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The four business models of sponsored content

There are four distinct models that we’ve seen so far, each with varying levels of involvement from the publisher and brand:

Each publisher should think strategically about which of these four models is appropriate. This is not one-size-fits-all.

Underwriting model: The brand sponsors content attached to normal reporting, or something that the publisher was creating anyway. This model preserves the most editorial independence. The brand is simply paying to have its name associated with the content.

Examples: The Verge, the tech site of Vox Media, partnered with Ford on a feature on innovation in Kansas City as part of a series called “Detours,” which looks at cities off the beaten path that have been transformed by technology. To preserve its editorial independence, the Verge crafted the series and presented it to Ford because it aligned with the carmaker’s brand. The campaign offered Ford a 30-second pre-roll ad as well as an intro and prominent logo placement in the video series intro.

For the follow-up to the immersive and interactive “Snow Fall,” The New York Times profiled horse racing legend Russell Baze and had BMW as a sponsor. “The Jockey” included custom ad units for BMW as well as prominent logo placement in the feature navigation bar. Months before the story was completed, BMW signed on without knowing all the elements of the story — just the story’s subject. Horse racing ties into an overall performance theme that BMW is trying to capture, Tom Penich, media communications manager, BMW North America told Adweek.

Agency model: A publisher employs specialized writers and editors to help create custom content in partnership with a brand. The specialists balance the brand’s marketing goals with their own understanding of how to create engaging content, to make something that serves everyone’s needs.

Examples: BuzzFeed and the Atlantic use this model. Each has a separate team of specialized writers, editors and other creative positions that work with brand partners to create — and importantly, revise and improve — their content ideas before publishing. The concept is that the sponsored content has to have strong editorial value — which serves both the publisher, the audience and the advertiser.

Platform model: A publisher provides a dedicated space for brands to publish their own messages in their own name. The publisher has little direct involvement in the content. Here, the brand is paying for access to a publisher’s platform to access its audience.

Example: Forbes’ BrandVoice product works this way. Marketers get access to the same publishing system as Forbes other writers and editors, which includes tools for search- and social-optimization. Their content appears throughout the Forbes site. The key, according to Forbes, is absolute transparency about who produced what.

Aggregated/repurposed model: A publisher offers brand the right to use archived real journalism in a new package that serves a sponsor’s interest. This may be a complete e-book, or just content to fill out a company newsletter.

Example: The Dallas Morning News’ content marketing agency, SpeakEasy, offers the paper’s archives for reuse by brands that want to tell stories to their customers.

Stephanie Losee, managing editor at Dell, and others reiterated that brands prefer to be offered a “menu” of these options. “We want different models for different things,” she says.

Each publisher who wants to get into sponsored content should think strategically about which of these four models is appropriate for them based on staff resources, sponsor needs, ethical principles, revenue potential. This is not one-size-fits-all.

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