Should you make the leap into sponsored content?

sponsored content

By Mark Schaefer

The sponsored content wasps are swarming!

Every day I get pitches from companies seeking to pay me to feature their products on my blog, or even pay for entire posts about their products. Not only is the number of requests increasing, the amount of money being offered for these posts is going up too.

This is a trend I predicted in the 2012 book Return On Influence. As the effectiveness of “traditional” advertising channels dries up, marketers will seek to “borrow” the large and loyal audiences of bloggers and other content creators.

This movement has exploded so fast in the past 12 months, one journalist asked me last week if it needed to be regulated. She pointed out the number of young YouTube stars who are being paid to peddle everything from candy bars to backpacks withot disclosing that this is paid advertsing.

The case for sponsored content

I have never featured a paid product pitch in a blog post but many other bloggers are. I wonder — Is this an important and legitimate way to generate income for a blogger who has been delivering free content for years, or is it a distraction that will breach the trust of our loyal readers?

Last week I posed this question on Facebook and received some pretty interesting responses. I asked the crew if I could publish some of the responses on {grow} and everyone was OK with it. I did some minor editing to make them blog-worthy.

So here we go …

Would you accept paid sponsored posts on your blog?

Alan Brocious  If people pay you to publish content, then you can no longer say that you give your content away. That’s a strong selling point and trust factor, more about your brand long term.

Aseem Jibran  I believe if you’ve used a product/service and you believe it offers what it claims and is decent enough then, there is no harm endorsing it [and getting paid of course].

Ana Silva O’Reilly  I say no 99% of time and only say yes to brands that I love and who respect me and actually trust me to tell their story in my own way. A good example is American Express. Most respectful brand I have worked with. I have been with them for almost 20 years and am a true brand advocate – and they know it and value my supposed influence. 

Gettysburg Gerry  This is a personal decision. Unfortunately there are those that consider any form of compensation a “sellout.” I don’t feel anybody has the right to dictate someone’s use of their digital property.

Gini Dietrich  We are considering it (on Spin Sucks blog) IF the content fits our normal editorial. We haven’t signed one yet because no one is willing to have the content be helpful and not an ad (yet).

Brad Lovett  What did (radio news celebrity) Paul Harvey do his entire career? He built trust and did live advertising reads throughout the radio broadcast in a very believable way. But he never took on a client he did not personally believe in. If there was a way to duplicate that, I think it could work.

Donna Moritz  This has become a massive industry involving lifestyle, food, travel and fashion bloggers here in Australia. They are being paid thousands of $$$ for each post and the price keeps going up because they all have massive audiences. It’s not for me and doesn’t suit my blog, but brands are definitely willing to pay to be put in front of relevant eyeballs.

Randy Bowden  Mark certainly you are a standout when it comes to your blog following because your platform has always been based on free expression and new ideas. Once you begin to pitch an xyz (inside content as opposed to banner or button) then you lose the quality that you have invested in. You become a pawn to the money. As a reader and as a student of journalism, trust is the key to my confidence. That is the difference between a thought leader and just another person writing an advertisement. 

Frithjof Petscheleit  For some reason I can only remember blogs that went downhill after deciding to allow sponsored content. Sorry with all due respect to all friends involved, that includes Steamfeed.

DJ Thistle Frithjof, no worries. We accept sponsored content (on Steamfeed) but completely on our terms and the content is clearly labeled for our readers. We deny a lot of the content that comes in. We only publish it if it’s a win-win-win. A win for our readers, a win for us financially, and a win for the sponsor in terms of value.

Jon Loomer  I see such an opportunity as a bridge. If I didn’t have my own product and I was scraping to get by, it makes sense. Now? No dollar figure would make sense.

Mark Schaefer  Good point. I think one of the ways to stand out in this information dense world is radical honesty. Crossing that line and introducing paid product placements in the editorial portion of the blog is a serious decision far beyond the money, even if I love the product.

Arik Hanson  Why wouldn’t you consider it? I mean, if it’s relevant to your readers and what you blog about, why does it have to be an ad (or perceived as “selling out”)?

Chris Brogan  I’m all for it, when the product matches the interests of the community I serve. I took my first sponsored post back in 2009 and was written up as the Devil. Evidently that word means “did it years before everyone else decided it was okay.”

Mark Schaefer  Many aspects of blogging we take for granted were first pioneered by you, Chirs, so we are all really in your debt. While I appreciate your guts and innovation, speaking for myself, the sponsored posts on your site have been a turn-off because when I read a post I have to figure out if it is you or a sponsor, If it is a sponsor (like a paper shredder), it stops me in my tracks and that is the end. I’m sure other people react differently but I can’t totally trust what content is real on your blog any more (even though you do a great job with disclosures) and I don’t visit as much as I used to. I have worked so hard to build trust … I am afraid to cross the line and jeopardize that intimate connection.

Chris Brogan  Thanks! But also, every single sponsored post I’ve done has the words “sponsored post” in the title and the entire first paragraph explains that it’s a sponsor. I write myself without any approval from them.

Del Williams  The thing falls off the rails when people can be bought, because they NEED the money. Nothing causes compromise as quickly as desperation. And the “I never would” crowd have not had that particular issue. I have heard stories from PR people where some bloggers try to threaten their way to freebies and money with threats to destroy those who say no by writing against them on their blog or social network. This bad behavior is even more common than the sponsored post.

Matt Ridings Here’s my issue. I love Avis Car Rental, If they had approached me prior to the recent incredible debacle I had, I’d have told anyone in the world (and have privately) that I use them, I recommend them, and that my experience has been far and away better than Enterprise and Hertz. So let’s say I write that post … and then the debacle happens. Can I edit that post and say anything about it? Can I delete it? Can I write a new one? And unless that original post is changed, most people land on a blog post, read it, and walk away … so I’m effectively still promoting them as if nothing ever happened. How does that work?

Rhonda Hurwitz  In the past month clients spontaneously told me they appreciate my integrity. It surprised me … but also made me think. Is integrity so rare that people find it remarkable?

Let’s continue the dialogue. What do you think?

Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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  • It feels to me like many of the arguments in favour of sponsored posts – essentially native advertising – are really arguments in favour of affiliate marketing. If you’ve used a product or service and feel that it would benefit your audience, affiliate marketing is (in my opinion) the most ethical way to promote it to your audience. You’re being entirely up-front about the fact that you’re promoting something, and you’re clearly giving your personal opinion.

    To my mind, sponsored posts move closer to the unethical side of affiliate marketing – promoting stuff you’ve never used in order to make a few bucks. Obviously that’s not always the case, but I think the native marketing paradigm makes it easier to be unethical. For a start, with affiliate marketing it’s always going to be easier to write a convincing pitch if you’ve used and enjoyed the product – You can’t always say the same of sponsored posts, because they’re less obviously ‘about’ the product.

    Ultimately I think this comes down to the method of payment – affiliate marketing only pays off if you’re able to sell the product to your audience, and you’ll probably only do that if it’s a good fit for them. With sponsored posts you’re offered money up front just to write (or sometimes just to publish) the post, and I think that opens the door dangerously to unethical practice.

    Apologies if this came across as a bit of a rant.

    ~ Pete.

  • Not a rant at all. Thanks for this very thoughtful piece.

    Let me take the other side of this though.

    You are taking the leap into either of these scenarios because you need or want the money. It seems like depending on the unlikelihood of affiliate sales would make you a little more aggressive and/or desperate in your writing to shill products. If you are paid to simply mention a product, your writing might be more user-friendly and honest.

    A thought any way. Thanks!

  • Chuck Kent

    Sponsored = advertising. Label it clearly (which much, if not most, of it seems not to be) and there’s no ethical issue. There is, however, a trust and interest issue as I, too, am immediately turned off by any post that’s not written by the author I came to read, or an article published in the guise of journalism that fails to clearly disclose that it is an ad (the term “native” in front of “advertising” is one of the lamest of marketing obfuscations).

  • I skip almost all sponsored posts I see. I’ll be honest. I’m all for bloggers generating income and supporting themselves via their blogs, and I wish them the best. But the second I see something tagged as sponsored content, the first word that comes in my mind is “selling”. This post will try to sell me something. So I don’t want to open it because the second I’m told that I am being sold to, I don’t want to buy it.

    Perhaps the problem here is that we need to come up with another “term” for sponsored content, something that doesn’t sound so salesy. Partner Content? Perhaps something like that would be a little more useful and wouldn’t drive people away.

    But then again, I speak for myself. I have never asked for sponsored content on any blog, and neither have I accepted any.

  • Agreed. An ad is an ad, native or otherwise. For me, native is a synonym fo r”sneaky” in this case : )

  • Let me ask you a question that is a nuance on this Avtar.

    Many blogging best practices include the advice that every blog post should have a “call to action.” I have not done that typically because again I think it smells of “selling.”

    Does that advice fit into your description here? How would you feel if at the end of this blog post I said, “want to learn more about this issue? Why not buy my book Born to Blog?’

    When I look at other blogs, they are so filled with hype and selling and I wonder where the line is for most readers? My over-arching goal is to build trust with readers that will eventually convert to business benefits but I wonder if I need to sell at least a little more.

  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    I always ask myself, “What would Seth Godin do?”

  • Hi Mark,

    That’s a good point – I suppose the financial incentive is inherently going to lead to misuse of both native advertising and affiliate sales. I’ve certainly seen examples of affiliate marketing that was clearly unethical, as well as cases of native advertising that I can’t object to on moral grounds (charities, for example).

    Perhaps my bias against sponsored posts comes from a general feeling of unease – it seems to me that there is something dodgy about the business model. A sponsored post might contain useful information that benefits the reader, and which causes a link in their mind between that useful content and the company that paid to be associated with it – even if they don’t deserve that association. I guess if we were feeling cynical we could argue the same of content marketing, but at least in that case the beneficiary is the actual provider of the content, as well as the person/organisation responsible for building the audience.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to liken native advertising to subliminal advertising – though I’m certain some people will – but perhaps I could draw a comparison to the selling of unhealthy products by associating them with positive emotions.

    Again, I believe that there are legitimate ways to use native advertising, I just think that there is a greater potential for it to be used in an unethical manner.

  • All good points. I particularly like that word “unease.” I think that sums it up, doesn’t it? Readers probably do not enjoy it or seek out sponsored posts. It does create unease, and also some risk. Well said.

  • Seth is certainly a person to be admired but also has an elite celebrity and financial status. I’m not sure how oftent I relate to his approach : )

  • Mark, the call to action needn’t be “Buy This” but could just as easily be “Hey, you guys have lot’s of experience with this topic, please provide your insights”. Getting feedback could be the most valuable part of the sponsor’s ROI in asking you to do this in the first place. If all the advertiser wanted to do was to have you tell their story to your community, that’s advertising.

    I really like Avtar’s comment. It speaks to the absolute issue IMO. What is the post really? If it is advertising, then they should buy ad space on the site. If it is a “Review” then call it out and treat it appropriately. The key will be ensuring the right mix of content is on the site to keep readers interested.

    What is the right mix? IMO all people need to do is honestly think about other blogs they pay attention to. I know folks like Mitch Joel caution against basing decisions on “The market of one” but in the case if feel this is relevant. Personally, there are lots of once influential bloggers I used to pay attention to but no longer even read anything they say as they are always trying to sell me something (even if it is their own stuff) so I don’t trust their intentions.

    What you are calling out here is really the core to effectively leveraging one of the core business values of social media.

  • Frederic Gonzalo

    Very good topic. I have also been approached a few times in the past couple of months, and have noticed the increase lately. I haven’t accepted yet, since I share your concerns and most voiced by your readers, in particular with regards to credibility and trust.

    Is is really a blogger best practice to always include a call-to-action? I don’t think so. I believe it depends on the nature of your blog, really. I don’t see a call-to-action on most blog posts here on Grow, nor on Jon Loomer’s blog, and that has also been my approach. I don’t see a call-to-action in most travel blogger sites either.

    By doing so, I believe it makes it even more powerful if and when I do decide to include a call-to-action, like I did a couple of months ago when launching a webinar series (in French). Needless to say, the audience was receptive because I don’t “sell” usually, and they knew I always give away information and share my expertise, have been doing for over 3 years, and keep doing so on a consistent basis.

    If I start accepting sponsored posts, I fear I will break this relationship. Thankfully, I can afford to say no, and I will resist the temptation as long as my business model remains vigorous.

  • I’ve worked on PR plans where one of the suggested strategies was to reach out for “influencer” endorsement. I didn’t say we shouldn’t do it – however, I recommended that we, as a team, should really think about what we’re offering in return… if it is just money, then an authentic partnership it wouldn’t be.

  • Man it has been a long time since I have been able to read Mark’s awesome blog and comment on it. It’s good to be back.

    I’m in the group of “If it works for you and your followers, good for it.” I run a podcast where we cover geeky industry news. We have a small but loyal following. If we happen to grow to the point where a company that I love and support offered to advertise through our podcast, I think I would jump on it if it fit.

    I think people may be a little quick to judge when someone decides to do a sponsored post. I say to each their own. I think I find great things from both types of bloggers. Those that get money from sponsors and those that do not.

    You could look at it as getting information from two different sources. You read both and then decide which one you agree with more.

    I like both types of bloggers, but if someone offered me money and it fit
    with my show, I supported it and it was something I know my followers would love. Then for sure I would take the money and enjoy it too.

    Thanks Mark, it’s good to be back.

  • An interesting take on it Steve. I always interpreted it to mean something more commercially-oriented.

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom and your view today Frederic!

  • This is a really hot topic area too Jason. I am on the receiving end of this outreach and 99% of the time it is done wrong. I am not here to shill for people I never heard of before : )

    Why don’t people understand that?

  • Great to have you back sir, You were missed!

    I agree with this perspective too. There are no rules and if something does not work for me, it does not mean it won’t work for others!

  • Agreed, I look forward to reading more great posts.

  • Yeah it can be a good idea if the fit is right, but 99% of the time it is dropped in as a tactic without given the proper thought and rarely offers authenticity.

  • I don’t have a problem with labeled sponsored content. It is up to the reader to determine whether they wish to read or skip it. I understand our time is worth something so I don’t fault people for trying to be compensated for it.

  • Some years ago I remember someone saying that every company would need to learn to be a media company. This is the simple truth of it all. Because everyone can be a publisher (because of social media blah blah) everyone (potentially) has a publisher’s opportunity to accept advertising.

    For years, publishers have understood that advertising is entirely legitimate, but you run the risk of losing credibility and therefore readership. Same thing for bloggers. They are self-made digital publishers, that’s all. The only difference is that there used to be a few hundred publishers. There are now a few million. Plus ca change…

    To your point Mark – “radical honesty” would have set a traditional magazine apart from the others on the newsstand. Stands to reason that this would be a stand-out characteristic in the modern publishing environment too – and one I would applaud out of principle.

  • Glad you are seeing this too.

  • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment Josh. Always an honor to have you stop by!

  • You bring up some really interesting points here John.

    First, I do agree that there is a parallel if the sponsored content is clearly marked as an ad. Often it is not (maybe MOST of the time?) and it is not really regulated any way.

    But there is another point that is more subtle. We are used to seeing ads on TV and in magazines. We are no accustomed to seeing ads in blogs. Is there something else going on here where a blog is less of a blog because it no longer meets public expectations of what a blog should be?

    I don’t know but I think there is something there.

    Always makes me smile to see my great friend show up on {grow}! Thank you!

  • @mrsoaroundworld

    Amen and agree!

  • @mrsoaroundworld

    Or recommend yourself as one of your favourite authors 😉

  • I think Matt hit the nail on the head: What happens when you no longer can (or want to) stand by your sponsor?

    I’m with Avtar on this: I rarely read sponsored posts. Occasionally, if the product / service is of interest, or if it’s by someone who ALMOST NEVER otherwise does it.

    For me, it’s a question of my reputation. I don’t want clients or prospects to think I’m hawking products, any more than I want them to wonder if I am recommending a vendor because I’m getting a kickback. When you get paid to play, that question is always out there in some way.

    That said, I suspect none of us is totally “pure.” I certainly review books I’ve received for free and written about conferences I’ve been comped into. (And always disclose.) This is a tough topic and I suspect our mileage will vary.

  • I don’t have an issue with sponsored content so long as it’s clearly labelled as such Mark.

    I have accepted a couple of sponsored posts but I’m always careful to make sure they’re about things that are in context and relevant to my readership. I won’t accept them if the advertiser doesn’t give me full control over the content and especially if I haven’t used the thing I’m writing about myself.

    I also clearly mark any sponsored post and nofollow all links. The Advertising Standards Authority over here in the UK have sponsored content on their radar so I wouldn’t want to put a foot wrong.

    I wouldn’t want to overdo it though with sponsored content. They’re okay every once in a while but as you’ve proved from some of the comments below, it can also turn readers off.

  • Ha!! Inside joke! : )

  • Such a pleasure to see you in the comment section Daria. Thanks for contributing today!

  • Thanks for what is essentially a dissenting view on this one Tim but a very legitimate perspective.

  • I come from a place where no one would probably pay me to sponsor anything. Sadly, they won’t even pay me NOT to sponsor anything. LOL I’m just an ordinary blogger, but here’s my thoughts, for the .02 they are worth. For the most part, someone is basically saying, “I like this and you might, too.” Then I decide to a) try it for myself or b) not try it for myself. If I try it, I decide if I a) agree, or b) don’t. But I don’t think less of someone because I don’t agree with them. I just think, “I had a different experience.” And then life goes on…(and I’d still like and trust you, Mark.)

  • I think CTAs at the end of a blog post come in many shapes, size, colors and textures, Mark. I think you can ask for feedback and/or further the discussion without looking like you’re only interested in making the sale.

    Great discussion in the article itself and here in the comments!

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  • Let’s face it, most of us hate sponsored native content and invasive ads. Mostly because it tends to be garbage. The problem is, most of us aren’t willing to pay for the content we read. I’m guilty of that myself. So, if people aren’t going to pay to access content, then publishers have to find a way to monetize and one of those avenues is sponsored content. The key is to keep sponsored content relevant and make sure it provides value to your readers.

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  • Ha! Thanks for the great commenbt Pauline!

  • Very logical perspective sir. Thanks for the contribution!

  • Of course. Great post as always!

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  • @businessesgrow:disqus, I think it would vary from person to person. But I think that the plug at the end of an informative blog post is not a bad thing at all. Here’s how I think about it.

    1. You read 700 words that I’ve just put down and therefore you’ve now reached the end of the article.
    2. You obviously finished the article and read up to here because you enjoyed what was being said and you thought it was worth your time.
    3. Since you think my thoughts are worth your time – here’s a whitepaper, or here’s a link to my services – get in touch with me.

    That makes sense.

    Specifically for your blog, since there’s so much valuable advice given to readers throughout in most posts, I don’t think anyone would mind a link to one of your works at the bottom. Again – this is also because it’s YOUR OWN, and not a sponsor’s as well. 🙂

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  • The fine line is disclosure. If I find out I was itched and it wasn;t disclosed I will go out of my way to hammer that brand. A great example is Samsung. When Ellen did the Oscar selfie it was like cool…impromptu event. But when it turned out David Ortiz also did that with the President and then it turned out both were set up paid events from Samsung I now hate David Ortiz Ellen and Samsung. I have tweeted many times thrashing them for being sleazy. I am due for an upgrade for my phone. I was a long time Motorola Android user. But the phones always physically broke easily. I went through 4 RAZRs in 14 months. So I gave Apple a try. And I hate the OS. It is horrible software but the phone physically is better (longer battery life, faster photo taking etc). So what do I do? I was going to get a Samsung Galaxy 5S now I am not just because I felt deceived by the brand. And seriously I like Ellen as a pioneer for LGBT and women….it kills me that I have to hate on her for awhile.

    Also the credibility of the person is huge. Some of the folks you have quoted I personally don’t find credible (more than one but less than four! LOL). Fame does not equal smarts or having game (see Justin Bieber).

    The problem is the Brands know if the disclosure is robust it reduces the effectiveness of the ad. So what do you do? When we know it is an ad we feel different.

    Now going to traditional advertising I disagree. I think it is more powerful than ever because Social has been mostly a flop. TV still rules and if you look at the definition of a native ad….TV commercials are native ads. There you go.

    Great discussion Mark!

  • On the Ellen thing, how could she have handled that differently and not ruined the flow and fun of the moment? What is the difference between that and a product placement like PR firms have been doing for years on TV shows and movies?

    I don’t think TV commercials are native ads, at least by the definitions I have seen. A native ad is something embedded in the “copy.” So if the character of CSI talked about going down to Target to catch a sale, that would be native advertising as I understand it.

    I certainly agree with you on TV advertising being powerful but it is also in decline in terms of opportunity. With the exception of news and sports events, none of the TV I watch (House of Cards, for example) have ads. I haven’t seen an ad in a TV program in two years because I watch almost everything through Netflix.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking comment Howie.

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