Digital & Social Media

When the Research Hype Drowns Out Value of Social


The conventional wisdom du jour seems to be that sponsored content isn’t all that special anymore and maybe social media isn’t the marketer’s bonanza it was thought to be. Among a series of studies that trashed the once unassailable tools: a Gallup poll suggesting that social has been overhyped as a marketing channel and a recent Contently survey claiming that people would rather read banner ads than sponsored content. Banner ads, really?

But as anyone who has ever fielded a poll knows there are good ways to ask questions and bad; there are situations in which pollsters are asking for the wrong information; and there are misguided, if not purposefully misleading, ways to interpret answers. In the cases of both these polls, all of these are true to some degree.


First, let’s look at the Contently study. Many claims are being made here, some of which don’t even jive with the content provider’s own numbers.

For instance, the Contently findings show that “two-thirds of readers have felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored.” But let’s look at the question: Have you ever felt deceived upon realizing that an article or video was sponsored by a brand? It’s like asking, “Have you ever seen a rainbow?” Most people have, but very infrequently.

No question, there have been instances when a piece of branded content was not adequately identified, and it probably happens more frequently than people see rainbows, but one should not then conclude that most people most of the time think they are being deceived — or that most people most of the time are seeing rainbows.

If Contently wanted to get at that idea, it should have asked, “Do you frequently see sponsored content where it has not been sufficiently identified as connected with a brand, other than the media site on which it appears?”

Let’s move on to a second point of the Contently study — that readers are confused about what the label “sponsored content” means.  Here is the question: What does the label, “Sponsored Content” mean when you see it on an online news article?  In this case, 48 percent of the readers picked the answer that a sponsor paid for and influenced the article. Good answer; they get it.

The problem: Of the four other answers offered, two of them are equally correct—that a sponsor wrote the article or that a news site wrote it, but a sponsor’s money allowed it to happen. Even the third answer — that a sponsor paid for its name to appear next to existing content — isn’t incorrect; it’s just not complete.

Contently didn’t give poll participants a choice suggesting the content was produced by a totally independent writer or without input from a brand — options that, if chosen, would indicate that consumers were indeed confused. Instead, Contently seemed to prove the exact opposite of what it contended — that almost everyone does in fact understand correctly that sponsored content is content that a company (other than the one that owns the media site on which it appears) has helped produce.

Finally, there is no question that many of the answers in the study pointed to a healthy dollop of suspicion when readers are confronted by sponsored content and a sentiment that news sites that run them are selling out. But there were some contradictions that Contently underplayed. For instance, when asked which content is more honest, participants gave the best marks predictably to a New York Times article and shockingly to banner advertisements, but sponsored articles on news websites and articles on brand websites didn’t fall far behind, with an acceptable 4 out of 5.

At the end of the day, the Contently study planted the idea of mistrust by asking question after question suggesting that sponsored content wasn’t honest or was some kind of negative. It wasn’t therefore surprising that the survey ended up confirming that same sentiment.


Let’s move onto the Gallup poll, which sent the marketing press and profession into a tailspin.

This study had several flaws but probably the most outstanding was the dated nature of its data. The data was collected at the end of 2012, light years ago in social time and well before social channels focused on selling and product like Pinterest began to gain traction. The advertising trade publications made this point quite persuasively.

The bigger problem was the way Gallup was regarding social media. They aren’t primarily marketing channels, and they have never been primarily about selling. When you evaluate ROI on that basis, you’re missing the point and opportunity social media provide brands. Even Gallup’s own write-up on the report acknowledged in its recommendations that many companies are failing to realize the massive potential of social because they keep trying to use these channels the way they used traditional media as selling platforms.

Social like traditional media is about more than advertising, and companies that forget that don’t understand either. Where traditional media was all about hearing from experts, social lets us all be commentators to varying sized networks.

When you ask simplistic questions about the influences of all social or whether you trust all of sponsored content, you get simplistic and probably meaningless answers. Like traditional media, each brand has its own personality in sponsored content and thought leadership and every channel allows people to interact a little bit differently.

If you asked people whether they were influenced by a television commercial or an ad in a newspaper, most would probably say no. It insults their intelligence to think that some  piece of creative determined whether they made a purchase. But maybe information about a sale going on got them to the store and maybe then they saw that perfect thingamabob they needed. The advertisement wasn’t about thingamabobs but it got them to the store.

The one takeaway from almost all the surveys ever attempted that seems to be consistent is that people want it honest and authentic. Don’t hide your ulterior motive or your agenda when you talk to me or I simply won’t listen next time.