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.
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.
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.