In the San Francisco and Houston Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and many other publications, you’ll see sponsored content mixed with reported articles.
It’s hard to distinguish sponsored content from editorial. That’s the point. Sponsored content, aka native content, is intended to blend with editorial on the page. (Hence the word “native.”) The difference? Money and editorial control.
Brands pay for sponsored content and therefore have control over their content. Editorial is free, but the publication has control. You won’t read about bedbugs in a hotel chain’s sponsored story. You might, however, read about the “top 10 vacation destinations for families on a budget.”
Here’s a good example of a series of sponsored stories “made possible by Allstate” for The Atlantic. You don’t see much about insurance in these stories. The content focuses on everyday people making extraordinary community contributions. The series is presumably designed to build trust with consumers and reaffirm they’re “in good hands.”
How to write effective sponsored content
Writing sponsored content isn’t dramatically different from writing a blog article. Sponsored content generally fulfills one or more of the following objectives:
- Establishes your brand as an expert in its field.
- Builds trust in your brand.
- Provides helpful information to your audience.
Although your sales team may argue, sponsored content does not:
- Hype your brand every other sentence.
- Focus on your product’s features.
- Focus on your product’s benefits.
That’s a native ad. Different animal.
Here are 6 other things to keep in mind as you either write sponsored content or oversee its development.
Define your audience.
This week I received an assignment from a publication to write a sponsored article for a furniture store. Target audience: an entire large city, all demographics, from millennials to grandparents. Rewind!
Like any piece of content marketing writing, it’s important to define your audience. You need to tailor your content to potential customers’ interests, needs and desires. Working moms in their 30s to 50s will have different interests and needs than a 22-year-old college student.
Define your subject matter.
As mentioned earlier, sponsored content isn’t the place for a 700-word article all about a company’s new software. The story focus should get to the underlying issues surrounding your brand or your product.
Why do customers buy auto insurance? To feel safe. To protect their family. Why do they choose one company over another? They have an agent a mile away they can reach on the phone, which suggests they value the personal and the neighborly.
Think about these things as you’re developing topics. IRG, a San Francisco Bay Area-based natural stone supplier, publishes consistently in San Francisco Chronicle’s online companion, SFGate, on topics related to home remodeling.
According to StoryStudio, its sponsored content division, one IRG story received more than one million impressions. Even better, users read the content with a 91 percent scroll depth. (Full disclosure: I write for StoryStudio.)
Write to the publication’s voice.
Sponsored content is meant to blend with editorial. The writing and visuals should both blend to fit the publication. SFGate, for example, takes a more casual tone than the print publication’s more journalistic voice.
Images and videos should also mirror editorial. Use slideshows, pullquotes and online polls accordingly.
It’s okay to include the brand name—in the right spots.
A study from marketing platform Pressboard found on average, readers spent 12 seconds longer reading articles when the brand was mentioned halfway through the article as opposed to when the brand was mentioned in the first 100 words.
However, when an article mentioned the brand multiple times, the readers spent less time engaging. An article with no brand mentioned performed okay, but not as well as when the article included a middle and closing mention.
Include a call-to-action.
Unlike a reported story, sponsored content can, and should in many cases, include some type of CTA. Invite reader to visit a website, purchase tickets, or take some other type of action, but keep it brief.
Full disclosure is important.
Most publishers and marketers know this. Transparency is priority when creating sponsored content. Although the content should appear “native,” its relationship should be clearly stated at the top or bottom of the story. Readers don’t appreciate deception.
Nelly Gocheva, global editorial director of T-Brand Studios, New York Times, said at a branded content event for The Drum, it is important to “keep the church and the state separate” She added brands shouldn’t be afraid to declare their sponsored content as such. Good content will speak for itself.
“If the content is great people will still interact with it,” she said. “People come to us because we are a trustworthy news outlet and do not want to be misled. Good branded content is about the story and we need to put the ‘story’ back into storytelling.
Any other tips on writing sponsored content? Let us know in the comments below!
PS: Why Dokken? A high school friend used to say that all the time.