Chamaeleo_chamaeleon_Frightened_thus_blackThey arrive every few days—e-mail spams from sleazy “expert writers” offering to create TeleRead posts for free. Of course, there’s a catch. The posts will contain links to the companies paying these hacks. Never mind that this is deceptive advertising in effect. We’re talking about editorial chameleons: both the people and the ads.

Nowadays I don’t reply or I remind the writers that they’ve got things backwards. Their clients first need to negotiate a price with me for running this “sponsored content,” and when it does appear in the TeleRead blog, we’ll label it clearly, assuming we decide to run it at all.

One such writer-businessperson did give me a name-your-price offer, but then insisted that we not identify the sponsor. Another claimed to be acting of behalf of Barnes & Noble. The real B&N denied the connection, and I’ll believe the company in this case—making me wonder just who the actual sponsor would have been. The waters would have been muddy in the worst way.

By contrast, the new TeleRead site will run the following text message in a rectangle at the tops of sponsored items, in line with our previously announced policy: “Opinions in this article are the sponsor’s. They are not necessarily TeleRead’s, and vice versa.” In addition, we’ll use the tag “Sponsored content” or something similar on the home page.

Alas, not all Web sites show the same scruples about sponsored content, giving them an unfair competitive advantage, so I’m delighted to see the U.S. Federal Trade Commission unveil a new enforcement policy for “native ads”—especially since Business Insider says spending on them will reach $21 billion by 2018.

BI is hardly the ultimate authority. But I find the prediction credible. Also see a related Motherboard article on the FTC crackdown.

Along with a news release describing the rules, the FTC has published Native Advertising: A Guide for Business, complete with detailed examples of what needs explicit labeling. For instance:

“The Winged Mercury Company disseminates an ad on Fitness Life, the online magazine described in Example 2. The ad is similar in format and content to regular articles on the site. The headline ‘Running Gear Up: Mistakes to Avoid’ appears next to a photo of a runner. In addition to other training suggestions, the article recommends Winged Mercury shoes for injury prevention. Consumers can access the article either from the Fitness Life main page or directly without viewing that page. In this instance, consumers are likely to conclude that the article was written by a Fitness Life journalist and reflects the journalist’s independent views. To prevent consumer deception, a clear and prominent disclosure of the ad’s commercial nature on the main page of the publisher’s site is necessary. In addition, because consumers can access the article without clicking through from the Fitness Life main page, the ad on that click-into page also should be clearly and prominently identified as commercial.”

One issue I’ll be curious about is how to handle comments from TeleRead community members responding to “sponsored content,” especially since the FTC understandably wants people to know ahead of time that they are clicking on SC. It could be that in addition to the “Sponsored” category tags visible on the home page, TeleRead will run “(SC) in the headlines, so the commercial connections show up clearly on our community page as well. What are you own feelings about appropriate identification of comments associated with sponsored content? How to do it best?

Complexities notwithstanding, as publisher of TeleRead I see honestly labeled sponsored content as a Good Thing in this era of ad blockers.  Keep in mind our goal—not just to treat sponsored content as a revenue source, but also as a way to serve community members with relevant information they will regard as useful or entertaining.

(Via Nate.)

Photo credit: Rickjpelleg.


  1. Given that “sponsored content” is, in fact, advertisement in disguise, it needs a really sharp disclaimer to separate it from properly labeled fact and opinion from journalists aligned with the public facing publication (e.g Teleread) and those writers aligned with other parties.
    Use of the euphemism ” sponsored content” is out of line with that standard.
    After all, we were cautioned from an early age to “consider the source” and this lexical slight of hand (edutainment, sponsored content, etc.) makes following that sound advice harder than it ought to be.
    So, let’s not be co-conspiritors in this attempt to defraud and confound. Let’s instead call this stuff what it is – paid advertising.
    Then, let the gray eminences behind these messages actually pay Teleread for advertising. After all, there is no shortage of content here. We don’t need fluff and disguised advertisement to make Teleread a compelling venue.

  2. @Frank: Thanks very much for your interest in the continuation of TeleRead as a good, trustworthy site. My goal, too!

    The best sponsored content isn’t the same as traditional ads. I’m talking about items that people actually would want to read, and that would fit in with the site in a variety of ways, even though the content was paid for.

    Furthermore, our notices will explicitly tell people what is happening, in line with the spirit and letter of FTC rules.

    As for whether there is a shortage of content, I would say “absolutely not!” The challenge is to come up with GOOD content fit for TeleRead community members – whether it’s from our writers or sponsors. We regularly receive freelance submissions. Just about all of them are inappropriate for our site; they do not, for instance, show the in-depth understanding of e-book technology that our community members expect.

    The other issue is that we need to cover important e-book news in timely way. It is unfair to expect Chris Meadows, Paul StJohn Mackintosh and our other staffers to be on the job day after day without compensation. That means either ads or alternatives.

    Because ad rates are so low, and because so many of our readers hate advertisements and even worry about malware from them, the traditional approach just is not working. Ad blockers just add to our challenges. With the sponsored content approach, paid-for material can originate on our own server so we can enjoy more control and at the same time better survive ad blockers.

    As I noted the other day, there are only so many business models we can experiment with, and we already know, based on others’ experiences, that the donations model just isn’t going to work. Likewise, while I haven’t ruled out micropayments, I am concerned there would be resistance. And so we’ll give sponsored content a good try, while maintaining our standards. Keep speaking up, Frank. Let’s see if TeleRead can’t do sponsored content in a way that will add to rather than detract from the value of the site.


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