Newspapers can earn good money by publishing sponsored content but it must be clearly distinguished from editorial or risk the newspaper's reputation.
Sponsored content is that broad category of material that is neither advertising nor editorial. Last week, for instance, the Mail & Guardian included three sponsored supplements – on Women's Month, the Innovation Summit and a careers guide – a number of pages of advertorial and other elements. I counted something like 32 pages in all.
Regular readers will know that the newspaper's centre is generally a bit soft, with an often bewildering collection of supplements inserted into each other in a kind of Russian-doll arrangement. They are usually put aside pretty quickly.
The attraction for sponsors is obvious: supplements offer an opportunity to reach an audience in a different way to ordinary advertising. For some businesses they provide a useful opportunity to put more nuanced, thoughtful content before readers.
And let us be honest: that they look and feel more like editorial material seems to bestow on them greater credibility and weight. The reputation of the M&G itself is seen to rub off.
In principle, there is really no problem with this kind of material and the newspaper can use the opportunity to do interesting editorial work in a particular area of focus, such as last week's Women's Month supplement. But it does need to be properly managed to ensure the client's association with the paper's name is appropriate and defensible.
The credibility and reputation of the newspaper is probably its greatest asset and no short-term deal, no matter how lucrative, should be allowed to jeopardise it. Even marketers need to realise that protecting the brand is in their own long-term interests.
A few years ago, the short-lived newspaper ThisDay printed almost an entire edition in the colours of a major cellphone company on the day that company released its financial results. The business-section lead reflected on the company's good results. ThisDay was criticised for allowing the lines between editorial and marketing to be blurred.
Readers could not be sure the company's results were given such prominence because of editorial considerations, or because of an undoubtedly lucrative deal at a time when the paper was in financial difficulty.
Managing sponsored content mainly means being clear about what exactly is in front of the reader. The key dividing line is between material that the newspaper controls editorially and material influenced by a marketer's agenda. It is a question of how it is presented visually and of disclosing clearly what the deal is.
I had a letter from a reader on this issue the other day. Keith Gottschalk drew my attention to an edition of the M&G in early June in which sponsored material looked almost exactly like a regular news report. It bore the label "advertorial", but this seemed to be "deliberately designed to be as unobtrusive as possible". Gottschalk wrote: "The effect of this is to lull the highest proportion of readers possible as they page through into assuming this is a real news report, not two adverts."
I do feel there has been some slippage in this area recently, which should be addressed. Editorial staff have raised concerns too.
For one thing, the descriptions used are confusing. Last week, the paper contained "sponsored supplements", "supplements", "advertorial" and, mysteriously, "sponsored editorial" without clarity on what the terms mean and how they differ.
The Guardian in the United Kingdom has a detailed policy that draws a distinction between supplements that are driven editorially or commercially. In both cases, balance has to be maintained and editorial standards apply, but in the latter case the sponsor has some influence over the broad brief.
The newspaper uses the phrase "in association with" prominently to describe its relationship with sponsors regarding these projects, a phrase that seems accurate but also has some weight, so the paper would want to use it with some care. It also insists on an insert that clarifies the editorial roles and arrangement. Above all, the policy is available to clients and readers on the website to ensure transparency.
The M&G, has a set of general guidelines aimed at avoiding the kind of blurring Gottschalk wasm referring to, but it is not clear whether these are consistently applied or understood by readers.
Besides a confusing set of labels, there is a need for clarity on how exactly the visual differentiation is handled, some discussion of what happens online and how far advertisements can go in mimicking editorial.
The editorial and marketing teams need to develop an approach that makes best use of the income offered by sponsored content without risking the paper's reputation. We will be sure to report back on what we come up with in this regard.
The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact me at email@example.com. You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message.