Learning From the Substitute: Why Trust is the Key to Native Advertising

This is a lightly edited version of a story that originally appeared on

Sponsored content has been a reliable target for the navel-gazing media for years, and a pair of recent studies have provided some fresh cannon fodder. The studies (one by Contently, the other by Edelman Berland/IAB) have cast some doubt on the effectiveness of sponsored stories, showing that readers tend to take a skeptical view of branded content, especially the kind that appears on publisher sites.

Most media-watchers have pointed out that the results of these surveys are bad news for a media industry that’s increasingly counting on sponsored content to replace lost revenue—and supposedly bad news for companies who’ve built their businesses on helping brands create editorial content.

But I think the results of these studies actually reveal an opportunity—not only for content marketing shops, but also for brands and publishers.

Many media and marketing people assume “sponsored content” is just any story with a brand’s name on it, but that’s wrong. Lumping everything a brand publishes under the umbrella of sponsored content ignores the fact that there’s a huge distinction in readers’ minds between paid media (content that appears on a publisher’s site, like BuzzFeed), and owned media (content that appears on brands’ own properties, like Amex OPEN Forum or Coca-Cola Journey). In a rush to judgment on branded content, many people in our industry miss the point: Readers trust “earned media” whether it comes from a brand or not, but they’re suspicious of “paid media” no matter whose name is on it.

Contently works with a lot of brands and publishers on the paid media side of branded content, but the lion’s share of our business (and where we see the future of the industry) is brands owning their own content and only paying to promote it on publishers’ sites as part of a larger media strategy.

Here’s an analogy: Owned and paid media are kind of like a great teacher and a substitute. You see a great teacher every day, and most days you learn something new and useful from them. You build up trust with this teacher over time, you listen to what they have to say, and with the best teachers, the relationship continues even after you’ve left the class. That’s the kind of relationship brand publishers can create with owned media.

A substitute (a sponsored story), on the other hand, doesn’t have that built-up trust, and anything they say is naturally going to be viewed with a little more skepticism. Here’s the thing, though: Sometimes the substitute is like Jon Lovitz in High School High—bringing a new perspective, fresh information, and kinetic energy to a classroom. Sponsored content—when done right—can bring those things to an audience in the same way.

One could make (and many have made) the case that brands communicating directly with their own audience is bad news for publishers who depend on being the audience gatekeepers. I don’t buy that.

For one, building an audience is hard. And more importantly, even a brand with their own audience will want to reach other audiences with their message. Whether they use sponsored stories, paid distribution, or social advertising to get there is dependent on the circumstances—but the need to reach additional eyeballs efficiently and effectively is constant.

Case in point: here at Contently, we have a huge audience for our industry pub, The Content Strategist. And yet we still pay through the nose to place sponsored content on publisher sites like Adweek. Why would we do that when we could put it in front of our own audience for free? Simple: Adweek readers are people we want to reach.

As the Edelman Berland/IAB study notes, sponsored content is only effective if both the brand and publisher work together to make sure the reader is getting something valuable. That means no sales pitches, extra transparency, and, above all, a focus on quality storytelling. When brands pay to put content elsewhere, they need to be sure the publisher will work with them to make the sponsored content on their site great. And publishers need to push back against brands intent on promoting schlock.

Despite some misgivings from readers, sponsored content is and will continue to be incredibly valuable to all sides of the media ecosystem—brands, publishers, and readers—but only if it’s done thoughtfully.

No one wins if the substitute sucks.


Image by Sam Slaughter

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