A better way to do sponsored content (we hope)

By Sarah Lacy , written on January 15, 2013

From The News Desk

A few years ago, I would have never expected I'd work at a place engaging in sponsored content, much less running one. But our PandoMonthly with Jonah Peretti dramatically changed and shaped my view of the emerging category that so many old and new media publications hope is the answer to making media profitable and sustainable once again.

What was gross about the early pay-per-post stuff -- that I used to associate with sponsored content -- is that "reporters" were essentially writing an ad under their own names for cash. Even if it's disclosed, that's unseemly. As I wrote yesterday, all we have in this business is our trust with readers. I can't imagine selling my entire career for the cost of an ad.

Advertorials -- written by someone else, but appearing as if they're an article -- are much less gross, but they don't add a lot of value to the reader. And I think the best ad products at least seek to do both. With advertorials, you're basically trying to trick someone into reading a press release. And unless you carefully vet each advertiser, you get blow ups like the Atlantic had last night with its sponsored post on Scientology.

But there's something smart in the way BuzzFeed has done sponsored content. It's still disclosed and flagged as sponsored content, like all of these approaches. But they encourage advertisers not to write about themselves and to post content in the style of a fun, grabby BuzzFeed list -- the kind of stuff people are coming to the site for anyway. Check out this list of the 19 most ridiculous text fails, sponsored by Virgin Mobile. Yes, it's about something that happens on a phone. But there's not a word about Virgin in the actual, edgy, funny content.

Clearly, adapting this model for PandoDaily is a challenge. We're not known for kittens and lists as much as we're known as a trusted source of information. That gives us a higher bar to live up to. As such, some things are a total non-starter: We're not going to let any editorial on the site that we don't write or edit. No advertiser is getting a log-in to our CMS. No one outside of our editorial team is going to read the content before it runs.

Instead, we're looking to find companies that want to sponsor and be attached to certain in-depth conversations around technology, starting companies, and investing in them. There are a lot of topics we want to explore in more depth, that don't always lend themselves to a blog-like breaking news pace. So we've come up with an editorial calendar of topics we'll dive into more deeply each month. We hope to attach a relevant sponsor to each one.

That sponsor can pick, obviously, which topic they'd like to sponsor, but that's all the input they have. Our team writes all the content exactly how we would any other story. We guarantee a number of posts and videos around a topic, and prominent logo placement but that's it. The sponsor does not see the content before it runs.

We wrote a few weeks ago about how much of BuzzFeed's approach is really a throwback to journalism and advertising's past. And our approach to sponsored content is no different. I launched my career working at weekly business journals, and we had a similar approach in print. We'd have an editorial calendar, around weekly emphasis sections we didn't normally delve into like "law" or "accounting." Companies that wanted to advertise in something that specialized would buy ads when they might not ordinarily. It was a huge money-maker, but like any newspaper content, the stories weren't about the companies buying ads. They were editorially driven.

We're launching our first series today, sponsored by BrainTree, one of our sponsors for PandoMonthly in the past. The topic is "The Art of Starting Up." Over the next few weeks, we'll explore (and in some cases, maybe, explode) all the truisms, advice, and myths of getting your company started. We'll bring you expert Q&As, videos, profiles, and thought pieces on the subject, all pitched and written by our editorial staff. And as you'll see, the content has nothing to do with the merits of BrainTree as a payment platform.

Our first post in the series ran this morning: Our PandoHouse Rock video on the Series A Crunch. In fact, once we started brainstorming on ideas, the staff came up with way more than six stories we wanted to write on this important but sometimes confusing topic.

In the future, there may be closer tie-ins. For instance, Uber might want to sponsor our series on how mobile is enabling the sharing economy. (HA!) While some of our stories may mention Uber, we'll have the same approach: The sponsor will have no input on the editorial and won't see anything before it runs. In fact, we think these sections are so editorially important, that we'll be writing them whether we sell a sponsorship that month or not.

To me, that's the test of good sponsored content: Would you take the staff resources to write this post anyway?

This approach might be so divorced from the traditional advantages of sponsored content that it's not as successful. But it's more important for us to make sure everything on the site adheres to our editorial vision first and foremost, and makes money to keep us in business second. After all, that's how advertisers will really get value: If people are actually reading the content. The real value of sponsored content is being more integrated into the editorial than an easily tuned-out banner ad, not co-opting a publication's voice.

This is one of many approaches we're going to experiment with this year as we seek to build a business that doesn't require us to whore out to the almighty, gameable and shameless page view. We hope advertisers who appreciate our approach will jump on board and try it out.

Here is a list of the topics we'll be tackling over the next six months. If you are interesting in advertising, please email our director of operations Keelin Linehan at Keelin(at) If you're interesting in pitching a story around these topics, email the editorial team at tips(at)

The Powerful Weapon of Big Data: Our investigative look on how companies, ad firms, media organizations, and political entities are using big data, both for good and bad. (February)

The Share Economy: How platforms like Etsy, Airbnb, Zaarly, eBay, Amazon Marketplace, TaskRabbit, and others are remaking and creating new local economies around the world. (March)

The Internet of Things: We'll dig into the resurgence of hardware in Silicon Valley, as powered by what we do well: Software. We'll examine the new grassroots methods for building hardware companies and why this category is still so hard. (April)

Ecommerce 2.0 or 2.nooooooooo!: We'll examine the hype, shakeouts, and sky high valuations around flash sales, mobile commerce, subscription commerce, content as commerce and every other trend that's hoped to create the next Amazon. (May)

Slow Tech: In this series, we'll look at the future of technology, particularly developments we wish were happening faster like flying cars, jet packs, green energy, and self sustaining architecture. (June)

Travel and Hospitality 2.0: As those of you who don't run companies think about taking a summer vacation, we'll examine why there's been so little innovation in travel since the early online travel agents and what gives us hope. (July)