The problem is not that sponsored articles are necessarily bad content; in fact, we’ve recommended sponsored articles on a handful of occasions (the good ones still provide real reader value upfront).
The problem, in brief, is that you know the content has an external motive and therefore can’t (automatically) trust the information.
In the best cases, advertisers have a natural symbiosis with their publisher’s audience and don’t have to BS anything in sponsored articles. But in many cases short of “best,” an advertiser’s call to action (and the information preceding it) won’t be fully in sync with the publication’s core purposes.
Take, for example, Social Media Today. One of their core purposes is (ostensibly) to provide their readers with forthright and accurate information about social media in today’s business world.
Yesterday they published this sponsored post from Sked Social on how brands are using Instagram Reels—and from the very first (non-sensical) sentence, something was off.
We quickly realized that it’s hyping Instagram Reels really hard, which is a red flag because industry consensus is that Reels is a thin, flimsy clone of TikTok whose only advantage is its Facebook parentage. After a few other bold and misleading claims (like “Instagram Reels uses a proven, highly addictive formula to attract and engage Instagram users”), we thought to check Sked Social’s website, and suddenly it all made sense.
Just check out this headline from above their homepage fold:
In other words, Sked Social has a clear incentive to hype Instagram Reels as well as a clear disincentive to discuss any alternatives: Reels is all they can sell. That decision is (quite literally) the sponsor’s business, and that’s fine—but when a tiny “Sponsored” banner is the only difference between SMT’s honest efforts and misleading paid sales pitches in disguise, the publication loses credibility that can’t easily be bought back.
Editor’s Note: We’ve shared a bunch of SMT’s good content, but this is also the second time recently that we’ve been compelled to issue a “reader beware.”