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Shane Snow: What the sponsored-content business can learn from Scientology

The cofounder of a sponsored-content company says that missteps like The Atlantic’s are part of a new revenue stream’s growing pains.

For the past decade, media critics have crooned, “What’s the business model that will save journalism?” As new publishers seem to jump into sponsored stories every week — joining the likes of Forbes, Mashable, and BuzzFeed, who charge a premium to place paid posts in their streams — the answer to that question may be, at least in part, branded content.

But this week, the collective fury over The Atlantic’s latest sponsored content campaign — where The Church of Scientology posted a propagandistic story about its “unprecedented” success — shines a light on the inelegancies of an evolving model.

The Atlantic quickly took the story down, apologizing. The Scientology story is truly an outlier among the magazine’s other, successful sponsored programs, such as Boeing’s Innovation Series, but it highlights the challenges media companies experience as they navigate new turf.

(I should disclose at this point that I work as chief creative officer for a company named Contently, which works with all of the above-mentioned media companies; they use Contently’s software tools and freelance journalist network to power some of their brand content campaigns. Contently was not involved in the Scientology campaign, but perhaps more than any other company, we get a close-up of the insides of some of the world’s most aggressive branded-content operations.)

Up until this point, the emerging branded content industry — a lucrative one compared to the declining banner-ad biz — has for the most part been careful, if not benign, with a focus on share factor — that is, “Will people be willing to put this on their Facebook walls?” Typically, branded content has manifested itself in photo galleries of cats, or human interest stories that avoid mention of the sponsor, but address topics the sponsor cares about. At worst, it’s snore-worthy corporate blog posts. But take a more polarizing brand like Scientology (or say, the NRA, or Planned Parenthood) and the hypervigilant Internet will flip out at anything that feels off.

This is a good thing. By analyzing the most extreme example, we expose the cracks of which media companies — and their sponsors — should be aware as the brand publishing tide rises.

A cautionary tale

In the Scientology kerfluffle, people flipped out for two reasons. First, there was the shock of discovering, upon second glance at the glowing story, that it was actually created by the Church of Scientology and not an Atlantic reporter. This is a design issue. Though The Atlantic does mark sponsored posts at the top and bottom, it’s often easy to miss the memo until the end of the story. Indeed, the “Sponsored by” text at the top of the post is in the smallest font size on the page (or was at the time of this writing).

In most cases, the shock value of discovering “Gee whiz, this post was sponsored” is minimal, if existent at all. But the more controversial the sponsor — and the more the story smells like advertising — the harsher the jolt.

Second is critical distance. A BuzzFeed story about expensive suits (one of today’s sponsored posts) that reveals that the TV show “Suits” is the sponsor elicits at worst a groan, but more likely an “Oh, cool — that was a good one.” But that’s because such posts focus on a subject the brand and readers both care about, not the brand itself. Sure, “The 8 Most Expensive Suits In The World” is about men’s jackets, but it’s not about the show itself. Readers in this case care about being entertained, and they got what they wanted.

Qualcomm’s Spark, a digital magazine about technology, for example, tells stories about mobile, gadgets, futurism, and science. The brand wants to be known for those things — but it leaves out the “Oh, and you should buy phones with Qualcomm chips in them.” The audience consumes and shares the content, appreciating the brand for giving them content they like.

Most sponsored submissions at The Atlantic go through an editorial wringer to ensure quality and minimize surprises. Yesterday’s Scientology post for some reason defied best practices, and people flipped out. The underlying principle behind all good content — sponsored or no — is maintaining the reader’s trust.

How Scientology could have done it

Despite being a controversial organization, The Church of Scientology could have sponsored content that didn’t betray readers, perhaps even built its brand reputation among them. What if Scientology had sponsored a series about happiness? Or the need for humanitarian relief in Africa? Or stories of the world’s greatest free-thinkers? These are values the church believes in, and they wouldn’t need to discuss the church or church members. Shoot, even a HuffPo post on “20 People You Didn’t Know Were Scientologists” might not have been unsettling to that particular audience. Any of the above would aid the branding effort and leave readers to decide on their own what they think of Scientology. No tricks.

Would people have flipped out had The Atlantic’s offending sponsor been Jell-O? Probably not. The double standard is unfortunate; in my opinion, all should be held to as high an editorial standard as the most controversial brand. But as sponsored content continues to surge as a promising model for media monetization, some will, naturally, need to tread lighter than others.

I’m betting that branded content becomes a permanent part of the business cocktail that eventually “saves media.” (I have an incentive to say that, as my company provides plumbing to power such storytelling, and I’d be a hypocrite not to disclose that — but I do believe it.) However, if brands are going to provide win/wins for readers and publishers, they need to learn, as media companies have, what readers want, and how to give it to them ethically.

Journalism is growing a new arm. These are the growing pains.

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  • Leszek Olszański

    “What if Scientology had sponsored a series about happiness? Or the need for humanitarian relief in Africa?”

    Splendid idea, what about Bernard Madoff sponsoring a series about personal finance? Or Theodore Kaczynski sponsoring a series about fireworks?

  • David Gerard

    Well, yeah. The commenters would have gone nuts.

    The writer evidently doesn’t realise Scientology’s history of trying just this approach and being called out on it every time. They’re a *seriously* toxic brand, and there’s reasons for this.

    This post fails to address one of the most controversial aspects of the Atlantic post: the marketing department gave control of the comments over to the sponsor, i.e. Scientology.

  • shanesnow

    Totally get your point. It’s a bit of a false analogy, though. Madoff was a convicted felon; Kaczynski was a murderer. Scientology is a polarizing organization, but that’s a very different thing. A better analogy would be if CitiBank wanted to sponsor stories about finance—something they want to align their brand with. 

    But the point I think you’re making—that it’s not a good advertiser/publication fit—is probably spot on.

  • shanesnow

    Thanks for commenting! Indeed, the fact that they got past the editorial checks that normally keep self-promotional content from being published in the program is in line with the church’s existing reputation. 

    Shouldn’t have happened. But more importantly, it’s an extreme example of what doesn’t work in this emerging industry. 

    You’re right that some people likely would have gone nuts anyway, but it would be because of the brand/publisher fit and not for reasons of journalistic integrity.

  • Dana Knight

    Shane, I appreciate this ongoing self-analysis and debate that the media industry is going through regarding sponsered content. It is, unfortunately, a necessary evil in today’s economy. Media websites are right to be concerned about what illicited this Krakatoa-type explosion, and are eager to avoid a similar castrophe occurring on their own websites. 

    If Media is going to swim in these dark waters, they would be well advised to (1) ensure that the content is factual (2) that it is a good fit with their readers (3) that the readers walk away with valuable information that they didn’t know before (4) that readers may comment freely and (5) at all costs, avoid the pariahs of society.

    In the case of Scientology, all of the five above rules were broken.

    The content published in their “advertorial” omitted the fact that the Scientology Ideal Org program has bankrupted many of their members into hardship; that their membership numbers have plummeted to its lowest level in 30 years; and that hundreds of millions of dollars (previously donated  for new buildings)  are considered missing  by a significant number of scientologists.  These funds are unaccounted for (since Scientology refuses to follow recommended transparency guidelines for churches) and possibly embezzeled by senior management.   

  • shanesnow

    Thanks, Dana! Couldn’t agree more.

  • davebarnes

    Scientology is evil.
    Simple as that.
    “What if Scientology had sponsored a series about happiness?”
    What if Assad of Syria sponsored a series about happiness?

  • jbaran0w

    Just one error in this article – use of the word “journalism.” When commerce sets the agenda for discussion, it’s no longer journalism.

  • Ed Clowes

    The analogy isn’t false at all. Scientology is a criminal organization. It wouldn’t have made a difference if the Scientology piece had been about happiness or humanitarian relief in Africa or the worlds greatest free-thinkers – the church of Scientology cares about none of these things. This is why people got so angry. I completely get the point of your article, but Scientology is the wrong example to use to make the point.

  • xlucasl

    Who are we kidding? Commerce has had a hand in the agenda since advertising became the business model for journalism decades ago.