How much is your sponsored opinion worth?

A couple of weeks ago, journalist Tracey Spicer led broad criticism of writer pay rates in Australia. The crux of the issue was this: if a publication is being paid to produce content, why isn’t this being passed on to the writers?

According to the MEAA, the award rate for 1000 words or fewer is $950 and 93 cents per word thereafter. With no differential between print and digital writing, this is worlds away from the average pay rate for online publication in masthead journalism (in this writer’s experience, 50 cents a word and falling).

Is it because the publications are taking writers for a ride? Or does it speak more broadly to the health of online advertising? Are the profits not being passed on because they’re imaginary?

The state of play is this: it’s still not easy for publishers to draw dollars out of content marketing. And without robust revenue models, high word rates are hard to justify. Not because the publications don’t want to pay them, but because we’re in a weird income limbo. The audience is there. The advertising budget is there. It’s just that no one’s quite yet figured out how to bring the two together.

The problem is not that publications are failing to pass on their enormous profits – it’s that they don’t exist. Very few organisations are making big dollars out of content marketing in its current form. A sponsored post on its own rarely has the pull to pay for itself through traffic alone. That’s not an excuse. Writers should be paid their worth. I think I’m worth at least as much as your next mid-range word herder. But what constitutes a ‘decent rate’ is unsustainable, because the working parts are still out of sync at a market level.

There are a few key models of revenue generation in content marketing. The first is the one about which Tracey Spicer speaks: sponsored content. Sponsored content is advertorial’s older sister. It is editorial content, created by a writer, but designed to have a clear marketing message. Sponsored content often forms part of a wider campaign; the publication might have sold ten sponsored posts, a bunch of banner ads, inclusion in an email newsletter, supporting social media coverage and so on.

In my experience, sponsored posts – long considered to be the antidote to the digital revenue plague – have brought in between $200 and $1500 for the publisher. The publication pays the writer out of this budget. 14 cents a word is chicken feed, but $950 for an 800-word article is impossible. It’s no secret that traditional media is fighting a rising tide, and this is an example of why.

Consider the sponsored content lifecycle: targeting specific groups of customers is difficult in mainstream media, so you’re already looking at a small proportion of the overall traffic. And it’s an ad, and people know it’s an ad, so that limits its audience appeal again. Because it’s an ad, it’s unlikely to generate much interest outside through social media sharing, so it’s limited to the publication’s reach. And it’s that lack of sharing that restricts its relevance to a couple of days on the publication homepage, at best. It’s dead content. Kaput. DOA. This is an ex-sponsored post with tenuous Monty Python references.

Lazy content marketing poses a great risk for publications. Even a loyal audience can only sustain so much thinly veiled advertising. Great paid content considers its audience first. Great content clients work with publications to create strategies for audience engagement. Great publications know they need their audience to survive.

That’s easier said than done, obviously, but with so many chicken/egg dilemmas, creative execution should be a non-negotiable. Consumers are savvy, and they deserve to be. There is plenty of great (unpaid) content to wade through before remotely approaching the paid stuff.

Imagine, though, if the paid content was the great content? Potential clients are armed with significant digital budgets. The brains are there. Instead of chucking ‘sponsored post’ into a PowerPoint presentation, a group of creative thinkers could come up with a better idea. An actual idea. A bespoke idea. An idea that understood the audience first, then spoke to it.

In the current market, the big ticket item is native advertising. It’s not a new concept. Years ago, this was Marty McFly wearing Nikes and drinking Pepsi. In the digital space, it’s the valuable integration of paid messaging into meaningful content. Where sponsored content clearly identifies itself as such – and is, according to some opinions (mine), a glorified ad – native advertising looks for a genuine tie-in. It works with client, producer, strategist and writer to create something the audience actually wants. An audience that’s being given what it wants is more likely to engage. It’s more likely to share with friends. It’s more likely to believe the message. And it’s more likely to convert.

That’s valuable to the client. That means more money for the publisher next time. It means more writers being paid.

What publications could be selling is not ‘their audience’ but ‘knowledge of their audience’. Writers could be paid not for ‘writing a post’ but for ‘knowing how to communicate with that audience’. A campaign comes in at six figures, and suddenly the writer’s role is not to repurpose advertiser messaging but to be an active participant in the execution of a great idea. And that’s where the money is.

Great writers are vital in keeping online publications afloat. And great writers deserve to be paid to their full expectation. So the question to publishers is this: is your content game strong enough to support great writers?

And if not, how will you spend your redundancy package?

Anna Spargo-Ryan

Anna Spargo-Ryan is a writer and strategist based in Melbourne. She has contributed to the Guardian, the Age/SMH, the Wheeler Centre, Mindfood, and many others, and was a panellist at this year's Digital Writer's Festival. Her first novel will be published by Picador in 2015.

More by Anna Spargo-Ryan ›

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