Sponsored Posts & Advertorials: The State of Play for PR Professionals

The digital PR landscape is constantly changing, as some publishers are monetising what was previously editorially driven decision-making. What does this mean in the evolving PR industry and what tactics can your PR strategy adopt to stay ahead in this changing market?

As the more traditional print sales and advertising are falling, online audiences are becoming more important. Even then, the usual revenue streams – display advertising and reader subscriptions – may not be enough in this digital age.

What’s Happening?

Sponsored content, also known as advertorials, or paid posts on sites, have been around for quite a long time now. Whilst it is widely known that bloggers charge brands for guest posts, I’m finding that more and more online media are now also starting to charge for guest posts too.

Maybe it’s because of the sheer dominance of Google and Facebook (especially in advertising), that has led to an increased pressure on traditional newspapers and other online media outlets. They are finding it increasingly difficult to compete and make money from online audiences.

Either way, over the past few years, the lines between editorial and advertorial are beginning to blur. I’ve found there seems to be a rise in sponsored content, and it is quite prominent in a few sectors. Publishers are now working with sponsors (PR professionals and marketers) to create content that can look very similar to editorial content.

This has the potential to damage the editorial integrity of a publication, as well as a brand’s image – especially when the website doesn’t disclose that it’s paid for.

Let me point out at this stage, that sponsored posts or advertorials are fine from a marketing perspective, as you can hit a specific audience with your content. You can target the places your audience will be – especially those higher tier outlets. A sponsored post is often a lot more educational than a traditional ad, and it carries extra weight because it’s coming from an influencer. They’re not jarring or disruptive, and the majority of the time you may not even realise that you’re reading sponsored material. There also isn’t much ‘sales’ language, they are often quite subtle. But it is essentially media buying, and digital PR is not media buying!

Banner Ad vs Content
Visitors are engaged with content, not banner ads.

But in this article, I’m coming from a digital PR perspective, where we outreach organic editorial content to gain online coverage and links, which is proving much more difficult than even just a year ago.

In the past decade, traditional PR has muscled into the SEO space by taking some ownership of link building. They have become more digital marketing savvy, but essentially PR is about building relationships and influencing people, not buying media. PRs are not – and have never been – media buyers.

Engaging and informing audiences are two hugely important criteria with content, which in the past has been enough for online media. The content that’s being outreached NEEDS to offer value to the media’s audience. I’ve always believed that content should sell itself. So, my client’s content has credibility because it’s verified and published by the media, rather than just purchased.

Anyway, it looks as if it is going to be increasingly difficult to earn links through charm and quality content. These days, selling content for its editorial value alone, and without a budget, is very hard.

What’s Happening To Me?

When I outreach with natural, unique content, I often get replies that request payment. The below are some responses I’ve received from online media (not bloggers!) in the past.

I truly believe that PR professionals shouldn’t be processing payments to secure coverage. And Google agrees: way back in 2013 their webmaster blog warned the industry against buying and selling links.

So last year, I progressed a few sponsored posts in reputable online media. Mainly because it seemed to be the only way to actually get into the high priority target media for clients.

I’ve plotted the costs of a sponsored post against the domain authority of the publication and also against the unique number of visitors per month.

While I recognise more data is needed, these findings are still interesting. As these charts show, there does seem to be an upward trend but if you look closely the pricing doesn’t seem to have any correlation, rhyme or reason.

Prices vary across a range of publications; for example, a publication with a high domain authority, unique visitors per month and reputation doesn’t seem to be reflected in a higher price for a sponsored post.

For £30 you can get a sponsored post on a website with a domain authority of 17, but you can also pay £83 for a sponsored post with a domain authority of 14. Publishers control their own pricing and seem to be maintaining their own criteria for the costs associated with sponsored articles. This makes it difficult to see the true value of a post.

It also seems to be a lottery on which sites now decide to charge and which don’t. These are two responses I received from the same outreach content to carefully selected media.

The first outlet replied with…

And another outlet replied with…

Same content to similar media in the same industry, one recognises the value it can add to the readers, and one now charges for publishing content. 🤷‍♂️

It’s worth mentioning that Google also brought in ‘no follow’ links to prevent spam, and they’ll penalise a site if they don’t use ‘no follow’ links on unnatural (paid) linking. This is a  contradiction to what I’m finding with my outreach, with many media happily accepting money for a ‘follow’ link on their site.

So we need to be very careful with links, as we don’t want to be penalised. When paying for editorial coverage, it is best practice for a link to be ‘no follow’. You should never pay for links. However, I don’t think many publishing houses realise this.

It is no biggie if a website wants to charge for a sponsored post. Live and let live, hey? I’m just surprised at the number of media who now won’t accept any content unless it’s paid for.

So, this leads me to think what makes a good digital PR consultant at the moment? Research skills, positive attitude, copywriting skills, brand awareness, time management, online communication, and persuasiveness? One thing is for sure, I do not consider processing invoices a digital PR skill.

Dedicating some of our budget to just buying links would certainly make part of our work easier, and I’m sure that many do it. But anyone, in theory, can pay for a link. Even my little brother knows how to process a PayPal payment. Therefore, does it not lose some credibility if anyone can pay for a link on a blog?

  • When does the quality of content come into play?
  • What if a PR has no budget?
  • How does a media outlet determine how much a link is worth?
  • Is this practice sustainable in the long term?

These are real questions in the digital PR and link building industry.

So What Can We Do?

With the growth of online content showing no signs of slowing down, the use of advertorials and sponsored content as a PR and marketing channel is likely to grow even more.

I think that we need to slowly embrace that this is the way it’s going, but in the meantime, we need to make our content work as hard as possible. Digital marketers and PRs will need to use a much more targeted approach. They’ll need to focus all of their attention on media that has a large readership or are directly relevant to their brand. We need to be more specific in the media we want to target, and we need to be more personable than ever. Relationships are the key to success.

  • Your strategy should be to build better relationships, which in turn may build links. You should start a relationship by giving, not taking. Offer content, offer insight, offer opinion, and share your expertise. We should continue to create trust and credibility in editorial, by engaging readers and audiences, and offer content with actionable insights. Expert quotes usually work. This may help increase your chances of actually getting somewhere.
  • It goes without saying that your content must be worth sharing. It must try and evoke an emotional response, and it should always encourage engagement in order to grab the attention of the reader. Journalists are feeling increasing pressure from their Editors for social shares. Make your content the start of a conversation, and make an attempt to reach out to a media’s audience.
  • Data-driven or larger content pieces are always well received by media.
  • Consider creating the content in different formats – create a set of slides, a video, publish it as a free PDF download, publish it as a free kindle book – re-use that content in as many ways as possible to get as many potential audiences as possible.
  • One tactic is to take a huge step back when it comes to branding and identity in a piece of content. Remove all branding and elements of brand identity in the piece. Avoid being mistaken for a purely promotional piece of content.
  • It’s important to remember that the media are busy people too. A little patience can always help. Not everyone is working to your deadlines.
  • Alternatively, you may choose to simply steer clear of some media or industry publications completely. Instead, go for business advice sites, or resort to traditional PR methods to increase a client’s online visibility. It might need a complete change of focus.
  • Finally, don’t get disheartened! You need very thick skin when contacting media who don’t respond, or those who aren’t too pleasant in their responses.
(I have replaced the actual word with a nice emoji)

Maybe the demand for discrete link buying will increase, and that’s something much harder to police. However, one thing’s for sure: sadly, it looks like the request for paid links won’t go away.

What are your thoughts? Are you also finding an increase in sponsored posts in traditional media? And how are you dealing with it?

 

Alex Jones

About Alex Jones

Alex is the Head of Earned Media at Hallam, with specialist expertise in digital PR. With extensive offline and online experience, Alex currently helps clients increase their online visibility through digital PR, at the same time as building on their search engine marketing efforts.