PR Insider: The Rise of Hidden Paid Content

Anna Keeve
Anna Keeve

A recent report from eMarketer shows the way advertising dollars are increasingly being allocated; traditional advertising is slowing, and sponsored content is picking up momentum. In 2013 there was a 22 percent rise (from 2012) in dollars spent on sponsored content, and by 2017 they predict that number will double, reaching $3.1 billion.

More companies are interested in wrapping ad messages into a format that looks like editorial content, and understandably so. Editorial placement is earned, not bought, making it considerably more credible and valuable. Not to mention consumers read the publications for the content, not the ads. But no matter how smart a news consumer might be, it may be impossible to distinguish between paid/sponsored content or advertorials, and an editorial piece that was actually earned. While some publications clearly differentiate between the two, many are starting to publish “hidden paid content” as a unique selling point for potential advertisers and to cash in on the content marketing surge.

There is not an impenetrable barrier between organizations looking to step into the limelight and obtain exposure in highly coveted editorial sections. People have been doing this for years, and it works; it is called public relations. These professionals pitch content to editors, if the editor likes it, and the company/story is newsworthy, they will use it – there is no monetary incentive thus allowing the publishers to remain objective.

The question remains as to where the line should be drawn to ensure news media is still delivering objective content and differentiating between “paid” vs. “earned media.” In fact, many publications are engaging in practices that blur the lines even further by enlisting their writers to create sponsored posts for advertisers to replicate editorial content and tone.

In this evolving dynamic of hidden paid content, a new form of competition is emerging for public relations professionals. Those sections that were once fair game for earned media are being replaced with content that appears as an objective editorial piece or section, lessening the number of opportunities for earned media.

A recent example of editorial shifting to hidden paid content is the U-T San Diego’s “On the Move” section (that highlights recent hires, acquisitions, etc.). For years this has been a strictly editorial-based section, but now they are charging $250 to highlight your “On the Move” news. In the past, editors/reporters filtered non-news worthy announcements and chose to highlight those most prominent and relevant. Now, anyone willing to shell out $250 bucks gets prime editorial highlights (with a photo) in the Business section. In this case, there is not even a designation that it is a “sponsored” piece, or “advertorial.”  I actually spoke to a sales rep at the U-T who seemed to gloat over the fact that this “advertorial section” (after saying “advertising section” then promptly correcting herself referencing the fact that “ad” was a bad word to use) is indistinguishable from other editorial content. The best part? They actually have a team that will take your information and write it for you, to replicate the “editorial tone,” so the woman on the phone told me.

This is a prime example of publications’ desperate attempt to create more revenue-generating streams, even if it means sacrificing editorial integrity. In many cases there have been backlashes from consumers that felt deceived by national publications positioning paid/sponsored content as editorial content. Unfortunately, often times, news consumers are victims in an advertising game and are unknowingly getting information from a source that has a bias and bottom line to meet.

Publishers face a threat as well: companies are finding more ways to deliver their own content to the public. This is leaving media companies in a frenzy resorting to upping their sponsored content offerings, even if it means publishing hidden paid content.

A new business model is afoot that threatens not only objectivity in reporting and publishing, but also the opportunities for earned media. While publishing may have once been a lucrative business, there is no question that the shrinking industry is evolving in a desperate attempt to capture marketing dollars. In this process, publications are losing journalistic integrity and will eventually alienate those readers that catch on.

Anna Keeve is senior program manager at Stalwart Communications, a pay-on-performance PR and marketing agency in San Diego. Follow Anna: @AnnaKeeve

  • Sandy Young

    Great read, Anna. It’s very disturbing to me when media outlets do not distinguish between paid and unpaid editorial content, as it is deceiving to a large amount of readers. There should be some sort of accountability.