The fuzzy world of sponsored content

This column appeared March 8, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

“Sponsored content” on the Web comes in different shapes and flavors. At some online publications, like Slate, Salon, iVillage and ESPN.com, clicking on a “sponsor” link transports the user to another site or to a co-branded page paid for by an advertiser or hosted by a strategic partner.

Other sites, like Women.com and BabyCenter, publish special features pages hosted on their own servers.

Not all sponsored content is created equal. Some of it is pure promotional puffery, while some offers useful editorial material.

More than any other revenue source, however, online sponsorships seem to come with their own special set of ethical headaches. Should a company that manufactures children’s acetaminophen be allowed to sponsor a baby site’s medical section on child fevers? Should a children’s clothing manufacturer be allowed to sponsor the articles on how to dress your child?

“We still wrestle with those kinds of questions every day,” says BabyCenter spokesperson Lara Hoyem. She points out that all sponsored content deals go through the site’s editor in chief, Jim Scott.

At BabyCenter, sponsorships come in two main forms: featured sponsor sections and editorial sponsorships. Here’s a quick look at how sponsorships play out at one content and commerce site:

Featured sponsor sections

Unlike most sites, the sponsored content on BabyCenter isn’t crafted by the marketing or promotions folks. From the beginning — predating my arrival and continuing to this day — the task of researching and writing these special packages has fallen to the editorial department. BabyCenter has set the bar for these sponsorships at a proper height, in my judgment, by asking a single question: Does the sponsored content serve the users’ needs?

More problematic than sponsored minisites are editorial sponsorships.

So, yes, BeechNut gets prominent play in the sponsored area on introducing solid foods, but all the facts in the baby nutrition chart, checklist for introducing solids, first food tracking guide and other editorial material was researched by an editor and vetted by the company’s medical advisors.

The same applies to the other minisites grouped under the “Good Stuff” banner at the bottom of BabyCenter’s home page. (If you’re wondering: These sponsored areas make up less than 1 percent of BabyCenter, and the site offers extensive non-sponsored articles that cover much the same ground. Sponsored content does not appear in the BabyCenter Store.)

The site has turned down tens of thousands of dollars from advertisers who merely wanted to put up a page touting the glories of their product. But many advertisers saw the value in having credible editorial material as the main component of these minisites, with a “brought to you by” brand page as the denouement of the package. Links to these packages throughout BabyCenter clearly identify the minisite’s advertising sponsor, and the packages are designed in a way to differentiate them from the rest of BabyCenter’s editorial content.

Jonathan Tuttle, the art director who designed many of these pages, recalls sitting at meetings with company executives and business staff, trying to educate them about some of the ethical conflicts of interest in having an advertiser sponsor a minisite that refers directly to their product in the context of an article.

“We didn’t get outrageous requests,” says Tuttle, who left BabyCenter in late 1999 and is now co-founder of Gocitykids.com. “We tended to react pretty strongly to the minor incursions, and it was an ongoing process of educating folks why certain proposals didn’t fly.”

At one meeting, Tropicana wanted to sponsor a minisite on folic acid. The only problem was that our existing articles listed a dozen other foods that doctors recommended before orange juice as good sources of folic acid. Without editorial’s buy-in, the minisite never happened.

Tuttle points out that sponsored minisites can pose an ethical slippery slope if the company doesn’t establish rules to ensure editorial integrity. “As many times as a client says it doesn’t matter if we mention competitors’ products, boy, come renewal time you can bet they’ll want that out of there,” he says. “There are lots of shades of gray and you’ve got to be careful or the client will try to wedge in their own slant on the subject, and once you’ve got their money in your pocket that’s hard to stop.”

Editorial sponsorships

More problematic than sponsored minisites, in my view, are editorial sponsorships. Under this revenue model, companies sponsor existing sections or pages on the site, a technique pioneered by portals like Excite and Lycos.

When I left the company 13 months ago, the business department hoped to sell dozens of these sponsorships, while the editorial folks argued for a go-slow approach.

While some arrangements seemed innocuous enough — say, a sponsor for a child’s height predictor calculator — other sponsorships seemed troublesome: Did we really want to compromise the site’s credibility by having a sponsor for pages related to a mother’s or newborn’s health?

Ultimately, the executive team signed on to only a couple of editorial sponsorships, Hoyem says. Baby Gap sponsors BabyCenter’s popular Baby Namer tool, and ReliefBand sponsors the site’s morning sickness page. The original mockups, which troubled me, had the sponsor’s name across the top of the page. These examples, with a vertical treatment in the right-hand column, look fine to me.

Are sponsorships a legitimate form of advertising? Purists might say no, because it inserts a promotional message into the center of editorial content. But to my mind, it’s hard to see how this is ethically any different than a radio show sponsored by an advertiser or a paid-advertising section on health in Newsweek.

There will always be readers who don’t trust anything on a site if you sell things (dooming all content sites), just as there are some people who don’t trust newspapers or broadcast news because they sell advertising (dooming all media except Ms. magazine and Consumer Reports). Like it or not, sponsored content helps keep content sites afloat.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
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