Measuring Sponsored Content

A ruler overlaying a blurred image of an online news publication

Measuring Sponsored Content

By Roger Wu, for

Native Sponsored Content has become a hot topic over the past few months. Everyone from gossip publishers to the U.S. government has dipped their toe into the sponsored content conversation. First, what is sponsored content and why has it become so interesting?

What is Sponsored Content?

Sponsored content is not new. It is a paid-for article that talks ancillary about a product or service that is distributed to a publisher’s audience. With very sophisticated ad blockers curbing publishers’ revenues, sponsored content is now seen as a legitimate way for publishers to earn significant revenue.

Sponsored Content Rules

However, since these articles are usually written in the voice of the publisher (as opposed to the brand which would be advertorial) the U.S. FTC has clamped down with a set of rules to ensure that the everyday consumer is not duped into thinking that the publisher has created this content without any compensation. In addition, Google has an additional set of rules for paid content to guarantee that its algorithm is not tampered with.

A piece of sponsored content in The Atlantic. Sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co.
The Atlantic, informing readers that this specific article has been sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Sponsored Content’s History

To understand why sponsored content is moving in the direction that it’s headed towards today, it’s important to understand its history.

In the old days, sponsored content fell into the realm of the PR team; after all, it was content and the PR team knew how to tell the sponsoring company’s story. As with many things PR, the focus on intense measurement fell by the wayside, and thus, having a “hit” was the sole measure of success. To assess the quality of the hit, which was a carry over from the days of magazines and newspapers, brands looked at potential reach, which included monthly circulation. Online, monthly circulation translated to monthly unique visitors and social media followers. However, is this metric granular enough to the extent that we can accurately measure digital?

The pitfalls with our current measurement system are that we are trying to apply legacy terms to a new digital system. Monthly uniques is thought to be synonymous with circulation. However, if we think deeper about this, circulation is about how many people receive a finite amount of content in a magazine each month. Monthly uniques, on the other hand, is a measure of the traffic toward the cumulative body of work; but according to the research here and from my sponsored content platform, about 95% of one’s traffic comes from only 5% of one’s stories. Any given story, would be a success receiving between 0.5% and 1.25% of the monthly unique metric. 

Social media followers once was a great measure of influence. However, since it became easier to add fake or low quality users, services have arose to help broker these transactions.  Followers have now become a useless metric. For example, we’ve seen that on average any given tweet will be seen by between 1-3% of one’s followers and will be engaged by between 1-3% of those that see it. Thus, an influencer with 10m followers might receive between 1,000 and 9,000 click throughs on that content; yet brands are paying up to 10,000% more for this “engagement” based on social impressions.

Sponsored Content Today

Given all of these issues with measurement, how can we measure success today?

Finally, there are platforms that are beginning to catch up to this long necessary function of increased analytics. Platforms are trying to minimize all of the challenges with measuring native sponsored content by placing tracking codes on every single story that gets published via their network. This means that each story now can be tracked extremely accurately from simple metrics like views and reads to deeper metrics like engagement and scrollability.

Since stories have hard metrics behind them, platforms can now evolve sponsored content from the PR bucket to the larger and more lucrative advertising bucket. Publishers need to reach this view count just as they do when brands do direct display buys on their sites. Any make goods they need to do are either turned into a refund or purchased on the open market.

In a way, these enhanced-tracking sponsored content platforms have now turned once qualitative stories into a quantitative ad unit with a discernible ROI and measure of success beyond simply “being” there. My sponsored content platform is one these, so this is all from experience.

However, there’s lot more work in this space to be done. Brand marketers still love Google Adwords since they are the last click in the chain; The Last Click Standard looms large. Content recommendation widgets like Outbrain and Revcontent are pushing the mid-click as a value point along the sales funnel; though, it’s a difficult attribution as U.S. traffic on these sites gets more and more expensive.

A clickbait image with the title, "32 Celebrities You Won't Believe Are Mega Trump Supporters"
A Native ad from the Revcontent Network

Sponsored Content in the Future

A major component of tracking sponsored content, which all platforms should be developing (mine is doing this), is the ability to attribute mindshare and interest from a story. Since we live in the on-demand economy, the click through is no longer feasible. Stories and ideas are going from your screen into your mind and at some point are translating back into sales online or off. How can this possibly be measured when the chain breaks?

The interesting trend we can notice is that every query is now going through a few single points. One of these points- one of the largest, is Google. We can then infer that if content is interesting enough to drive further interest instead of clicking through to some kind of transaction, one will turn to Google whether for more information, reviews, price comparison, etc. and this will be tomorrow’s gauge for sponsored content effectiveness. Sponsored content platforms are now building out this tool to capture the mindshare of brands and, more importantly, to measure how brands’ advertising affects the bottom line.


Sponsored Content has had a long and slow evolution, but with the current hype things have begun to finally move along faster. If we can get all of our stakeholders to get to “today’s” standards of sponsored content instead of that of yesterday’s, we can get to tomorrow faster, and make sponsored content more efficient and better performing!

Have anything to add to all this? Any burning questions about sponsored content and related analytics? Ask away! I’d love to hear from you.

Roger Wu

Roger Wu

Roger Wu is the co-founder of the enhanced-tracking native sponsored storytelling platform, Cooperatize. Cooperatize works with destinations and other brands to connect them with sponsored content opportunities amongst bloggers, publishers, and content creators. Previously he started, was on the Bloomberg Law founding team, and was a banker at Goldman Sachs. He started and sold the Stamford Tech Meetup, has been published in Forbes and Quartz, won a Webby Award, and earned a Guinness Record. He holds three degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and lives in NYC.
Roger Wu

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