The 2 Rules of Sponsored Content You’re Not Allowed to Forget

rules of sponsored content
rules of sponsored content

Sponsored content, sometimes described as “native advertising,” is a controversial topic in the world of content marketing.

Last week I covered the content quantity vs. content quality debate. So here I wanted to cover an area where I see a lot of brands getting into some trouble.

The reasons for this controversy are clear: Sponsored content is often advertising masquerading as pure editorial content, which can be easily misconstrued by the audience.

Content published on the web by a known author recommending a product should be clearly labeled as a paid endorsement if there is any relationship between the influencer and the brand.

Until recently, there has been very little regulation over sponsored content, which has only added to the confusion from all sides. Recently, the rules have been tightened up, making it easier for everyone to know what is right and wrong.

When managed well, sponsored content can be beneficial for the sponsor, the publisher, and the audience. But it’s important for sponsors and publishers alike to stick to two main rules.

Quick Takeaways:

  • Sponsored content is an increasingly popular way for brands to advertise and publishers to generate income.
  • It’s important to understand advertising disclosure rules so you stay out of trouble or a PR disaster.
  • Sponsored content must be presented carefully to avoid losing the trust of your audience.
  • Publishers and brands should work together on conforming to all required standards.

What Is Sponsored Content?

But before we get into exactly what those rules are, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about here.

Sponsored content is promotional content that is paid for by a sponsor and published on someone else’s website, blog, social media account, or other platform.

In some cases, the content may be provided by the sponsor. Other times the sponsor may leave the publisher to create it, with stipulations on the general content topic, included keywords, and links.

Examples of sponsored content might include:

  • A photograph of an influencer wearing an item of clothing provided and paid for by a brand.
  • A blog post comparing different VPN services that is sponsored by a particular VPN provider.
  • A video on YouTube with a message at the start that a particular advertiser sponsored it.

Ideally, it should be clear to the reader when content is sponsored, and the content should fit in with the rest of the content on the publisher site and provide some kind of value to the audience.

sponsored content example

However, this does not always happen. Publishers not disclosing a financial relationship with a sponsor or publishing content that does not align with their audience can quickly erode the trust they have built with their audience and even result in legal issues.

What’s the Difference Between Sponsored Content and Native Advertising?

Native advertising and sponsored content are used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference.

Native advertising looks somewhat similar to a traditional ad, and most users will be able to immediately identify it as such. Some examples of native advertising include:

  • Sponsored listings at the top of search results
  • Promoted listings on shopping websites like eBay or Amazon
  • Ads in social media feeds on platforms like Facebook and Instagram
  • Recommendation widgets at the end of blog posts

Most native advertising is not a form of content marketing. Just look at my definition of content marketing for more clarification!

You can’t build an audience with native advertising, and the ads rarely provide value in the form of information or entertainment that high-quality content does.

On the other hand, sponsored content as described in the previous examples does not necessarily look like an ad. While it may — and should! — be disclosed as such, you must be able to remove the reference to the sponsor without reducing the value of the content to the audience.

Check out this video of mine from a few years ago talking about the important differences between native ads, branded content, and content marketing:

The Two Rules of Sponsored Content

For both publishers and sponsors to use sponsored content in an ethical way that’s beneficial to all, it’s important to follow these two basic rules:

  1. Create great content.
  2. Always provide full disclosure.

Why are these rules so important? Well, the No. 1 rule of content marketing is to create great content. This rule shouldn’t change just because the content is sponsored.

Remember, as a content marketer you have a responsibility to your audience to provide value. Content that doesn’t give anything back to your audience won’t be engaging, won’t convert, and essentially won’t offer anything to the advertiser. In other words, it’s a waste of time and money.

Even worse, if you publish low-quality content on your site just because you’re paid to do so, you’ll be compromising your integrity as a publisher and losing your authenticity. Your audience will only put up with so many pieces of bad sponsored content before they lose trust in you entirely. Don’t risk losing your audience by publishing bad content, whether you’re getting paid for it or not.

So let’s look at the second rule: Just why is it so important to provide full disclosure?

Well, for one thing, it’s the law. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has specific guidance for online publishers and is very clear that any connection to a brand must be disclosed when publishing content that can be considered as an endorsement for that brand.

FTC guidelines for influencers

Secondly, being transparent with your audience that content is sponsored from the start shows that you respect them and that you’re not trying to pull the wool over their eyes for a quick buck.

How Sponsored Content Can Benefit All

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for brands to charge for premium content when consumers expect it to be free.

Sponsored content is an alternative way for publishers to generate revenue and pay their creators to generate more high-quality content.

Sponsors benefit from having their brand and products introduced to a wider audience. That audience can also benefit, provided the content is of value to them and the brand sponsor provides products and services that may be useful to them.

When produced with care and integrity, sponsored content brings value to all parties. But it’s critical to keep the two central rules in mind at all times: Create great content. Always provide full disclosure.

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

16 thoughts on “The 2 Rules of Sponsored Content You’re Not Allowed to Forget

  1. Hi Michael,
    Great post here. I fully agree that editorial content alignment needs to be quality content that helps the end user! I also like that you separated out editorial and native advertising. I just yesterday read a really good post from AdAge about how brands can’t always produce content on the scale of publisher, and they shouldn’t try to either. (

    I also recently wrote a related post about how brands can measure the impacts of these types of sponsorship’s – since the goals are different:

    Thanks for the great post (as always)

  2. Hi Michael,

    Well written mate. I love the #2 point. Writing and disclosing that is a MUST for any sponsored post. I mean the etiquette should be there as well right?

    Anyway, great write and thanks for sharing this. Shared on Triberr.


    1. Totally agree on the importance of Rule #2. No one wants to find out at the end of reading something that it was sponsored content, not objective editorial.

  3. I agree! when creating a content you must be a good listener to your audience needed. Thanks for sharing this blog post.

  4. Michael,
    As you point out, sponsored content has been around a long time. Now that content marketing has become mainstream, I believe we are going to see more sponsored content in digital channels.

    The winning formula for sponsored content (which you covered) is:
    1) full disclosure from the content channel
    2) valuable/relevant content
    3) 3 winners: the end user, the sponsor, the channel.

    I believe we are going to see a lot more sponsored content in 2014. That’s my early prediction for next year.

    Thanks for covering this topic.

    – Bernie Borges

    1. Thanks Bernie, you hit on exactly my main point at the panel I was on at #CMWorld: the publishing industry needs to find a way to sustain itself. I do believe sponsored content can be good for the reader, the sponsor and the publisher. As long as we hit #1 and #2 of full disclosure and great content.

      Appreciate your support and it was great seeing you.

  5. Great post-Remembering the ‘rules’ is very important. I see many posts that highly appear to be sponsored and no disclosure!

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