We read with interest a recent piece in the advisor publication RIABiz about the launch of Barron’s NEXT, an effort by the venerable investment tome to reach out to Millennial readers. Whether Barron’s can successfully connect with this generation seemed to be a side note to a very interesting conversation about sponsored content and native advertising. The article, “How Barron’s Next lays bare the tail-wags-dog sponsored content predicament facing financial journalism,” looks critically at the thin line between editorial and native advertising/sponsored content in Barron’s and other financial publications.

Native advertising, which includes sponsored content, looks similar to other content written by a publication’s own staff and is increasingly common at a number of financial publications like Barron’s. In fact, one major advertiser’s content is even included right in the Barron’s table of contents each week. Journalists at organizations like RIABiz rightly worry that readers may not realize they are essentially reading a paid advertisement. But publishers are grappling with how to generate revenue. As RIABiz relates, publishers face a significant challenge. “The result of such financial pressure is a multi-tentacled issue that publishers nationwide are grappling with: the point at which native advertising and sponsored content—AKA paid content—stops being info and becomes unabashedly ‘commercial.’”

In an age when traditional print media readership has declined and more and more readers are online, it is no surprise that the means of reaching readers through advertising is also evolving. The RIABiz article quotes Rebecca Lieb, an independent media analyst: “People in general, but millennials in particular, are making less of a distinction between media types and channels, whether paid or earned or sponsored,” she says. “It just depends whether it’s what they want and need. One hundred percent of Online Publishing Association publishers have adopted native advertising.”

As investment professionals look for ways to build their brand in this evolving world, we see a hierarchy of influential content from most impactful to least:

  1. Earned media – Interviews and profile articles where your company and its products are featured by journalists writing stories or broadcast outlets talking to experts that they believe will be of interest to their audience remains the most impactful. We encourage our clients to post these articles or interviews to their website, share them on social media, email them to clients, or obtain reprints for additional sales and marketing use.
  2. Owned media or thought leadership content – Create meaningful thought leadership content that your clients will read and find useful. Post this content to your website, share on social media, or email it to your clients. Effective thought leadership (also known as “owned media”) is educational and engaging—a must-read for your clients, not something that is trying to directly sell them a product or service. High-quality thought leadership can also be placed as bylined articles in industry or other business publications, extending the impact of your writing.
  3. Paid content – When you have great thought leadership content that you want to distribute more broadly, consider paying for sponsored content placements with relevant third-party sites or publications. Your sponsored content could take the form of native advertising, which “blends in” with the site’s own content but will likely be labeled as “sponsored.” In the same way that thought leadership content is educational and useful, so too is effective sponsored content. Anything that is overtly salesy can be a turnoff, leaving readers feeling duped.