Journalists Take Refuge in the World of Branded Content

The fact that brand-sponsored blogs are modeled after traditional online media has been the key to their ability to attract writing talent. Urban Outfitters, for example, has a women’s lifestyle blog featuring life tips, smart-girl celebrity crushes, food, photography and animated GIFs, not unlike The Hairpin or The Gloss. The only difference is that a lot of the “must have” items can conveniently be found on the Urban Outfitters website (while researching this story, we almost succumbed to buying a hanging mirror/makeup shelf combo) and there is a weekly post about Urban Outfitters’ employee style.

Then there’s Degree men’s deodorant, which wanted to align itself with active lifestyle coverage. Instead of buying ads on websites and in magazines already in that space, the brand decided to create its own. The Adrenalist, a web magazine “powered by Degree Men,” features stories about extreme sports, gear, gadgets and outdoor adventure, many of which are pushed out on Facebook to the brand’s nearly 790,000 followers. The only giveaway that the site is paid for by Degree is a link on the upper right-hand corner with an image of a deodorant stick and a link to the product line.

“In-house, some people asked if they were going to compete with Gillette’s blog,” Mr. Hazard said. “The executives said, ‘No, we want to compete with National Geographic.’”

For a firm like Unilever, Degree’s parent company, content is a relatively small investment, and it is more effective than banner ads, which are starting to cause (to use marketing speak) banner-blindness among consumers and haven’t turned out to be as effective as was once hoped. While it’s not uncommon for an Adrenalist article to have 300 “likes” on Facebook, who really likes ads?

Though it remains unclear whether someone who likes an Adrenalist skateboarding article will actually buy Degree at the drugstore, moving product is beside the point, explained Kyle Monson, a partner at the marketing firm Knock Twice. Success is usually measured by the number of shares, likes and retweets a post gets—the same metrics by which traditional-online media judge themselves. “The costs are so much lower than for an ad campaign, so the expectation is lower too,” Mr. Monson said. A Super Bowl ad costs $4 million, whereas a blog post is a few hundred bucks. And the goals are long-term rather than immediate. “If we can build an audience over the years, then we can change how people think about the brand.”

Brand content producers say that not only does quality not suffer in the shift, it can actually improve, because there’s more money to play around with. “Just because something is sponsored doesn’t mean it’s bad,” said Ray Wert, who runs his own content shop, Tiny Toy Car. “There’s a creative challenge with sponsored content; it’s the new hotness in media. And there’s a larger budget.”

Mr. Wert, former editor in chief of Gawker Media’s automotive blog Jalopnik, maintained that he has not lowered his standards since shifting over. “I made my name in journalism by always being honest,” Mr. Wert said. “And now I’m doing the same thing on the ad side. And I don’t want to see sponsored content that sucks.”

Unlike newsroom purists, consumers don’t necessarily see brand identification as rat poison, “It’s funny that at the same time that journalism is having a hard time holding on to an audience, advertisers are moving into that space,” said Justin Ellis, an assistant editor at Nieman Journalism Lab, a Harvard University project that explores the future of journalism. “But maybe people are more attached to Old Spice and Doritos than to The Wall Street Journal and The Denver Post.”