Paid content: the in’s and out’s

Last fall, I faced a new professional challenge at 1893 Brand Studio: raise awareness of the Carolina Recovery Program by writing a series of four articles that looked like stories that might appear in the DTH. We call it paid content, but you might have heard it called sponsored content, native advertising or sponsored posts. The American Press Institute published a great article on what this content looks like in practice.

Whatever it’s called, this kind of brand storytelling is a big trend in digital publishing and advertising. After trying my hand at paid content, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:


1. Research your client

First and foremost, it’s important to know your client and what they do. Without this knowledge, it’s almost impossible to write thoughtful content that fits within the theme. For example, I researched the Carolina Recovery Program and the services they provide and how the organization fit in with UNC Student Wellness. This initial research is imperative because it can inform questions you might have for your point of contact in the organization.


2. Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm!

After your initial research is completed, it’s time to start brainstorming the content. Start this stage by utilizing your point of contact. Ask them what kind of content they would like to see published. Since they are a paying client, it’s important to meet their expectations with your ideas. But, don’t be afraid to think outside the box! Paid content usually gets more clicks when the subject matter is interesting to the audience. For example, Covergirl sponsored an article on Buzzfeed about powerful women, instead of simply focusing on Covergirl’s products. If someone wants to learn about an organization, they can visit the website. When brainstorming content, it’s your job to make them want to visit the website.

When brainstorming, it’s also very important to brainstorm more stories than you will actually be writing. This provides the client with choices for content, and it also provides you with more options in case a story or a source falls through. This approach helped me in my work with student wellness. Initially, I planned to write a story featuring the family of someone in recovery, but my point of contact was unable to put me in contact with a family before the deadline. However, it was easy for me to pivot to a different pitched story in order to meet the deadline. When writing, think about using different story types such as Q&A, man on the street, or other alternative formats.


3. Personal deadlines

When writing for a publication or a client, there are always the deadlines for when a story should be finished, but it’s also important to set deadlines and pace yourself based on what is being asked of you. For example, student wellness asked for four articles throughout the month of September but didn’t specify a timeline. With my editor, we made a decision to post an article once a week. Setting deadlines keeps you from rushing to get an article done at the last minute, and allows more time for the editing process.


4. Editing with everyone

When editing, it’s important to self-edit first. When you finish writing, go back over what you wrote, check for grammatical and style errors. It’s important to know not only AP style, but the style of the publication where the content will be posted. For me, that meant checking for AP and DTH style. After a self-edit, send it to your editor for a second review. This will allow correction for any content/style errors you might have missed. Lastly, it’s important to send the article to the client for their approval. Since this is paid content, the client has a hand in the editing process. With their approval, the article can be posted.


It’s also important to take into consideration some challenges that you might face when producing paid content. First, take your time constraints into consideration when pitching and receiving pitches from clients. Know what you can do well in the timeline that you are given because quality of stories is most important. Don’t pitch a story or accept a pitch that you can’t deliver.

When in the editing process, it’s important to follow a set of ethical guidelines when writing paid content. When working with the Carolina Recovery Program, I conducted a Q&A with the program director about what it means to be in recovery in UNC. I wrote the story up and went through the editing process, but when we sent the article the client, they responded with changes to quotes within the article. I turned to the Brand Studio’s policy for paid content, which says we won’t write anything that isn’t true or make unverifiable claims, but we allow clients to choose the quotes they like, or the direction of an article.
Paid content is a great way to raise awareness for a brand or organization, and its a new and challenging form of storytelling for journalists everywhere. When producing content like this, it’s important to know your client, their message and the content they want; and you need to find the best way to balance journalism with paid media.