Is there a difference between a blog advertiser posting their own content in a clearly labeled sponsor post (i.e. NOT written by the blogger), which is allowed to appear in the RSS feed like an editorial post, and a format like PayPerPost, where bloggers write in their own editorial voice about an advertiser’s product or service?

I think there’s a BIG difference — the former, IF done right (i.e. VERY clearly labeled, highly targeted to audience interests, limited frequency), can be a legitimate ad unit that is tailored to the dynamics of online media consumption, especially RSS, while the latter is much more difficult to pull off in a way to doesn’t compromise editorial integrity.

I think it is POSSIBLE for a blogger to write about an advertiser in a way that is honest — with, at the very minimum, extremely clear disclosure — but convincing your readers, and yourself, that you have avoided a conflict of interest is a sticky wicket indeed.

You may have concluded that I am raising this issue because I’m thinking about it for Publishing 2.0. I’ve openly rejected the PayPerPost model, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any opportunity to experiment with new advertising/sponsor formats beyond the standard issue 125×125 button.

I’m writing about it here with full transparency because I want to fully air the issue. I also think it’s a critically important for bloggers and other independent online publishers to figure out what latitude they have to commercialize their sites — which is very much a Publishing 2.0 issue. Airing this issue publicly is, I hope, a unique upside to the blogging medium — most traditional publishers introduce new commercial elements and never ask what their readers think. (Did the New York Times ever ask your opinion about that interstitial ad that takes over your screen before they implemented it?)

Those of you who took the Publishing 2.0 Reader Survey know that I asked about the viability of sponsor posts. So in the spirit of full transparency, here is the question I asked along with the results:

I’m thinking about offering paid sponsors the opportunity to create VERY CLEARLY LABELED sponsored posts — either with useful information about their product or service (i.e. not eye-glazing ad copy) or their own thoughts on news and trends. The post would be written by the sponsor, NOT by me, and clearly labeled as such. The idea is to experiment with a more interesting format than standard issue buttons and banner ads. The sponsored posts would be from companies I know, not just random solicitations. Assuming the disclosure was crystal clear and the frequency was not too annoying, how would you feel about this as a Publishing 2.0 reader?

Sponsor Post Question Results

For Publishing 2.0 readers, this appears to be an 80/20 issue, i.e. only 20% see it as a big issue, and only 5% see it as a deal breaker. I received a ton frank write-in comments, most of which said some variation on the first answer choice, i.e. it’s fine, just don’t abuse the privilege.

Some even asserted the right of publishers to make money — if done in a way that is transparent and that doesn’t abuse readers. I do intend to commercialize Publishing 2.0 (more on the big picture to come), but I would ideally prefer (to the say the least) not to cross the line into devaluing Publishing 2.0, even for a smaller number of readers (realizing, of course, that you can’t please all of the people all of the time).

Many of the write-in comments against sponsor posts seemed to be against commercializing Publishing 2.0 at all, i.e. don’t interrupt my flow of free content. To address that issue separately, I frankly feel that commercial-free content is an unrealistic expectation for any publisher/reader relationship — there are no free lunches. But there are clearly right and wrong ways to do it, because publishers have a huge obligation to create value for their readers, and I certainly take that obligation very seriously. Still, every publisher should hope that their readers aren’t so loosely tethered to the value they create as to be contingent on a pure non-commercial environment.

But I certainly don’t take the position that TV networks did that viewers are obligated to watch ads as part of some implied contract, that skipping ads breaks this contract, and that viewers should be forced to watch ads. The burden is on the publisher and sponsors to ensure that the commercial content is relevant and valuable, that it is displayed in a transparent and non-abusive manner, and that it can ultimately enhance the overall value of the publication, rather than detract from it — Google set that bar high with its search advertising model.

That said, I’m going to try to drill down on the issue of sponsor posts further by looking at an actual implementation of the sponsor post ad format that I think is done well — on paidContent.

Here is what paidContent readers found in their feed readers yesterday:

paidContent Sponsor Post

Your eyes would have to be pretty glazed over not to see the first two words in the headline, which are the first two words anyone is likely to read: SPONSOR POST, in ALL CAPS. I like that it’s called a Sponsor Post rather than a SponsorED Post, i.e. it’s a SPONSOR’S post, not a post by the blogger that has been sponsored.

The post is not overly long, and is certainly relevant to the media companies that read paidContent. The links go to a nicely designed dedicated landing page.

Importantly, the links are all redirects, meaning that they do not convey any SEO benefit — Google has made it clear they are cracking down on paid links.

From a user experience standpoint, if every other post was a Sponsor Post, it would be very annoying indeed, but I had to go back 5 days and 40 or so posts to find the next most recent Sponsor Post in the paidContent feed. With paidContent’s volume of posts, they might even get away with every other day or even once a day, but it appears they are wisely trying not to overdo it.

Stepping back, one of the larger questions here is how publishers can effectively monetize their content in the age of RSS, where they no longer control the presentation of the content. Creating Sponsor Posts allows publishers to insert (potentially) substantive advertising content into the feed in a way that is likely to get readers’ attention, and they can avoid abusing that attention if it’s done with the right disclosure, frequency, and relevancy.

If you think that’s a radical concept, I should point out that there are other media that insert advertiser content into the same format that the editorial content uses — that would be TV, radio, magazines, and newspapers:

BusinessWeek Ad

Interesting how the content on the right isn’t labeled as “sponsored” — yet, amazingly, we’re all accustomed to recognizing it as an ad and deciding whether to engage with it or turn the page.

Lastly, I want to highlight one other medium that uses an ad format that looks just like the editorial content, and is only distinguished by labeling as “sponsored.”

Google Ads

With that, I’m going to throw this open to comments and discussion. If you have an opinion on this, now’s your chance to air it.