Crafting great journalism is hard. Not only do you need an important story to tell, a smart journalist has to figure out how to get the facts, arrange them into a meaningful narrative, write it up smartly, and then get it in front of the public.
In contrast, most sponsored content or native advertising should be considerably easier to make. With some notable exceptions, brands aren’t commissioning investigators to break down doors to get the hard facts, they’re writing lighter fare that generates clicks but usually doesn’t raise eyebrows.
And yet, sometimes sponsored content ends up being not just bad, but potentially damaging to both the brand who sponsored it, and the publisher who ran the story.
The ethics of native advertising can be tricky; for starters, it’s incredibly important that the article be prominently marked with “Sponsored Content” or the like, so readers know the story is advertorial. But just because you’ve made that much clear, doesn’t mean any content will do. You still want to tell an honest, relevant story that matches the publisher’s ethos, while being relevant to the company, but not overly laudatory or composed of meaningless fluff.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some particularly unfortunate sponsored content, and dissect what went wrong, so that it can be avoided in the future.
While Buzzfeed has long been a pioneer in native advertising, not every piece hits the mark. “15 Ways to Have An Epic Road Trip Without Going Broke” in particular leaves the audience wanting, or in Buzzfeed’s own parlance, has people saying “lol, wtf?”
The issues with the article are manifold. For starters, the article’s advice is tired and unimaginative. Does offering a listicle with advice like “stay on top of traffic conditions” or “bring a stocked cooler for snack attacks” really offer anything remotely novel? Some of the advice is downright meaningless, as tips like “get your beach on” will obviously not apply to most road trip routes.
Beyond that, the story really has no connection to Acuvue. While other stories in the vertical touch on relevant topics like “11 Impossibly Cool Facts You May Not Know About Your Eyes” that actually educate readers, the road trip article’s connection to Acuvue is beyond tenuous. The last line of the story meekly reads “savor every priceless moment and eye-opening discovery with the help of Acuvue brand contact lenses” but it’s hard to argue that anything in this article opened eyes at all.
Forbes is one of the legacy publishers that have jumped into sponsored content with the most gusto. While overall they’ve managed to build some impressive partnerships telling interesting stories, “What Do Kevin Bacon And Big Data Analytics Have In Common?” is far from perfect.
Big Data is certainly a tricky concept that your average reader may have trouble wrapping their head around. But invoking the name of a celebrity (and the party game that involves naming more celebrities) does nothing to elucidate the concept.
Yes, readers may click the headline because it has a famous name in it, but none of Kevin Bacon’s halo will be rubbing off on Teradata because of this story. The article quickly moves from Mr. Bacon into overwhelming jargon, like “[c]onnection analytics powered by graph engines, pre-built algorithms, and interactive data-aware visualizations provides an intuitive solution that allows analysts and even business users to see how relationships impact networks of people, products and processes.”
Kevin Bacon may have gone to the moon in “Apollo 13,” but this article should have stayed on the launch-pad for retuning.
The headline reads “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year” (PDF link), but the truly amazing thing was that this article was approved in the first place. While any religious advertisement is inherently going to be controversial, few topics encounter as much scrutiny as the Church of Scientology.
With that in mind, you’d think the team at The Atlantic would have insisted that the article at least be levelheaded and relatively uncontroversial. Instead, the piece is incredibly laudatory and full of self-congratulations. Pair that with how small the “Sponsored Content” label is on the article, and you can see why the story encountered immediate blowback.
The Atlantic eventually took the story down, but it’ll be remembered in perpetuity thanks to the journalism watchdogs at Poynter. And according to our own research, those that did read the article reported a major drop in trust towards The Atlantic, something certainly not worth however many tens of thousands of dollars they earned off the article (which may have been refunded when they pulled the story anyway.)
When it comes to native advertising, both brands and publishers need to make sure every story created makes sense for both partners. A publisher may be eager to take the ad dollars, and a marketer may be eager for the guaranteed impressions, but if a sponsored article isn’t thoughtful, it can be problematic for everyone involved.
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