The Success of Native Advertising Hinges on Earning Readers’ Trust

Brands need to get better at converting paid media into a loyal audience

There’s been much talk of late about the effectiveness of sponsored content, and a pair of new studies published in the past few weeks have let some air out of that balloon. Both show that readers tend to take a skeptical view of branded content, especially the kind that appears on publisher sites (full disclosure: One of the studies was conducted by Contently, which signs my paycheck). 

Illustration: James Walton

Most media watchers have pointed out that the results of these surveys are bad news for an industry that’s increasingly counting on sponsored content to replace lost traditional ad revenue—and supposedly bad news for companies that have built their businesses on helping brands create editorial content. But I think the results actually reveal an opportunity— not only for content marketing shops, but for brands and publishers as well.

First, lumping everything a brand publishes under the umbrella of sponsored content ignores the fact that there’s a huge distinction in readers’ minds between paid media and owned media. In a rush to judgment on branded content, many people in our industry miss the point that readers trust earned media whether it comes from a brand or not, but they’re suspicious of paid media no matter whose name is on it.

Contently works with a lot of brands and publishers on the paid media side of branded content, but the lion’s share of our business (and where we see the future) is on brands owning their own content and paying to promote it on publishers’ sites as a piece of a bigger media strategy.

Here’s an analogy: Owned and paid media are kind of like a great teacher and a substitute. You see a great teacher every day; and most days you learn something new and useful from them. You build up trust with this teacher over time, you listen to what they have to say, and as with the best teachers, the relationship continues even after you’ve left the class. That’s the kind of relationship brand publishers can create with owned media.

A substitute (a sponsored story), on the other hand, doesn’t have that earned trust, and anything they say is going to naturally be viewed with more suspicion. Here’s the thing though: sometimes the substitute is awesome. In the best cases, they can bring new perspectives, new information and new energy to a classroom. The best sponsored content can bring those things to an audience in the same way.

One could make (and many have made) the case that brands communicating directly with audiences is bad news for publishers who depend on being the audience gatekeepers. I don’t buy that.

For one, building an audience is hard, and even a brand with its own audience will want to reach other audiences with its message. Whether it uses sponsored stories, paid distribution or social advertising to get there is dependent on the circumstances—but the need to reach additional eyeballs efficiently and effectively is constant.

Case in point: Contently’s industry pub, The Content Strategist, has nearly 200,000 unique visitors per month at last count. And yet we still pay to place sponsored content on publisher sites (Adweek is one such partner). Why would we do that when we could put it in front of our own audience for free? Simple. Those sites have the readers, the audience we want and need to reach.

As the study conducted by Edelman Berland/IAB concludes, sponsored content is only effective if both the brand and publisher work together to make sure the reader is getting something valuable. That means no sales pitches, extra transparency and, above all, a focus on quality storytelling. When brands pay to put content elsewhere, they need to be sure the publisher is willing to work with them to make certain the sponsored content put on their site is great. Publishers in turn need to push back against brands that are intent on promoting schlock.

Despite some misgivings from readers, sponsored content is and will continue to be incredibly valuable to all branches of the media ecosystem—brands, publishers, readers—but only if it’s done thoughtfully.

No one wins if the substitute sucks.

Sam Slaughter (@samslaughter215) is vp of content at Contently.