What we can learn from The Atlantic’s sponsored content debacle

Much of the buzz in the online media world over the past few months has been about “native” advertising — a term that many people use to describe what used to be called “advertorial” in the old print-media days: in other words, content that is created by an advertiser and designed to mimic the content produced by a publisher. Although many see this as the future of online advertising, it brings with it some risks, and The Atlantic has just produced a great example of what some of those risks are.
On Monday, a number of sources discovered an article that had been published on Atlantic Media’s website about the Church of Scientology, and unlike much of what gets written about L. Ron Hubbard’s manufactured religion, it was a long and glowing piece about how well the church was doing — complete with positive comments congratulating the church (Gawker has screenshots of the original piece here). It soon became obvious that the story was sponsored content produced by the church, and Twitter and the blogosphere erupted in outrage.

“Seriously, that is ad-whoredom of a particularly egregious variety. The Atlantic is now partly sponsored by the Church of Scientology?” — former Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan

Are all sponsored posts bad, or just that one?

After much debate on Twitter and elsewhere over the ethics of this kind of publishing, The Atlantic eventually took the piece down, and replaced it with a statement saying that it planned to review “our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.” In a follow-up statement to a number of outlets, the magazine said: “We screwed up… We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It’s safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand.”
[tweet https://twitter.com/rossneumann/status/290980639660965888]
So what was the Atlantic‘s offence in this case — was it that sponsored content isn’t appropriate at all, or that the magazine didn’t make it obvious enough that it was advertorial? Or is it that Scientology isn’t an appropriate subject for sponsored content, or not appropriate for The Atlantic? Depending on where you look, you can find arguments for all of those positions and more (we’re going to be talking about this topic with Justin Smith of Atlantic Media, Jon Steinberg from BuzzFeed and Lewis D’Vorkin from Forbes at our paidContent media conference in New York on April 17).
For the digital-media industry, however, “native” advertising is one of the few bright spots — or potential bright spots — in a landscape that is riddled with charts of ad revenue that are going in exactly the wrong direction. And it’s not just traditional media outlets like Forbes or The Atlantic that are experimenting: it’s also a critical part of new-media models at places like BuzzFeed, and even at social networks like Facebook (s fb) and Twitter. Promoted tweets and sponsored stories are very much like “native” advertising, because they are inserted into the stream of regular content a user consumes.
[tweet https://twitter.com/pkafka/status/290999074021310465]

For native ads to work, they need to blend in

I think the big lesson from The Atlantic brouhaha is that — as Charlie Warzel points out at Ad Week — using sponsored content as one of the core components of your media strategy really ups the ante when it comes to figuring out whether an advertiser fits with your brand. What seemed to horrify many people (although not The New Republic) was the idea that a magazine they respected would provide a platform to what they see as a dangerous cult. In other words, there seemed to be a mismatch between the brand of the magazine and the brand of the thing it was helping to promote.
Similar complaints have been made about some of the content that appears at Forbes, where chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin has created a sponsored-content style service called Brand Voice: in effect, Forbes provides brands and advertisers with a platform that is fundamentally identical — in both look and feel — to the one the magazine’s own bloggers get. That content lives or dies based on the same criteria as the magazine’s regular bloggers, namely whether it is relevant and useful to readers. But more traditional media players have criticized the magazine for diluting its brand in this way.
[tweet https://twitter.com/Digidave/status/290989401536872448]
In the end, most online media and content companies will have no choice but to experiment with sponsored content and other forms of “native” advertising, because there just isn’t enough money coming from the traditional kind in our new world of unlimited supply and falling demand. But as The Atlantic‘s experience shows, it is easy to go astray, and the only way to avoid that kind of disaster is to keep your readers in mind: sponsored content has to be as useful as the kind you produce, if not more so, and it has to be aligned with your brand, or it will fail — sometimes spectacularly.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr/Stephen Brace and Shutterstock/Gl0ck