I'll admit it ... I was once a firm advocate of the "old way" of doing PR. You know, that practice of reaching out with what you know is an earth shattering piece of news and hoping that the media would be willing to write about it and share how awesome your brand is. Sadly those days are long over and we live in a new media paradigm where professional media organizations have been largely replaced with bloggers and even those that still exist tend to rely heavily on sponsored content. This includes formats ranging from talkshows to corporate blogs like Mashable and even publishers like Condé Nasté Nast and news organizations including CNN.
The reality is that sponsored content is here to stay and so PR agencies need to reassess how they perceive it.
This topic has been something I've wrestled with for the past several years as I've watched it emerge but brands and publishers are still struggling with how to make it work. My first experience with it was when it was honestly just a cop out ... I failed at a pitch and needed to show some results. It was easier for me to hand out cash to a few bloggers in exchange for them writing about the story than it was for me to bill the client a few more hours with still no results. Over the years though, this practice has grown into one that has become increasingly sophisticated but in many cases I feel like the soul has been lost as publishers chase a cheap buck.
On the other hand, it's important for PR agencies to recognize that saying "no sponsored content" (as Pepcom's PR team has recently decided to do as a filter for admitting media to their CES events) is really a terrible way of determining the value of a publisher. Unfortunately they aren't alone. I had an even stronger reaction from a PR person at one of the largest retailers in the US who essentially shunned them even to the point of banning them from her outreach list.
Sponsored content is here to stay. As a brand, it's up to you to make sure that your product doesn't suck. Ultimately you want content of a similar level (or better) than what you once considered "earned media". While I play both sides of the fence today, as a full time blogger as well as a full time marketer, I'm going to be speaking for the rest of this post with my blogger hat on. It's my hope that by sharing my personal perspective on the topic as I've seen it evolve over the past decade that we can all come together and serve our readers and your customers even better! So, with that in mind - here's a few tips to make sure your sponsored content still has soul ...
Create Genuinely Compelling Assignment Briefs
Most bloggers are extremely busy and are bouncing from one assignment to the next. Speaking as a full time blogger, this is our job to run a site, create content and promote that content while also recruiting advertisers. Generally, we are looking for what needs to be created and what's the best way to produce that quickly. When brands don't create good assignment briefs or doesn't work with us to to develop the content concept then it shows that you aren't very engaged in the process and we'll work to get the assignment done as quickly as possible so we can move to the next one.
When the assignment brief is good, providing details on what needs to be done, how, and when then we can create great content for you.
Share Your Content Goals and Objectives with the Publisher
Just as it's important to make sure that the creative elements are covered, we want to know what the brand needs to see from us to be successful. Some of my more PR oriented friends act completely hands off and almost secretive when I ask how they perceive value. It's almost as if they are affraid that they will corrupt the creative process by telling me that they want to see blog comments vs Tweets. It's true to an extent with earned media. However, in the case of sponsored content where I'm creating and promoting the content to serve a marketing goal it is ESSENTIAL that I know what you are looking for so I can create it for you.
Pay a Realistic Amount For a Post
It's ok sometimes to offer $50 or $100 posts that are copy and paste jobs but for the most part that isn't going to deliver great results. There is no linear curve here and paying $500 or $1,000 doesn't guarantee you are going to get a great post. However, generally if you pay a fair amount for the work required you'll get a better product than if you don't. Remember - this is my job and I have limited resources to create your content with. So, make it easy for me and help me make you happy!
Choose Publishers Based on Content Quality - not just stats
With so many content promotion and targetting resources at your disposal, it's almost better today to target smaller - high quality publishers - and then promote their content to the right people. Think of it this way. You could pay $3,000 (or spend 30+ billable hours) pitching a high-level blog who isn't likely to promote your content beyond the required contract, or you could target 5 smaller blogs and take the remaining budget to promote the best content through targetted Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram ads that will guarantee you reached the correct audience.
Reward Good Publishers When They Create Great Stuff
Rewards come in many forms. This can be as simple as a note saying "thank you, the client LOVED your post!" or it can be more financially motivated such as inviting the blogger to create another post or even sending extra product.
Build a Relationship With Your Favorite Publishers
This is probably the single biggest problem in the industry today. There's very little relationship building. It's a shame since that's what PR used to be all about. Somewhere along the line though, that skillset was lost. Likely it's because they didn't need to build the relationship since all they needed to do was write a check to a network like IZEA (who does a great job of building relationships with their publishers!) and just be done with it.
While I love working with my reps at the blogger networks, I miss working with the brands themselves since they tend to be more engaged in the individual campaign.
Think Long Term Value
One of the things I hate is campaigns that measure success in terms of clicks and page views. The reason I hate that is because we all know this campaign is going to be over in a couple weeks and that's simply not enough time to judge value. However, with that in mind we will do what we can to shape content to hit those objectives for you. Unfortunately, that often sacrafices the long term value of the content.
Generally, I think most of my fellow blogger publishers are looking to do great stuff and similarly most PR agencies are looking for good product to be produced. However, any time I bring this topic up with fellow bloggers it's clear that most of us dream of one day having 3-5 brands that we genuninely love work with us on a long term basis. This would allow us to focus more on developing content and the audience to engage with that content and less on chasing the next job.
The only thing that is certain right now is that sponsored content is here to stay. Brands will continue to need a way to reach consumers and bloggers are able to produce content at a rate that is far less expensive than corporate media with offices, conference rooms, bagel Mondays, and capachino machines in the break room. I miss those days. It was fun working for WashingtonPost.com but now I have the freedom to do what I want and that's pretty exciting!