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The Washington Post recently launched a Wine Club on the heels of a new sponsored opinion page section called WP BrandConnect, which allows special interest groups and other organizations to respond to the paper’s editorials, for a fee, by placing a sponsored viewpoint.

According to the introductory email, The Washington Post Wine Club will ship me 24 bottles of wine per year, curated by experts said to be busy at work swirling, sipping and sniffing thousands of wines from around the globe. Perhaps after imbibing two cases of wine, I’ll find the notion of paying for content placement more palatable.

The Washington Post is not alone by any stretch in expanding beyond traditional revenue streams, such as advertising, subscriptions and paywalls — all revenue sources that are declining or disappearing. WP BrandConnect is similar to Forbes BrandVoice™, which actually does a decent job of ensuring that brand content is well written, timely and informative. My early impression of BrandConnect is that the content is similarly of respectable quality and relevance, though it is unsurprisingly far more self-promotional than a non-sponsored opinion article would be.

Elite publications blurring the lines between editorial and sponsored content is a conversation for another article. For marketing and PR agency professionals, the more relevant question is when a case can be made for sponsored content in these types of arrangements. Below are five potential factors that could justify sponsored content placement:

  1. There are few channels that reach the target audience. The Washington Post is a unique publication that reaches a national audience and a local market that is stuffed with policymakers and “inside the Beltway” influencers. A case can be made that if it is difficult from a cost or logistical perspective to reach a specific set of individuals, sponsored content that can guarantee a path to this audience holds appeal. The sponsored content can have even greater appeal in national publications where ad space is prohibitively expensive. It has been reported that sponsored content for BrandConnect will run between $500 and several thousand dollars — not insignificant, but still far less than the cost of running a single ad in The Washington Post, which can set an organization back tens of thousands of dollars.
  2. You have mechanisms to promote content aggressively – Basic ads are not constructed to convey elaborate messages, and the more ad space an organization requires, the more costly this approach becomes. More than that, there is less of an assumption that target audiences will simply find the content on their own and recognition that it must be pushed out through social media and other mechanisms. Sponsored content is far more “shareable” than an ad, which means that brands can leverage the cache of the publication to push content that will reach individuals far beyond its readership.
  3. Sponsored content is part of a broader campaign. With a few exceptions, it is hard to justify a one-off sponsored content piece as an investment that will move the needle. As is the case with advertising, organizations must be persistent in communicating a message to an audience for it to sink in. Sponsored content that is part of a broader content marketing effort is easier to justify because the benefits of the investment will be compounded.
  4. Timing is of the essence. As much as PR and marketing professionals might like to dictate the pace of the news cycle, there is only so much that can be done to ensure a message reaches the right audience at exactly the right time. If the timing of placed content is critical, sponsored posts can ensure that the message is not lost because it is too early, too late or lost within other “noise.”
  5. You are willing to experiment. In the movie “Yes Man,” Jim Carrey’s character went from saying “no” to everything to saying “yes,” and as a result, his life unexpectedly changed for the better. I’m not recommending swinging the pendulum that far over, but sometimes we, as an industry, automatically reject a new concept simply because it does not fall into our comfort buckets. If the internal culture supports measured experimentation that doesn’t break the bank, results can be unexpectedly positive.

Originally published Aug 19, 2013 1:00:01 AM, updated December 03 2014

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