Frank Sennett’s sponsored content guidelines

Frank Sennett tells Romenesko readers that “even before the latest stumbles by the Atlantic and BuzzFeed with sponsored content online, I saw a need for an end to the Wild West moment we’re going through.” He hoped to work on some industry guidelines as a Nieman fellow, but didn’t get the position.

Frank Sennett

Frank Sennett

“I have continued to work on them” while editing Time Out Chicago, he writes. “I haven’t done an ethics project since back in the 90s, but this one piqued my interest.”

Here’s what Sennett has put together:

Proposed ethics guidelines for online sponsored content

By Frank Sennett*

Ad-supported journalism is being consumed in record quantities, but those of us who manage media companies face a stark reality: Traditional advertising dollars in print and broadcast become dimes on the full-scale web, and they tend to disappear entirely on mobile devices. Alternative revenue models, then, are key to success, but only if they follow ethics guidelines that protect media outlets from losing credibility with readers.

Sponsored content, as it is now being published on the full-scale and mobile web, differs from old-fashioned print advertorial in significant ways. The biggest departure is that, rather than passively receiving and publishing advertorial copy from ad agencies, media outlets are more often partnering with brands to create custom-content “native advertising” campaigns that resonate with readers who fit the publication’s demographic profile.

- From

– From

BuzzFeed, for instance, employs a large staff to craft brand-marketing pieces that readers will share with friends via Facebook and other social networks. One such recent post, “11 Things No One Wants To See You Instagram,” quickly drew 330,000 views on behalf of advertiser Virgin Mobile, the Wall Street Journal reported. Similarly, Forbes Media created a Forbes BrandVoice program through which brands can submit paid articles to the Forbes website. “The advertiser-sponsored copy appears in the same style and format as articles contributed by Forbes writers and editors,” New York Post media columnist Keith J. Kelly reported in November. (The BrandVoice connection is noted at the top of posts.)/CONTINUES

This is a Wild West moment for sponsored content—so much so that Sid Holt, chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors, “could not say for sure if [the Forbes program] would get flagged for violating ASME guidelines,” the New York Post reported. “It is something I’d have to look into,” Holt told Kelly. High-profile sponsored-content blunders by BuzzFeed (in a post for Samsung that used copyrighted photos without permission) and The Atlantic (in a post for Scientology that sparked a reader backlash) this month alone suggest that it’s high time to develop industry standards for sponsored content online.

Especially during the blow-up over The Atlantic’s Scientology ad, some prominent media voices called for an outright rejection of all sponsored content. But not only is that an unrealistic position, it also damns an alternative advertising method that has an effective, widely accepted analogue in the print world supported by commonsense ethics guidelines. Presenting sponsored content online in a way that protects readers—and the integrity of media brands—while also best serving the needs of advertisers is a more realistic and, frankly, useful goal.

Sponsored content never should be published to trick audiences into believing a brand marketing campaign is pure editorial content. Rather, sponsored content should aim to engage audiences with material that entertains and educates in its own right and creates a clear, positive association between brand and content. Ideally, the content will be custom tailored to serve the interests of the publication’s audience. (That is the secret sauce of native advertising: paid content that actually complements a site’s editorial and generates real interest in an audience that clearly understands it is choosing to read/watch sponsored material.) Advertisers and agencies understand that there is no long-term value (and scant potential short-term value) for brands in tricking audiences, and it would be a disastrous strategy for media outlets to follow.

The following guidelines are offered to spur conversation and help speed the adoption of clear industry-wide standards. Let’s get moving on this before the next embarrassing sponsored-content snafu blows up our Twitter feeds.

Ethics guidelines for sponsored content online

1. Audiences should be able to immediately distinguish sponsored content from pure editorial on the publication’s site. All sponsored content should include a clear and prominent statement that the material is “sponsored content” or an “advertisement.” Further distinguishing features–from incorporating the sponsoring brand’s logo into the piece to differentiating the design from pure editorial through background shading or alternate text/photo display treatments–should be strongly considered as well.

2. When publications promote sponsored content online, they should clearly identify it as such. That means using hashtags such as #sponsor at the end of tweets linking to branded content, for instance, and clearly disclosing any marketing tie-ins to content promoted in Facebook posts, RSS feeds, etc. If sponsored posts can be pulled into a publication’s automated most-viewed stories lists, they should be properly identified as advertising content there as well. The same is true for e-newsletters, text alerts and any other ancillary publication/promotion of the content.

3. Editorial staffers should not be required to create advertising content. Content not provided by the client or agency should be developed with either staff marketing resources or freelancers.

4. Publications should consider whether accepting a given branded content campaign will damage editorial credibility with core audiences and, if so, reject or modify the campaign accordingly. Presenting sponsored content from a steakhouse should give pause to a publication catering to vegan audiences, for instance. Such mismatches typically backfire on the advertiser as well.

5. Comments should be turned off under sponsored content posts, unless the advertiser agrees not to object to any comment that meets the publication’s standard commenting guidelines. Audiences have a right to expect that a brand’s interests will not be placed above their interests in the editing of comment threads.

6. Publications should avoid adjacencies between sponsored content and pure editorial that mentions the sponsor. This will help minimize the potential for reader confusion while protecting the integrity of the publication’s editorial and insulating the brand’s message. This is the same principle that applies to avoiding print adjacencies–an ad for a film next to a rave review might lead readers to suspect the publication was paid off, while that same ad next to a negative review would harm the advertiser’s marketing effort.

7. Commercial rights to all copyrighted material–including photos, video footage and music—must be secured from the copyright holder before the material is used in sponsored content. Failure to do so may expose the publication to infringement claims and the brand to audience backlash. Publications should be prepared to stipulate to advertisers that such material is cleared for use in the sponsored piece, and advertisers should ask for such assurances. “When it is impracticable to obtain permission, you should consider avoiding the use of copyrighted material unless you are confident that the doctrine of fair use would apply to the situation,” the U.S. Copyright Office suggests. Note: Fair-use claims are much less likely to prevail when the copyrighted material in question was used in a commercial context.

8. Advertising and editorial managers should discuss upcoming sponsored content campaigns to flag potential advertorial/editorial conflicts that could harm the publication’s credibility. In such (hopefully rare) cases, the advertising manager should consult with the sponsor about reworking, rescheduling or even canceling the content buy. But advertising conflicts should not prompt the editorial manager to rework, reschedule or cancel editorial projects.

* What qualifies me to propose these guidelines? As president and editor-in-chief of Time Out Chicago, I am in the trenches at a company working hard to increase online revenue. I also literally wrote the book on daily-deals pioneer Groupon (Groupon’s Biggest Deal Ever, St. Martin’s Press, 2012), so I’m comfortable exploring new online marketing methods with an open yet critical eye. I also have a strong track record in advocating for high ethical standards in online journalism. My ethics project (I no longer own the URL), which encouraged online news sites to adopt transparent error-correction policies, received international attention in the late 1990s and predated initiatives such as Regret the Error.