The Sponsored Content Conundrum

How associations can address the stigma and become the content conduit for their industry partners.

By Jason Meyers

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In the for-profit world, sponsored content is a popular marketing component for most brands. The catch is that the content has to be highly relevant, useful and engaging—this includes storytelling presented through articles, videos, infographics or other formats. The pitch to prospective sponsors is pretty straightforward: Sponsors “own” the content by way of brand alignment, most typically in the format of articles or interviews that are “Brought to you by [sponsor]” or “Sponsored by [sponsor].”

But sponsored content poses a dilemma for many associations. While it is an effective method for diversifying an organization’s content strategy and generating much-desired non-dues revenue, it is often difficult for an association’s sales team to convince vendors and partners to see the association as a viable outlet for their own content. Some partners believe the “sponsored” tag carries a stigma in the association context and won’t appeal to the audience. Others may have limited resources to produce the content required for a sponsored program. And some prospective sponsors just feel that their own content won’t be differentiated enough to stand out from other content published by an organization.

In some cases, it’s even difficult to convince the association’s leaders that they should be purveyors of paid content for the suppliers in the industry or field they represent. They may view sponsored content as overly promotional or commercial—a marketing tactic that doesn’t align with the mission of the organization.

So how can associations resolve those internal and external conflicts and take advantage of the potentially lucrative possibilities sponsored content can offer? By thinking and acting like the content experts they are in the industries they represent. By setting clear parameters for what sponsored content is (and isn’t), and providing strong examples for vendor partners of what sponsored content should be and what it can accomplish.

What follows is guidance for associations that want to integrate sponsored content into their mix while maintaining the integrity of their overall content strategies, along with some examples of how several organizations have found success doing just that.

Set strong guardrails…

As publishers of all kinds of content—whether written by staff, industry experts, members or sponsors—associations have a responsibility to set clear and binding content guidelines. They must establish and maintain strict guidelines for the content they publish. This is especially important when it comes to paid content opportunities.

Advertisers and partners need to be aware that there are editorial standards that must be followed when creating content, and these guidelines should be communicated clearly at the outset. If a sponsor’s idea or submission doesn’t align with these standards, they should be asked to make revisions or understand that appropriate revisions will be made in-house and then communicated back to them for final review and approval. It’s important to stress that these guidelines are in place to help the advertiser create content that is meaningful and insightful for the association audience and not purely the editor’s preference.

…But keep an open mind

When considering sponsored content, a sponsor might automatically assume the format should be a 600-word article. There are many strategic reasons for producing written sponsored content—most importantly for the search engine optimization benefits—but it’s important to keep an open mind about what sponsored content can be. For example, sponsored content might be any of the following items:

  • Infographics
  • Videos
  • Playbooks or how-to guides
  • Online special reports
  • Series of themed articles

The Vacation Rental Management Association (VRMA) is one example of an association that looks to varied content formats to keep its content program—including sponsored content—interesting. VRMA is dedicated to advancing the vacation rental industry by providing invaluable educational and networking opportunities, promoting the value of the vacation rental experience and speaking as the authoritative voice to foster professionalism and growth. The organization’s view on sponsored content is that it should be highly relevant and engaging—and in some cases, that means heavy on visuals.

For “8 Myths About Short-Term Rentals,” VRMA’s sponsor, a vacation rental data intelligence platform company, uses charts and infographics to systematically debunk common misconceptions about the industry such as, “the short-term rental industry is not that big” and “short-term rentals are for leisure destinations.” Each myth is addressed with one image and one-to-three short sentences. This approach results in content for VRMA that is engaging, brief and impactful.

Advertisers and partners need to be aware that there are editorial standards that must be followed when creating content, and these guidelines should be communicated clearly at the outset.

Jason Meyers, Senior Director of Content Strategy, SmithBucklin

Be a partner to the sales team

Many association content professionals have journalism backgrounds, so it’s not unusual that some anxiety about crossing the editorial/sales barrier might exist for them, even in an association environment. But given the opportunity that exists for non-dues revenue, it’s important for editors and sales teams to work closely together to land on the right strategy.

Talk to your sales team about sponsored content options and parameters so they loop the content team in when they have an interested advertiser or partner. Together, you can determine the best sponsored content strategy for your organization, which will not only make your association an engaged partner for the advertiser, but also generate more revenue.

Such an opportunity arose when the Print Services & Distribution Association (PSDA), which helps print industry distributors grow by cultivating strategic partnerships with manufacturers and suppliers, had a partner company looking to showcase its expertise on digitally-printed, shrink-sleeved labeling. As a result, PSDA created an opportunity for a representative from the company to byline a sponsored article regarding the growing popularity of wine packaged in a can, and the opportunities that created for print resellers.

The article that resulted from the sponsor opportunity details the benefits of using aluminum cans for wine before addressing how savvy print resellers are helping wineries understand the perks of using shrink-sleeved labels for the product. Those wineries can produce small batches of uniquely branded limited editions and marketing promotions, and the practice is opening up new possibilities for the print resellers. In the end, the article helped PSDA’s partner gets its message in front of its target audience, while also providing members with unique and valuable information.

Remove the content creation burden

To address sponsors’ concerns over time and resource constraints, take a central role in sponsored content creation—as creators, developers and publishers of content on behalf of your sponsor partners, hosting and distributing sponsors’ content with the association’s trusted stamp of approval. This follows the content or brand studio format that has become so popular in consumer and B2B media. Instead of simply offering the availability of sponsor-supplied and sponsor-branded content, sales teams can position the association’s content team as a resource to develop customized, targeted content for the sponsor’s approval—with minimal commitment of time and resources required by the sponsor. This could mean pitching content the association is already creating as an opportunity for a sponsor or partner. Of course, you don’t want everything to be a promotion or a pitch, but the key idea here is to think outside of the standard contributor box when talking to advertisers.

Offer developed topics

Present potential sponsors with fully-developed, “pre-packaged” concepts for content that are ready to be implemented, have immediate appeal to the potential sponsors, and are relevant and timely subjects that are of immediate interest to the association’s audience. With this approach, sales teams are equipped with targeted, differentiated content ideas to pitch that align with the missions and goals of potential sponsors and complement association-generated content.

Applied Client Network, the independent global user community for Applied Systems technology serving the insurance industry, created such an opportunity in “The Innovation Issue” of Connections, Applied Client Network’s print publication. The organization needed content that would speak to the topic of how to avoid Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) citations for unspecified safety hazards.

The organization’s needs meant there was an opportunity for a sponsor to provide much-needed information that would be beneficial to Applied Client Network’s members. It also allowed the partner company that provided the content to highlight the importance of including a licensed legal professional in such cases and demonstrate its own expertise in this area. As a result, the article supports the goals of both the organization and its partner by filling a specific content requirement in an edition of Connections.

If all else fails, change the terminology

To begin to change the perception and acceptance of sponsored content in the view of sponsors (and the audience), it might be necessary to shift the external concept of sponsored content away from the heavy focus on sponsorship. Removing the “sponsored by” or “brought to you by” tags might be the first step. The alternative is to put the focus on the association hosting, developing and presenting the content; for example, “Developed by [ABC Association] for [Sponsor].” This approach positions the association as the provider of the content, and has the added benefit of putting the association’s trusted stamp of approval on the content.

As the association, you know your members and audience the best, and, most importantly, you know what will resonate with them. The best sponsored content pieces come from a true partnership with the sponsor, where both parties are open-minded about what is possible with content and how to focus it for the association audience.

About the Author

Jason Meyers is the Senior Director of Content Strategy at SmithBucklin in Chicago.

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