Lessons from The Atlantic's sponsored content controversy

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There are three issues with The Atlantic’s decision to run a sponsored post from the Church of Scientology that serve as lessons for publishers looking to build or grow native advertising/sponsored content programs.

The first was with the sponsor. The Church of Scientology is a polarizing organization that should have raised a red flag within The Atlantic’s sales team. The only post that possibly could have drawn more scrutiny/criticism than a pro-Scientology blog would have been a slide show from the NRA titled “12 Assault Weapons We Love.”

Speaking of criticism, the second problem with the post was The Atlantic’s and/or the sponsor’s decision to a) include comments and b) censor the negative ones. Much of the criticism was directed at the commenting policy, not the content itself.

A good rule of thumb is to turn off comments on branded content. As much as advertisers say they want to be integrated into the editorial experience, they don’t really want everything that goes along with it – including negative feedback. Best to direct the discussion off of the site and onto social channels.  

The third issue is with the actual post. Thinly disguised press releases or other promotional content are easy targets for critics, especially when measured against The Atlantic’s historically high-quality journalism. It just doesn’t fit with the brand.

Critics will use this post as a shining example of all that is wrong with sponsored content. But there are plenty of other examples – including on theatlantic.com – of how sponsored content can work effectively without tarnishing the brand:

  • An IBM-sponsored page now featured on The Atlantic’s site includes multiple assets, including three blog posts, an executive Q&A, an infographic, a video and a traditional ad unit. Comments are disabled. The content doesn’t blatantly promote IBM technology – it offers an informed perspective on how marketers should be using social media.
  • BuzzFeed sponsored content generally aligns well with its sugary editorial – such as this pictorial post about 23 neon signs from Vegas sponsored by the Nevada tourism bureau.
  • Huffington Post has an entire section devoted to sponsored content. HuffPo has also created branded microsites for advertisers such as Johnson & Johnson. Microsites remain popular among B2B publishers, including IDG, where the microsite concept has evolved from static content pages into socially oriented community sites such as the Enterprise CIO Forum.
  • Also in B2B, Farm Journal Media offers a handful of sponsored blogs offering relevant industry-related content, such as a daily video on grain markets sponsored by GrainHedge.

These programs share one important trait: Content that is in sync, more or less, with the tone, style or topicality of the site’s editorial content. The quality may not be as high, but the topics are relevant to the audience.

After the storm hit on Monday, The Atlantic took down the Scientology post and redirected the page to a message stating, “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.” Earlier today, they offered a more direct apology:

“We screwed up. It shouldn't have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we've made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.  It's safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out.  We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge—sheepishly—that we got ahead of ourselves.  We are sorry, and we're working very hard to put things right.” 

One policy they should review is the one that states: “The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content.” That’s a nice attempt to maintain church/state separation, but keeping editors out of the loop on content that’s commingling with their own posts is asking for trouble.

Sales teams can’t have it both ways: If they want to sell an “integrated experience,” then the sponsored content should be subject to at least some of the same checks and balances provided for other editorial content. Appointing a sponsored content editor – separate from the main editorial team – to review and sign off on all sponsored content would address the issue without violating the church/state wall.

Otherwise, expect more gaffes in the name of digital “innovation.”

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