STUDY: How Effective Is Sponsored Content? Not Very!


Probably not a sponsored story

Every agency with its head on straight began creating or facilitating the creation of content some time ago, and quite a few brands and publications have followed suit. Today The Washington Post added a former PR/journalist to its roster to manage a growing content production house.

Yet few can agree on what a successful piece of sponsored content looks like or on best practices for enhancing and measuring its effectiveness.

Expect the debate to continue with the help of some challenging research.

Today brought a new survey conducted by Contently, and its findings seem to undermine the company’s very raison d’etre:

  • Only 24% of readers scroll through sponsored stuff while 71% do so for “normal content”
  • Only 48% of respondents can (accurately) say that sponsored posts are paid for by a client who has some editorial influence over the final product
  • 20% think a client paid but didn’t have a hand in the creation process while 12% say the sponsor actually wrote the material and 18% think that party just paid to have a banner ad or logo appear next to the piece

So while many readers get it, even more don’t. There’s a reason for this confusion, of course: publications’ policies vary widely, especially when relating to a given client’s editorial influence.

These are the juiciest numbers:

  • A full 2/3 of respondents say they’ve felt “deceived” upon learning that a given article or video was sponsored, while 7.6% say they don’t even recall seeing such an offensive piece
  • It’s not about clear labeling, either: the same 2/3 said that they’re less likely to click on something they know to be sponsored
  • Also (and this one is really bad): 58.7% say a news site loses credibility by publishing any sponsored material

The following chart should disappoint PR and advertising: a large majority of readers find the dreaded banner ads preferable to sponsored posts.

Contently Graph

…and despite what you might think, those numbers increase among both younger and more highly educated audiences. On the other hand, more participants said they trusted brand content than content produced by Fox News, so there’s a tiny bright spot here. Also: sponsored material is seen as most honest when it appears in a printed magazine and least honest when it pops up on a mommy blog (despite what we all know about how valuable those can be).

In short, for content to succeed you must:

  • Find a reputable publication willing to take a risk
  • Make sure the quality holds up
  • Make sponsorship clear in the interest of transparency…even though doing so will ultimately mean less readership

Now, this survey is by no means the last word on the matter. Contently founder Shane Snow acknowledged this morning that it does not necessarily provide a full picture of the sponsored content game, reiterating that neither the people promoting said materials nor the people reading them really understand what they’re all about.

In the meantime, we will all continue learning more about what works and what doesn’t. And we’ll have a few more surveys to help us along the way.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.