When a company pays for content to air or be printed and gets credit for underwriting the show, editorial section or individual article, that’s sponsored content.
Or that’s what it’s meant for most of its usage history. Today’s print and digital content marketers are using the term to describe more than one method of creating, buying and selling editorial content.
Sponsored content goes back more than 80 years to radio and TV programs like Ma Perkins (Oxydol), Kraft Theater, Captain Midnight (Ovaltine), General Electric Theater, The Lone Ranger (General Mills), etc. These programs were “brought to you by” a product or company. Ever wonder where the term “soap opera” came from? It started as a term to describe the daytime TV serials sponsored by laundry, dishwashing and bath soap brands.
Before the recent evolution of content marketing, sponsored content was created by a publisher or broadcaster. A TV or radio broadcaster might introduce a program with the name of the show, followed by, “Brought to you XYZ Soap,” or “Sponsored by ABC Bread.” The sponsor would get special advertising consideration, either in the form of no ads appearing during the broadcast, no ads appearing other than the sponsor’s, or no competitor ads appearing.
In magazines and newspapers, special features might appear, branded with a sponsor’s name and ads nearby. The content would not mention the sponsor, but the sponsor benefitted from being associated with the content. For example, a magazine might run a special feature on family summer vacation destinations, with an airline or minivan maker sponsoring the feature. A golf magazine might run a feature on tips for senior golfers, with the editorial sponsored by a financial services company or assisted living home chain.
Today, the term “sponsored content” is used in various ways depending on who’s using the phrase. In some cases, sponsored content is simply a euphemism for native advertising (the two terms are interchangeable). The term doesn’t refer to advertorials, where the advertiser controls the content from start to finish. It’s an ad.
Tribune Media Services calls sponsored content that appears on their website properties as “brand content” instead of “sponsored content,” although the content is clearly sponsored by a paying advertiser.
In other uses, “sponsored content” means the sponsor has little or no input into the content and does not create it. Sponsors have always been able to influence the creation of content by threatening to pull their sponsorship if they didn’t like the show or article, but publishers and broadcasters focused more on creating content their audiences wanted than they did on pleasing sponsors.
If you hear someone discussing or pitching “sponsored content” today, you’ll be wise to ask if the person is in fact talking about native advertising. Ask about the parameters of the publisher’s and sponsor’s roles whenever you hear someone use the term “sponsored content.”