Sponsored Content: Fake News or Savvy Marketing?

Sponsored contentImagine, for a moment, that you’re procrastinating your next big project (likely not hard to imagine) and you’re browsing an article on Buzzfeed, Bustle or GQ. Maybe you’re looking for new pasta recipes; maybe you want to learn more about the five love languages; maybe you want to see what’s happening in men’s fall fashion. The article seems… somewhat pointed, perhaps, and keeps mentioning Amazon, a men’s fashion subscription box, or Barillo pasta. You get curious and scroll to the top of the page, only to realize that the post is what some refer to as “native advertising” but what is, essentially, sponsored content. Which is to say, money changed hands in order for the content to appear.

You’d feel kind of tricked, right? Like you just wanted to read an article and instead, you’re being sold Amazon products or a specific pasta brand just so that the website can rake in a tidy profit from a particularly sneaky form of advertising? Sponsored content is becoming more and more prevalent as more publications — even the most prestigious — accept and even promote sponsored content. This is perfectly understandable, as media companies are under intense economic pressure and are looking for new revenue streams just to stay afloat. But does sponsored content do readers a disservice? And in so doing, are companies making a mistake going in this direction if it risks alienating their customers and potential customers who might feel had?  

When you see an ad on TV, in print, or on a website, you know you’re looking at a paid message. With sponsored content it’s not always obvious that what you are reading or looking at has been sponsored by a third party. Do publishers have to disclose when content is sponsored? Legally speaking, yes. According to Federal Trade Commission, publishers are required by law to disclose any “material connection” to a brand. Even a one sentence Tweet should include the hashtag #sponsored or #ad. The FTC gives publishers detailed guidelines about how, when and where to disclose this info. Unfortunately not everyone follows these laws – indeed, many big publishers hide their disclosures in order to blend their paid content in with their non-paid content, sometimes called native advertising.

Relatively new media companies such as Buzzfeed and Vice offer a diverse amount of “special content” and have been followed by blue chip media companies such as the New Yorker, which has branched into sponsored content in recent years, and the New York Times, which launched a branded content studio a few years ago called T Brand Studio.

Sponsored content has a place in the “marketing mix,” so long as the media outlet clearly delineates journalistic content from that which is paid for. We’d also note that just because you’re paying for it doesn’t mean you are now free to promote your brand, product or service…we’d argue that it’s all the more imperative that you take an even-handed, reportorial approach, erring on the side of providing information and insight versus bald touting of your awesomeness. As in most things, we recommend you just let your awesomeness emerge organically.

Bear in mind that BackBone specializes in “earned media” — getting clients coverage in credible media outlets on the strength of your story. This is still the most persuasive type of “messaging” as it’s either a reporter writing objectively about your and your company…or a bylined “thought leadership” article written by your or your CEO that’s almost entirely informational (with some degree of editorializing). Getting into a Forbes or Crain’s is hard, and sponsored may be the surest route; ideally, you’d be able to develop a portfolio weighted toward earned media, with key “gets” via sponsorship.  

We’ve worked with companies in developing sponsored content and believe it does have a place — but there are caveats and considerations. Ultimately, sponsored content works best when it’s “backed” by the credibility and third party validation that comes with  “earned” media.    

Hurricane Checklist for PR Pros (or just about any SOHO-based business)

Doing business — and staying safe — during a Cat 5 hurricane

As Hurricane Irma puts South Florida in the cross hairs, we here at BackBone are methodically wind and flood-proofing our ultra-swank Boca Raton-based headquarters. We’ve been down this road before and have outlasted Katrina, Hugo, Wilma, and more, usually with minimal disruption, but this one feels different, because it is different. Even if Irma is downgraded to a Category 4 hurricane, it has the potential to reduce large swaths of South Florida to fine rubble.

If you’re a small or home-based business in Irma’s direct path, like BackBone’s tastefully appointed Boca Raton central office, chances are you’re going through the standard checklist and are making all the recommended preparations. The following items are not usually included on a standard hurricane checklist — even if you’re safely out of Irma’s reach (and Jose’s, which is on its heels), you may find these tips useful in the face of any event or emergency that threatens business continuity and, while formally outside the scope of this blog post, your life and family’s welfare.

1. Have Apps — and Data — Will Travel. In the old days, before cloud computing, preparing for a major natural disaster was a huge hassle — making sure your data was backed up and synchronized, your email was up to date and the latest versions of all business critical apps were installed on your laptop. These days with things like Gmail, cloud-based CRM and storage, and more, your apps, data, email and bookmarks follow you. If you’re working from a seldom-used laptop, or notebook, or using your brother-in-law’s desktop if you’re riding out the storm at your sister’s, you may find yourself at an impasse if you can’t remember or find your password. This is a perfect opportunity to use LastPass, which gives you secure access to all your pw-protected apps and sites; it’s also a perfect opportunity to change “password123″ that you use on EVERY account to something a tad harder-to-crack — which you can do easily with LastPass.

2. Make sure your clients know you may be incommunicado for several days. If Irma hits, there’s a very good chance South Florida will experience broad power outages. Roads may be impassable, so a trip to the closest Starbucks may not be an option. And even if you could make your way through the downed trees and power lines, stalled cars, knee-deep water and debris, their power and Internet may be also down. Let your clients know that you may not be able to respond to emails or calls with your customary speed. Unless there’s something pressing, they’ll understand. Actually, discreetly letting them know you’re emailing or texting as 100+ mile an hour winds pummel your office and home, imperiling life and limb, will garner lasting respect that can only improve your business relationships.

3. Making do with limited bandwidth & access. It’s safe to assume that either you’ll be bandwidth constrained, or at some point, you’ll have no Internet access. If you need to access web pages, there are plugins that allow you to cache those pages for later viewing, even if you don’t have Internet access. Gmail also has a feature that allows you to search your email even if you can’t access your online Gmail account. You’ll need to resist the urge to stream videos or binge Netflix originals, which shouldn’t be done during business hours anyway — but if you must, we suggest you download the MP4 or MKV file to your laptop or mobile device and stream it locally.

4. Ear buds or noise canceling headphones. If you’re staying with friends, family, or even at a local school, temple, church or shelter, you’ll need something to block out the persistent chatter, background noise and frequent interruptions. Stockpiling MP3s of your favorite ambient music to sonically wall yourself off from the surrounding noise is also a very good idea — we highly recommend several Brian Eno efforts, particularly Music for Airports and Apollo. We’re also fans of his work with Roxy Music and David Byrne, but that’s for another checklist.

5. Be aware of your pet’s needs. If you work at home, you know the hazards of an unexpectedly demonstrative pet. Rover or Boots will be particularly high-strung and “vocal” with the wind pouding or when they’re in an unfamiliar environment. Make sure they’re properly taken care of — fed, walked, attended to, played with, and certainly cuddled — to limit any unannounced interruptions.

6. Coffee. You’ll want to have a lot of ice on hand anyway, but for PR professionals — or really, any professional at all — coffee is one of the biggest priorities. Make a huge batch that you can ice. If you have enough ice and room in the cooler, you may want to add a bottle of top shelf vodka or a refreshing Zinfandel for after-hours stress-relief.

7. Drugs. Have a full complement on hand: Advil, Pepcid, cold meds, allergy pills, whatever you might need. Given the likelihood of elevated stress levels, you should consider expanding your Rx inventory accordingly.

8. Don’t forget everyday items that are easy to overlook, but will be sorely missed if you find yourself without. This can include any number of things — for instance, a stress ball that you rely on without which you will become increasingly anxious, irritable and a complete drag to others you’re sharing a space with as you ride out the storm, which gets us to the next tip.

9. Figure out how to live communally. If you work from a small or home office, chances are you are fiercely independent and don’t always play well with others. But you may find yourself hosting family or friends because you’re better fortified, on a sturdier power grid, or offer a broader range of entertainment options. Or, you may find yourself taking refuge elsewhere — at a local school, synagogue or mega church. Your fierce independence and ossified ways will make temporary communal living very difficult. You can make the transition a bit less difficult by packing the aforementioned noise-canceling ear buds, which are absolutely necessities. You may not be a sharer by nature, but you’ll need to be more flexible if someone asks to borrow your charger, needs a packet of sweet and low, or several squares of toilet paper. And do not neglect your appearance and personal hygiene — if you’re used to working in small or home office chances are you’ve grown somewhat, uh, relaxed, in your attire and personal hygiene. If you’re accustomed to working in pajamas or a robe, transitioning to, say, a jogging suit, should be easy. Deodorant is a not an option, nor is dental hygiene. As a general rule, be aware of your surroundings and be mindful of the fact that you’re not the only one who’s uncomfortable, anxious and easily triggered.

10. A lot of luck. The great Branch Rickey defined luck as preparation meeting opportunity. That sounds about right, but in reality, there’s no amount of preparation that will serve as a bulwark against a Category 5 hurricane. You ultimately just need a lot of luck. For this there’s no tip we can offer — we suggest you rub your favorite good luck charm, hope your accumulated good karma finally delivers an ROI, and that your deductible is manageable. That said, good luck, and be safe!

When to Know it’s Go Time

Planning – and timing – a successful launch

You’ve spent months, probably years, building a product. You’ve prototyped it, tinkered with it, and sweated every little detail…and at some point you’ll need to move it from the “garage” into the uncertain waiting world.

But when? How do you know the product is ready? How do you know you’re ready?

Too early and all your time, work and money is lost. Too late and you’re overtaken by competitors or a shifting marketplace.


Pre-Launch Checklist

You’ve marked everything off the checklist:

  • The product/service has been tested and is ready for prime time – or close to delivery.
  • You offer features that matter to customers
  • You have a clear, compelling, concise positioning statement
  • Your market segments, customer profiles and sales targets are defined.
  • You have a strong marketing plan in place that enables you to effectively reach influencers and purchasers with your core branding/sales/thought leadership messages.

If you have solid, “stress tested” answers to all the above, you are, gulp, ready to launch.


Just Jump. With Caveats.  

You know you can afford to get a lot of other things wrong if you get your timing right. But how can you ever know the timing is just right? According to Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph, every startup reaches a place where “you just can’t research any more… The only way to do it is to jump.” Timing will never be exactly perfect, and you’ll never know everything there is to know about improving your chances for a successful launch. The only way to prove it is to do it.

For over twenty years, we’ve supported the successful launch of countless companies with clear eyed marketing and creative communications plans. Our content marketing expertise – combining world class SEO and public relations/media capabilities – enables small companies with limited budgets to compete with larger, more established competitors. We help plan and support high-impact launches, and provide targeted marketing communications that reach key market influencers and purchasers.


Always Be Marketing: before, during and after launch

Marketing is fundamentally understanding what you’re building, why you invested in it, and how it will benefit the user — and then messaging that understanding to your customer.  Which is to say that, when you’re developing your product or service, you should be simultaneously developing – or at least thinking about — your marketing. Timing the market is hard and is always subject to chance – but an always be marketing mentality will go a long way in assuring a successful lift-off.