You plop down with your morning coffee to scroll through The New York Times and The Economist. Then, you gear up for a run and launch a new podcast that was served up based on your listening habits. Two hours later, you fire up your laptop to begin the workday by scanning a few daily newsletters you’ve opted to receive, maybe because they offer content targeted to your industry or your role. You briefly head to LinkedIn to check out the latest job postings—because why not?
Chances are, by the time you’ve finished this morning ritual, you’ve encountered quite a few examples of sponsored content or, as it’s known within media circles, native advertising. You may even have come across a compelling article published by a competitor in a major daily and wondered—why aren’t we doing that?
Prior to joining Leff, I worked for more than eight years at Deloitte, which placed big bets on sponsored content. When I left Deloitte in 2020, I was overseeing an editorial team that was dedicated to publishing content every weekday on each of four sponsored modules on WSJ.com. That was a lot of content! Deloitte also published sponsored content on Fortune, Wired, and other destinations popular with its clients.
Sponsored content typically refers to published material that accompanies a media outlet’s own editorial content on the page and is contextually relevant. It’s intended to engage and inform the audience—ultimately but not overtly with a commercial purpose—by using a range of storytelling formats, including interviews, columns, and case studies. Sponsored content is nothing new; I recall reading long-form sponsored content in The New York Times Magazine back in the 1980s, but it goes back decades before that. Nowadays, it has expanded well beyond print to include video, data visualization, and even podcasts.
Many savvy B2B marketers—in such diverse industries as tech, executive search, healthcare, financial services, and management consulting—now include sponsored content in their paid media mix alongside, for example, social media advertising, search engine marketing, and banner ads. According to annual surveys by the Content Marketing Institute, the number of B2B marketers who rely on native advertising has remained steady at roughly 30 percent for each of the past three years. Costs for sponsored content placements vary widely depending on details such as the publication, the amount of “real estate” the placements occupy on the page, their frequency, and the number and types of visitors. By analogy, the cost can range from, say, a one-night Airbnb room rental in Cleveland to a two-year lease on a four-bedroom condo in Santa Monica.
Sponsored content offers a distinct value proposition compared with other paid marketing channels and owned and earned media:
• For down-the-funnel activities: B2B marketers often are tasked with communicating information that is too abstract, detailed, or complex to capture in banner ads or social posts—and they are typically addressing a sophisticated buyer who’s primed to receive their messages. Whereas other paid channels may be useful in raising brand awareness, sponsored content is more suitable for down-the-funnel activities like educating an audience, building credibility, burnishing the company’s reputation, or even—in some circumstances—deepening customer engagement.
• For reaching a wider audience: Sponsored content complements content published on a company’s own channels by extending the marketing reach to an additional, potentially large and targeted, audience. Since media organizations collect at least some basic demographic data—and often much more—on their subscribers, this audience is a known quantity, so marketers can make informed decisions about where to invest their sponsored content dollars.
• For greater control of the message: Unlike earned media, sponsored content allows a company to fully control the messaging. Media outlets take great pains to ensure their editorial operations steer clear of any involvement in developing such content, and that’s why it is prominently labeled as “paid” or “content from our sponsor.” Importantly, this desire for separation applies equally to the content sponsors, who have their own commercial and regulatory interests to protect.
To be sure, adding sponsored content to your marketing arsenal requires a strategy and planning, especially if it’s more than a one-time placement. Plenty of sponsored content published today misses the mark. One of the biggest mistakes companies make is to simply republish content created for another channel—and perhaps an adjacent audience—rather than developing bespoke content specifically targeted to the sponsored content site. That can happen when the company underestimates the attention and resources it takes to publish the high-quality content that’s needed to keep the audience engaged, impressed, and coming back for more.