Sponsored content for good: It is possible!

May 16, 2018

spon·sored con·tent
1. material in an online publication which resembles the publication’s editorial content but is paid for by an advertiser and intended to promote the advertiser’s product.

Whether you realize it or not, sponsored content is all around us, and takes endless forms. Whether it’s a subtle #ad or “sponsored” note on a social media post, or a full-page, color advertorial and web page takeover, which just happens to discuss Netflix’s latest hit show. While the for-profit and advertising world has become fully fluent in sponsored content, here’s a lesson on how nonprofits can benefit from this tool.

But first, a bit of context: as media outlets are pressured to churn out more and more content to meet the appetites of voracious online media consumers and beat out their competition, there’s a need to fund and feed quality journalism and multimedia projects. Sponsored content essentially solves both problems, by increasing the amount of content that can be offered on a channel, while also generating revenue.

Seattle’s local media landscape, like so many others, has been dominated by lay-offs and buy-outs, consolidation and uncertain futures. Unfortunately, these problems can be even worse for outlets like the Seattle Globalist, which serves and covers diverse and under-represented communities. Rightfully so, these mission-based and community-led outlets have to be a bit more choosy with advertisers (e.g. let’s not take the advertising dollars of the fast food chain that’s contributed to rising obesity rates in our city!)

When proposing our 2017 work with the Russell Family Foundation last year, I thought about how Resource Media could create a project that was mutually beneficial to various parties—local, independent media led by people of color, community groups and nonprofits with great stories to tell, and a family foundation seeking to spread good word on important work happening in the Puget Sound region.

Resource Media is in a rare position of being able to connect funding sources for sponsored content that journalists actually find worthy of coverage. Most journalists will tell you that they’d prefer not to spend their time writing “advertorials” or native content, in fact many outlets completely separate out this side of the house, serious journalists on one side, writers for the content marketplace on the other.

This wasn’t the dynamic that Resource Media wanted to pursue, and we vetted several media outlets as options, looking at how sponsored content was displayed in comparison to organic, and how their writing and editorial team was comprised.

“It was really fulfilling to collaborate with Resource Media on the Puget Sound Future-Makers series. We were able to share the stories of some important work that was being done in the community—stories of hard work that don’t usually make it into the forefront of mainstream media,” Travis Quezon, executive director of Seattle Globalist.

We created a suite of narratives that we thought were interesting and thought-provoking, and worked with the Seattle Globalist to ensure that these stories had legs, and were in line with their editorial vision. Then we connected the Globalist team with sources for each of these narratives, ranging from Willard Brown who created an urban wetland and environmental education center from surplus Seattle City Light land, to Sophorn Sim, who educates the Cambodian community on environmental health hazards. (Delridge Neighborhood Development Association and ECOSS, respectively)

We realized that many of these stories could be placed the old-fashioned way, simply by pitching them to different outlets. None were too commercial, often the death knell for a story in community outlets. But, many were back-burner feature stories, so there was no guarantee of when they’d be placed, if at all, if we simply pitched them.

By pursuing sponsored content, we’re able to:

1. Provide a level of certainty to our funder and our partner groups, and also let them review quotes and content to ensure that their organization is accurately portrayed.

2. Support independent, local, journalism led by people of color by providing a revenue stream,

3. Create a branded “series” of stories, Puget Sound Future-Makers, which lets us time stories in clusters and educate the community on the common threads between these stories

4. This clustering also allows our partners to more easily find and share the stories through social media, resulting in further recognition of community leaders.

This is the first year we’re trying out this model, and we’d love to learn more about how to improve and expand into the future. So check out the Puget Sound Future-Makers series running now in the Seattle Globalist, and if you’d like to talk sponsored content for good, please drop me an email!

Sian Wu