Here’s the right way to promote your brand with sponsored content

Welcome to your crash course in how to do paid marketing the right way, from advertising to public relations to sponsored content. The following is based on more than two decades of personal experience in all aspects of the advertising industry, and 10 years of running Bikerumor.com, the world’s largest cycling tech blog. I’m also a consumer, and I know what works and what doesn’t work to get my attention. I have been on all sides of the equation, seen what works and what doesn’t. This article is written for brands, but provides a keen insight into how it all works, and I believe publishers and advertising/PR firms could learn a few things here, too.

How the landscape has changed

Getting your product or service mentioned in magazines, websites, videos or any media these days takes more than just sending out a press release. Reaching your target consumers with a new product announcement is no longer the realm of PR. This is advertising. And it goes far beyond just buying a couple of ads.

Press Releases: Not long ago, brands would send out a press release and hope the publication prints something. If they were smart, they teed it up ahead of time and followed up afterward to answer any questions. And they provided high quality images and bullet point feature lists. And contact information for people who can answer the questions media might have when writing a story. These are the basics, and they still matter – Get them right.

Advertising: Simultaneously, maybe the brand would buy ads, too. This is how media made (and largely still does make) its money and can afford to hire the writers and photographers needed to build their audience. Without advertising support, media can’t do that, and then you have no where to send your press releases. The problem with regular ads, particularly in print publications, is maybe the reader sees them, and maybe they don’t. The benefit to digital (meaning online banner advertising) is that you get far more reach and repetition than you do with print. This still works, because repetition works.

Sponsored Content: More recently. there’s Sponsored Content. You could view this as a bridge between PR and traditional advertising. In a nutshell, Sponsored Content is when a brand works directly with the publication to integrate their product into the stories. If you want it done well, be prepared to pay for it. I’ll explain why further down, but first, a quick primer on why some advertising and PR campaigns don’t work.

(Good) Quantity versus (Bad) Quantity

For the same reason you shouldn’t waste your money on running a single ad in a single issue of a single magazine, you shouldn’t spread a small budget across too many sites because you won’t get the repetition you need to cement your brand in readers’ minds. This sounds counter intuitive, so I’ll explain. Readers flip past print ads very quickly, and recall is very low.

One single ad in a single publication is almost assuredly not going to be seen, and it will be a waste of money. Similarly, if you have a $1,000 budget and you spread that across 10 websites and run your campaign for a month, the chances of any one single reader seeing your ad more than once or twice is very low. Same for using a small budget to reach a massive audience on social media. A better way to do it is limiting that campaign to a single website that reaches your core customer and condensing the campaign to one or two weeks. Or selecting a very small, targeted audience on social media. This will give you repetition, which reinforces your brand and cements it in the customer’s mind.

Branding versus Promotion

There are typically two types of campaigns. Branding and Promotional. Branding campaigns are ongoing campaigns that show off your brand, products or services in a more general way and should be designed to familiarize consumers with them so that whenever they are ready to purchase, they’ll remember you.

Promotional campaigns are meant to drive immediate sales with a specific call to action. That could be a discount offer, limited time offer or similar. The messaging is different, and they should create a sense of urgency to act.

Sponsored Content can help with both, but my opinion is that it’s more suited to Branding efforts because of its long term value. Keep reading.

Why your PR efforts are failing

You’re shotgunning it. At Bikerumor, we get pitched all manner of things by all manner of brands at all times of the day. Literally hundreds of emails per week for everything from self-filling dog water bowls to luxury cotton towels to wine connoisseur vacations. We are a cycling tech blog. We don’t want our inboxed filled with this crap. If this is you, stop. If your PR firm says they reach more than 100 or so outlets, chances are they bought a list of editors from an aggregator  so they can impress you with “we get your press release in front of 3,500 editors!” but don’t tell you that none of those editors care and have probably blocked that PR firm’s email address. Make it relevant and targeted.

Your message isn’t timely. We get PR for products that have been on the market for more than a year, but we’re a blog covering only the latest and greatest brand new products. We have no time to create a story or find an angle on something that’s not new and shiny. That’s what advertising is for, not PR.

You spent all your money on PR: Look, as a publisher, I get it. Your $1,000 budget might get you a couple months of PR work that could potentially get quite a few articles. And if it does, then you win. And if you/they are pitching something that’s new, exciting and interesting, chances are it will net you coverage value that far exceeds the cost. This is why PR isn’t dead, it just needs to be done right. The problem is that publishing something that comes in as a press release might get the publisher a few hundred to a few thousand eyeballs on their site, which translates to beer money. Publishers need real money to pay their team, keep the lights on and publish their website, magazine, YouTube videos, etc. If all of your money is going to PR, please understand that we can’t publish everything you send us. As bad as it sounds, sometimes we have to prioritize our coverage toward the brands that support us. At Bikerumor, we pride ourselves on covering every brand, large and small, whether they’re advertisers or not. But when we’re pressed for time, decisions have to be made.

I’m not pouting, but brands need to understand that media of all types are scaling back because ad dollars are shrinking. If brands need the media to spread the word to a large audience in a credible way, then they should consider financially supporting those media, too. Like with ads or sponsored content. (There are other ways, too, keep reading)

What NOT To Do

how to create good sponsored content for magazines and websites
These are paid advertorials masquerading as real stories. Do you think they build brand awareness and trust?

Why advertorials suck: They’re not genuine, and readers know it’s not a real story. Advertisers are copy writers, not journalists. If we publish your PR or story as is, chances are it’ll read like marketing copy and then we lose our credibility, then our audience, then our livelihood. We don’t want to copy/paste your press release because it reads like sales copy.

Why pay-to-play sucks: At best, pay-to-play “journalism” is mostly invisible to the reader but limits the quality and variety of coverage a publication may have, which runs the risk of boring their readers. At worst, it creates potential distrust and backlash, either from the consumer, from other media, or both, which harms reputations and ultimately their business.

Example: There is a bike brand that has run expensive multi-page, full color inserts inside a certain bicycling magazine for years. That magazine publishes an annual Editors’ Choice awards, and very often and often consecutively, the advertising brands’ bikes consistently win ‘Bike of the Year’ awards. Coincidence?

how to use sponsored content to promote your brand
This “interview” is very clearly one giant, two-page ad with tons of product placement. Curious there’s no disclaimer anywhere.

Another example is the obviously influenced stories written in men’s fitness rags that pretend to be a useful tidbit about, say, getting enough protein, only to finish with a blurb about a specific protein powder brand sitting next to an “ad” for that product. Or, my favorite, is this article about a new ingredient that’s (surprise!) only found in this new product that’s also running a full page ad right next to it. Don’t do this, there’s a better way.

Why Good Sponsored Content Rules

It connects with consumers. A well written article or video that provides value to the reader will connect with them in a way ads cannot. It will be more memorable, is more likely to be shared, and will do more to build your brand. It’s also an implied endorsement from an editor or outlet they trust, which further cements your brand into the consumers’ minds as a good one.

It’ll last forever. An ad disappears in seconds, content lives for years. A good story becomes evergreen content that’s SEO friendly and engaging. In laymen’s terms, that means the story will live forever (another benefit to online versus print). And if the publisher knows what they’re doing (At Bikerumor, we do, BTW), then that story becomes highly ranked on Google and other search engines. Why does that matter? Let’s say you’re trying to tune your mountain bike suspension fork and we’ve written a guide for that. And let’s say you sponsored that guide. Our tech stories show up well in search, and as readers use that guide or reference that story, your brand is consistently represented as being helpful and important. Long after any marketing campaign has expired, this content lives on. It’s like teaching your marketing budget to fish rather than feeding it once.

It positions you as the expert. Reference stories become powerful tools for helping consumers. If your brand is the one providing that tool, then not only are customers grateful to you, but they view you as the expert in that field. Let’s say they’re looking to upgrade that suspension fork and they’ve read a lot of stories about how Fox’s tech people refine the designs, help people tune their suspension, or always make improvements from year to year. Which brand do you think you’d look to when you’re ready to buy? The right kind of sponsored content can build readers’ trust in your brand.

Bikerumor’s AASQ series (Ask A Stupid Question) lets brands sponsor the weekly column and have readers submit questions about their brand, product or service. This is engaging, interactive, and extremely well received. It not only creates a stronger relationship between the brand and consumer, it also provides direct feedback to the brand, helping them learn what customers are interested in and curious about. Think you could use that info to create better marketing? You bet you can!

How To Do Sponsored Content Right

Reach the right customers. Look for media that reaches the right consumers. And the right type of media. Does video work better than text? Choose the right outlet and the right format. Maybe that format is social media. Or YouTube. Or a combination.

Have a plan. You should be clear about what you want to get out of it. Are you looking for a simple company profile? Or a product review? Tradeshow booth coverage? CEO interview? It’s important to have some idea of what you want to accomplish before hand, but then discuss it with the media outlet(s) as they may have ideas you hadn’t considered.

Know the limits. A good publisher should make it clear how much editorial control the brand will have. There’s nothing wrong with letting a brand fact check a story before it’s published. But if the brand is writing the story for a publisher to pass off as their own work, that’s immoral and misleading. You should not expect to completely control the finished product, but it should achieve your goals. Trust the publication to know its readers. And know that they need to balance maintaining their credibility with delivering the results you want.

Sponsor the RIGHT content. Sponsor the type of content that fits with your brand or goals. It should be a natural fit. This isn’t a sports stadium where just slapping your name on it nets you exposure. At Bikerumor, we created content sections specifically aimed at attracting certain types of sponsors. Tire Tech for tire brands, Suspension Tech for suspension brands, etc. We also have AASQ for general reader questions that can work for any type of brand or product. If it’s not a natural fit, it’s likely to do more harm than good.

What if I can’t find any content that works? Suggest things that might make more sense for your brand. As a publisher, we’re always looking for good content. We want something that stands out, provides value to our readers, and gives us something no one else has. If you think a certain type of content would be beneficial to your brand, find the media partner you like and work with them to create it.

In the video example above, Bikerumor worked with Niterider to create a custom video and story that highlights their bike light products in a unique, informative way that provides a benefit to consumers and positions Niterider positively in their minds.

In Summary…

The beauty of digital media is there’s really no limit to what can be done. I work with brands every week to create content ideas that provide value to every party – our readers, the brand and Bikerumor. The value of sponsored content is that you can market your product, service or brand in a more organic way that has long lasting value. Just make sure you do it right, or you run the risk of alienating the very people you’re trying to reach and the platforms used to reach them.

Next Steps. Need ideas or inspiration on how you can effectively use content to promote your brand? How can you partner with the media to create effective, ethical sponsored content programs? Want to make sure you’re supporting the media so they’ll continue to provide value for you? I’ve got ideas, and am happy to discuss them. Email me if you’re interested in upping your sponsored content game.

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