SPONSORED CONTENT CHALLENGES

Create policy covering all the bases; offer realistic freelance payments

by Howard Rauch, editor-in-chief; Roy Harris, executive editor; Robin Sherman, executive editor

Does native advertising really deserve acknowledgement as the new kid on the block among the forms of sponsored content?  Probably not, especially for those B2B publishers and editors who have years of experience in all forms of sponsored advertiser-paid content.

If you accept this line of thinking, likely you see little need to reinvent any wheels, providing you have solid editorial ethics policies in place. What’s different now is that many advertisers are trying to go native in a big way, which opposes ASBPE ethics code guidelines.

One reason flak is flying over native ad format these days is that its cause is championed by marketers.  Increasingly, this faction claims that the native ad format — by emulating the look of editorial graphics — can co-exist without concern that readers will mistake paid advertising material for editorial material.

Moreover, many marketers have difficulty distinguishing “native advertising” from “content marketing.” The latter concept caught on a few years ago as more advertisers embraced a format where advertising messages would displace overt sales pitches in favor of engaging content with high take-away value.

Native advertising often embraces content marketing methods.  Perhaps that’s why we have today’s array of mixed messages asserting that native advertising is content marketing and vice versa. (Editor’s note: ASBPE ethics committee member Robin Sherman suggests “that native advertising is most probably a subset of content marketing OR a tool for implementing a small portion of an overall content marketing program.”)

The above stirrings prompted Ethics News Updatesto include a special focus in this issue on native ad developments.  This article offers a broader view of B2B sponsored content considerations.  Elsewhere in this issue, you’ll find several articles zeroing in on current native advertising concerns.

You’ll learn how one astute B2B multi-publisher created solid policies covering need-to-know sponsored content procedures.  Afterward, several B2B editors explain why the alleged new challenge of native advertising is not likely to create ripple effects in existing sponsored content policy.

Then you’ll hear from a successful B2B freelance writer about why publisher payment policies for sponsored content assignments must reflect the need for high-quality, well-researched material.

Finally, ENU studied four recent cases provided by the National Advertising Division dealing with ad labeling considerations.  Our review leaves little doubt that rulings already exist to restrict advertiser attempts to stray out of bounds when it comes to proper labeling practice.  (Editor’s note: NAD is described as “an investigative unit of the advertising industry’s system of self-regulation and is administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.”)

Establish who’s in control

At Meister Media Worldwide (MMW), native advertising “has been a topic of considerable conversation in the past year,” says corporate content director Jim Sulecki.  New guidelines covering sponsored content are still rolling out, he told ENU.  “These guidelines really center on a few essential precepts,” Sulecki adds:

  • “Content is either controlled by our editors or our advertisers – let’s stop pretending there’s a third way. There is no such thing as ‘advertorial’; there is no such thing as ‘Powered by [Meister Brand]’.
  • “If content is advertiser-controlled, it’s ‘Advertising’ in print, and ‘Sponsor Content’ in digital. Clearly label it as such in all its iterations – print, web page, video, webinar, search results, etc. – and let the audience decide and judge it on its own merits.
  • “If the content is editorial controlled but supported by advertising sponsorship, it’s ‘Presented by [Meister Brand], Sponsored by [Advertiser]’.”

Meister’s digital director is retooling content management systems and web design to accommodate “Sponsor Content.” Projects previously handled by Meister-brand editors are being reassigned to a custom content editor.

“We created the custom content editor position about three years ago precisely to handle custom content for the web,” explains Sulecki, “so that she can write, edit and interact with the client and keep our editors out of it except, perhaps, for some general market guidance. And we’ve had to grandfather in a few projects that were sold prior to the implementation of the new policy but scheduled for completion after – in each case, though, with a ‘this will change for next year’ caveat.”

Current custom and sponsored content guidelines are covered in a seven-page document Sulecki prepared.  After defining three types of content (custom, sponsored, independent editorial), guidelines cover presentation and display considerations.

Of special significance is the “Who Develops Custom Content” section:

“Custom content is written, edited and presented for advertiser review by an MMW Custom Content Editor, sometimes with assistance from an MMW lead editor who provides general direction, market insight and industry contacts but does not actively participate in the development or advertiser approval of custom content.  The lead editor may also review custom content in its finished state for quality control and to ensure it will not be confused with editorial content.

“Similarly, sales and project management remain in contact with the advertiser on, respectively, business and campaign-management details.  However, the Custom Content Editor remains the ideal functional intermediary between MMW editors and the advertiser on specific editorial details related to custom content.

“Similarly, MMW editors do not participate in the production/presentation of online advertiser-controlled content such as custom webinars and custom video. However, this role – as host, panel-lead, interviewer, etc. – can be filled by the Custom Content Editor, other MMW staff, such as  publishers, and by outside freelancers/contributors.”

(Editor’s note: For additional input on editor webinar involvement, refer to ASBPE ethics code guidelines defining difference between webinars that are sponsor-controlled vs. editorial-controlled.)

Waiting for other shoe to drop

The consensus of several B2B who recently were interviewed by ENU is that marketers have yet to hit their stride in terms of placing native ad schedules.  Three editors providing input for this article believe they will be in good shape to handle a sudden burst of inquiries.

“We are at a pretty intense planning stage with the hopes of rolling out some native advertising programs across all our brands in the next few months,” said one editorial director.  “There haven’t been many requests from advertisers yet, but I think it’s all a matter of time, so we plan to be prepared.  I think native advertising programs require communication at a variety of levels – editorial, sales and publishers need to talk about this unique opportunity.

“We started by defining native advertising, also known as sponsored content, and talking about how this is different from the ‘advertorials’ that have been running in print for years.  We have decided to take a web-only approach using articles and/or multi-media, supplied by advertisers and/or written by non-editorial staff.  We also are trying to find ways to make sure there is value for BOTH the advertisers AND the reader – what type of guidelines should we provide to our advertisers?”

One common view by respondents is that editors with past experience in planning advertorialsand other forms of sponsored content will find mostly familiar challenges posed by native advertising.  “At this point in time,” said one group editor, “I don’t see the increased focus on native advertising affecting me any more than it ever has, going way back to the days of sponsored advertorials in print.

“That is, it is handled separately from editorial (apart from some high-level consulting on themes/hot topics at the beginning of the project), and it is clearly labeled in a way to (hopefully) differentiate from editorial.

“There seems to be agreement across functions that quality content and editorial independence continue to be critical differentiators.  However, with a growing focus on audience-generated content (including potential sponsors), I think my colleagues and I are alert to potential risks and understand this is a moving target that requires some vigilance.  For now, I think, we know there’s a ‘red-line’ we don’t want to cross but are not sure where it is.”

One respondent emphasized the importance of sponsored content creation being handled by a separate in-house department.  “We have a completely separate custom media department with its own editor and writers,” said Governing senior editor Todd Newcombe. “Our publisher and supporting sales staff offer these resources to advertisers, selling our company’s expertise in the market as a reason to use our resources to create the native advertising the sponsors want produced.”

The whole operation is walled off from editorial,” Newcombe said. “We have set rules on what the native advertising can look like in print (the ‘advertorials’) and digitally, so that the reader will see a difference and hopefully comprehend the content is non-editorial.”

So far for Newcombe’s publication, native advertising still skews towards print (“advertorials,” special sponsored inserts).  “We still have very robust print publications,” he said, “so digital native advertising is not widespread yet.  I should add that it took years to build up this operation and to set the rules and there were many bruises along the way.  But for us, the wall between editorial and advertising remains very firm, despite the challenges digital publishing presents.”

On the subject of editorial staff direct involvement in sponsored content projects, one source previewed a policy still in the formulation stage.  “Editors will have some involvement (review) but not involvement in producing content.  I think that needs to be clear.  Editors will maintain integrity and credibility.

“We will do this by clearly labeling any type of advertising content, even if it is good quality editorial. If it’s paid, it is labeled.  But we haven’t determined the words we will use just yet.  And beyond labeling, we also are working with our content management platform to build an entirely new ‘look’ for this type of content – so the font, colors, styling, etc., on the web will be very different from our standard online content.  This applies to any other place this content (or link to content) appears, including social media and e-newsletters.  Ultimately, I feel a brand will have the most success being transparent.”

While staying positive seemed to be the order of the day, one source predicts bad tidings if sponsored content customers are given too much leeway in terms of editorial direction.  “The sticky wicket for me is not that native advertising exists, it’s when it’s allowed to dictate editorial content,” said Great Lakes Bay Publishing editorial director Mimi Bell.

“Once that bull is out of the barn, it’s nearly impossible to wrangle back editorial control from advertisers (or whitewash the advertiser’s perception that they can influence editorial. What happens next keeps editorial and advertising at each other’s throats.”

Are freelance payments realistic?

Are publishers willing to support realistic payment policies for freelance writers assigned to execute sponsored content projects?  The answer is somewhat in doubt.  Budgets may be tight, but such projects require a depth of coverage that’s hardly covered by penurious fees.

An Adweek article — “Skimping on Fees and Avoiding Journalists: Are Publishers Doing Native on the Cheap? — recently brought this issue to a head. “According to author Lucia Moses, some publishers “are paying standard freelance rates or more to those who create native ads, other bad apples are skimping on fees or avoiding hiring journalists altogether.”

The crux of the issue was presented in the article’s final paragraph: “The rise of native brought the prospect of income for freelance journalists hobbled by the ad recession; clearly that hasn’t become a reality for all. But apart from freelancers losing out, a greater downside of doing native on the cheap is that it could lead to low-quality content and undermine a format that many publishers are staking their financial futures on.”

The article apparently was widely discussed in freelance circles and was subject to mixed reviews.  Randy Hecht, principal of Aphra Communications, an international custom content provider, declared that unequal payment for freelance work assigned for advertising projects is old news.

“It would be more interesting,” she said, “to see some more reporting done on why that’s true and what distinguishes higher quality (not just higher priced) content from the stuff churned out by all those freelancers who boast about how quickly they rip through their assignments.” Hecht also believes that “it’s high time the industry stopped wailing about what’s going wrong and started thinking about how to get things right.”

Hecht elaborated on the current freelance payment situation and how to correct it:  “As in most areas of our industry, there’s a growing gap between what the top and bottom tiers offer in terms of both how much the publisher is willing to pay and how much the freelancer is capable of putting into the project.

“I see many comments in online discussions from freelancers who talk about how they hit their hourly income targets by writing quickly.  This usually means writing exclusively about topics that they choose to believe they can cover adequately without conducting any interviews. That approach generally characterizes the lower tiers of the industry.

“Sometimes the freelancer might be capable of doing a higher standard of work but is unable to market successfully enough to land that work and so settles for assignments that lead to rationalizing about how if you can ‘churn out’ a 300-word post in 45 minutes and you’re paid $75 for that post, you’ve earned an effective rate of $100/hour – even if you haven’t actually earned $100. Whether in journalism, custom content, content marketing or native advertising, this approach rarely leads to copy of high enough quality to generate successful outcome for the publisher or content sponsor.

“My experience to date has been concentrated in other areas of B2B custom content, but I believe the principles there would apply to the specific example of native advertising, just as I found them true during earlier experience writing copy for “advertorials or advertising special sections. The higher tiers of custom content, content marketing and native advertising reflect, as in journalism, the quality of reporting (including thorough research and vetting of sources) and fact-checking that went into the piece before writing began.

“But that’s not something that a custom content, content marketing, or native advertising B2B client can buy for $75, and it’s not something freelancers can deliver if they’ve developed the habit of approaching assignments in terms of how quickly they can be completed.

“To get those results, publishers and content sponsors must expect to pay upward of $1/word to freelancers who understand the value of time invested in solid research and have demonstrated the ability to deliver that caliber of work.”

Another view from a custom content provider was offered by Lou Covey, CEO of Footwasher Media. Covey addressed the issue of whether advertisers are pressuring publisher sales teams to waive labeling or graphic requirements.

“Yes, of course they are,” he said, “and they will continue to do so.  It’s also why our Statement of Ethics is included in each contract so we can end discussions early on.  I actually have one potential sponsor talking to me about making sure that their company and products are NOT even referred to, even remotely in any content.

“They have learned they need to have evidence that a real problem exists and that content is in an objective news article. They help us develop the content by telling us what kind of people we should talk to, and the most helpful are those who have not yet heard of the sponsor. Letting potential customers talk about why they are looking for a solution is a better first step than telling them about a solution.”

Veteran freelance writer Phillip M. Perry has received no nibbles yet for sponsored content assignments.  “For many writers, it will probably be an attractive area to explore,” he says.  “It would be very much like writing on assignment for a PR agency. I wonder, though, if payment rates would be equivalent to such PR work. I am assuming a lot of this native advertising copy will be very low pay, but I may be wrong.”

What challenge to native advertising does Perry foresee? “I am thinking readers will eventually realize the content is somewhat limited and will be less willing to suspend disbelief or take the material seriously,” he responds. “This could impact a publication’s revenues.”

Labeling rules are clearly expressed

Considering how many rulings already exist pertaining to advertising-editorial distinctions, one wonders what the point is of attempting to bypass clear restrictions.  This became apparent as ENU reviewed results of recent cases involving inquiries by The National Advertising Division.

The most recent high-profile case NAD handled addressed the mislabeling of promotional content as “news.” In its pronouncements in the documents ENU studied, Federal Trade Commission Guidelines to Endorsements and Testimonials were cited.

NAD notes by example that as early as 1968, an FTC advisory reminded advertisers that a sponsored news column that “uses the format and has the general appearance of a news feature and/or article for public information, which purports to give an independent, impartial and unbiased view, must clearly and conspicuously disclose that it is an advertisement.”

In another case involving blog posts, NAD recommended that the advertiser using a blog format must “clearly and conspicuously disclose that the blog was written and maintained by the advertiser. In its ruling, NAD cited an FTC position “that it is in the public interest that publishers and advertisers avoid any possible deception by not placing advertisements whose format simulates that of a news or feature article.”

NAD also adjudicated a case involving a series of articles identified as “Sponsored Content.” When the sponsorship period ended, the articles continued to be posted without any indication that they were sponsored. During the contractual period, the articles included a yellow bar indicating that the content was sponsored.

At one point in its case summary, NAD commented: “Advertising in non-traditional formats, including sponsoring a series of articles in an online news source, poses some new challenges including when and how an advertiser has to identify a sponsored article or series of articles as advertising.

“The obligations of the advertiser are guided by FTC precedent that requires advertisers to inform consumers when they are advertising, as well as general principles surrounding the distinction between commercial speech – or speech for the purpose of supporting a commercial transaction or enterprise – and other varieties of speech and the protections offered by the First Amendment.”

NAD has been actively monitoring advertising activity since 1971. In several cases, complaints have been filed by competing advertisers.