For many years, I’ve been working with B2B IT vendors who sponsor content with my company to market their offerings. My co-founder and I have learned many lessons–some the hard way–about dealing with these vendors and the content they create with us.
In this article, I’ll focus on handling a specific scenario. You’ve got a niche blog where you write as a deeply technical expert in a IT field such as cloud, networking, storage, development, or security. Your audience is made up of fellow nerds in similar orbits. You’ve been writing for years, and have developed a faithful audience who reads most of your stuff. After all this time, a real-deal vendor appears, wanting to place a sponsored blog post on your hallowed site. Now what?
You might think the sponsored content itself would be the most complicated part, and that once you hit publish, you’re mostly done. Not really. Back end logistics will likely take up more of your time. There are other considerations, too. Consider them carefully before trying to monetize your blogging hobby.
Mark Sponsored Content As Sponsored
If this is your first sponsored post, you might feel weird about it. The temptation can be to hide that the content is sponsored. Don’t do that. Mark sponsored content clearly as sponsored. I prefer to mark right in the title so that the reader knows before clicking that the piece is coming from a certain point of view. For instance, Title Of The Piece (Sponsored).
Years ago, vendors would sometimes object to marking sponsored content as such, and we’d have to fight about it. That’s no longer an issue, as platforms like YouTube also insist on marking sponsored content clearly. Such marking is expected.
You might be pondering a more subtle approach like appending “This post was sponsored by Amazing Sponsor, Inc.” in tiny type at the bottom of the piece. This is a form of betrayal, in that your reader is consuming the piece with no knowledge of the sponsorship until they get to the end. Then…surprise! Sponsored content! BOOM!!
Don’t be sneaky. Be up front with your audience. Most of them will not begrudge you getting paid. You have no reason to be ashamed of earning income from your platform.
Set Guidelines For The Content
You might assume that the sponsor will have a masterwork of fine copy perfect for your audience and ready for your blog. These people are professionals, right? Yes, but the situation is more complex than that. You’re still dealing with humans.
The sponsor might be unskilled at writing. The sponsor might have only a vague idea of what content is appropriate for your readers. The sponsor might not even know what they want to communicate–they’re just excited about the chance to be in front of your audience.
It’s up to you to provide the sponsor with guidelines. Guidelines help the sponsor create content your audience will get value from.
- Depth. Is your audience…technical? Junior or senior? Interested in only a specific technology niche? Executives? For example, there’s no point explaining the nuances of MPLS label depth on a new networking ASIC if the C-suite is doing the reading–that’s not the sort of data they base decisions on. But a senior network architect might care deeply about those details.
- Tone. For example, swearing or no? While most writing you’ll encounter will be professional, a few Silicon Valley IT hipsters season their missives with f-bombs. Everyone thinks they have to be “authentic” these days. You should have a sense of what your audience expects, and establish that for the sponsor. Some sponsors can be a little too authentic.
- Length. Some sponsors see a post as an opportunity to tell their life’s story, the history of the Internet, how they met their co-founders, and where they went on their boat last week. Help them cut the fluff and get to the point by setting a maximum word count.
Reserve An Editorial Right
Your personal standards for your readers still apply to sponsored content. Reserve the right to refuse to publish if, for instance, the piece makes outlandish claims, takes aggressive swipes at competitors, or makes tone-deaf commentary on social issues. The content is going onto your platform. Sponsorship money doesn’t grant permission to fill the space with whatever a sponsor wants.
Set Pricing So That It’s Worth Your While
When setting pricing for sponsored content for a highly specialized B2B market, you are not basing that pricing on page views or CPM–that’s a B2C concept. Sure, the number of impressions matters to some degree. Why pay you to host the content if no one will consume it? But the quantity of page views is not as important the quality of those views. You should set pricing based on how well-matched your niche, discerning audience is to the sponsor’s message.
Another pricing consideration is the context of your brand. There is value afforded a piece just because it’s on your site–your outstanding blog read by your high quality audience. Enterprise IT products are expensive and high-margin. If the sponsored content drives even one qualified lead, that lead could result in far more revenue for the sponsor than anything they spent with you to get it.
I’m not here to tell you what price to set. I am saying you should figure out a number that…
- Makes it worth it to carry their brand on your page and share their perspective with your audience.
- You are unwilling to go below. That threshold will be different for everyone. Be willing to walk away.
Consider that what you think is a lot of money is not what an IT corporation thinks is a lot of money. Set pricing like you’re taking the work seriously. Don’t set pricing like you’re suffering from imposter syndrome.
Charge Extra For Writing Services
If you write the sponsored post for the vendor, charge them additional money. Your time plus the perspective you’ll bring to the piece both have value.
Avoid Performance Guarantees
It’s reasonable to report to the sponsor the number of views the post is seeing, but don’t make pricing contingent on how well the article performs. Don’t guarantee X number of page views, a front page search engine ranking, or leads for their sales funnel. There are a few reasons for this.
- You’d have to track all that stuff. You probably don’t have the time or tools to capture a bunch of metrics if all there is to your content engine is blog software running up in the cloud.
- It’s impossible for you to track certain metrics. If you sell against leads, how do you know how many leads the sponsor got? You’d have to take them at their word.
- The piece might be kinda meh. You’re probably not writing the piece–the sponsor is. Even with your editorial guidance, the content might not be compelling. Why should you be penalized for their mediocre article?
- You don’t control the Internet or people’s busy lives. On any given day, the piece will be competing with the latest viral video, a child’s runny nose, the ball game, news of the day, a new season to binge, and unexpected conference calls.
To help with performance, expect sponsored content to include a call to action (CTA). The CTA suggests to the reader what to do next if they found the content compelling. In the spirit of avoiding performance guarantees, make sure the sponsor supplies their own CTA links. CTA landing pages are often used to capture lead information that is sent to the sponsor’s sales funnel as well as track performance of the sponsored piece in their own way. You don’t want to be in the middle of any of that.
Promote The Post On Social Media (Or Don’t)
Be ready to set an expectation about social media promotion of the content in case it comes up with the sponsor. Some sponsors are quite interested in this. Others don’t care at all, as they’re more focused on using the content in their own social media campaigns. Think through…
- Which channels you’ll promote to & how many followers you have on each channel.
- How many times you’ll promote.
- Over what time span you’ll promote the piece.
- If you’ll use hashtags or “suggested tweets” supplied by the vendor. Please don’t do this unless that’s just how you roll, but anticipate that it might come up.
You might include social media promotion of the sponsored piece as part of the price. Or you might exclude it and make no commitments about social media promotion. Or upsell it as a premium add-on depending on how much fussing you’re interested in doing.
One strategy is to include social media posts in the price if you don’t have to think about building out a social campaign. For example, it’s easy to automate tweets with RSS and Zapier. A Zapier “zap” can be constructed to tweet multiple times about a new piece of RSS content, each tweet separated by hours to cover all the time zones you care about.
The point is that social media promotion of the piece has value, and can add time and headache to the project. Know how you want to handle it. Don’t just blindly agree to do social media promotion without knowing exactly what you’re getting into.
For billing, you should consider invoicing half up front and half on delivery of the piece. This is not a hard and fast rule, and you’ll need to feel out what’s best for your situation. But in general, 50/50 is not a bad way to go. Let me explain.
Getting set up to be paid by the vendor can be painful. Accounting systems tend to be arcane. The on-boarding process to a vendor’s accounting system ranges from filling out a simple spreadsheet to working through a complex series of tedious forms and approvals.
Despite the annoyances, the on-boarding process is a worthwhile hurdle to leap over. Not only does it enable you to get paid today, but also it eliminates a barrier to future work–you only have to on-board once. There are hundreds of vendors my company has worked with over the years, and mentioning “we are already in your system” during fresh proposals sometimes helps close new business in a timely fashion.
Once you’re an approved vendor in the sponsor’s system, the human you’re working with can raise a purchase order (PO). That PO will customarily be sent to you by the accounting folks at the vendor. With the PO in hand, you’re safe to proceed. The PO implies that everything happened in the vendor’s accounting system that needed to happen so that you’ll eventually get paid.
Assuming a half & half payment scheme was agreed to, bill the first half immediately upon receipt of the PO. Receiving this initial payment serves as verification that money makes it from their bank to yours. This sounds like it should be trivial, but it isn’t depending on…
- The size of the vendor. Larger vendors tend to have more complex, regimented accounting systems.
- Where they pay from–your country vs. international. For example, getting paid by foreign wire can raise eyebrows at your bank if that’s a new behavior for your account.
- Whether or not the sponsor pays attention to your payment terms such as “Net30”. Smaller companies are more likely to respect your terms, while large companies don’t care at all.
- Whether third party accounting or payment systems are involved. This can complicate getting paid, usually for silly, bureaucratic reasons.
Committing funds up front helps ensure the vendor is engaged in the project. Marketing folks are often busy with many campaigns. An overloaded marketer might choose to punt their sponsored blog into the future if there’s little risk for them. Getting some money up front makes it more likely the project will be completed. Think of it as a commissioning fee.
Is Accepting Sponsored Content Worth It?
After reading all of this, you might be wondering if working with sponsors on your blog is worth it. There’s no single correct answer. You’re trading time and headache for some amount of money. Is it enough money? Do you have enough spare time and a sufficiently low-stress life that you can add business logistics to your blogging hobby? Maybe. Maybe not.
If you have questions about any of this, ping me on Twitter @ecbanks, or find me on the Packet Pushers Slack.