agencies. This defeats the purpose of paying for sponsored content, because what arrives at the digital doorstep is a glorified press release, the occasional ‘survey’ or ‘research’ conducted on the category the brand is competing in, or a lacklustre ad pretending to be an infographic. There is a very good reason why the brand side communications/marketing department, ad or PR agency should not be producing content – they suck at it. The fact that they work for the brand ensures they will suck at it, because the need to please, to sell and promote is so strong, it taints the work. What is needed is independent thought, nuance, knowledge of how to ‘engage’ (not sell to) an audience, based on the expertise of producing web content and being removed from the brand itself. This is the value that should be sought, and that value comes from having folks on the editorial side produce the content. Additionally, there has to be a letting go of the unspoken “if we produce it, it will be cheaper” and the assumption that people are stupid and will swallow any content online.

2) If we pay for it, we should dictate the end product
So let’s assume a brand decides to redirect the sponsored content budget to the editorial team of an online portal, ignoring the howls of despair from the dedicated ad/PR agency. The next big hurdle is letting go of the desire to treat the new team as yet more admen; controlling the urge to say “give us the idea(s) first, then we will approve”, “show us the content before it is published”, “please add three mentions of our brand at x, y and z points”, “please use these two excellent quotes we have given you”, “we think a logo/product shot would have great impact here”, and the classic, “make it a blog... because blogging is the end-all of online content”. In truth, the role is reversed here: the brand team has to pitch to the digital team, which then decides if producing the content actually works for their audience. Veto power goes to those who actually control the production of content, the channel for distribution, and, most critically, the analytics that guide decision making. It is a terrifying thought, but if accepted, a greatly freeing one, as long as the mission is understood – creating content that the audience will love, with goodwill and brand association being a happy (and powerful) byproduct. This is not a hard sell. There is a separate budget for that.

Content produced and published online can be evaluated in minute detail. KPIs can be set and success can be gauged down to the last digit. There are no approximations and estimates online, and almost any question can be answered.

3) We don’t want it to say we paid for it
This is odd and insidious on the part of brands, but it is a routine request. Hide the money trail to assumedly make the content appear more authentic. Once again, the first assumption is that people are stupid and cannot tell what content is paid for and what is not (hello all you ‘independent’ bloggers – I see you). The second assumption, or fear, is that if an audience clearly sees that content is paid for, they will reject it. Reality check: audiences don’t care if their content is paid for or not, they care if the content sucks or not. If what they see and experience is excellent, they will consume that content, share that content and ask for more. It is at this point that the association with the brand in a transparent way is critical – the whole point is for the online crowd to know how this content was made possible. And hopefully if points one and two were followed, success should be guaranteed.

4.) It’s been published. Mission accomplished. The end
What separates publishing something online from all other media is big data; truly vast amounts of information about how the audience responded to the content. The one key demand from the brand side – the need to see ROI by being provided analytics data – is the one that is never made. Content produced and published online can be evaluated in minute detail. KPIs can be set and success can be gauged down to the last digit. There are no approximations and estimates online, and almost any question can be answered. Was the content well-received? How many page views? What was the reach on social media? What was the gender and age of the people who read and shared the content? Is there any learning here that can guide the brand with regards to the product/service? And perhaps the most important: was this money well spent? Should more be spent? Or should a different online platform be approached? Should the money be put to good use elsewhere?

If points one to four are adhered to, the likelihood of a win-win-win situation for the brand, the online portal and the audience is high. And hey, if the effort is a failure, analytics still guarantee learning that can guide future decisions.

Jahanzaib Haque is Editor,