For the past few years, sponsored content has been hailed as the savior of the journalism industry by some. It’s no secret that many publications’ print business suffers from falling circulation rates. In addition, many of their traditional online ad sales are being squeezed by Google and other networks. It’s no wonder why sponsored content looks appealing to so many publications.

Many publishers have managed to make some exciting offerings out of this new format. Not only have some managed to command impressive sales dollars, marquee publishers like the New York Times and The Atlantic have even on occasion managed to tell impressive, informative stories.

But for every good, or even decent article, sponsored by a brand; publishers and their “content studios” churn out dozens of crappy advertorials.

What’s The Harm?

To the ad sales guys driving those dollars, that might not seem too bad. After all, is a lousy native advertisement any worse than another annoying banner ad, which would otherwise adorn the publisher’s site?

As we catalogued a few months back, some problematic sponsored content can go beyond being mere fluff, delving into the realm of half-truths and unsubstantiated claims. We’ve also analyzed how companies whose content marketing is overly trend and clickbait driven can see their brands get tarnished.

But what about the publishers and traditional news brands themselves? Does “bad” sponsored content have any repercussions, or is it just forgotten as soon as it’s published?

Double Edged Sword

As we’ve been researching this phenomenon at ContentIntent, one thing we’ve noticed is the consistently miniscule labeling that many publishers give, saying something to the effect of “sponsored content” or “from our brand partners” in 10-point font. While the FTC has begun cracking down on misleading labels, many websites still try their hardest to make advertorial seem like real content.

sponsored content
For example – very subtle disclosure from Buzzfeed

Though this gives the advertising sales team a leg up in pushing the product to buyers, it creates real consumer confusion. Readers of The Atlantic, for example, were left wondering if that storied publisher really did do its own research on Scientology and concluded that it was a stand-up organization, as opposed to most other newsroom’s negative findings on the group. (It was, in fact, poorly labeled sponsored content.)

Our own research at ContentIntent shows that when readers are presented with dubious “news” like this, it diminishes their trust in the publication. Diminished trust can mean they return to browse that site less frequently, leading to increased financial stress for the publisher. That, in turn, can lead the publisher to turn to more and more dubious sponsored content to make ends meet.

As you can see, there’s potential for a pretty vicious negative feedback loop there.

While we look forward to releasing our full findings later this quarter, the message for publishers should already be clear: stay away from overly misleading sponsored content! The ad dollars may be enticing, but it’s not worth it in the long run.

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