Sponsored content is everywhere. How good is it?
I decided to take a look. In a lucky twist, I found a topic (Caribbean travel) covered both ways: by a regular New York Times reporter and by the company's “native advertising” team.
(All these terms — native advertising, sponsored content, branded content — describe the same thing: articles commissioned by advertisers and created by marketers. That is, people who don’t work on the editorial staff of a publication.)
Thus, a showdown: NYT vs. NYT. Or, more precisely: TBrandStudio (the name of the Times’ branded content operation) versus the Travel section of the Times. Representing the staff writers and editors: “Affordable Caribbean: Dominican Republic.” On the business side: “Where to Go: The Dominican Republic.”
My main takeaways:
- The Times editorial team writes better and delivers more useful advice than its counterparts in TBrandStudio.
- The company’s sponsored content operation feels like a work-in-progress. Fulfilling the TBrandStudio’s motto — “Stories That Influence The Influential” — seems more aspirational than actual at this point. One indicator that I’m not alone in my opinion: the Times’ doesn’t feature sponsored content everywhere it publishes. It’s on the nytimes.com home page, but not in its iOS apps.
- Both readers and advertisers are being poorly served by this sponsored content.
Ahead, a few notes from my reviewer’s journey.
BETTER GUIDANCE FROM THE “A” TEAM…
- The traditional article is loaded with specifics. Recommendations (22 in all) are detailed and, in most cases, come with contact information and web links. In cases where multiple options exist, readers are told the one or two best choices.
- The sponsored article also has recommendations (27 of them), but many are made in passing (e.g. the names of five beaches listed in a sentence) and none come with contact information. The one web link in the whole article — wrapped around the phrase “family holiday” — is to the sponsor’s web site. What suggestions you do get are vague and require readers to do further research. An example:
"With about 20 official dive sites in the area, Bayahíbe is considered the best location for scuba in the country. There are numerous scuba-diving shops around the main beach that make it fuss-free for visitors to venture on a scuba-diving or snorkeling adventure."
Want to know which site to visit? Or which shop to trust? You’re on your own.
- The art in the sponsored article (e.g. maps of the DR) is more impressionistic than informational:
…AND BETTER WRITING, TOO
- There’s a skillfulness to the writing in the “real” article and a spirit of helpful skepticism that's absent from the sponsored piece. Example from the Travel section piece:
"Start in the sprawling Plaza de la Cultura. Skip the Museo de Historia Natural, with its dusty taxidermy installations and the occasional living, but apparently depressed, snake.“
- The sponsored piece, in contrast, speaks in the sunny generalities of a brochure: “these organized [whale-watching] excursions offer a unique glimpse into the world of these majestic mammals.” The whole thing kinda sounds like a state-sponsored tour guide.
- It also felt like the (unattributed) writer of the sponsored piece spent a little too much time with a thesaurus, or too little time with an editor: "an impressive plethora of glitter.” Vague descriptions (“unforgettable scenery”) and cliches (“generous hospitality”) abound.
- The sponsored article recommends three places to visit. Guess what? Each spot is where the sponsor’s hotels are located. This isn’t an earth shattering revelation. He who pays for the article gets to decide what it contains. But readers have their own rights. In this case it’s to downgrade the value of touristic advice that points in a predetermined direction.
- I’m comparing only one sponsored post in this review. (I’ve examined dozens of branded articles, from many different websites, over the past few months. In future blog posts, I’d like to take a broader look, and see if I can spot instances where the value — to readers and advertisers — is greater than what’s on display here.)
CONCLUSIONS & QUESTIONS
- I’m not arguing that all sponsored content is bad. Just that in this particular case, I’m questioning where the value lies for each of the three most interested parties: readers, the Times, and its advertisers.
- Does the Times worry about sponsored content getting too good, thus blurring the line between “real” editorial product and advertorials?
- How sustainable is this product line? What happens, after the first few years of metrics arrive, and sponsors see what (I’m guessing) will be meager traffic numbers?
- Or is it just a matter of staying away from the core meat-and-potatoes topics that outfits like the Times does (well)? In other words, maybe the Times just needs to make sure there aren’t many of these apples-to-apples choices…since most readers will pick genuine over artificial every time.
- Finally, is there another route forward for content marketers and media companies who are interested in working together? Namely, to stop thinking of paid content as the place to do “not really as good” content as the main attraction. And instead think of another type of content offering that, on its own merits, delivers values to both readers and advertisers. What would that look like?