Disclaimer for sponsored posts and other monetized content

Is mentioning that a post is sponsored FOUR times overkill? You'd be surprised…
Is mentioning that a post is sponsored FOUR times overkill? You'd be surprised…

My strategy for much of the advertising on the Empire has always been that it doesn't FEEL like advertising. I do this not because I'm trying to trick anyone, but because I find disruptive advertising annoying and bothersome… so therefore, rather than have sponsored posts written by some random advertising client, all our sponsored posts are written by us, in the same voice that the rest of the posts are written in.

I've invested significant design and developer time/money into trying to be as transparent as possible about my monetized content. This means ensuring stuff like:

  • All sponsored posts are clearly marked paid content in at least FOUR places, including a disclaimer at the top of all posts on the site, and always mentioning in the text at least once that the business is a sponsor.
  • Posts focused on affiliate shopping links have a disclaimer at the top of the page.
  • Banner ads served from third-party platforms have a little link explaining what they are, and letting folks know they can contact me if they see something objectionable.
  • Outbrain-sponsored "related posts" links have an embedded explanation/disclaimer.
  • I address reader questions/feedback publicly via blog posts and comments, and privately via email.

Despite these efforts, I still hear from readers who voice feeling like they've been misled or somehow deceived by advertising that, well, doesn't feel like advertising. I've received comments on sponsored posts that essentially say, "Hey wait a minute — this post is an ad!" to which I've responded "Um, yes. See at the top of the page where it says this post is an ad?"

I think we're all so used to disruptive/obnoxious advertising that we automatically assume that if content doesn't feel overly-aggressive, cheezy, or salesy, it's somehow trying to pretend it's not an ad. It's a sad commentary: basically, my efforts to have less obnoxious advertising can be interpreted intentionally misleading readers… despite all my headers and disclaimers and in-line text mentions.

This is also a usability commentary on how little people actually, well, READ when they're reading online. Oh, that header that says THIS IS AN AD? Oh yeah, I didn't see it because I skimmed over that part. Apparently, if it's not obnoxious, we skim.

It's an ongoing balance: I don't want my readers to feel mislead, but I also can't compensate for people not reading the disclaimers I post all over my sponsored content. It's an ongoing process (CLEARLY, yikes), and one I'm constantly tweaking.

Above all else, my goal is that the paid content on the Offbeat Empire feels genuinely USEFUL. My favorite is when a sponsored post is so interesting and relevant that the story gets picked up by a news outlet. That's when I know things are working AWESOMELY.

  1. Just so you know, I always read and catch the 'sponsored ads' (there's got to be more than just me doing it). Of course, you still try to find stuff that we might like, so I still usually like it.

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  2. I'll never be able to grasp the mental disconnect for lots of people between the acceptance that advertising is necessary and the realization of "you're making money off of MY READERSHIP!?!? Unacceptable!"

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    • Yeah, it's especially odd when people accuse Offbeat Bride of "selling out." I'm like, "UH, the site was launched as book-marketing tool… it's never NOT been about selling out."

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  3. I actually think part of the problem is that quite a few blogs are NOT transparent about the fact that they're advertising. As an example, a woman I grew up with now runs a "mommy blog." Great! More power to her. She does reviews and giveaways of products and that's the main content of her blog, along with the odd post about life, and the odd related post like how she does giveaways, etc. Is that a problem? No. We're used to it. Yay free stuff! But it's still advertising. If you check out her media kit, then you find out that she allows companies to send her a free full-size sample which she and her family will test, then she'll let the company see the review and only then post it. She also encourages companies to donate something for a giveaway. Yup, that's advertising. It's a pretty standard way the internet is operating. I think a lot of people just think, "Man, I wish I could get free samples!" without considering that they're reading advertising. The fact that OBB, OBM and OBH are transparent is a pleasant surprise to those of us who are aware but a shock to those who don't think it through. And of course there are other great companies you don't feature, but I bet when you encounter one or hear about it you're sending your marketing team to get in touch with them.

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  4. I really don't get why people are upset that you have advertising, or that they "CAN'T TELL" which posts are ads … WTF? I've basically figured out that if you start out talking about a product or a service … uh, it might be an ad. If further reading shows that they producers of said product or service are offering a discount for readers of Offbeat Empire … uh, it's probably an ad. Not rocket science.

    And I don't get why it's a problem. If I'm not interested, guess what? I can stop reading the post…what a concept! I can even SKIP posts that talk about products and services – wow!!!

    Even without paying attention to the disclaimer at the top of the ad, I can still figure it out!!!

    Sorry if this is snarky, and I'll understand if you feel the need to delete it – people that try to find things to grip about make my butt itch.

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  5. Wanted to chime in and say that to me it has ALWAYS been clear that certain posts are advertising. The little megaphone on top of the page is pretty self-explanatory. I think you do a great job – especially in not selling out, because generally, the products advertised are relevant and interesting.

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  6. So people who don't have time to read the (multiple) disclaimers, have time to sit around email you complaints?

    I like that the ads are not disruptive and usually pretty useful.

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    • "So people who don't have time to read the (multiple) disclaimers, have time to sit around email you complaints?"

      Haha, pretty much sounds that way, huh???

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    • HA! Indeed. :) Welcome to the joy of working on the internet.

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  7. I want to click "this!" all over the place on this page but I can't. I'm only commenting to say so here because usually when I wonder about something on this site (like links that don't open in new windows) I end up thinking, "of course; that's brilliant; why didn't I think of that?!" when I read your response/explanation. :)

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  8. I'll admit that I'm one of the people guilty of being gut-reaction annoyed at advertising, without pausing to think it through. After reading this post I feel that I understand better the need to make a website like this sustainable – so I apologize for my ignorance.

    But I have two ideas/objections/suggestions/my obnoxious two cents, which you may ignore if you like, since it is your company:

    first, it would be great if the things advertised were not only eco-conscious etc., but also a little more affordable. One of the things I LOVE about Offbeat Empire is the emphasis on living small, witin your means, buying only what you need, and eliminating useless possessions. So it would be nice to see more things that are utilitarian and cheap (e.g. love the ads for cloth diapers on OM) and fewer "pretty luxury items" (e.g. expensive jewelry and artsy decor items).

    Another thing I've thought is that if you need more editorial time and resources devoted to the blog, would it be possible to open the field for volunteers? Many of us are writers or editors already by profession and would be happy to donate an hour here and there doing photo post-production, researching stories, etc. It would expand/democratize the community and let you prosper without adding more ads.

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    • Thank again much for taking the time to share your feedback, Nina. A few thoughts in response:

      1. We do aim for affordability, but the challenge there is that "affordable" is relative. What feels affordable one of our readers (say, a 35-year-old marketing manager in San Francisco) is totally out of range for another (say, a 22-year-old college student in Iowa). Our readers are diverse.

      We try to compensate for this range of reader budgets by featuring sponsors that appeal both ends of the spectrum — for instance, on Offbeat Home we had $200 jewelry last week, and will have $6 finials tomorrow.

      2. Volunteers: this feedback confuses me. The majority of the content on all Empire sites has always been contributed by community members — we couldn't exist without our guestbloggers, most of whom are readers. In other words, we've already got hundreds of volunteers involved!

      If you'd like to contribute, I'd love to invite you to get invoved, too! :)
      http://offbeathome.com/submissions
      http://offbeatbride.com/submissions
      http://offbeatmama.com/submissions

      That said, reader submissions don't change the fact that the Offbeat Empire is a business. As such, it's not just about covering costs or squeaking by — I have staff I want to pay fairly, and even (GASP!) profits I want to make. While the Empire has always been angled towards community development and reflecting the values of sustainability and responsibility that are important to me, it doesn't change the core reality that the Offbeat Empire websites are all for-profit websites published by a small business. Always have been.

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  9. coming to the comment party a little late, though I did read the post when it originally came out in August.. anyway- it's kind of refreshing to see an ad that doesnt stand 2 inches from my face and scream IM AN AD!!! I like reading something that isnt shamelessly promoting itself, and seeing an opinion from people whose writing I value

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  10. maybe it's because i've worked retail since forever, but to be brutally frank…PEOPLE DO NOT READ SIGNS! EVER! there, i said it! i work in a small grocery store and every week, we put up signage around sale items. people misread the signs all day long then complain when they get to checkout because they glanced at the sign, assumed what they wanted it to say… then they want to argue with my staff because we should make the sign clearer. here's a thought…why don't you actually stop for a moment and read the sign! the sign clearly states 'must buy in multiples of 2 for discount.' or when i worked at spirit halloween and my district manager put up a giant sign, "everything 50% off november 1st". guess how many people read the top line 'everything 50% off', and stopped reading before they got to the second line 'november 1st'.

    that said, i see the bullhorn on the ads, and to me, it's still clear that it's an ad. i don't know why people can't figure that out or get annoyed that you *gasp* need to make money…

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  11. I am recently approved for PayPerPost and I am going to write a paid review and this article helped me a lot with excellent guidelines. Thank you Ariel.

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  12. I did read this post forever ago, and forgive me if this is covered in the comments and I've skimread over it, or elsewhere on the Empire, but how does a sponsored post BECOME sponsored? Do they pay for the sponsor banner ads, and you write a sponsored post about every one, or do you pay specifically for the sponsored post separate to the banner ad?

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