Why People Engage With Sponsored Content

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Following the recent push to enforce FTC guidelines requiring influencers and publishers to clearly label sponsored content, you might think content marketing performance would fall. After all, who would click on a post they knew full well was an ad? As it turns out, when it comes to content engagement, it's not a matter of discernment — it's a matter of quality. As long as it's content people want to read, they simply don't care if it doubles as an ad.

Adweek recently published data suggesting that sponsored content performs equally as well as its more "authentic" sibling, organic. In an age of increasingly sophisticated ad blocker technology, 1 out of 3 Americans have bought a product after reading sponsored content about it. All things being equal, perhaps it's time advertorial gets a rebrand. Instead of considering paid posts "selling out," the trend for publishers and influencers may begin to lean towards primarily channeling their creative energies into sponsored content while organic media becomes the black sheep stepchild of the content family. After all, if audiences don't differentiate, why wouldn't companies focus on what pays?

There are a few caveats to the general success of advertorial. According to the American Behavioral Scientist, audiences won't thumb their nose at paid advertisements as long as the content provides information that is actually useful, and they have positive associations with the brand. This reinforces the general wisdom that the key to good sponsored content is quality (quality here includes whatever medium the content takes, from good writing to high production value for video) and brand match. Publishers should be choosey about the brands they work with, and vice versa, to ensure it fits closely with the audience's values.

If you're looking to make sense of advertorial's rise, consider that a funny video or list of Gifs provides the same hit of dopamine whether or not it's labelled "paid." Consider the pleasant lull that washes over you as you scroll through post after post on an aspirational wellness Instagram — if you're looking to a monotony of the pictures blending together to turn off your brain, as long as a post doesn't disrupt that rhythm, who cares if it's sponsored?

Or, consider that sponsored content's rise follows similar patterns to that of event marketing. When Volkswagen turned the stairs of a subway in Stockholm into a working piano in 2009, the smiles on passengers' faces were contagious. It was genuinely fun to watch, and from the looks of it, to participate in. So no one really cared that the bit of goodwill towards walking was ironically sponsored by a car company.

At GeistM, we believe it all boils down to authenticity and trust: Does the content feel natural within the feed? Do viewers trust you to educate or entertain while you sell?

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