Articles in a series on Mashable.com called “What’s Inside” looked for all the world like the hundreds of other articles on the digital media site. But journalistically, they were something very different.
The articles, about technology topics in a wide variety of products, including modems and the Hubble Space Telescope, were paid for by Snapdragon, a brand of processor chip made by Qualcomm, and the sponsor of the series. Most were even written by Mashable editorial employees.
An article on Google Glass technology was shared almost 2,000 times on social media, indicating that readers may not have cared, or known, if it was journalism or sponsored content, although the series was identified as such.
Advertisers and publishers have many names for this new form of marketing — including branded content, sponsored content and native advertising. Regardless of the name, the strategy of having advertisers sponsor or create content that looks like traditional editorial content has become increasingly common as publishers try to create more sources of revenue.
Calculating what advertisers spend on such content industrywide is difficult because of the many ways the content is defined and sold. A banner ad on one home page may be comparable in price with a similar banner ad on a different site, but a series of customized articles on one Web site and a series of social media posts on another are harder to compare.
Well-known online publications like The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and Business Insider all use some form of branded content. A result is a media universe where it is increasingly difficult for readers to tell editorial content from advertising.
“Brands are everywhere, and brands have now leaked into what has been traditionally the editorial space,” said David Hallerman an analyst at eMarketer, “not just the content but the look and feel of the content.”
The Huffington Post has struck partnerships with brands like Johnson & Johnson and Cisco Systems to sponsor a topic, like women and children or the impact of technology, for Web pages that pair content written by the brand and content written by Huffington Post reporters independently.
Business Insider now offers sponsored slide shows beside its editorial content. The Atlanticrecently apologized after running a branded feature written in support of the Church of Scientology.
Publishers are largely being driven to support the use of sponsored content because of fewer people clicking on banner ads, the abundance of advertising space and other factors make it more difficult to make money from traditional online advertising. As advertising technology becomes more sophisticated, ads can be bought and sold at cheaper rates across the Web. Often they are ignored by the very customers advertisers are trying to reach.
“There was a period where newspapers had monopolies, and they made money,” said Jonah Peretti, the co-founder and chief executive of BuzzFeed at a digital advertising conference in February. “Now what we are faced with is a very different industry that has shifted, and we need to elevate advertising.”
One of the biggest users of sponsored content, BuzzFeed is well known for its reliance on quirky articles like “20 Baby Animals Say Hello to Spring” and “This Is the Greatest Sports GIF of 2013.” Brands like Dunkin’ Donuts and General Electric have contributed their versions of BuzzFeed content with articles like “10 Lifechanging Ways to Make Your Day More Efficient” and “18 People Who Will Not Be Stopped.”
Forbes has worked with about two dozen brands in its two-year venture into branded content. Articles written by FedEx employees for the site have focused on small businesses. Other articles have competed for space on the most-e-mailed list for the site. Michael S. Perlis, the president and chief executive of Forbes Media, said the brands are never allowed to make a direct pitch to consumers in their articles.
“It is, in fact, content,” Mr. Perlis said. “It’s not advertising. Its about big issues that relate to thought leadership.”
Newspapers for years have run special sections to appeal to advertisers, and almost all of the publishers running branded content say they abide by the traditional church-and-state separation — news on one side of the wall, advertising on the other. But the sponsored content runs beside the editorial on many sites and is almost indistinguishable. The content can be ranked on the sites and shared on social media just like any other article.
The Mashable staff said that, despite having a sponsor, the articles they write are editorial content. “These are not advertorials,” said Lance Ulanoff, the editor in chief at Mashable. “I know what an advertorial is. These are pure editorial.”
The “What’s Inside” articles are surrounded by ads for Snapdragon. To the right of the articles are modules where readers can “like” the Snapdragon page or read Twitter posts from the brand. A paragraph telling readers that the section is being “presented” by Qualcomm Snapdragon processors also explains how the Snapdragon technology allows users to “seamlessly switch from app to app, enjoy breathtaking download speeds, and you’ll most likely run out of juice before your battery does.”
Stacy Martinet, the chief marketing officer at Mashable, said brands want to be aligned with a specific theme, in this case sophisticated technology. And that readers want articles about it.
“Mashable is working with brands to write content that aligns with our audience and what they want and aligns with the brand’s value,” said Ms. Martinet, who has worked for The New York Times. Some of that content has been in the most-read articles, she said.
The sponsorships also let the company finance longer form articles, said Lauren Drell, a campaigns editor at Mashable. “Because we treat this very much like editorial they don’t feel like they are shilling for a brand,” she said of the reporters. “They actually get excited about the content because it’s something that they want to do in the day to day but they can’t do it.” Mashable’s journalists write on average five to eight short articles a day for the site. The price for a sponsored series can run close to six figures.
In their articles, the writers are not allowed to write about the brand specifically, or any of its competitors, Ms. Martinet said. Brands that want too much say over the content by, for example, putting their product in an article, will be turned down, she said.
Pete Pachal, a technology editor at Mashable who wrote the Google Glass piece in the Snapdragon series, said the writers have no contact with the series sponsors. “There’s always people with conspiracy theories,” he said, responding to a question about whether editorial staff should write articles in sponsored series. “The article isn’t even about the brands or what their products are, so you’re not even entering that territory.”
Not everyone agrees. “I am aghast at this,” said Andrew Sullivan, a writer and the former editor of The New Republic and blogger for The Daily Beast. Readers do not pay attention to the names of people who write articles, he said. “Your average reader isn’t interested in that. They don’t realize they are being fed corporate propaganda.”