What Ad Buyers Still Don’t Get About Sponsored Content

By Aaron Taube February 16th, 2015

BuzzFeed, valued at $850 million this past August, has invested heavily in sponsored content. Yet as a recent story from The Wall Street Journal reveals, advertisers still aren’t sure what they’re getting out of the new media giant’s primary source of revenue.

While virtually every major digital media property seems to have a branded content studio these days, none has pinned as much of its success on native advertising as BuzzFeed, which does not run traditional display ads on its site.

As such, you would have to think the company’s financial stakeholders were displeased to read that, according to one major ad buyer, only 15 percent of clients who syndicated sponsored content on BuzzFeed in 2013 returned for 2014.

From the sound of things, brands have been hesitant to return to BuzzFeed because they have not yet been able to directly link sponsored stories to product sales—a line of thinking that fundamentally misunderstands the role content marketing plays in a company’s long-term success.

As DigitasLBi’s chief investment officer, Adam Shlachter, put it to The Wall Street Journal, “Social lift and buzz is great, but I have to know if that means I will sell more toothpaste.”

While yes, the ultimate goal of any kind of marketing is to make more money, it is extremely rare that a single piece of content will lead directly to sale. Rather, content marketing is about building a long-term relationship with customers so that the next time they are in the store looking for toothpaste, your brand will be one they recognize and trust.

Moz’s Rand Fishkin smartly illustrated this point in a slideshow on some of the myths surrounding content marketing.

Here’s how some ad buyers imagine content marketing will immediately lead to sales:

While that dream scenario would certainly be nice, Fishkin points out that content marketing takes a little longer to work its magic:

It’s understandable that marketers want to be able to link their ad spend to sales, but sometimes even trying to measure the conversion rate of sponsored content can backfire.

Contently’s e-book “The New World of Content Measurement” lays out the tension between quick sales and more sophisticated content marketing approaches well. Optimizing content for direct sales might create a few conversions, but those sales will likely be canceled out if you’ve created a large group of people who will never buy your brand again after being turned off by an over-the-top sales pitch.

A more effective way of building a relationship with consumers is to focus on creating engaging content that people will want to read all the way through—and then come back for more.

This isn’t to say that BuzzFeed’s sponsored content offering is a perfect product. In fact, it’s unfair to place the blame entirely at ad buyers’ feet. Much of the onus is on publishers to prove their value. Like marketers, studios have to present their content’s effectiveness with the right kind of data—pageviews and clicks aren’t going to be enough to demonstrate a native ad’s impact for a brand.

The Wall Street Journal also reports that each campaign at BuzzFeed costs at least $100,000. At that price, brands might be better off driving people to owned brand publications like General Electric’s GE Reports or Dell’s Tech Page One.

Contently’s research shows that readers trust stories on brand-owned websites nearly as much as they do sponsored stories on news sites.

And while sponsored content on BuzzFeed gives brands immediate access to a large audience on a mainstream site, there’s no guarantee that readers will find the next post a brand sponsors on the site.

By comparison, a branded channel provides consumers with a destination they can return to, as well as giving brands the opportunity to create additional touch-points when readers consent to sharing their email addresses or choose to follow the brand on social media.

Regardless of whether you choose to publish your brand’s content yourself or with a third-party media outlet, it’s important to make sure you’re measuring it the right way.

Otherwise, you’re just another caveman marketer waiting impatiently for clicks to immediately turn into sales. Ad buyers and studios have to realize that the process will never be as simple as “Them click, them buy.”

Image by Ostill/Shutterstock
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