Beyond Print Toolkit: Sponsored content

In the post-print age, sponsored content is increasingly common — but successful operations require sales training, client education, clear ethical guidelines, and strong execution.

By Shira Toeplitz Center

June 27, 2024

Accogliente Design / Shutterstock

Sponsored content or native advertising includes high-quality content — written, video, or otherwise — that is paid for by a client, created with their goals in mind, and delivered to the reader in a format that’s organic to your platform. In the post-print age, sponsored content is increasingly common — but successful operations require sales training, client education, clear ethical guidelines, and strong execution. 

The essentials

Sponsored content can appear in many different forms on a news publisher’s website, however it always must be clearly marked as paid for by an advertiser or “partner.” Some examples:

  • A traditional 600- to 800-word story format. This can run in print, online, or both, and include any of the multimedia features that typically accompany a story.  
  • A collection of sponsored stories under one theme, paid for by one or many clients. 
  • Videos, either for social media or on site, featuring content related to the brand and its goals.
  • Newsletter advertisements in the same written style as the newsletter’s editorial content, usually with a headline noted that it’s from an advertiser (“Together with X” company). 

This is worth repeating: In any format, you’ll need to disclose clearly that the content is paid for by an advertiser. There are a myriad of ways to do this listed at the end of this section (a “paid post” label for example), but the reader should never, ever be confused about who supplied this content. 

Regardless of the format or placement, sponsored content should be high-quality and provide value to your audience. Readers should never feel like they are reading or seeing a 600-word advertisement or video infomercial. Take, for example, this paid sponsored content story on a pickleball champion from Humana that ran with USA Today: The word “Humana” does not appear in the body of the story until the very last paragraph. 

Key indicators

There are many ways sponsored content differs from traditional advertising. First, when it’s done well, it performs better than typical digital advertising — there are no lost impressions to ad blockers or “banner blindness” to blame for low click-through rates. Second, it is geared toward a different type of client that is looking to educate or explain something — a brand awareness play, as opposed to performance marketing or a transactional advertising sale. Third, the sales process for sponsored content is consultative, with a deliverable that’s more resource-intensive than a typical digital campaign. 

Finally, you’ll need to consider how you’ll drive views to the content — where on your site and/or other platforms (social, email, etc.)  it will be placed, as well as any additional traffic drivers you’ll need to promote it. These will need to be considered in advance and included in any media package sold to the client. In the end, clients will still want metrics — typically impressions and, in some cases, pageviews or engaged time. 


Getting started with sponsored content

Sponsored content is still content, which means it can be very resource intensive. That’s why you’ll want to start with a minimally viable product — a single format, such as a 600-word sponsored story, that you can easily execute. To do that, you’ll need to figure out a few things in advance. 

You’ll need someone to create the content (a writer or, in some cases, videographer), and some personnel for oversight — a freelance editor or existing manager for quality control. Most newsrooms have strict rules against their journalists writing sponsored content, with good reason: The reader would get confused if the same byline is on a news story as a paid post. For this reason, consider relying on freelance workers, especially as you build this revenue stream. 

You’ll also want to figure out where this content will live before you go to market. Many publications will use the same hosting platform as their news operation, but they will clearly mark the content as paid on the page and in the URL (See this example from the Seattle Times). Many publishing platforms, such as Newspack, offer the capability to add sponsor labels and delinations to stories. 

Finally, you’ll need to give some thought in advance on how you’ll drive the audience to the sponsored content. This is where publishers have an inherent advantage over most of the rest of the internet, because you’ll have a lot of options. Many sponsored content packages include promotion on the homepage as specially marked “sponsor content” or via the publisher’s own social channels as a “paid partnership” (with your organization’s buy-in, of course). 

Here’s an example of homepage placement with proper disclosure from LinkNKY, a publication in Northern Kentucky: 

Additionally, the following is a sample package from, courtesy of a case study from the Meta Branded Content Project

Once you’ve figured out these three key matters — how the content will be produced, where it will live, and how you’ll drive the audience to it — then you can begin to think about going to market. 

Going to market

Sponsored content is a different kind of ad product, and it requires a different kind of sale. You’ll want to make sure your value proposition to the client is clear. The client could hire a freelance writer themselves, create some sponsored content, post it on the internet and then market it on their own. But news publishers add a lot of value that the client can’t provide themselves — you just have to make sure it’s clearly explained to them

First, your website comes with a demonstrable audience that’s shown interest in the exact kind of formats (stories, videos, etc.) that you’re offering the client. What’s more, trust is a tenant of any news brand, so associating with that — even if it’s paid content — has inherent value. Finally, as many publisher media kits will note, news organizations are known for being masterful storytellers, meaning the final product should be superior. All of the above, plus any strong data points about your website’s engagement and sponsored content performance, should be part of the seller training. 

Next up: You’ll develop a client prospect list that will probably look different than your usual targets. For sponsored content, you’ll want clients who aren’t offering a simple, transactional buy to consumers. Prime targets are clients that need to explain something to the consumer about their product or offering — they need a story to show their value. Additionally, they should also have the capacity to invest, because sponsored content is more expensive than a lot of traditional advertising. 

Some strong initial targets include “car dealerships, healthcare, educational institutions, utility companies, and state lotteries,” according to Meghan Finnerty, founder of Storytellers Brand Studio at Gannett/The USA Today Network, in an interview with the Meta Branded Content Project. Travel destination clients are also possibilities, given strong photography can have a better platform in sponsored content than a typical banner ad. 

To start, put together a simple one-sheet or a very small deck as sales collateral, including deliverables, timeline, and pricing information. You’ll need to train your sales people on how to pitch this product to clients who might not be familiar with sponsored content. Sponsored content requires creative ideation, which is not always part of the seller skill set. Once you have a reliable and frequent content creator, they may want to join the client call alongside the seller. If the brand can imagine the possibilities, they are more likely to sign up.

Remember, that the possibilities are endless with sponsored content: If it can be content, it can be sponsored content. That’s why it’s so important to start small and simple — one clear option that suits your target clients and their investment level, in a format that your audience will know. 

Finally, before pitching someone, consider whether the client aligns with your values. This is not just a display ad that could just as well be delivered by a programmatic provider. In sponsored content, you are leveraging your brand and platform to tell this client’s story: Does the client and their message make sense for your audience? Consider this early warning from the Atlantic: In 2013, they published sponsored content celebrating the leader of Scientology that was met with widespread public rebuke. 

Pricing sponsored content

Since sponsored content is more resource intensive than most digital campaigns, you’ll want to start thinking about your expenses from the start. You’ll need to include the cost of creating the content, as well as any internal resources/oversight and external promotional costs (Meta/Facebook traffic drivers, for example). 

The Meta Branded Content Project advises a 50 to 75 percent profit margin for branded content campaigns. But consider your market, especially in your first year or two of sales. You could always offer this product at cost, or with a slim 10-20 percent profit margin, while you collect performance data from those first few clients. 


Branching out options for sponsored content

Once you have a couple sponsored content products in your regular sales offerings, and you are executing and delivering those reliably, there are infinite ways to develop this product line. Obviously, you’ll want to consider your capabilities and the costs of offering additional features. What follows below are some examples of sponsored content with premium features and presentation:

  • Add stunning photography and visual effects to a story
  • Multimedia packages that include video and other features.
  • Native advertising content in newsletters
    • Example: “Presented by OpenDoor,” native newsletter ads in multiple local Axios newsletters for OpenDoor. 
  • Themed, multi-advertiser “sections.”
    • Example: “Executive Excellence,” sponsored profiles of women leaders in Massachusetts from Boston Globe Media’s sponsored content shop, Studio B
  • Custom branded podcasts
    • Example: “Off the Record” branded podcast from Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal for Platinum Bank. 

Ethics and disclosures 

As mentioned before, the purpose of sponsored content is never to fool the reader. There are many ways to disclose the content is sponsored, or paid for by an advertiser. Here are just a few examples of paid content labels: 

  • “Paid Post” or “Paid Program” 
  • “Content from [brand name]”
  • “This content is sponsored by [brand name]”
  • “Partner content”…. “Sponsored by [brand name]”

You’ll often see a combination of the above terms repeated throughout the page. Additionally, best practice is to have additional language on the page with more explanation and contact for readers to submit questions. Some examples: 

  • This Paid Program is either (i) produced by the advertising department of the Los Angeles Times on behalf of the Advertiser or (ii) supplied by the Advertiser. The newsrooms or editorial departments of the Los Angeles Times are not involved in the production of this content. For those with questions, please email [email protected].
  • This content is paid for by an advertiser and published by WP BrandStudio. The Washington Post newsroom was not involved in the creation of this content. Learn more about WPBrandStudio.
  • This content was produced by Boston Globe Media’s Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.
  • The Seattle Times produces a variety of news and information content with funding from outside sources. Content with a “Provided by” label was produced by the ST Content Studio or an advertiser, not by the newsroom. All content that is provided by an advertiser is clearly labeled.

See this example, again from the Seattle Times, with red circles around each point of disclosure on the sponsored story page:  

You might also consider having a different font (serif vs. sans serif) for sponsored content compared to news stories and, if your content management system allows, a distinct design template, too. 

Additional examples and resources: 

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