Trial and Error in Sponsored Content

The story circling the web today about The Atlantic’s native advertisement for Scientology raises all sorts of questions for digital newsrooms. And there are no easy answers.

In case you missed it: yesterday around lunchtime, an ad package, labeled as sponsored content, went live on The Atlantic’s website. The native advertisement was for the Church of Scientology, under the headline “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” 

If it weren’t for the comment section, the package might have gone unnoticed. But reporters and readers started to notice that the commenters weren’t clear about the nature of the content. The comments, from pro-Scientology to the deeply skeptical, and The Atlantic’s moderation of the comments, raised eyebrows from the Washington Post to Gawker. It was shared on Twitter and social media as editorial content from the news magazine. At the eleven hour mark yesterday night, The Atlantic pulled the package and a message to readers about how the organization is reviewing subsequent sponsored content and policies surrounding it is up in its place. 

Sponsored content and how to run it is a contentious topic throughout digital newsrooms. Native advertising now makes up for almost half of The Atlantic’s revenue, and other news organizations rely just as heavily on sponsored content. As we know, it’s not just old fashioned advertising, like a full page color spread in the Sunday edition for a company that might be at odds with the readership’s values. It’s because to make a campaign successful, the sponsored content for a questionable entity has to mesh with the editorial content. In look and feel and in tone. While any long time reader may have noticed the yellow “sponsored” banner,not all sponsored content from The Atlantic is even marked by such a yellow banner. 

The advertorial was just too good. By its own admission, The Atlantic “screwed up.” But the most egregious mistake, in my opinion, is that just as the ad package was garnering media attention, a review — real editorial content — of a real book on Scientology was published, somehow furthering the credibility of the advertisement.

Marketing and advertising departments are always separated from the newsroom. But like all things digital, seemingly separate things converge in unexpected ways. This is all new territory. The Atlantic seems to be talking about policies concerning what kind of sponsored content to run. But the real questions to hash out are more technical:

  • How to label and write sponsored content; how transparent does a news organization have to be?
  • How do you best  handle the removal, not just the correction, of content once it gets out hand on social media?
  • What do we, as journalists, do when our content coincides with a marketing campaign?
  • How do you monitor and respond to the comment sections of your publication?

What do you think? Do you have some ‘best practices?’ Tell us about them in the comments.