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.