The Ultimate Guide to Sponsored Content (including Examples)

Ninja Shinoi reading sponsored content on a magazine

Why You Shouldn’t Believe What You Read in the News…

Newspapers and news sites have a reputation for being trustworthy sources of information, but marketers can buy a portion of that trustworthiness and use it to achieve their business goals. It’s entirely possible to get your business mentioned in practically any publication of your choosing, including prestigious names like The Guardian, The New York Times and Forbes — even without developing an interesting news story or cultivating your journalistic contacts.

Everything has its price, and a slot in a newspaper or on a website is no different. In this blog post, we will explore sponsored content, when you should consider using it and how even small businesses can use sponsored content effectively.

In this blog:

  1. Why Choose Sponsored Content? (and What It Is)
  2. What Does Successful Sponsored Content Look Like?
  3. How Much Should You Pay for Sponsored Content?
  4. Achieving an ROI through Sponsored Content
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1. Why Choose Sponsored Content?

Sponsored content is when you pay a publication or website to run your content. It is an example of native advertising because the content you supply is normally designed to look and feel like the content that is on that website already. Readers often don’t realise they are reading an ad until they are part way through the article. Sometimes they never realise that what they are reading is paid for.


The supply of content on the internet is enormous right now — an estimated 2.73 million blogs are being written every day. The demand for online content is also enormous, but there are some natural caps and barriers in place. People only want to spend so much of their time consuming content, and it only takes one content creator to make something that can be read by thousands if not tens of thousands of individuals. This means that there is a mismatch between supply and demand, with some websites having a larger supply of content that their current demand.

In this situation it is very difficult to persuade an editor to run your content unless you have a truly exceptional story. In this situation, it may be worth paying the publication a fee to run your content, saving you time and giving you access to a publication of your choosing. If you’re thinking: “if I were going to pay money to get my content delivered to my audience, I would purchase banner adverts and be done with it,” then you need to read this next part.

Banner advertising and other traditional forms of paid-for media are losing their effectiveness with every passing day. This is because readers are increasingly becoming banner blind — they have taught themselves not to look at banners because they know that there is nothing but adverts there. Plenty of eye-tracking data shows that your chances of being looked at in a banner ad are quite literally a lottery. To make matters worse, the continued rise of programs like AdBlock means that a significant chunk of users are simply not seeing adverts at all. Even more worryingly for advertisers, ad blocking is being driven by the young, with 41% of 18-29 year-olds polled admitting to using an ad blocker.

For these reasons and more, sponsored content is becoming an increasingly commonly used tool by advertisers, with advertising spend on sponsored content increasing year on year.

Google, reflecting the view of the the average internet user, is wary of sponsored content. They are concerned about the prospect of companies effectively paying to rank highly for keywords (or at least, they are concerned because in the case of sponsored content, Google itself isn’t making any money). They have said that any company or website that runs paid for content could be excluded from Google News completely, though this seems increasingly unlikely as many major news sites blatantly disregard this rule. Google also states that paid for links must be declared and given the nofollow tag. Yet while Google’s rules are fairly tight, their enforcement of these rules has been lax… so far. Time will tell whether they will decide to loosen the rules or enforce existing rules more harshly in the future.

Sponsored content has also generated controversy amongst readers and even government regulators who are concerned that sponsored content is misleading the public. It even made an appearance in Season 19 of South Park, with “Sponsored Content” being both an episode title and in some senses the main villain of the series. It is important that both publishers and marketers realise that misleading sponsored content erodes the trust between readers and publishers, and that trust is a resource that is quickly spent but very difficult to regain.

2. What Does Successful Sponsored Content Look Like?

Example #1: The Guardian and Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil

A screenshot of the Guardian Newspaper and a sponsored content article on sustainable palm oil

The Guardian commonly runs sponsored content and has been doing so for many years. As publications go, it is one of the most transparent, featuring a (reasonably) prominent “sponsored by” subheading to avoid deceiving the reader. The below example, sponsored by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, is a video drawing attention to the need for sustainable palm oil — a concern that ties in with The Guardian’s environmentalist editorial stance. The Guardian clearly distinguishes between sponsored content, supported content, and content that is brought to readers by brands.

Example #2: The New York Times and Shell

Sponsored content example of the New York Times and an article on urban transitions

The New York Times attracted some controversy when it first began to run sponsored content in 2014 through its T Brand Studio, but they show no signs of relenting after a stint of successful sponsored content campaigns. One of the most interesting decisions that the publication has made in regards to sponsored content is use of the “paidpost.nytimes.com” URL, making it easy for readers to see sponsored content.

Example #3: The Economist and Microsoft

Image of The Econonist and a sponsored content article on Microsoft

The Economist have taken an unusual format with their sponsored content by holding sponsored debates. In the above example, “Should companies do most of their computing in the cloud?” the debate is sponsored by Microsoft (and indicated as such via the box in the top-right corner of the screen). The “yes” and “no” positions are represented by experts in the field. During the debate, readers can send their questions to a moderator for consideration. Readers vote on who they think they makes the best case and may change their vote at any point during the debate. Voting results and statistics are made clearly available to the readers (in this case, 64% of people agreed that companies should do most of their computing in the cloud).

Example #4 BuzzFeed and Android UK

Buzzfeed sponsored content article on Android UK

Perhaps no website does sponsored content better than BuzzFeed, a website that was built purely as a sponsored content machine. The above example, ruthlessly promoted multiple times on the BuzzFeed main page, is just one reason why BuzzFeed makes $100 million each year (compare that to the $30 million that The Huffington Post was making when it was bought by AOL). It’s a simple formula — pick a clickbait-y headline that resonates with the reader, make use of the easily digestible list formula, and totally boss social media — but it’s one that has quietly see the company become perhaps the most innovative media corporation of the last decade.

Now it’s unlikely that any small or medium-sized business owners will be on any of the above websites as sponsored content (we’re about to tackle pricing in the next section) but we can learn a couple of things from their approach.

  1. Sponsored content should appear native. It’s important that the reader feels that your content is a natural part of their reading experience and doesn’t feel disjointed when they come across your message. Looking at the above examples, we can see how each brand has tailored their content format to suit the publication. A formal debate is something we expect to see in The Economist whereas listicles (list-based articles) are what BuzzFeed is made of.
  2. Yet you shouldn’t get caught deceiving readers. Each of the above four publications marked the sponsored content as such so that their readers didn’t feel cheated or lied to. This is good practice, as readers hate to be taken for fools and won’t think highly of brands that treat them as such.
  3. Sponsored content does not mean substandard content (if anything the opposite should be true). In the early days of advertorials, brands didn’t pay that much attention to the quality of their sponsored content. It was enough to be in the publication, and the quality of the content was an afterthought. Now that advertorials are near-universally hated for their poor quality, they’ve realised that this was a colossal mistake. Brands do have access to some pretty cool resources, such as an advertising budget and industry insights. When they use them to create sponsored content of a high standard that perhaps even a professional journalist might have struggled with, the sponsored content will get most attention and be most effective as a marketing tool. In other words, now that you’ve paid for the soapbox you better be sure that you have something interesting to say!

According to a BIA/Kelsey study, not only is everyone doing sponsored content but everyone is also doing pretty well out of it. Consumers are 25% more likely to read a native ad than they are to read a banner ad, and experience an 18% bump in purchasing intent. Different studies show different results, but overwhelmingly agree that native ads are more effective than banner ads and translate to higher commercial intent.

3. How Much Should you Pay for Sponsored Content?

Sponsored content has become the name of the game for publishers, with an estimated 78% of publishers admitting to running sponsored content. Only 10% of publishers flat-out refuse to run sponsored content on their website in the name of journalistic integrity. This means that there’s lots of advertising money sloshing around the internet at the moment. How much of yours should you be spending on sponsored content? This subsection will reveal what companies are paying and how you can negotiate the best price for getting your brand name heard.

As of 2016, clear industry-standard pricing plans for sponsored content have yet to be developed. In fact, aside from the reach and influence of the target publication, the single thing that will most likely determine how much you pay is your ability to negotiate a good deal. One of the largest studies to date on sponsored content comes from Chad Pollitt, who conducted a survey of 550 publications to determine the average price that a publication will sell a spot on their website for. They identified the following 17 metrics used to establish pricing:

  1. Word count
  2. User time on page (based on determining the amount of time a typical user spends on their page)
  3. Links, including important details such as number, location, and whether or not they would be “nofollow” links
  4. Lead capture, publishers with strong analytic software could charge on a per-lead basis
  5. Impressions (CPM): cost per thousand impressions (an impression is the display of an ad while a user is on the page)
  6. Amount of work needed to be done by the publication’s editorial team
  7. Monthly website traffic
  8. PageRank
  9. Domain Authority
  10. Page-level engagement (measuring how much an article is read and engaged with)
  11. Social media promotion
  12. Email promotion
  13. Display advertising (combining sponsored content with traditional banner ads)
  14. Number of articles
  15. Visibility time
  16. Verticals: for large publications that cover many verticals or subject areas
  17. Pay-per-click (measure by number of users that click through to the landing page)

Being a number-junkie, Chad then crunched the data to come up with the following terrifying but accurate (or should that be terrifyingly accurate?) formulas:

  • Blog Price Formula = -60.5 + 5.97(DA) + 0.978(thousand Fb fans) + 15.1(PR) – 0.000007(AR)
  • Publication Price Formula = -37000 + 314(DA) + 20.9(thousand Fb fans) + 5152(PR) – 46.6 (thousand Pinterest followers)

DA stands for Domain Authority, Fb stands for Facebook, PR stands for PageRank and AR stands for AlexaRank. PageRank is a score devised by Google to measure a website’s relevance, while AlexaRank is a similar tool developed by alexa.com. What all these numbers boil down to is that the average price of getting sponsored content onto a blog is £196.88, while the average price of getting content into a publication is £4,215.69. Bear in mind that these numbers are averages, based on self-reported data, and come from early 2015 — not very long ago in real terms, but a distant memory for a new trend like sponsored content.

While you may use this formula to help you determine a fair price for a position on smaller blogs and publications, you’ll find that all the larger publications and many ambitious smaller ones already have a pricing plan that they are happy to discuss with you. For instance, getting a spot on Forbes costs $50,000 per month for a minimum of three months, but you can write as many articles as you like during that time. Business Insider, on the other hand, will allow you to upload an article for as little as $5,000 a pop.

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4. Achieving an ROI through Sponsored Content

Before you hand over any of your hard-earned money to a publisher, you should negotiate to be sure that you are getting the fairest possible price and that both parties are clear on exactly what the agreement means. Make sure to cover key details such as links (nofollow or otherwise)  and visibility time. Most publications and bloggers will have either a media kit or a media package containing key metrics that will help you decide whether the investment is likely to be a good one. You can use this, alongside your own research, to determine how many readers you are likely to get, what the engagement levels might be, and then you can start to estimate roughly how many leads your content will generate. Once you have that estimate, you can start to negotiate what both parties consider to be a fair price.

To keep the price down, there are a few things that you can do:

1) Reduce the work needed to be done by the editorial team and the blogger to the absolute minimum, including doing tasks such as sourcing images and proofreading for grammar errors. The less time that the blogger or publication have invested themselves, the less they are likely to charge for the service.

2) Attempt to secure a deal on a per-lead basis. Most publications and bloggers will be reluctant to do this — they want to be paid regardless of whether or not your content is successful. But it can strongly be argued that the value of the content is directly linked to the amount of leads that it generates. The higher your lead-conversion rate, the better a deal like this could be for your business.

3) Consider asking for a discount on repeat purchases. There are diminishing returns on investment for each article in terms of strict SEO benefits, so you should be able to argue that second and third purchases be discounted.

There are also a couple of red flags to watch out for:

1) Limited visibility time. Often publications will feature sponsored content for a limited time only, to prevent their website from appearing overly spammy. Of course, in most cases you want your article to remain live indefinitely. In some exceptional cases, on some exceptionally popular websites, it may be acceptable to agree to limited visibility time. Though you’ll need to work out whether this is worthwhile on a case-by-case basis.

2) How the sponsored content will be presented. Will it be clearly marked as sponsored content, and if so, how so? It generally pays to play by Google’s rules, so sponsored content that is marked as such isn’t necessarily a bad idea. But it should still be formatted and packaged in a way that is attractive to readers.

Once you have a price agreed, determining your ROI is a simply a matter of comparing the cost of the sponsored content to the number of leads that it generated. You can use Google Analytics to see how many of your website visitors are coming through a particular link, then use your lead-conversion rate to calculate roughly how many of those visitors went on to become customers. In addition, some of your content’s readers may not have necessarily followed the link but instead came through as organic traffic later on. If there is a spike in your web traffic after your sponsored content is published, estimate what percentage of that is due to the post and add that to your ROI score for the content.

After you have compared your ROI to the amount of time and money spent on creating and securing the content, it’s time to analyse it in terms of your overall goals for your digital PR campaign. If it was a success, great! What can you do next time to make it even more successful? If it was a failure, why exactly was it a failure? If the content got less readers than a typical post on that website, perhaps you need to reevaluate your content creation process. If you didn’t secure as many leads as you hoped you would, perhaps you should work on your website’s conversion rate before restarting your efforts at sponsored content.

Remember too that, as always, targeting the right publication for your target audience is just as important with sponsored content as it is with any other type of content marketing. If your typical customer is a 35-45 year-old Welsh woman with a love of gardening, then your sponsored content needs to be in a publication that is widely read by that demographic.

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