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The Washington Post’s new “sponsored views” offering is actually pretty smart

Mathew Ingram

There was a predictable amount of gasping and hand-waving about the Washington Post‘s launch on Wednesday of what it calls Sponsored Views, a feature that offers advertisers the ability to post ads next to specific editorial content that is about the same topic. Like most of the other experiments involving “native” advertising or “sponsored content,” it seems to have triggered some of the usual journalistic concerns about how native ads cross some kind of ethical barrier — but in many ways, what the Post is doing makes a certain amount of sense. Whether it works or not remains to be seen.

In a nutshell, the product allows advertisers to target their ads to specific pieces of commentary that appear on the Post‘s opinion pages (what newspapers used to refer to in the old print days as the “op-ed” page, because it was opposite the newspaper’s editorial page). So brands or commercial entities sign up for an account, and then have the ability to post up to 600 words of commentary that appear just below the official Post opinion piece, right before the comments.

One of the issues that gets brought up about sponsored content is the confusion that it allegedly produces in readers when they can’t determine what is advertising and what isn’t — but as Peter Kafka points out at All Things Digital, no one with anything close to 20-20 vision is going to be fooled by the Post‘s “sponsored views.” They appear in a box, which has a different-colored background, and there’s an (admittedly rather small) identifier that says “sponsored views.” It’s pretty obvious that they are something separate.

A worthwhile experiment

Kafka is sceptical about whether these ads will be effective or not — since they are so clearly advertising and not content — but what I think is smart about the idea is that it gives advertisers one of the things they want so badly from content (and get so infrequently from newspapers), and that is targeting. In some ways, it’s a little like what the New York Times started to do by offering ads on stories that are trending on social networks, but even better because it is targeted by topic.

One of the trends we talk about a lot at paidContent is the idea that advertisers have effectively become their own media companies, with the ability to publish their own content and reach their own audiences. In order to appeal to advertisers, publishers like the Post have to try harder — and one way to do that is to offer them the ability to reach readers about a topic that they have some kind of agenda on (the Post also offers something called BrandConnect).

As for how much the Post might make from this kind of venture, that’s unclear. The pricing depends on “timing and other factors” — which is also smart, since it allows the newspaper to theoretically charge more for issues that have blown up in a viral way, or charge more for the ability to target something within minutes of it being posted. None of that is going to change the newspaper’s overall financial picture much, but it’s not stupid.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Getty / Chris Jackson

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