How startups can fully reap the rewards of sponsored content

November 1, 2018


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While many people believe that having an article labeled as “sponsored,” would deter any reader from clicking, the reality is that most readers prefer the transparency and are more likely to engage with the content.

This story is brought you by ESPACIO, the parent company of The Sociable.

Studies about the New York Times — one of the forerunners in high quality, clearly marked sponsored content — show that readers spend just as much time on sponsored content than any other content.

In fact the “Women Inmates” sponsored feature was among the top 1.47% published articles that generated the most traffic at

Over the last few years, some of the worlds biggest publications like Forbes have started offering “BrandVoice” services, and more and more content is being published with tags such as “sponsored by,” “brought to you by,” or something similar.

While there might be many ways for them to avoid using the word ADVERTISEMENT, that is effectively what these articles are; however, they are a new type of advertising known as “native content” — advertising which is designed to copy the style, and content of the medium where it is being posted.

startups sponsored content

Craig Corbett

“People are surrounded by advertising all day every day. They are no stranger to it. They would rather have brands be open about the fact they are advertising, rather than trying to be sneaky,” ESPACIO media incubator Principal Craig Corbett tells The Sociable.

“The fact is that 70% of consumers say they prefer learning about brands and products through high quality content, than more obtrusive traditional ads,” he added.

I spoke with Corbett to see if I could extract from him some common myths and misconceptions surrounding sponsored articles, and how startups can plan, organize, and maximize their Return on Investment (ROI).

Earned, Owned and Paid Content

Corbett spoke of the changing media landscape and the little-known differences between Earned, Owned, and Paid content.

“Ten years ago startups could focus on one or the other, but now the ecosystem is so crowded that startups need to focus on some element of all three at once,” he said.

Earned media, he says, is through traditional PR or the hard work and dedication of a startup team member who actually has enough time to pitch their story to the media and is successful. These articles are the results that are the hardest to obtain, but can land on Tier 1 media publications like TechCrunch, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal, and thus gain access to their huge readership and social media followers.

“Traditional PR and earned media is still the best and will offer the best results, but they have to have an amazing story, and also be patient enough to wait up to six monhts for results, and still nothing is guarenteed.”

Owned content refers to publishing content on platforms that startups can freely publish on. These include publishing on their own company blogs, newsletters, and social media profiles.

The problem with owned content is that it will mostly be only viewed by people who are already following your company. If you are looking to attract new users, clients, partners, or readers, owned content doesn’t carry a lot of clout.

You are probably already familiar with paid content. You should be as paid content can come in the form of straight-up advertising through banners or the annoying pop-ups, but in recent years, paid content has taken on a new form in sponsored posts.

“Sponsoring content offers brands the unique chance to tell their own story”

The media landscape is struggling to find a business model that works, and for that, news publications all over the world are looking to monetize in creative ways. This includes sponsored content.

The reason for the rise in paid content, according to Corbett, is that “advertising is less effective now, and social media platforms keep changing their algorithms, so brands become less visible and less effective in the process. Also, consumers turning against more obtrusive ads like pop-ups, autostart videos, etc.”

For startups, paid content offers many benefits, but above everything, the content has to be engaging to the reader. If your headline only says how great your startup is and that people should buy what you are offering, readers will automatically be turned away.

Which Types of Paid Content Are Most Engaging?

How startups can fully reap the rewards of sponsored content

First of all, having an article labeled as sponsored “lets the reader know that you’re not trying to pull the wool over their eyes,” according to Corbett. Rather than use shady tactics in trying to conceal that a post is sponsored, labelling it as such offers transparency to the reader and makes your post more trustworthy.

The Super Bowl not only caters to die-hard football fans, but viewers continue to be glued to the screens just watch the creative ads, which they know are ads, but because of the ingenuity, quality, and often-times humorous characteristics of the ads, they remain utterly engaged.

A sponsored post should have the following:

  • Labeled as sponsored.
  • Not be overly promotional or include ego-stroking.
  • Be engaging with a definite takeaway.
  • Contain advice, insights, perspectives, or solutions to specific issues.

The internet is crowded with low-level articles that are chocked-full of SEO buzzwords but offer no substance and to try to disguise an advert for your startup among the slew of link-farm-raised junk is no way to get your startup noticed.

Instead, what you need to give readers is something that they can engage with. Paid content allows you to be more “promotional” with your startup, but at the same time, you don’t want to be overly promotional just because you’re paying for it.

With paid content your focus should be on how you can maximize value to the reader. This means providing thoughtful insights, industry advice, and solid takeaways that will be so engaging that the reader will look to you as a thought leader in your space. What you want is for the reader to go through the entire article, and after being blown away by your expertise, they will want to click on your company link in the bio to find out more.

Not only will you be getting your company name out there, you will be adding to your social proof. Any person can create a website and go on LinkedIn and declare themselves the CEO, but they will have zero credibility. A well-written and well-placed sponsored post can help take care of that.

How Startups Can Leverage Sponsored Content

“Sponsoring content offers brands the unique chance to tell their own story. Brands have a lot more control over storytelling when they are holding the pen,” according to Corbett.

“In traditional ‘earned’ media which generally comes from traditional PR, or doing something cool enough that the press takes notice of you, brands have zero control of how the story is told about them. The review could be negative or misconstrue their big mission, aims, etc. This is not the case with sponsored content.”

Sponsored content also allows brands to choose exactly where their content is published, to reach their target audiences, and when, which is impossible with normal earned media, as processes can take a long time.

Let’s say that you have landed media coverage, either earned, owned, or paid. What happens next? You must be proactive.

“The more effort you put into the aftermath, the better the chances of maximizing its effectiveness,” said Corbett, who advises not only sharing the article on social media for the network effect, but to share it across your blog, your newsletters, sites like Hacker News and reddit, and other like-minded communities.

Many startups aim high when looking for sponsored content, wanting only the top tier publications or nothing all. The truth is that these can run in the thousands of dollars, and bootstrapped startup will not be able to afford them, but if you have the budget, hey! by all means, go for it.

TechCrunch doesn’t accept sponsored content, but for Forbes Voice, the minimum investment is $100K. Many leading platforms like Pressboard, and leading publications like Inc and The Huffington Post will still cost you around $10-25K per post.

What many founders don’t realize is that by having a sponsored post placed in a smaller publication that caters more to their industry, the ROI can greatly increase. If you are a marketing company, getting on Forbes is great for social proof, and it may even drive people to your site, but if you are looking to attract potential clients, being featured on a MarTech publication may be a better bet because it is the exact audience that you are looking for.

“So, for startups it’s important to be realistic, and instead they should find up-and-coming publications which are in their budget, but also allow them to reach their target audiences. These can still have hundreds of thousands of viewers, but also could be syndicated on bigger publications,” said Corbett.


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