Blogging and Sponsored Posts
Making sense of the world of sponsored content for bloggers and small business ownersI've been having some interesting conversations around sponsored posts from both sides of the fence, as a business owner and as an editor and it has got me thinking about what's involved in sponsored posts, how can the work and how can they fail and do harm?

I come from a journalism background that understands that there are a whole range of stories and publications can't survive without funding, and in the real world, that funding comes from advertising. 

How a publication survives is often based on how successfully it manages the balance between content for the readers and bringing in enough income to stay in the black.

We've all seen what it's like when a publication gets it wrong and has way too much advertising and we're turned off in an instant. 

Personally I don't like being bombarded with advertisements left right and centre, especially animated gifs that move constantly and distract the eye from reading the content. I've kept them to a minimum on my site on purpose because I think that's important for my readers.

Each publication needs to determine what sort of advertising they are going to earn their living from - what's their business model? You can only have a successful business if your customers are happy and for publications that means your readers. So combining quality content your readers will want to keep reading (and hopefully sharing) with advertisement that your readers will respond positively to is the secret to success.

While there is a whole range of advertising options for online publications like online magazines, blogs, newspapers and newsletters such as banner ads I want to explore how sponsored posts work for both business owners, marketing consultants, public relations experts as well as bloggers, editors and journalists. 

As sponsored content is often a discussion point for bloggers I'll write mainly about bloggers in this piece. I'm including links to a range of examples on blogs and websites - they are all unpaid for, this is not a sponsored post it is just a story about sponsored posts!

What are sponsored posts?

Sponsored posts are written specifically for an advertiser and appear in the content area of the website. The stories are treated like any other post on the blog - they are published, uploaded and archived for at least 12 months.

Sponsored posts can be written by the blogger or by the agency booking the advertising and it's very important the post fits with the site's usual range of topics for posts. 

It's important for all involved that the sponsored post is on topic for the blog because you need to put readers first (heads up, this is a mantra you'll keep hearing in this story).

Wikipedia quotes Mutum and Wang (2010) as "The promoted blog entries or posts that contain links that point to the home page or specific product pages of the website of the sponsor for which the blogger receives compensation in the form of money, products, services or in other ways".

How can a business make sponsored posts work?

Sponsored posts can be a great way to increase the reach the of your business and achieve your marketing goals, they just have to be done the right way.

And that is easier than you might think. If a business focuses on the reader and what makes great content then sponsored posts can even go viral. Done the wrong way they are spammy and cause harm to all involved.

Sponsored posts are an ideal way for a business to share a message in pitch perfect publication to their targeted audience with text links, images and even videos. The links can lead to the business website, social media profile or to another story in key media - anywhere that meets the business aims.

They can range from how to stories, interviews, reviews, tip stories, expert profiles and news stories. They can be about creating product awareness, general branding, individual profile positioning, relationship building and everything in between. The key is, they are sharing your business message in a controlled manner, unlike with PR where it can be a little hit and miss at times.

Find out how Columbia Waterfront Condominiums and BlankSlate made top quality content for a sponsored post that went viral and was a huge success for the business.

Just as with PR, it's important the relationships you develop with the publishers, the bloggers and editors. When you work together on a story the results can be much stronger and more successful for all involved.

What's the difference between sponsored posts and PR?

Sponsored posts are paid for advertising and PR is in essence free advertising. There might be some freebies offered to induce positive comment and personally I see that as a form of payment.

Public relations agencies send out loads of press releases every day to journalists, bloggers, editors and presenters with the hope of having the story told and published through their publications.

Often a lot of free product samples are sent with press releases with the hope of connecting with the writer so she will help spread the news about what their client is doing.

For many of the news focused publications with stories having a short shelf life it's important to have access to a lot of stories. As journalists are under mounting pressure to submit more stories in less time there is more reliance on press release pieces.

For publications that have a stronger focus on a planned out content calendar for ever green stories there is often less of a reliance on press releases.

Stories and content that come out of press releases are unpaid for promotional pieces where as sponsored stories are paid for. Both only work if the story is well written and contact information or link is provided somewhere in the story.

How can a blogger make sponsored posts work?

Many bloggers have sponsored posts as a key feature of their blog's business model while other bloggers prefer more of a focus on advertising images with banners and side bar advertisements. Others have a combination. It all comes down to the look and feel you want for your publication and the type of content.

Make your content marketing work for your business

As for the content on your blog, it is your blog, so you are the gatekeeper and get to choose what is published and what isn't.

You also get to choose whether you write the sponsored blog post or not. Many bloggers decide they want to be the only voice on their blog and only they write the content - sponsored or not.

Sponsored posts work for bloggers when they fit with what they are doing with the blog. Very few blogs can exist for long without advertising income and many prefer the type of advertisements that fit with the tone and feel of the blog.

Advertising income can make the difference between having to basically steal moments to work on your blog to being able to work full time on it - or as many hours as you want, giving you the flexibility to create the life style you want. And to be frank, it's exceptionally difficult trying to build and run a blog when you're snatching moments for it.

There are bloggers who are making serious money from their sites. The income has allowed them to go from hobby to business and then bring in some help with the administration side that can take up way too many precious hours.

Sponsored posts can earn more than banner ads because they can connect between with the audience, they can also go viral when done exceptionally well.

9 Questions to ask yourself about sponsored posts on your blog

If you want to make sponsored posts work as part of your advertising income stream set yourself some guidelines and ask some questions:

  1. how will you declare to your readers that it is a sponsored post?
  2. how will you feel about being paid for the work you've put into growing your blog?
  3. what type of paid content do you want to publish?
  4. who will write the sponsored posts?
  5. what level of content quality do you want for your paid content?
  6. how much would you like to earn over a month or year from your blog?
  7. how many paid posts will you ideally publish in a month?
  8. how much will you charge for a sponsored post? Do note that this can be revised up or down depending on what the market has to offer you for your blog.
  9. what content guidelines will you share with the sponsored post advertisers about your blog?

What makes a good sponsored post?

Exceptionally good sponsored posts can go viral and be a huge success. Sadly these are rare but they can always be the standard you work towards - as both publishers and advertisers.

Either way, good sponsored posts are win/win/win scenarios - a win for the audience, publisher and advertiser. It's all about having top quality content that the reader of the blog will love and that fits in with the topics or categories of the blog - that's why the advertiser is interested in your blog, because you're niche is their niche.

The great content model includes the written word, images, videos and other forms of media. Just as the Columbia Waterfront Condominiums sponsored content worked because the images were fantastic, the written content was for the reader and not an advertising promotional shout from the roof tops and the placement was spot on in the right blogs.

This is powerfully important for advertisers, business owners, bloggers and agencies - working together to create powerful and shareable content is the gold standard.

The reality is most content doesn't get to be at that level of success. All sponsored content needs to be good quality content for readers (yes, I am saying that A LOT and I'll keep saying it!). It needs to be what they are interested in and written well.

7 Sponsored post tips

But what about some of the mechanics of a good story? What should you be looking for? Keep it simple with these sponsored post tips:

  1. 500 words or longer gives you space to share meaningful content
  2. dynamic image that fits with the story and is appropriately sourced
  3. limit the number of external links from the story to three
  4. keep to the topic of the blog
  5. good quality writing
  6. include a video if appropriate and possible - do keep quality in mind
  7. short paragraphs for online reading, especially with mobile devices

How to be ethical with sponsored posts?

The relationship with have with our readers is so vitally important to our success, irrespective of the subject and tone of our publications. So staying within the ethical framework of our publications is key.

For most blogs there are government guidelines (UK and USA examples), bloggers agencies requirements as well as industry conventions - they all have the same basic principles - be clear about any form of payment for any content.

Just as print newspapers and magazines label advertorials as paid content, sponsored content need to be labeled as sponsored posts, product and experience gifts need to be acknowledge. We mention at the end of a sponsored story that it is a sponsored post in a separate, highlighted box and asking for comment. We also have sponsored posts mentioned in our advertising area so it is clear to all.

The trouble comes when you try to hide where the money or rewards are coming from. It's as basic as that. Be open about it and you'll not only avoid negative situations but you'll also find good things will happen - you get to choose.

Keep in mind that you do not have to accept every (or any) offers for paid content whether they be product reviews, stories and posts, travel trips etc. Most bloggers are sent many more invitations for paid content opportunities than they accept. The key is to make sure that the ones you do accept are within the values and topics of your blog and of interest to your readers. If it is all about you and money then it doesn't work. Audiences will go away and you are valuable to advertisers because of your reach.

What can work best is to create your own set of guidelines and ethics that you can easily share with readers and advertisers. Here is what Mamamia and Styling You have to say about sponsored posts.

Are product reviews sponsored posts?

Product reviews are a form of advertising, so yes, they are a form of sponsored posts and need to be declared as such.

Bloggers can be paid in both cash and product for reviews and some bloggers have made this into a very profitable aspect of their business.

Most product review requests come from agencies - including PR agencies and bloggers agencies.

What should be the balance be between sponsored posts and free content?

The balance between sponsored posts and free content (not paid for content) needs to be decided by each publisher. Just as the type of paid content needs to be decided on by the editor and publisher so it fits best with their audience needs and business model.

Some decide that a 1 in 10 ratio is the best balance while others will see a 9 in 10 ratio is what suits their businesses best. Personally I think it is less than 50% and for us it is well under that.

What is most important is the type and quality of your paid content. Again, it's back to your audience and making sure your readers are getting top quality content. I find it easier to provide really good content with ever green stories.

I'm not strong with product reviews, I feel awkward writing them and they date so easily - where is the value for my readers in that? But others love doing product reviews and they work really well for their audiences and publications. So it all comes down to what works best for your audience and business model.

If you're starting out with sponsored posts I'd suggest testing it as you go. Start with a 1 in 4 ratio - one paid story in every 4 stories and see how your readers respond to that. Stay focused on quality and be open about it being a sponsored post.

How to calculate sponsored post rates?

It can be challenging figuring out how much to charge for sponsored posts. For advertisers it can be equally difficult knowing what to pay.

I did some hunting around to find out the different ways you can calculate your sponsored post rates for you:

Bec Zacher of Bloggers Bazaar - How much to charge for a sponsored post // Monetizing your blog Part 1

Kat Williams of Rock n Roll Bride - The ins and outs of sponsored blog posts

Often agencies and advertisers will have their own budgets and will look for publications that fit their audience and financial needs.

Should online magazines and blogs have any advertising at all?

For many bloggers the journey into the world of blogging started as a hobby. A few approach it as a business from day one. They usually have prior experience in the advertising world and readily get the potential of blogs.

So for many bloggers the realisation that their blog is really a business is a process, the transition bringing up ethical and self value questions, as well as lots of research and learning a bundle of business skills.

The questions about whether blogs should have advertising, how much and how it's delivered come about through this journey from hobby to business.

Frankly, it costs money, time and skill to run an online publication and there needs to be a business model to fund that. The most successful blog business models find a balance that suits their readers between quality content and advertising - most realise that advertising can be best served by making sure it is top quality content for their readers.

How to include sponsored posts in content marketing?

There is some debate about sponsored posts are part of content marketing. From a business owner's point of view the answer is usually a simple yes. Sponsored posts are content and need to be included in any content plan.

For those not including advertising in their content plans then sponsored posts should be kept separate.

Personally I see them as fitting together. If you want to bring people to your beautiful quality content through an advertising model then quality sponsored content is a great way to do it.

And anything that is planned has a great chance of success.

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