Does Sponsored Content Still Work?

These days if you visit popular news sites, you will find strategically placed eye catching images with catchy titles under the aegis of “Content From the Web” or “Recommended Content”, these are not exactly ads, these are sponsored content pieces published by platforms like Outbrain or Taboola. Both of these websites are the major providers of sponsored content around the web. NRelate was another similar service provider but they have shut shop recently (maybe due to the awkward UI we had the joy of working with before). Both websites call themselves “content discovery platforms” while in reality they can be categorized as sponsored content or paid syndicated content.

Content writing
Image: flickr.com/photos/lintmachine

With so many algorithm changes and with Google making it difficult for content to be found on their search engine, marketers are trying different methods to ensure their content has far-flung reach. SEO, blogs, infographics, videos, you name it, they try it. However, not all methods are successful even after researching for the best keywords to target and with great, enlightening content. The best option in many cases is content syndication as it helps your articles, blogs and even videos to be found and this in turn will ensure that your audience grows, allowing you to engage them and create an identity for your brand.

Content is paramount (thought we were going to say “king” didn’t you?), so it should be compelling – this is the first step for sponsored content to work. The next step is to engage content syndication websites like Outbrain to drive traffic. Outbrain does a pretty good job ensuring that pieces are not overly-promotional and rejects junk articles. Since their publishing partners include the likes of CNN, the Slate, and Fox, you can be sure that you will get a lot of visits.

The advantage of using these content discovery platforms is that you get an audience which likes to read. So if your business is one that depends upon subscribers, or is promoting its thought-leadership, this is still a viable channel for you. To help click-through rates images need to be attractive or even shocking and the title of the post should be such that it tempts the person to click on the image. Once they click they are taken to your website where you can provide them the information they need to become fans, and ultimately consumers, of your products and services. People who are using paid content publishers feel that they have gotten good return on investment as people tend to not only read they also buy from their websites. Also they get good brand recognition because people remember the website they have been to because of the attractive title and image.

Other forms of sponsored content include “advertorials”, which give the appearance of being news reported on by an objective third party, but in reality are just ads. These are much like the TV infomercials that set the stage to look like a journalistic show or interview, but exist solely to promote a product. These might not be the best choice these days as Google has actually called them out by name as a bad practice (even though they have used them as well!) Paid placement of guest posts is also a bit of a grey area. Do not get me wrong, guest posts still work as part of a complete digital marketing plan, but when you exchange cash for a permanent back link under the guise of “organic” SEO, Google sees that for what it is – manipulative of the search engine. It should be noted that sponsored content platforms do not create a permanent link, and clearly show themselves as advertising in Google Analytics, so there is no manipulation of rankings to worry about.

So who stands to benefit from utilizing platforms like the ones mentioned, and others like StumbleUpon “Paid Stumbles” and even Reddit ads? It mostly works for blogs, news sites, subscriber-based/membership-type businesses, and situations where the brand is trying to create status as a thought-leader in its industry. Basically, if you need readers, it’s good.

However, sponsored content isn’t always a good choice for ecommerce businesses, especially ones that just sell other companies’ products and don’t have much to differentiate themselves from competitors yet. These types of businesses may encounter high bounce rates and no actual sales, especially when the brand is relatively unknown. After all traffic is not the sole measure of success for these companies.

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