Let’s Celebrate The Atlantic, Not Chastise Them

Yesterday, The Atlantic made the mistake of running a sponsored post praising Scientology’s banner year (Google Webcache). Along with the controversial article, the staff was moderating comments on the sponsored post, deleting negative Scientology comments.

There was an uproar on the web, and a few hours later, The Atlantic pulled the article. There has been an extremely negative reaction among geeks, questioning the validity of advertising on the web.

We shouldn’t let a bad apple ruin the bunch though. I’ve spent the last year and a half watching advertisers promote their products in a similar medium to The Atlantic with much success and almost no negative pushback.

The Atlantic screwed up in several key ways:

  1. The sponsored post was not clearly marked.
  2. The post was written in the voice of a news report.
  3. Scientology is a very controversial advertiser.

But they had been running sponsored posts in this format with no major complaints for some time. When you look at it, the anger is funneled mainly at their choice of advertiser rather than the medium. They messed up, and admitted to it.

We shouldn’t chastise a digital publication for testing new forms of advertising. The Atlantic “gets it“, and the number of times I’ve found myself opening an interesting link with great commentary has only grown in the past year.

As publishing on the web evolves, we should celebrate organizations that find unique ways to monetize successfully. The fact is, writing isn’t free, and not everyone will pay for content, so advertising will always be around.

The key to good advertising is finding the balance between bringing in advertising dollars and keeping quality sponsors, and as someone who has spent time selling advertising on the web, I can testify that it’s not always easy. You have to pay the bills, and sometimes you have to get off your high horse, and accept a slightly lower quality sponsor.

Based on what we do at The Syndicate, and what I’ve seen other sites with sponsorships do, I’d recommend the following for any publication running sponsored post alongside their own content:

  1. Mark the sponsorship in the headline. The traditional format used by many blogs is ‘Sponsor: <Sponsor Title>’
  2. Ensure the post is written in a different voice than the writer, or clearly denote that you wrote it by putting in your own words (e.g., ‘I use this product on a daily basis’)1.
  3. Include a thank you note when the post is not in your own voice.
  4. Include a disclaimer on any post related to that sponsor that they have sponsored the site before.

Let’s not shoot down the sponsored post medium because The Atlantic ran a bad sponsor. Let’s celebrate organizations that are finding profitable ways to continue writing great content on the web.

Disclaimer: I founded The Syndicate, an ad network that runs sponsored posts, and I and run sponsored posts on this blog each week.

  1. At The Syndicate, we got many requests from sponsors to have the writers write the post themselves. Thankfully I had great writers who pushed back when I proposed the idea, citing the journalistic integrity of their sites. []
January 15, 2013