Sponsored Content: The Media's Shift in Storytelling

Sponsored Content: The Media's Shift in Storytelling

This is a lightning talk I presented during the sixth annual Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast and hosted by Technical.ly in May 2016. 

As Technically Media’s first Client Success Manager, I was responsible for event sponsorships including Philly Tech Week. I also project managed Technical.ly’s advertising studio called Technically Creative, which offers sponsored content as a means for organizations to directly connect with local technology communities through engaging storytelling. I spent nearly ten years working with media companies back in New York and am sharing key learnings on what sponsored content means, where it came from, and why media teams should invest. This topic should be fun and approachable not scary or overwhelming. Hopefully this guide achieves that.

Advertising is now, also, “storytelling,” which better be “authentic.” Marketing is also no longer marketing. It’s “engagement.
— Mark Duffy, Digiday

Here’s how the industry is defining this new media shift

Today, Sponsored Content falls under what is called Native Advertising. Think: advertising experiences that match the look and feel of a site. Or, content that is written in the tone and voice of those editors. Sponsored Content is when an organization pays for a piece of content. For example, Technically Creative is our answer to sponsored content where we act as a digital agency to produce custom content for clients who want to reach local, niche technology communities. Sourcing and production is all us. 

  1. Branded Content is a bit different. That’s when a brand takes that process in-house and creates their own custom channel to present that content. Think: Marriott’s own travel site, ‘Travel Brilliantly’.

  2. Content Marketing is when a brand leans on content to drive readers down the purchase funnel. Think: starting a blog with a series of articles that talks about your product, educates readers about your product through interactive content to entice readers to sign up and use your product. Buffer’s blog is a great example of this strategy.

  3. Advertorial is the one we may be most familiar with but the term is rarely used and outdated. So, don’t use it.


Content has always been a part of native advertising, dating back to consumer goods featured in publications as early as the 1600s. Long copy, customer testimonials, product features and pricing were early examples. Then in WWII long copy took the style of narratives making emotional appeals and later the creation of brand personalities surfaced. In the 70s and 80s, we saw a rise in celebrity and sports endorsements. Don’t forget out-of-home direct mail had ads too!

Fast forward to the internet age where digital and social are leading content consumption and dollar investment. Readers spend time with content online (desktop, mobile, and tablet) through a mix of media platforms we all know and are obsessed with today. Here’s a glance at that digital content mix from both a reader perspective and business perspective.

PRs, marketers, and advertisers want their brand in front of readers that consume content where there is contextual relevancy, value, and most importantly engagement. That’s where sponsored content comes in. You need to be well versed in Content Strategy, Marketing Strategy, Public Relations Strategy, and Digital Strategy to win here.

Here’s how Technical.ly discloses sponsored content, in which clients pay their in-house team to conceptualize, create, and promote a story that lives on the homepage as in-feed units and then amplified across social.

Here are other examples of sponsored content across social media. Instagram ‘Takeovers’ are the new version of sponsored content where brands tap influencers to create original visual content with a mention of the brand in the post. I like that Allegra leveraged The Onion’s humor for a sponsored Facebook post, and Philly Voice took to Twitter to craft a custom sponsored message with Rowan University directing followers to their sponsored content. Quartz keeps it simple with a sponsored content label atop an article.


Sponsored content can provide the resources to do more ambitious content and drive brand awareness as long as you follow the rules. Keep in mind these four:

Sponsored Content is:

  1. Editorially driven - written in the tone/voice of writer but puts the brand at the center of the story

  2. Native to the site - behaves like other editorial content of the site (in-feed)

  3. Transparent - clear and appropriate sponsorship language should always be included

  4. Ends with a strong call-to-action - drives reader engagement and makes an impact

When done right, sponsored content can shift brand perception AND enhance the value of an overall web experience.

iab research shows credibility is at stake, relevancy matters, and expertise in a topic counts. These are crucial indicators of success. 


So why pay for sponsored content? 

  • Guaranteed placement

  • Timely

For one, sponsored content removes the hassle of pitching editors and waiting for a response. Instead, sponsored content is a guarantee that your content will be managed from start to finish and be published in a timely fashion. One way to position sponsored content is part of a larger campaign timing, like an upcoming event or marketing initiative. Have a specific date in mind? Ask your partners what that turnaround process looks like and work together to meet those deadlines.

  • Credible

  • Increased engagement

  • Built-in team

Authenticity is key. Collaborate internally to find people within your organization, or loyal customers, or community members that could be the main characters of the sponsored content much like a story. Work with publishers that have a credible editorial voice that readers love and trust. By the way: creative content studios are available at growing media companies with teams that are smart and nimble. Journalists, writers, editors, designers, marketers, videographers, and strategists all work with you as a client to guide you on the best sponsored content product.

  • Measurable

In the end, you can see what sponsored content worked and what didn’t. When a piece of editorial coverage hits, analytics aren’t part of the deal. In sponsored content, analytics are. Get a report, regroup with your teams, and analyze your investment.


  • Assemble a team

  • Remember: audience first

  • Trust in point-of-view

  • Get creative with multimedia

  • Establish thought leadership

  • Measure and optimize

Set up sponsored content for success. First: identify who can be the point people at your organization to lead a sponsored content campaign with the right partners. Whether you hire a PR agency, or work directly with a publisher, communication between all is critical.

The best sponsored content tells a story. Like I mentioned before, trust in your partners (most likely the edit team you’re working with) to leverage their expertise and craft story angles that will achieve your goals. Contribute brand assets like hi-res visuals and creative to make your story pop.

Let editors know what you can speak to: what does your product or service do best and how can that translate as value to a reader? What key talking points or takeaways should the sponsored content serve? This is how you establish thought leadership.

Lastly, work closely with your partners to analyze performance and make changes along the way if need be. Explore KPIs early on and lean on editorial analytics to learn what worked best, or what could improve performance.

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