How one tech outlet sees the future of paid media partnerships

Protocol, a sister publication to Politico, shares how it works with PR teams to share thought leadership and build executives a platform.

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The interconnectedness of paid and earned media is only growing for PR managers.

As traditional media outlets continue to innovate to find new audiences and revenue streams, fresh opportunities for sponsored content have sprung up across various business mediums. It’s a crucial part of the model for Protocol, the outlet launched in February 2020 to cover the technology sector, from workplace to policy.

Protocol, which was launched as a sister site by Politico (both were acquired by Axel Springer in the fall of 2021), makes no bones about its efforts to partner with brands to tell their stories.

“In 2021, brand content and different kinds of sponsored content was one third of our business,” shares Protocol’s president Bennett Richardson. In his view, that success was driven in large part by “thought leadership”—the effort to establish company leaders as subject matter experts for a wider audience.

“There is a real craving among brands, big and small, in tech and outside of tech, to truly own the issues that they care about and position themselves as real experts in those issues,” says Richardson.

Whether audiences see you as an authoritative source can affect your ability to attract customers, build reputation with investors and drive government policy.

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Paid media that works

What kinds of content are having success on platforms like Protocol? In Richardson’s view, the flashiness or budget of a project is less important than its editorial focus.

“How do you create something that feels really useful and really at home to the readers?” he asks. Formats that have been successful on Protocol’s platform include executive Q&As—or an interview with a Protocol contributor that can then be leveraged into earned media placements later on.

As an example, Richardson mentions a Q&A Protocol did with Qualcomm’s new CEO Cristiano Amon when he took over his new role. As part of an earned media tour, Qualcomm was able to place the paid media opportunity as part of a wider campaign to engage audiences.

And the good news for PR pros is that Protocol takes seriously its role in helping brand managers build their executives’ influence.

“How do we position our partners and the brands that work with us as experts by helping them tell the story of the industry that they’re in and the challenges that they’re facing, or their customers are facing?” Richardson asks.

Avoiding the trap of brand-centricity

Of the mistakes PR and brand managers can make with editorial brand journalism and paid media, Richardson identifies a hyper focus on the brand itself over customer questions and issues.

“I think that there has long been a temptation to make brand content too brand centric,” Richardson says. The only exceptions, for Richardson, are stories that focus on a named, high-profile executive (CEO, CIO, etc.) or a really well-done case study that speaks to a broader industry trend.

Richardson advises instead that PR pros take extra care to identify the real story—rather than the brand, perhaps it’s the technology being used or even a person behind a successful launch. It’s rarely the brand itself that’s editorially interesting.

Brand partners that are willing to collaborate with outlets in finding those stories are more likely to find success and build relationships with outlets that offer sponsored content opportunities.

Separate but symbiotic

Sponsored content has its perils—particularly in a post-factual world where media literacy and data hygiene are scarce. Yet, for outlets that have embraced sponsored content, there are ethical ways to clearly highlight content that is a paid placement over an organic piece of coverage.

“It is a really slippery slope for publishers to start to erode the very clear distinction between what is on your site that has been paid for and what is on your site that is organic journalism,” says Richardson. “And I think that it’s extremely important to make that to make that distinction loud and clear.”

For Protocol, sponsored content gets highlighted with a bright yellow banner—but that doesn’t mean readers aren’t willing to engage.

“We still see editorial quality engagement with our brand content,” says Richardson. “Folks are spending multiple minutes, thousands of pageviews on average with the brand content programs that we’re producing.”

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