Whew, you’ve made it! You’ve established yourself as a niche blogger who brings unique, unparalleled value to your audience. But as you’ve both hoped and feared it might, the sponsored content beast has crept up and fixed its beady eyes on you. Now you’ve got a heaping tangled plate of questions in front of you, not to mention a whole bushel of feelings, ranging from anxiety, excitement, hope, and overriding everything is a strong urge to drink. But take a deep breath and hold my hand. We’re going to get through this.

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Sponsored content, a form of either native advertising or branded content, is a thorny, unresolved issue in the blogging and content marketing world. For one, the ethics of slipping advertising into editorial content makes some people uneasy and two, it is remarkably easy to do it poorly. The Atlantic’s post supporting the church of Scientology and the subsequent uproar is a good example. There are sharp divides on the issue, to the point where some bloggers refuse to consider sponsoring content at all, and other bloggers will sponsor just about anything. But with some careful forethought, you can duck marketing bombs; nimbly walk the line of doing sponsored content right, and reap the benefits of it.

"and if the content is good the audience could really care less if the content is sponsored or not"

To many, bloggers are the renegades of the online world, the outlaws, writing about a topic for their pure love of it, and they want to share it with you, their audience. Holy smokes Batman! That kind of sounds like a dream job, right? Well…the downside is it can be very difficult for a blogger to make money at this “dream job” and even if they do, it can take a long time. For a struggling blogger looking for more money or even just more recognition in the online world, the offer of a sponsor can feel like a tremendous gift, a life raft, a validating breath of air. Somebody, somewhere out there likes what you’re doing! You may feel so lucky to have been picked it can be very easy to give that somebody whatever they’re asking for.

But hold up. The recognition that comes with a sponsorship is a great booster seat for your ego, but you need to remember to stay grounded if you want to earn your place at the big kid’s table. You’re in this for the long game and if you can’t answer clearly the very important question of “How does this benefit my audience?” you’re at risk of losing your audience’s hard-won love, trust, and respect. On the internet, your reputation is all you have, and once it’s taken a hit, it takes a lot of effort to get it back up where it used to be. Remember that your audience comes first, always, and consider these questions when deciding whether you will sponsor content on your blog.

Remember: Sponsored content is advertising, and by advertising for this company you need to be as authentic as possible. Your audience will not mind sponsored content as long as it fits in with your blogs theme, and you are honest in your post. If you’re a mommy blogger it makes sense to sponsor content about products for children that you feel would provide value to your readers. If you’re a travel blogger it makes sense to sponsor content about any product or brand that would give fellow traveler value. Sponsored content is a win/win when it’s done correctly.

Questions to Ask Yourself (And Answer Honestly):

Is this a company/product/service I have or would use personally?

Would this sponsor provide clear value to my readers?

Is this sponsor in line with the values of my blog?

Am I excited about this company/product/service?

If you’ve gone through the list and answered any of the questions affirmatively, then let’s say yes…you are willing to accept sponsors. Congratulations! Time for the next minefield.

How to Have Great Sponsored Content

Be choosy.

Consumers are more informed, opinionated, and outspoken than ever and we’ve long passed the age where companies could pull the wool over their eyes. In short, your audience is choosy, which means you have to be choosy too. You can bet your audience is going to take a good hard look at the sponsor you’re aligning yourself with, so you can do no less. Research up, cupcake.

Be firm

Always remember that you have the power to say “no” to your sponsor here. State your limits and your boundaries clearly. A truly well working relationship between a sponsor and a blogger should be one of equals, a partnership. Remember that they value what you’re doing, otherwise they wouldn’t have approached you. Your goal should be to make something greater together than you could have done alone.

Be creative

Don’t be afraid to stretch your mind (and theirs) on HOW you choose to incorporate their sponsorship. Having a sponsor doesn’t have to be boring or something you dread, it can be a lot of fun, especially if your sponsor has resources you didn’t have access to before. A story told though video, a podcast, pictures, an online scavenger hunt, the sky’s the limit here.

Be honest

Tell your audience, straight up, that what they’re viewing is sponsored content or that you’ve made the decision to start using sponsored content. Make sure it’s obvious, visibly, clearly labelled. The last thing you want your audience to feel is tricked, because if you lose their trust, you’ve lost them. You can read the FTC’s policy on disclosure here, but the best rule of thumb is to post something like this on the end of each article:

This is a sponsored article for X. I received compensation for this post but the views here are entirely my own.

Use your own twist, but remember to be honest and disclose!

Be proactive

Remember too, that you are absolutely free to seek out sponsors yourself. Do some research, and make a list of like-minded companies you think you would mesh well with. Making the choice yourself will make you feel more empowered.

Sponsorships are what let bloggers do what they love – sponsorships can provide free transportation, free tickets, and free accommodations. Sponsored content is usually the first step to becoming sponsored by a brand.

If the sponsorship doesn’t work out, keep in mind that you haven’t lost anything. You still have what you always did, a stellar blog and a rapt audience. The most important thing to remember is to stay YOU. Don’t change the tone, characteristics, personality, or anything else about your blog when approaching sponsored content. Try to treat it just like regular content.

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Smosh, a web-based comedy duo consisting of Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla, rose to the public’s attention in 2005 with a Pokemon-themed YouTube video. Thave made several forays into sponsored content, their most recent one endorsing Assassin’s Creed III, a popular action-adventure video game.

Is the video over-the-top, fairly crude, and definitely not for everyone? Yes. But that’s also keeping with the Smosh brand, and so far the video is a resounding success with over 37 million views. The duo had a few things to say about sponsored content themselves.

“You need to be able to put your foot down and say, ‘This is the kind of stuff that we make. If you’re going to be a sponsor, you need to support what we do and not try to control it.'”says Padilla. And if the content is good, Hecox added, the audience “could really care less if it’s sponsored or not.”

Spot on. Intelligent as they are, your audience is fully aware of how overwhelmingly easy it is for you to stray, but sticking to the values and the integrity of your blog means they will respect and appreciate you all the more for it.