Spnsorship Monday-Integrity and Sponsored Content

Content sponsorship is thorny, as anyone running a content-rich property can tell you. Take for example the folks at Unshelved who took some heat for posting a comic strip about a tutoring scenario the same week that Tutor.com was the site’s sponsor. Editors quickly responded to complaints explaining it was an unfortunate coincidence and begged forgiveness.

The editors over at Boing Boing earned 150 negative comments when they unveiled a content sponsorship deal with Honda that allowed the car maker to sponsor categories of information.

This March, the vaunted TED Conference allowed its loyal sponsor, BMW, to provide a speaker who gave a pro-hydrogen a talk on the future of fuel. The speech is promoted on the home page of TED’s heavily-trafficked website with the headline…”Ideas from Our Sponsor.”

The problem these content sponsorships face is that they blur the line between authentic commentary and advertising. The web is a platform for an influential cadre of rebel writers who take risky positions. Because they take potshots, they can’t appear to be shills. Loyal audiences are buying into a particular voice, a no-holes-barred style that makes it worth investing the time to read. You can surround this kind of content with sponsor messages, which readers ignore, or you can embed sponsor messages and run adjacencies that look like content and force readers to distinguish.

The problem with many content sponsorship deals is that they are simply lazy, limpid interruption campaigns. Think logo slaps with hotlinks. Only they’re web-based. Skip it, right.

So how are sponsors supposed to justify their involvement if they can’t wrap their brands around what the audience truly cares about, namely the content?

Web 2.0 is a world rich with content.The content sponsorship conundrum demands sincerity and deftness if it hopes to monetize the Web. Today, the approach feels more like in-your-face-direct mail than artful web-based advertising, in the same way that early television looked more like live-action radio.

While the maturation process takes its course, I recommend these guidelines for those of you out there contemplating getting sponsors:

Bloggers should think twice about placing ads on your blog sites. Truly, it’s turn off to be having a conversation with someone and have some loud mouth (read tower ad) interrupting.

-Product reviews and endorsements need total transparency, and a willingness to offer upside/downside critique.

-Themed content sponsorships where you agree to discuss a sponsor’s product should be timed and spaced out on weekly rotation. Subjected an audience to higher frequency runs the risk of your becoming boring. Worse, a boring shill.

Three ideas for sponsored content:

1. Sponsored videos or Flickr streams. These work well, especially if they involve the product.

2. Sponsored chats on topics that relate to the sponsor’s product. For example, a women with a skin problem recently hosted a chat for fellow sufferers. The community shared their sorrows and tips. The sponsor was Unilever’s Eucerin line for troubled adult skin, which was transparent. The content was so valuable, and with sponsor presence that made it possible, the audience grew symbiotically.

3. Sponsored contests. These are fun traffic drivers and everyone wins. Free trips, citizen content, juried creative content, all make great opportunities for win-win promotions.

Always keep in mind that the reason any property is sponsor-worthy is because it has an audience. Risk that, and you cash in your value.