Many publishers embracing sponsored content defend the integrity of their ad/edit walls by creating in-house teams apart from their newsrooms to produce content on behalf of advertisers. But a handful of publishers -- such as Mashable and Mental Floss -- are allowing their editorial staffs to write stories and produce videos for advertisers, arguing that it affords a more authentic experience.
The arrangements between the publishers and advertisers vary, but in most cases, a publisher will give marketers a menu of editorial topics that the marketer can then tailor in some way. Instead of assigning these stories or videos to someone on the marketing side of things, they enlist editorial staffers to produce the content.
Last week, for example, Mangesh Hattikudur, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Mental Floss magazine, live-blogged from the U.S. Open as part of a branded-content effort with IBM on the intersection of sports and data. I.B.M., a tournament sponsor, did not see the posts before they went live, according to Mr. Mangesh, who noted that he wanted to cover the Open in any case.
"I'm a tennis fan and thought it would be fun to find content that would be intriguing," he said, adding that a resulting sponsored post on the science of grunting -- labeled "IBM Partner Content' beneath -- was among the day's most-read stories. (I.B.M. did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)
Will Pearson, the president and other co-founder of Mental Floss, said setting up in-house studios separate from the editorial talent fails to benefit sites' advertisers and readers, because editorial staffers most ably reflect the voice of the magazine.
"We noticed that other media properties' sponsored posts were not as strong as their regular content," Mr. Pearson said. "And we put our finger on why that was: So many publishing companies and media properties are spinning off studios and separate editorial teams."
Thus far, it seems that only smaller or relatively new media brands are using their editorial staff to write sponsored content. George Janson, managing partner and director of print for GroupM, sees this arrangement as something of an anomaly in the publishing business. But there could be some appeal to marketers, he said.
"If the reporter is a subject matter expert more so than a marketing person, which I assume they would be, then ideally that reporter has more credibility," Mr. Janson said.
At Mashable, a branded content team gives potential advertisers a menu of topics that its newsroom wants to cover. Advertisers can tweak the menu choices somewhat, according to Adam Ostrow, chief strategy officer at Mashable.
"We'll make some tweaks," Mr. Ostrow said. "So if they're looking to reach a specific type of consumer, or if there are topics they do or don't want to be around, we'll make tweaks to what they're doing thematically."
Mr. Ostrow said editorial staff does not have direct contact with advertisers, which helps to maintain the newsroom's integrity. The posts are labeled as "sponsored by."
The bulk of publishers creating sponsored posts are instead setting up studios, which live outside their newsrooms and are filled with a hybrid of writers and marketers.
A spokeswoman for BuzzFeed, which has been a prominent advocate of sponsored posts, said the company maintains a creative team of 40 people to create branded content without involving the editorial side. "The Edit team needs independence to cover news and entertainment objectively, and the Creative team needs to focus on the needs of our brand and agency partners," she said in an email. "For BuzzFeed, as it's been for the news media for over a hundred years, a wall between these teams is what is most effective."
But even some traditional publishers are using edit staffers and editorial partners to create content for marketers.
Conde Nast's Details magazine recently tapped its network of outside bloggers to help advertisers promote their new lines, using its editorial photographers to take pictures of nine bloggers in pieces from the fall collections of designers such as Gucci and Prada.
The resulting pictures will run as dedicated blog posts on the contributor's individual blogs and the Details Network blog aggregation page, a spokeswoman for the magazine said. They will also be part of a digital magazine for Details' Facebook page. The designers will use the images on their own promotion and social channels.
The program was part of a larger ad buy and served as an incentive for the advertisers, the Details spokeswoman said. The bloggers weren't paid for their role, she added, but some were able to keep the clothes, depending on the designer.