What Is Sponsored Content, And Why Should Brands Invest In It?

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Sponsored Content: Varying Industry Definitions

Many marketers today struggle to differentiate sponsored content from native advertising, branded content, and advertising content—terms that are frequently used interchangeably. The wide range of industry definitions can lead marketers down a confusing path. For instance, the American Press Institute (API) prefaces its definition of sponsored content with the following:

“Sponsored content/native advertising appears in many ways. There is no single form, but rather a continuum from banner ads to social media content to large microsites with articles and videos. It is better to define sponsored content by what it does than by what it looks like.”

On the other hand, the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) “Native Advertising Playbook” breaks down native advertising into six categories (in-feed units, paid search units, recommendation widgets, promoted listings, in-ad with native element units, and custom). According to Moz, sponsored content or sponsored articles are categorized under IAB’s in-feed category. Moz author Chad Pollitt illustrates how “banner blindness” has forced marketers, brands, and advertisers to seek out new effective content promotion methods from influencer marketing to native advertising:

“Sponsored articles amount to advertising on a media outlet in the form of editorial content that looks like it’s supposed to be there. Brands value this because association with a publication and exposure to its audience can drive awareness, traffic, conversions, and leads.”

Better yet, Digiday’s article “Time To Define Native Advertising,” differentiates sponsored content from native advertising, advertising content, brand content, and content marketing:

  • Native Advertising – Instagram sponsored posts, YouTube in-video shopping ads. Ad units that can only be bought and displayed on one platform.
  • Sponsored Content – Denoted with phrases including, “brought to you by,” “presented by,” or “sponsored by.” Content that is not produced by the brand.
  • Advertising Content – BuzzFeed listicles, Forbes BrandVoice. Advertising in the form of content but not display advertising. Often labeled as sponsored content.
  • Brand Content – Red Bull YouTube channel. Content brands produce on their own and run through their own distribution channels. Brands functioning as publishers.
  • Content Marketing – “The catchall phrase that encompasses all of the above.”

Setting The Record Straight: Defining Sponsored Content

Put simply, sponsored content refers to a form of content marketing in which advertisers pay to publish their material on a publication with the intention of closely resembling that its editorial content. In other words, sponsored content features paid campaigns, promotion, or content consistent with the medium’s normal format (a blog post, Instagram post, YouTube video, etc.) on an external publisher’s site or channel. This puts sponsored content in a different category than advertorials, which often interrupt users’ online experiences through overt and distracting ads.

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In the last 5 years, the adoption of ad blocking software has pushed traditional marketing methods (e.g. display advertising) to the wayside, with the U.S. reaching a 30% ad blocking user penetration rate in 2018. This has made room for other more viable marketing strategies, like influencer marketing. Crafting an influencer marketing strategy allows brands to interact with their audience in a natural, native way.

Related Post: Why Brands Invest In Long-Term Influencer Partnerships

What Is Sponsored Content With Influencers?

In stark contrast to display advertising, influencer marketing (in other words, sponsored content with social media influencers) efficiently solves many of the problems currently faced by brands, publishers, and ad networks:

  • Impervious to ad blocking technology
  • Ability to target exact, specific audiences
  • High engagement with proper brand-influencer integration
  • High visibility via well-trafficked social channels and platforms

Influencer marketing takes the sponsored content model between brands and publishers and inserts top social media influencers as the publisher. Done well, influencer sponsored content is an effective approach to content marketing because it leverages and aligns all the significant advantages of social media influencers (positioning, audience reach, social engagement) with the brand’s marketing objectives. In turn, brands can create custom messaging that resonates and has relevance with influencers’ fans, followers, and subscribers.

With influencer sponsored content, brands can generate engagement and gain exposure without running the risk of ad blocking. Sponsored content is a surefire way to:

  • Market to engaged audiences on emerging channels
  • Disseminate proper brand messaging in a conducive, word-of-mouth manner
  • Avoid the ad blocking problem altogether

Related Post: The Different Types Of Influencer Marketing Campaigns

Sponsored Content Influencer Examples

To better understand what sponsored content is, it helps to see what it looks like in the wild. Here are a few influencer marketing examples or sponsored content with top social media influencers:

Atlantic-Pacific <> Kendra Scott Jewelry

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As seen in this influencer marketing example, advertiser Kendra Scott successfully markets to fashion-savvy consumer audiences on a high-traffic site, Atlantic-Pacific, without needing to circumvent ad blocking software. The sponsored content occurs in the same format as the influencer’s regular, non-sponsored content—a blog post.

Kate Keeps It Movin <> NatureBox

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Here, NatureBox partners with travel influencer, Kate, for a sponsored Instagram post. Similar to the sponsored blog post example above, NatureBox avoids ad blocking tech by partnering with Instagrammers and featuring their brand integrations on the influencer’s channel.

Alexandrea Garza <> ISH

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ISH’s Natural Glow Palette comes to life in YouTuber, Alexandrea Garza’s sponsored video review. As a beauty influencer, Alexandrea’s sponsored content fits naturally within her normal content production and ISH benefits from the seamlessness and authenticity of her review.

Austin Evans <> Castrol VR

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In this YouTube video, Castrol effectively markets to vast new audiences and consumers by partnering with top YouTuber Austin Evans on a behind-the-scenes look at a Castrol-powered virtual reality gaming meets real-world setup. For Castrol, creating sponsored content with social media influencers provided high marketing value and return for engagement, targeting, and branding. See our post on Castrol’s #VirtualDrift campaign here.

Related Post: Spotlight On The Honest Company’s Influencer Strategy

How Audiences Perceive Influencer Sponsored Content

While many top brands utilize influencer marketing, not all consumers find the technique credible. According to a study by Bazaarvoice, more than half of surveyed audiences in Europe feel that influencer sponsored content “takes advantage of impressionable audiences by being too materialistic (55%) and misrepresenting real life (54%).”

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Indeed, poorly conceived and repetitive influencer content can be off-putting to consumers. Consumers in this survey have mixed feelings about the information provided in sponsored content—17% of respondents believed that information in sponsored contributions was objective, while 15% of respondents believed completely that the information was influenced by the company sponsor. These instances, combined with the phenomenon of fake followers, have inspired appeals to clean up the industry. Recently, Unilever’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed called for, “urgent action now to rebuild trust before it’s gone forever.”

Despite the issues that some influencer sponsored content produces, thoughtful and relevant campaigns are more than capable of providing value to audiences. As tastemakers, influencers have the power to effectively drive engagement, generate conversation, and set trends through authentic, useful advice. Influencers act as early adopters of both products or services, so they instill a sense of interest and desire amongst their avid followers. It’s when influencers make irrelevant, insincere, irresponsible, and too frequent recommendations to their followers that influencer fatigue and rebuff can occur.

Recent Data On Influencer Trust & Authenticity

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According to CPC Strategy’s 2018 Influencer Marketing Report, more than 30% of consumers value the trustworthiness of an influencer over the number of followers they have on their channel. When asked what makes an influencer recommendation on social media trustworthy, 28.4% of respondents said the influencer being an expert in the field was sufficient, while 30.5% claimed influencers who actually use the product or service lent more credibility to endorsements. As CPC puts it: “Trust means everything in influencer marketing.”

In another industry poll, influencers were asked how brand guidelines affected the authenticity of their posts. Among respondents, 54% of influencers didn’t feel brand oversight negatively affected the content, while 51% said it had some detrimental effect on post performance, and 64% claimed to resist brand guidelines.

All this in mind, social engagement remains the common thread among successful sponsored content. When sponsored content reaches the masses, it is most vulnerable. To understand how sponsored content resonates with the audiences it reaches, marketers should closely monitor the engagement levels.

Related Post: Influencer Spotlight: Chelsea Kauai Opens Up About Her Brand Partnerships

Why Social Media Engagement Matters For Sponsored Content

Effective social media engagement for sponsored content goes beyond initial video views or total page views. Though it is important to start with these traditional reach metrics when evaluating total potential exposure, effective online marketing goes beyond views, followers, and subscribers, and is even more strongly shaped by the actions taken by the audience upon being exposed to the sponsored content.

Effective social media engagement includes or results in:

  • Likes – Perhaps the most basic form of audience endorsement or approval, the amount of +1s, thumbs up, favorites, or likes is still a solid measure of social media engagement.
  • Sharing Content – The best content is worth sharing; how many retweets, shares, or “re-grams” (sharing on Instagram) does your content generate?
  • Tagging Others – Along with sharing, tagging other users puts the original paid content directly (and now, organically) in front of related audiences/demographics.
  • Commenting – Beyond views or impressions, does the content move and prompt the viewer to leave their personal input?
  • Positive Sentiment – Regarding the nature of comments left, what is the overarching view or attitude?
  • Direct Response – Are audiences clicking through to your website, signing up, or responding to your CTA (call-to-action)?

Does Sponsored Content Work?

In a recent informal study by MMI Agency, the validity and effectiveness of influencer sponsored content were put to the test. Analyzing 814,000 posts from influencers, 7% of which were sponsored, the agency discovered:

  • Both Instagram and YouTube performed well on an engagement basis.
  • The difference in engagement rate between sponsored and non-sponsored Instagram content was negligible.
  • Sponsored YouTube content actually garnered a much higher engagement rate.

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Another interesting finding from the study points to generally more negative sentiment within post comments for sponsored content, with frequent references to “selling out,” “fake,” and the like. Without deeper insights into the actual posts’ content, we can only speculate that these comments arose when influencers were inauthentic.

Overall, the study concludes that while #sponsored content may generate the same engagement and action as a non-sponsored post with the same audience, one thing’s for sure: influencer sponsored content reigns supreme when it’s authentic and natural.

By listening to your audience’s feedback, you gain incredible insights into the overall temperature of sponsored content, which you can apply to future influencer collaborations. Marketers need to capitalize on the wealth of data at their fingertips, as influencers evoke strong emotions, opinions, and actions among their audience. More traditional modes of advertising simply don’t lend themselves as well to understanding the motives behind user actions.

Sponsored Content Delivers High Return On Investment

When compared to traditional forms of paid advertising or marketing, marketing with influencers has proven to yield one of the highest returns on investment (ROI). In fact, one study found that influencer marketing produced on average a yield of $6.50 in earned media value for every paid dollar. For some advertiser categories (retail and CPG), influencer marketing yielded more than $10+ for every dollar spent. On top of reaching untapped audiences to elicit meaningful brand engagement, influencer sponsored content presents one of the best opportunities to generate positive ROI.

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