How The Onion Gets People to Read Sponsored Content: Make Fun of It

Serious Business for The Onion

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About a month ago, The Onion posted an article to its Facebook page with the headline, "Complete Idiot Forgot to Shave Area Between Nose and Mouth." The complete idiot, you might have guessed, sports a mustache. The Facebook post has more than 13,000 "likes," nearly 2,200 shares and reams of comments. It's also a sponsored post for the Schick Xtreme3 razor -- and labeled on Facebook as one in a very Onion kind of way: "There is a stone where our soul once was. Enjoy this #sponsored content."

Some ad-sales execs would probably sell their own souls for those kind of sharing numbers. Brands are increasingly relying on publishers to not only produce sponsored content, but also ensure their audiences actually read and engage with it.

"Distribution is as important as creation in the content space," said Scott Donaton, chief content officer at DigitasLBi North America.

The Onion remains very Onion-y about the whole thing. "All we're doing is making fun of the idea of sponsored content," said Hassan Ali Khan, The Onion's VP of marketing. Well, that and charging money for it.

Sponsored content is serious business for The Onion, where more than 90% of its ad deals include a custom component, according to Onion President Mike McAvoy. The Chicago-based publisher is also home to an in-house creative agency, Onion Labs, which is run by former Energy BBDO exec Rick Hamann, who hasn't been shy about luring away others from the agency side.

Mr. Ali Khan, for instance, spent a year at Anomaly before joining The Onion, where his team is responsible for getting people to read the articles and watch the videos that advertisers pay to promote, like the Schick post. Other examples of his team's work using Facebook and Twitter to entice readers to paid content:

The last example was a tweet that directed readers to the article, "Area Man Not About To Tie His Shoe When He's 4 Blocks Away From Sitting Down." Reebok sponsored the story as part of its campaign to reintroduce the Pump sneaker. It was retweeted 120 times and garnered 240 favorites.

"You have to comment on the absurdity of the culture around what the product does," Mr. Ali Khan said. Engagement rates with sponsored content are "on par with other posts we do," he added.

Reebok was pleased with the engagement it saw from the campaign on The Onion. "It was one of the top drivers of traffic," said Jessica Ruscito, director of U.S. media and digital for Reebok, which went to The Onion because comedy resonates with its target consumers. "Those headlines capture the attention of the audience," Ms. Ruscito said.

The Onion, which stopped printing a weekly newspaper almost two years ago to become a digital-only publisher, satirizes the news by adopting the look and feel of actual news sites. But many of the sites it seeks to parody -- such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Atlantic -- don't actually promote sponsored content on their Facebook pages. Some digital-only publishers do; Vox, for example, labels such Facebook updates as coming from a sponsor.

There are lessons for other publishers, said Sam Slaughter, VP of content at Contently, which helps brands with their content marketing. "The Onion's sponsored stuff is satirical … like everything else it publishes," he explained. "If another publisher is about thoughtfulness and intelligence, its sponsored content needs to be thoughtfulness and intelligence. If it's a magazine about humor and gossip, that piece of content should follow that tone as well."

That extends to the messages it uses on social media to promote the sponsored content. "It's about having that same tone, but not hiding -- being transparent about where it comes," he added.

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