One of the new "big things" of the past few years is content marketing, which includes sponsored content.
Content marketing isn't anything new in the world of PR. It's just another name for one of the things we do -- generate exposure for clients in the media. In PR, we generally don't pay to have our content run. Instead, it's our challenge to take the information our client wants us to promote and make it worthy of being used on its own merits as information or news that our target audience may find useful. To succeed, we need to think like a combination of a marketer and a journalist.
Sponsored content, on the other hand, is often material that's used because a sponsor is paying for it to appear. In newspapers and magazines, paid content that is made to look like it's part of the publication is usually called an advertorial, and any reputable publication will clearly indicate to readers that it is paid for an ad or advertorial.
On TV, they're called infomercials... long-form ads that are made to look like reak TV programming, often simulating a talk show or interview format. On TV, such content marketing is also clearly marked as paid programming.
The internet, however, is a whole different story. It's still the wild west online. There's no big capital outlay for printing presses or TV transmitters and no license needed to broadcast over the public airwaves. Anyone with a computer can create a site online. Anyone with a computer can use social media to promote products for pay.
On many sites, the lines have become quite blurred between legitimate content and sponsored content. So-called mommy bloggers were big on crossing the line, although most have cleaned up their act in recent years. But it's happening enough that the government is stepping in.
The Federal Trade Commission has had some nonbinding guidelines regarding sponsored content, but enough marketers are crossing the line so that the FTC is convening a workshop in December to begin taking a closer look. The workshop will bring together ad people, publishers, consumer advocates and government regulators, and hopefully they'll be able to come up with a plan that can put a stop to abusive content marketing practices.
The key here is that anything that's been paid to be online should be clearly identified as paid content. It's the right thing to do so the public can trust what they read and see in the media, whether on TV, in print or online.
An interesting aside here is the potential impact on public relations. Tighter controls over identifying sponsored content may create more opportunities for marketers to turn to PR to get their message out there.