How Broadcasters Can Balance Paid Content with News Reporting

August 14, 2015

Sponsored Content in Journalism

Sponsored content continues to grow, with a Business Insider article predicting native ad spending will reach $7.9 billion this year. This is especially true for the broadcast news industry, where paid content is increasingly common, and evolving past rapidly shifting photos and sensational headlines.

Why It’s Important to Handle Sponsored Content Correctly

The results of a Reuters report shed light on one of the main problems with native advertising: many audience members (about one-third) feel deceived or let down by the content. While about half of respondents admitted they could live with sponsored content in exchange for free news, around 25% have a lower opinion of news outlets that use this type advertising.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever clicked on what they thought was a legitimate news story, only to wind up staring at an ad or online store. While some paid advertising is fairly obvious (anything that screams “insane” in the headline, bouncing cartoon characters, and poor photo editing are good tip-offs), other sponsored content is more subtle. One trend is to pay the news site to write the content, so it sounds more like a “real news story.”

Benefiting From Native Advertising w/o Alienating Audience Members

Being up front about sponsored content is the best policy. Many broadcasters’ websites have a “stories that might interest you” type section, typically under the current story or off to the side. It’s increasingly common to see links to other legitimate news stories mixed into this section with sponsored content, but this approach can frustrate and annoy audience members.

Instead, make a separate “might interest you” section and mark it as “sponsored content.” Often these notices are in very tiny print. While that may irritate a few consumers, it also makes the people paying for the advertising happy. Sticking the disclaimer off to the side makes it seem less “hidden”, even if the print is small and the reader misses it on the first few passes. Pale gray lettering is the most common, probably because it’s hard to distinguish from the white background on most news sites.

How Labeling Affects Consumers’ Experience of Native Advertising

In a recent TripleLift study, 62% of people shown a native ad for cheese didn’t realize they were looking at an ad. When it was labeled as an “advertisement”, only 23% of respondents even saw it, but “presented by” attracted the interest of 39% of viewers, and “sponsored by” was seen by 29%.

Another question asked respondents which label made it most clear that the content was an ad. 48.5% chose “advertisement” for that question, closely followed by “sponsored by” at 43.7%. “Promoted by” was the least clear, at 11.2%.

While the most-seen terms are better for advertisers, they’re also preferable to consumers. The study shows 34% of respondents liked the term “advertisement” the least for sponsored content, followed by “promoted by” at around 30% and “presented by”, which drops to around 13%. “Sponsored by” was the least-disliked term at only 10.2%. If you want viewers to see your native ad and respond positively, “sponsored by” seems to be the best way to describe it.

Don’t Forget About Other Types of Sponsored Content for Broadcasters

Although sponsored content is considered part of the digital domain, broadcasters have other options for using native advertising to improve revenue. Stations can sell time in commercial breaks for interview-style ads, sometimes produced by the broadcaster itself for a client. In this situation, it’s important to make it clear that this is sponsored content and the interviewer is not an unbiased journalist. A recent Boston Globe article explains how easy it is to lose credibility when you fail to make branded content clear with an “interview” format.

Regardless of how you choose to sell sponsored content on your TV station, try to discourage the client from doing a live shot at their business location.  Anyone who’s worked in broadcast journalism probably knows  how quickly a live shot ad can go wrong, but here’s an example…

A small-market station was advertising the grand opening of a local store with a live shot from its parking lot. After explaining that the segment was a paid advertisement for the retailer, the interviewer dutifully asked the store’s manager some softball questions about all the “great deals.” The manager wanted to point out all the free food he was giving away, and he asked for a shot of the buffet table. The photographer complied, and zoomed in on a giant sliced ham—just as a swarm of flies also zeroed in on the pork. Suddenly the buffet table didn’t exactly look appetizing.

If something unexpected happens during a live shot on a news story, that’s just part of reporting the news. But if you’re being paid to make a sponsor’s product look good, the advertiser might end up blaming you for circumstances beyond your control. Often advertisers think a live interview is a great idea for an advertisement, but remind them that live TV is unpredictable and they will have much more control of the content if it’s all pre-recorded. This will also help you make sure the ad is correctly identified as sponsored content.

[su_note]Learn more about the School of Broadcast Journalism at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.[/su_note]