Content Marketing Public Relations Thought Leadership Strategy

It’s Prime Time to Embrace Sponsored Content

By Kristina Leal


Sponsored content has undergone a complete makeover in recent years, as publications with valuable readership pivot to revamp their business models. What were once the most frequently-offered pay-to-play opportunities—glossy inserts in major newspaper issues, fancy award articles, and random paid CEO profile pieces from obscure e-magazines—have transformed into content that organically appeals to readers. Pay-to-play media sits in the overlap of owned and paid promotional initiatives, meeting many marketing teams at the intersection of their (increasingly integrated) public relations and comms counterparts. It’s prime time to let go of former hesitancies around paid content and see that it brings unique value to your overall strategy.

As newsrooms continue to lose staff and gaining journalists’ attention gets harder, publishers have increased quality sponsored opportunities that will appeal to both readers and marketers. Thus, pay-to-play is one way to guarantee that your message gets in front of the right eyes. As you build your marketing and communication plans, consider these top reasons to add paid content and a few opportunities we think are worth your while.

Why Sponsored Content is Worth Your Time
(And Money)

According to the Cision 2020 Comms Report, companies had relatively equal budgets allocated to paid and owned strategies in 2019 and 2020 (31% paid, 30% owned in 2019 and 28% paid, 29.7% owned in 2020). If nearly a third of your marketing budget goes to paid strategies, you want it to be the most effective and impactful use of your spend. There are two major reasons pay-to-play media opportunities are a smart option for your paid strategy: the sponsored content will appear in a more contextually-relevant setting than web banner display ads might, and it benefits from the reputation of the publication hosting it.

A recent Hubspot survey found that 72% of consumers say they would have a lower opinion of a brand that subjected them to a pop-up ad online. The truth is that consumer expectations have changed. Think about it, there is a whole generation entering the workforce who have never had to sit through a commercial block on television, and frankly, they probably don’t want to start. The decision maker at your prospect, even in B2B, is a human first. They want to find the answers to their questions organically, like when they’re reading their go-to publications. They are looking for value that an article, video, or quiz offers – even if it’s sponsored. Sponsored content says, we think you should understand this, and we spent time and money to make sure you do.  

Pay-to-play media also tells your reader that this piece has the backing of the publication that hosts it. Journalistic integrity is an important part of publishing, and although many publications keep their earned and paid media departments separate, the reader understands that everything under their logo is upheld by their standards. You gain third-party validation in the eyes of the reader when your content is hosted by a website other than your own.

3 Pay-To-Play Media Opps for Tech Companies

Forbes Technology Council

The Forbes Councils are a series of invite-only membership organizations for executives, broken up by category (technology, nonprofit, CMO, etc.). If you meet the minimum requirements, you can apply to be invited, so don’t let “invite-only” keep you from considering it. The main benefit that Forbes touts is an exclusive back-end network, where you have access to connect with other council members. But from an external brand-building perspective, the most valuable part is the content.

There is a monthly Q&A that you submit short-form answers to, which are published by Forbes Online. You can also submit contributed articles on your own schedule. The councils have strict editorial guidelines (no promotion!), and you work with a third-party agency, not Forbes staff, that edits your pieces before publishing. Pricing varies by council, hovering around an annual fee between $2,000 and $3,000 for the technology council. For the value of a consistent cadence of coverage in Forbes, which is well-respected by executives, and the networking opportunities afforded you, it’s a very cost-effective strategy.

We recommend this option for companies looking to build their executive thought leadership profile and those who prioritize business media.

CNBC Brand Studio

As opposed to the self-directed content with Forbes Councils, CNBC Brand Studio has a team of journalists, designers, and producers who create branded content for you. They handle strategy, creation, distribution, promotion, optimization, and reporting. You simply ideate, approve, evaluate results, and provide guidance.

A primary benefit of this partnership is the diversity of content – their team develops branded infographics, quizzes, videos, and articles. And, since they handle everything in-house, you don’t have to ask for more of your busy executives’ time. Each company has a dedicated page on the CNBC Brand Studio website that you can use in email drip campaigns or across social media. The pages are branded with your company’s color story, too, which is a nice touch. As with most branded content like this, pricing varies widely depending on the type of offering that you choose.

We recommend this option for companies looking to boost their brand recognition or outsource content creation that can be repurposed.

Axios Partnership

Only a few years old, Axios has gained rapid popularity and strong credibility in news—and we love their newsletters! The differentiator for Axios is their style. Shakespeare taught us that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and Axios teaches us that it’s a great way to get your news. Like with CNBC, an Axios partnership has a range of content opportunities available, but the option we see as the most valuable is newsletter sponsorship.

Axios’s newsletters reach large audiences with specific interests who volunteered to receive their news regularly. If you choose to partner with a newsletter, your company name appears at the top, you get two story blocks that are represented as a message from you, and you have 100% share of voice as the sole brand sponsor. Pricing ranges significantly from $5,000 to $100,000 per newsletter, depending on which you choose.

We recommend this option for companies whose customer verticals align with one of Axios’s newsletter focuses (e.g. transportation for Axios Navigate, aerospace for Axios Space, etc.).

When to Use Sponsored Content in Your Integrated Strategy

As you think about how to manage the paid element to your integrated media approach, remember that reader expectations are changing, and the third-party validation of publications is extremely valuable to them. Consider your goals, audiences, and top target publications along with your planned marketing campaigns, and evaluate how paid media will support your narrative and increase visibility of your campaign.

Do you have a big report coming out? Or a product launch that solves an urgent industry need? When you’re planning the press announcement, supporting blog content, email campaigns, social media posts, and more, look to how you can use sponsored content to support the primary messages of your campaign and bring new eyes to your report or product launch. Maybe it’s a video series with top-tier media, maybe it’s a sponsored article with a trade publication, or perhaps it’s both.

As you plan your integrated marketing approach, don’t shy away from incorporating sponsored content as one of your priority touchpoints. This is the era of pay-to-play. Don’t miss out on the fun.