Are Sponsored Recommendations Giving Content Marketing a Bad Name?

There’s lots of different ways you can promote and amplify your content online, but one method specifically seems to be gaining the most traction: sponsored article recommendations. You’ve probably seen them. They’re the “recommended articles,” “promoted stories” or “sponsored posts” at the end of most online articles or news sites.

They typically go something like this, “5 Crazy Things that Can Happen When You Brush Your Teeth” or “Creepy Photos You Can’t Look Away At.”

The goal behind these sensational headlines is to get traffic back to a specific web page through a single piece of content. It works likes this:

  1. An advertiser wants you to visit a certain page on their website usually to take some type of action (i.e., buy something, download something, subscribe to something, etc.).
  2. So they pay a publisher (A.K.A. a website) to “recommend” your content to their audience. 
  3. The publisher/website usually gets paid per click, so the more people they can get to click on that content, the more money they can make.
  4. In addition, many advertisers assume that more traffic will translate to more conversions (which is not the case, and I’ll explain why shortly).
  5. With that in mind, sensational headlines and clickbait have been employed to encourage clicks.
  6. In turn, sponsored content recommendations are beginning to develop a reputation as SPAM.

Despite their growing association with SPAM, sponsored article recommendations are a fantastic way to drive traffic to a website for a number of reasons.

Why Sponsored Article Recommendations Work

#1 Sponsored recommendations are typically presented in a native format. This means that the article resembles actual editorial content from the website. It appears like the content belongs on the page as opposed to an advertisement.

According to research, consumers look at sponsored article recommendations more than actual editorial articles (26% vs 24%). In addition, 25% more consumers looked at sponsored article recommendations than display ad units.

#2 Visitors tend to trust recommendations from websites that they frequent. In fact, purchase intent is 53 percent higher when consumers click on native ads compared to traditional ads. Also, native ads containing rich media can boost conversion by as much as 60 percent.

Sponsored recommendation articles presented in a native ad format have been found to produce 9% higher lift for brand affinity than banner ads. By providing genuinely interesting and relevant content for consumers via the publications they trust most, brands open themselves up to a variety of potential benefits ranging from exposure to conversions.

#3 People are looking for good, relevant articles that pertain to the subject they originally came for. Sponsored content tends to see 53 percent more engagement than traditional display ads. Recent studies have even shown that 32 percent of people would share a native ad with someone they know as they don’t typically associate native ads with traditional advertising. Instead, they are being served valuable content from a trusted source, making readers much more likely to share and engage with the content.

The idea is that by providing website visitors with additional high-quality content they will be more likely to engage with that content as well as your brands.

The Problem

The problem, however, is that publishers and advertisers are so focused on getting traffic back to the advertiser’s website, that they forget the most important points: visitors want relevant and high-quality content.

You can trick or mislead people back to your website with clickbait or sensationalism all day long. But guess what? It doesn’t provide a good experience for your customer. As a matter of fact, most people hate and are pretty fed-up with clickbait headlines.

Content marketer, Neil Patel said it best, “when you promise a HUGE surprise or value-adding content behind the headline and fail to deliver, then the user is bound to feel cheated.”

Sure, you may have been able to attract tons of traffic back to your website, but at what cost?

The Solution

It’s no secret that sponsored article recommendations are great for getting traffic back to a web page. Advertisers are seeing high traffic numbers with sensational headlines, but they aren’t seeing conversions. Why? Because the focus has been on getting clicks and not providing high-quality and valuable content.

The native format alone encourages clicks. But we need to remember what our audience actually wants. They want valuable content. We can certainly entice them with clickbait or sensationalism, but at the end of the day, that’s NOT how you’re going to make a lasting impact. As a matter of fact, by tricking visitors, you’re actually leaving a bad impression. In turn, consumers begin to associate sponsored article recommendations, and perhaps your brand, as SPAM.

So how can we have our cake and eat it too? Simply by providing transparency with your messaging. Believe it or not, you don’t have to trick people into clicking on your content. At least not if you are actually creating good content. Marketers just need to find a balance between drawing attention and being transparent with their messaging. It’s all about getting a good amount of “qualified” traffic back to your website, not tons of uninterested traffic.

Your content amplification strategy should focus on being transparent with your message. If you've truly created good, valuable content and you promote that content on the websites that your audience visit in a transparent way, they will discover it. You don’t need to trick them or bait them.

Sponsored article recommendations represent a great new advertising format and can be great for connecting consumers with your valuable content. But if we continue to mislead and trick our audience, the format, the publisher, the advertiser, and content marketing as a whole, run the risk of being associated with SPAM, and no one wants that.